Ceaușescu’s Last Call

Ceaușescu’s Last Call

Tyrants are like scientists. They are always experimenting to see how far they can go. They always advance until the very end, until everything falls apart.

  • Emil Cioran, Newsweek, 4 December 1989

Seventeen days later Nicolae Ceaușescu made the balcony speech. It all starts to go wrong at 01:13. In YouTube clips of this final address, the Romanian comments are most inspired by the “Alo, alo, alo…” but only to make mobile phone jokes.

Life goes on.

What stands out now from those events in Romania is the pivotal, accidental death of Vasile Milea. Earlier in the month, Newsweek had also quoted the Romanian philosopher Cioran on suicide.

Before Christianity, suicide was considered a noble civic act.

Instead, a noble civic accident occurred on the morning of 22 December. Ceaușescu’s hesitant defence minister was already in a tight spot for sending soldiers to Timișoara without ammunition to fight what the boss called Ungurii și huliganii (Hungarians and hooligans).

It seems Milea decided to wing himself to get off the pitch but, by actually dying of the shot, led to a murder rumour instead. That caused the army rank-and-file to change sides. Looking over their shoulders, the senior officers now had no reason to stop them.

Just past noon the royal couple fled by helicopter from the rooftop of the Central Committee building, seconds ahead of the first demonstrators to reach the roof. The crowd below was meanwhile singing, like at a football match.

Olé, olé, olé. Ceaușescu nu mai e.

(‘Ceaușescu’s no more.’)

Three days later Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were executed by firing squad.

Emil Cioran

Emil Cioran

He who has never envied the vegetable has missed the human drama.

The Fall of Time, E. M. Cioran, 1964

Born in western Transylvania in 1911, Cioran spent most of his adult life bumming and scratching a living in Paris in a manner that at first recalls Orwell’s Inside the Whale litany of Americans hanging out there in the Twenties. That was when the city was

invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sightseers, debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.

Nonetheless he more closely matches a reference to the Thirties later in the same passage, namely that

fringe which has been able to survive the slump because it is composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels.

Best known for similarly enjoyable titles – On the Heights of Despair, A Short History of Decay, The Temptation to Exist and The Trouble with Being Born – and a far-right period that came far earlier in his existence than in pop performer Morrissey’s career, Cioran moved to Paris in 1937. Thereafter he left both his native country and native language behind. At home he had already written On the Heights of Despair (1934). The title came from one of the stock phrases used in suicide obituaries in Bucharest.

Having wangled a scholarship to Berlin in 1933, he also penned some pro-Nazi tracts and letters that he regretted never living down but in the Thirties he most fumed at being Romanian, if nothing else because he felt his country to be insignificant, as if that was a bad thing in human history. Wallowing in self-loathing and power-worship, at that time he even prefigured the megalomania of Ceauşescu by imagining a Romania with the population of China and the “destiny” of France.

In 1936, in his final attempt at a real job, Cioran had a brief stint as a philosophy teacher in the city of Braşov in Transylvania. His classes were anarchic and, when he resigned, the principal drank himself into a heap in celebration. Incidentally, the key clue that Dracula was written by an Irishman lies in the fact that the co-operation of every working-class person in the book has to be solicited with booze.

Cioran then got to Paris on another scholarship. He was meant to attend classes at the Sorbonne and write a doctoral thesis but he knew that all he needed to live securely in France was a student ID card, which gave him access to cheap food. At forty he was still enrolled at the Sorbonne, for the cafeteria, but then a law was passed which dislodged any loafers older than twenty-seven.

Cioran then had to do some odd jobs but more importantly he had during the war charmed a life partner in Simone Boué, who was a blonde, a teacher and a breadwinner. Furthermore, some of his better-off Romanian compatriots, such as Ionesco, would help him out now and then. He also tapped Beckett, who eventually put a little distance between them but not, it appears, over the tapping. It was more due to Cioran’s residual philosophic right-wingery that saw one form of government as bad as another.

Cioran at any rate proved socially flexible, befriending anyone who would offer him a free lunch. Whenever he got the chance, for example, the irreligious Romanian would turn up at the Romanian Orthodox Church if any loaves and fishes were going. With this being France, he was also known for entertaining philosophical old ladies at the dinner party table.

Still, with one early exception, he rejected all the prizes that the French literary establishment threw at him. Cioran relished the successful publication of Précis de décomposition (‘A Short History of Decay’) in 1949 for at least three reasons. It came after years as a silent, peripheral, foreign figure in the Flore, in a country where, he told his parents in a letter, ‘prestige is everything’ (hence the peacockery). It was also the country where Camus, who died showing off in a sports car, had dismissed the manuscript as the work of someone who was poorly educated, which, at least about the English and the Irish, Cioran certainly was.

When public success truly arrived, in the Eighties, he entertained few journalists and always kept a low profile. The first I heard of him was in a rare interview – which in fact reads like answers to written questions – that he gave to Newsweek in early December 1989, just before the revolution at home. It is full of wise or memorable observations, such as

Romanian people are the most sceptical in the world… because they have been broken by history… In Romania there isn’t enough milk for babies. The infant mortality rate is so high that when a child is born, the parents wait several weeks before registering it, just to see… Otherwise, it just isn’t worth the bother. The Romanian people have gone past despair. They are totally occupied with the question, what will we find to eat today?

Tyrants are like scientists. They are always experimenting to see how far they can go. They always advance until the very end, until everything falls apart.

Samuel Beckett is a completely un-Balkan sort of person… a real phenomenon because… he has never been marked by intellectual fashions. It’s not so much what he says as his sheer presence. When you are with him, you know he is somebody. He has remained a foreigner, uncontaminated.

Mystics, true believers, don’t take a world tour to Asia to see what people are worshipping over there. (…) Religion isn’t a sort of balance sheet, after all. If he [Mircea Eliade] were really religious, he would never have written a history of religions.

Nietzsche started to write aphorisms when he began to go mad. I write them out of fatigue. (…) If I affirm something and if you like it, fine. If you don’t, too bad. (…) I am the reverse of a professor because I hate explaining things.

Without Bach, God would be a third-rate character. Bach’s music is the only thing that gives you the feeling that the universe isn’t a total failure.

My sole, last passion is the Argentine tango.

While still lucid, he later confessed he thought he had lived his life well. I’ve pretended it has been a failure but it hasn’t. In the early Nineties, however, Cioran fell victim to dementia and he died in 1995. Severely affected by arthritis, Simone Boué drowned off the coast of the Vendée in 1997 but it remains somewhat unclear if her death was a suicide.

There are numerous blackly funny moments in his books that are otherwise studiously old-fashioned in their despair but my favourite lies in The Trouble with Being Born, where Cioran tells the story of someone writing a memoir of his childhood in a Romanian village. The writer assures an old neighbour that he won’t be left out but this promise earns an unexpected response.

I know I’m worth nothing but all the same I didn’t think I’d fallen so low as to be talked about in a book.




6 December, Friday

For breakfast at nine in Vienna I had a Semmel, a cold boiled egg, a bowl of fruit chunks and a latte. By eleven I was making for the Hauptbahnhof for a train to Győr. It’s colder here, an hour and ten minutes across the deep grey plain.


I got to the Hotel Konferencia on the rise of Káptalan Domb around one. The foyer was deserted, as was reception, until a young lad showed up. This is a strange building. I wonder what it was originally. Broad rectangular corridors surround management offices on the second floor (where I am) and a hall with a high ceiling on the first.

Before eating I photographed the riverbanks. Then I had to find a bank. In the belváros the busiest areas are Baross út, Széchenyi tér and Dunakapu tér. Baross has most of the mulled wine and snack huts. Dunakapu by the water has the blue Ferris wheel.

Fortified by Hungarian cash I went into the appealing Pálffy Étterem on a corner of Széchenyi tér and made sure I wouldn’t emerge hungry. It was half past three and the feeling was not of pangs but a dull ache in the cold. The feast consisted of a large bottle of beer, a bowl of goulash with a basket of bread, a plate of scampi with salad and an Irish coffee. The bill came in two currencies. It was €27.40 in euro.

All that needed a walk and it got dark as I headed downriver again. The lights were on, in and around the bishop’s citadel, reflecting on the Rába before it meets the Mosoni-Duna arm of the Danube, having added its own little sister just before that.


Then I wandered the calm yet active old town again but despite a cup of mulled white wine my back started to freeze so I retreated to the hotel at six. I caught up on some sleep. The hotel was a lot busier when I got back. Out again after nine, I had another mulled wine, took some photos of the lit-up town hall and entered the McDonald’s for a burger night cap.


Vienna in December

Vienna in December

The French are always value for money in Vienna. On an underground platform on the way to the hotel I overheard some of a phone conversation that began with, Je sors du concert. C’était supérieur. Is this the only foreign place that cuts their mustard?


The plan was to look for something to eat at the Naschmarkt but, having passed the warmer and more inviting Café Sperl on the way down from Spittelberg, I went back after a quick walk around the lit-up joints with walls of glass and transparent plastic in the mass of dark, shut stalls.

I ordered Tafelspitz and a bottle of white wine (I avoid red) but it was a bit disconcerting to be presented with Schnitzel. I find even the sight of Schnitzel to be demoralizing and the waiter (in his fifties) was all apologies but I told him it wasn’t a disaster. The roast beef, potato and spinach were very tasty when the right plate got to the right table.


I still topped up with Sachertorte mit Schlagobers for dessert and, when I left, the wine gave a splendid glow. Wandering calmly and curiously on the underground, I learned a geography lesson. Unfortunately the Währinger Strasse U-Bahn stop is at the opposite end of that long street from the Ring and Charlie P’s. Then, when I finally got to the red door of that pub, a young beard from somewhere Down Under told me I couldn’t get in. A private function was due to end in half an hour, he offered, but I kept going with a shake of the head. Tell them they wouldn’t let in an Irish guy.


Molly Darcy’s in contrast was busy with a public function: serving customers like a public house. It sits inside the Ring on the corner below the doorway made famous by Orson Welles in The Third Man.



After two relaxing beers there I strolled back towards Spittelberg. Stopping for a Debreziner dog at a stand on the Ring, I handed over a tenner. Pocketing the fiver returned, I put the one eighty in coins back on the little counter. With a smile and a Danke, I left the man in the glow of the hut with a look of surprise on his face. I bit through the bread and cold sauce to get at the warm and spicy Wurst. My night was done. In the morning I had to go to Hungary.