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 were 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.
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.