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E.M. Cioran (1911-1995)


Romanian born philosopher, aphorist, and essayist, who moved to Paris on the eve of World War II and from 1949 published his writings in French. Cioran was an uncompromising pessimist and moralist, whose major themes were dread, despair, and the irrationality of existence.

"Music is the sound track of askesis. Could one make love after Bach? Not even after Handel, whose unearthliness does not have heavenly perfume. Music is a tomb of delights, beatitude which buries us." (in Tears and Saints, 1937, tr. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston)

Émile Michel Cioran was born in the mountain village of Rasinari. The region is known for its natural beauty. Cioran's childhood was happy but later he said in The Temptation to Exist (1956) that, "Hating my people, my country, its timeless peasants enamoured of their own torpor and almost bursting with hebetude, I blushed to be descended from them," Cioran later wrote. His father, Emilian Cioran, was a Greek Orthodox priest, and his mother, Elvira Cioran née Comanici, was head of the Christian Women's League. Cioran studied the lycée in Sibiu, where he was sent at the age of 10, and then entered the University of Bucharest, where he studied philosophy and wrote a thesis on Henri Bergson. Along with Mircea Eliade, Eugene Ionesco, Constantin Noica, and other angry young men, he participated in Romania's cultural Renaissance during the 1930s.

Pe culmile disperarii (1934, On the Heights of Despair), Cioran's first book, was born of terrible insomnia. In an interview Cioran said, that he stopped sleeping when he was about twenty. Cioran dealt with such issues as weariness and agony, the world in which nothing is solved, and individual and cosmic loneliness. The nihilistic work, influenced by Nietzsche and Baudelaire, attracted wide critical attention and received the King Carol II Foundation Art and Literature Award.

In 1934-35 Cioran studied in Germany on a fellowship and then taught philosophy at the Andrei Saguna High-School in Brasov. Schimbarea la fata a României (1936), Cioran's third book, was influenced by Spengler's theories and dedicated to the issue of Romanianism. Cioran argued that Romanian culture lacked greatness, and intellectuals were unable to understand the "problems related to the agony of civilizations." Especially this book, but also some other articles, in which Cioran expressed anti-Semitic views and enthusiastically supported Adolf Hitler's national socialism, haunted him the rest of his life. "I believe that few people today - even in Germany - admire Hitler more than I do," Cioran declared, before he denounced all ideologies. "If a man has not, by the time he is thirty, yielded to the fascination of every form of extremism," Cioran defended his early beliefs, "I don't know whether he is to be admired or scorned, regarded as a saint or a corpse." (in History and Utopia, 1960)

After winning a studend fellowship from the French Institute, Bucharest, Cioran left Romania for Paris, and settled there permanently. He studied at the Sorbonne, but eventually abandoned the idea of taking a degree. Instead he devoted himself to the task of learning French after failing to translate Mallarmé into Romanian, and re-emerged as a writer with Précis de décomposition (1949, A Short History of Decay), which won the Rivarol Prize. From 1949 he worked as a part-time translator and manuscript reader for various publishing houses.

Cioran insisted, that when there is no hope, one is not threatened anymore, "you achive the ultimate freedom of the devil, which has a seductive perfume." Despite his nihilism, for a short period in his old age Cioran nurtured some kind of hope. He fell in love with Friedgard Thoma, a young German student. After learning that she had had a relationship with another man, Cioran was consumed with jealousy. Cioran's companion for most of his life was Simone Boue, an English teacher. From 1960, he lived on the Left Bank,  on Odéon Street, in a modest attic flat, filled with books and manuscripts. In an interview he once said that "I write to rid myself of my obsessions, of my anguish". During the Communist reign in Romania, his books were not sold or published in translation.

The first edition of Syllogismes de l'amertume (1952, All Gall is Divided), a collection of aphorisms in which he followed the model of Nicolas Chamfort, went unnoticed and sold only about 60 copies. It was not until the 1970s, when the second edition came out, the work was recognized as a classic in the best tradition of the genre, and Cioran also began to gain international attention. However, Susan Sontag had written already in Styles of Radical Will (1966), a collection of essays, that "Cioran is one of the most delicate minds of real power writing today." Coinciding with the publishing of Aveux et anathèmes (1987) Cioran felt he had written enough.

Cioran withdrew from literary and public society, but he did not move from Paris for the surrounding countryside and never stopped believing in the power of the word. In addition to his daily routine of reading and writing, he enjoyed walks through the Luxemburg garden. When the French Academy honored him with the Paul Morand Prize, he declined the award. In the last period of his life, Cioran suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He died on June 20, 1995, in Paris. Three years after his death, a cleaning lady found 37 spiral notebooks in the basement of his house. They were sold at an auction for EUR 400,000.

Cioran was an admirer of Nietzsche, who preached the death of philosophy itself, and Schopenhauer, sharing his view that individual existence is really a mistake. An uncompromising thinker with a taste for paradoxes, Cioran used aphoristic, sarcastic language in order to convey his moral message. Although Cioran seemed to be convinced of the futility of philosophy, bulk of his writing was philosophical - more or less.

For further reading: Searching for Cioran by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston (2008); 'Emile Cioran', in Memoirs of a Nomadic Humorist by Branko Bokun (2007); 'Found in Translation: The Two Lives of E. M. Cioran; or How Can One Be a Comparatist?' by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, in Comparative Literature Studies, V ol. 44, Number 1-2 (2007); An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania by Marta Petreu (2005); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20the Century, Vol. 1, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Essays on E.M. Cioran, ed.  Aleksandra Gruzinska (1999); The Temptations of Emile Cioran by William Kluback and Michael Finkenthal (1997); Cioran, ou, le dernier homme by Sylvie Jaudeau (1990); World Authors 1950-1970, ed.  John Wakeman (1975); Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag (1969)

Selected works:

  • Pe culmile disperarii, 1934 - On the Heights of Despair (tr. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, 1992) - Sur les cimes de désespoir (Paris: L'Herne, 1990)
  • Cartea amagirilor, 1936 - Le livre des leurres (Paris: Gallimard, 1992)
  • Schimbarea la fata a României, 1936
  • Lacrimi si sfinti, 1937 - Tears and Saints (tr. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, 1995) - Des larmes et des saints (Paris: L'Herne, 1995)
  • Amurgal Gândurilor, 1940 - La crépuscule des pensées (Paris, L'Herne, 1991)
  • Précis de décomposition, 1949 - A Short History of Decay (tr. Richard Howard, 1975) - Hajoamisen käsikirja (suomentanut Simo Määttä, 2009)
  • Syllogismes de l'amertume, 1952 - All Gall is Divided (tr. Richard Howard, 1999) - Katkeruuden syllogismeja (suom. Juhani Ihanus, Carla Schubert, 2004)
  • La Tentation d'exister, 1956 - The Temptation to Exist (introduction by Susan Sontag, tr. Richard Howard, 1968)
  • Joseph de Maistre. Textes choisis et présentés par E.M. Cioran, 1957
  • Histoire et utopie, 1960 - History and Utopia (tr. Richard Howard, 1987)
  • La Chute dans le temps, 1964 - The Fall into Time (tr. Richard Howard, 1970)
  • Le Mauvais Démiurge, 1969 - The New Gods (tr. Richard Howard, 1974)
  • Valéry face à ses idoles, 1970
  • De l'inconvénent d'être né, 1973 - The Trouble With Being Born (tr. Richard Howard, 1976)
  • Essai sur la penseé réactionnaire: à propos de Joseph de Maistre, 1977
  • Écartelèment, 1979 - Drawn and Quartered (tr. Richard Howard, 1983)
  • Exercices d'admiration. Essais1et portraits, 1986
  • Aveux et anathèmes, 1987 - Anathemas and Admirations (tr. Richard Howard, 1991)
  • Entretiens avec Sylvie Jaudeau, 1990
  • Indreptar patimas, 1991 - Brévaire des vaincus
  • Revelatiile durerii, 1991 (ed. Mariana Vartic and Aurel Sasu)
  • Œuvres, 1995
  • Cioran: Entretiens, 1995
  • Mon Pays / Tara mea, 1996
  • Cahiers, 1957-1972, 1997 - Caietele lui Cioran (Craiova: Scrisul Românesc Publishing House, 1999) - Notebooks (tr. Richard Howard, 1997)
  • Cahier de Talamanca. Ibiza, 31 juilliet-25 août 1966, 2000

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