cioran 2

If you want to write a great literary essay, here’s what you do. You put the point of the thing, the judgment you are making, as high in the essay as possible. Maybe you start out with an anecdote. Maybe you start out with a quote. But the essayist is in the position of the judge, after the jury has read its verdict. He is in the business of sentencing.

It helps, then, if you work on your sentences. Cioran, a Romanian writing in French, did just that. Here’s the second paragraph in his essay on Joseph de Maistre:

“Towards the end of the last century, in the period when the liberal illusion was strongest, one could give oneself the luxury of calling him a prophet of the past, of considering him something like a relic or an aberrant phenomenon. But for us, in an epoch that has been otherwise demystified, we know that he is ours just to the extent that he was a ‘monster’ and that it is precisely by the odious side of his doctrines that he remains alive, that he is of our time. Even if he was, besides, obsolete, he would nonetheless belong to that family of spirits who age in beauty.”

Cioran’s theme is simple, and everything flows from it: the meeting of a time – our time – and the monstrosity of a doctrine. At the same time, that theme opens up a question which is never directly addressed by Cioran, and which betrays a certain contradiction in his theme: for how is it that one time – ‘ours’ – knows the truth about Maistre while it was disguised for another time – that period of the ‘liberal illusion’? Is it merely the course of events – the wars in Europe, the concentration camps? Or is it that Cioran, without being aware of it, owes the idea that we progress closer to the truth over time precisely to that period of ‘liberal illusion’? Surely the illusion wasn’t that Maistre’s ‘monstrous doctrines’ had never been embodied at any time – for if there was one thing the liberal period was sure of, it was the monstrosity of the middle ages, and of the Spanish inquisition, and in general the atrocities wrought under the ancien regime. The illusion was, then, not that atrocities had been wrought, but that the progress of civilization would extinguish the motive and the means for committing them again.

And on this point Cioran knows better. And Maistre, conceptually, also knew better – hence, his status as a prophet. The reason that Cioran’s essay is not a handrubbingly gleeful promotion of Maistre, as Edmund White claimed, nor a straightforward insult to the thought of Maistre, as his scholarly interpreters have claimed, lies in the fact that, however much Cioran wants to bracket a certain period as one of ‘liberal illusion’, he has to admit that, from the start, that his own theory of history has to include some explanation for how such a period was possible. In the essay, this question migrates to a question about Maistre’s interpretation of the eighteenth century, and its relation to the Revolution. As we saw in our previous post, Cioran comes down for a … liberal interpretation of that century. More liberal, perhaps, than a historian of the time would countenance – Maistre, in his Considerations on France, is right to point out the horrible succession of wars across that century, wars that just involved France. God knows there were others. And we also know that thoughout that century there were little famines in Europe that corresponded to the little ice age. Still, Cioran’s essay is not simply about Maistre, but about the lineage of reaction. Having been, himself, a fervid reactionary in the darkest days of the century – the thirties and the forties – having even broadcast in favor of the coup managed by the Iron Guard in 1940 – Cioran’s essay is also a self-examination. The eighteenth century is a proxy for the liberalism – the politics of literature, as Thomas Mann scornfully called it in his reactionary polemic, Reflections of a Non-political man – that defeated the Nazis in WWII, thus putting an end to at least one of the illiberal illusions: that a totalitarian state relying on total mass mobilization was, at the very least, a stronger state than any of its competitors.

(There are several illusions packed into that theme, so popular among the intellectuals of the far right in the thirties. One of the illusions was that the state relied on mass mobilization, when in fact it relied on buffering the population from the sacrifice involved in mass mobilization. The calls for mass sacrifice from fascist leaders, for discipline, for pain and blood, were as phony as the classical facades of their government building. In the end, Germany did as much as it could to give the civilian population, at least up until 1942, the illusion that victory was a cost free process. Hmm, there is something very familiar about this barking rhetoric of sacrifice and this complacent reality of comfort. Where have I seen that before?).

I’ll continue this in a future post.


such a great spate of posts!

"for if there was one thing the liberal period was sure of, it was the monstrosity of the middle ages, and of the Spanish inquisition, and in general the atrocities wrought under the ancien regime"

and also this was the contemporary oriental foil - the Sultanate. Of which de Maistre is openly envious; his vision of the alternative to "liberalism" not only a sun king nostalgia but an dream of the common cultural fantasy of the Ottoman empire. Much is projected into that setting, and much of that is reflected back in dreams of order spleandor and stasis...this envy of a fantasy of the Sultanate I think is wound up in his masonic thought. In his memo on freemasony to the duke of brunswick, he is especially envious of how the "mohametans" have manged to split into only two sects: while "le christianism en a trente - et comme si nous étions destinés à nous déshonorer tour à tour par les excès opposés, après nous être engorgés pour nos dogmes, nous sommes tombés sur tout ce qui concerne la religion dans une indifférence stupide que nous appelons tolérance."
roger said…
LCC - you put your finger on a real weakness of my essay. I've long thought that the beginning of the 19th century marks a real turn in the way the European 'other' was discussed. You go from the suave cultural relativism of an Orientalist like William Jones to the contempt for Oriental culture of someone like James Mill - it is like a switch is flicked across the board. Maistre, hating the 18th century, is still so much a part of it that his view of the Sultan i alive in the idea that the Ottoman empire is in no way culturally inferior to that of France, for instance. It is an odd thing, but the reactionary ideology in the 19th century seems imprinted with Maistre's envy of a certain image of Islam - Gobineau immediately comes to mind, and in the twentieth century, the semi-sinister Guenon - out of whom comes the wholly sinister Evola and the crew of post Mussolini fascists.

That crew was not just sinister in their occult-y books - the fascist network definitely helped keep the Christian Dems in power in Italy, and provided the program for the dirty war in Argentina, allied with Pinochet, and provided the ideology for Reagan's dirty wars in the 80s.