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Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Because I am researching the pessimists at the moment, I’m reading Joseph de Maistre – which is always a pleasure, even if one can’t believe the transformation going on right before your eyes, as Christianity becomes, in de Maistre’s hands, a kind of Satanism presided over by the God of war. Looking around for secondary literature on de Maistre, I was lucky to find a long essay by Cioran that somebody had, no doubt illegally, put up on the web. Cioran rather beautifully understands the programmatic futility of the reactionary temperament, and I am certainly going to use that essay later. But neither de Maistre nor Cioran’s essay is my focus in this post. Rather, it is the variability of critical judgment.

I wanted to see what the reaction to Cioran’s essay was. The essay was translated by Richard Howard in Anathemas and Admirations, so it is available even to your average mono-lingual American academic. I was surprised that so little was said about it. In Edmund White’s review of Anathemas and Admirations, he devoted some precious newspaper space to the essay:

“The other [essay in the book] is a homage to the 19th-century reactionary political philosopher Joseph de Maistre. With hand-rubbing glee Mr. Cioran chortles and quotes Maistre declaring in an insane period: "In all the universe there can be nothing more peaceful, more circumspect, more humane by nature than the tribunal of the Inquisition." Maistre was sent by the King of Sardinia as his Ambassador to St. Petersburg, and Mr. Cioran identifies with his status as emigre: "A thinker is enriched by all that escapes him, all that is taken from him; if he should happen to lose his country, what a windfall! Thus the exile is a thinker in miniature or a circumstantial visionary."

In his reactionary excessiveness Maistre criticized anything new and praised any authority consecrated by time, which he invariably qualified as "divine." Wryly, Mr. Cioran says in an aside, "Applied to war, the adjective seems, at first glance, unfortunate." With characteristic dryness, Mr. Cioran concludes, "Nothing permits us to regard goodness as the major attribute of the divinity."

I fail to see the handrubbing glee in the essay, which, I think, has a definite center – Cioran, like any good aphorist, has an almost supernatural appreciation for the semantic center of a text – in the paragraph that concludes Cioran’s examination of de Maistre’s most operatic pronouncements about the guilt of the philosophes being at the root of the reign of the guillotine:

“To consider the 18th century as the privileged moment, as the incarnation, even, of evil is to toy with aberrations. In what other epoch were injustices denounced with more rigor? A salutary work, of which the Terror was the negation, and not the crowning moment.”

De Maistre coterie of modern sympathizers recognized, more accurately, the weight of the judgment on de Maistre that Cioran unfolds. Cara Camcastle, for instance, in The More Moderate Side of Joseph de Maistre, writes:

Cioran claimed that Maistre became like his ruthless and extreme enemies the Jacobins; his books are not boring to read because they are penetrated by an invigorating rage. he spirit of the Revolution and the Terror that he relentlessly attacked has penetrated, and been assimilated into, his own thought. THis statement is as constructive as saying that a physician who is caring for the sick during an epidemic should be treated as a persona non grata since he may have become as virulent and dangerout to human beings as the illness he is combating because he has come to understand the illness too well.” (53)

The comparison between Maistre and a physician is, to say the least, strange – if one were to really make that comparison, Maistre is more like a physician who insists on bloodletting as the cure for plague, and denounces science as satanic for saying otherwise. But at least it gives one a sense that there is not a lot of handrubbing glee in Cioran’s essay.

Cioran did not, it seems, hide his fascist past - but he wasn't exactly eager to write about it either. The essay on Maistre, written in 1957, has a certain intimate tone, as though Cioran is talking to himself through Maistre - and that may be due to the fact that Maistre's heady embrace of the worst human institutions might have seemed, to Cioran, to mirror his own madness in the thirties and forties – a political trajectory amply documented by Marta Petreu in a recent book. Carlin Romano wrote a story about this for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“For Petreu, Cioran's life and work look less majestic. To this brilliantly thorough philosophy professor at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, the slippery "fanatic without convictions" (as Cioran later dubbed himself) is the older, probably repentant successor to the messianic firebrand who applied Spengler's philosophy of cultural development to 1930s Romania with unparalleled brutality and fervor.
In November 1933, Cioran won a Humboldt doctoral grant to Berlin, where he quickly became a fan of Hitler. "I am absolutely enthralled by the political order they've set up here," he wrote to his friend Mircea Eliade, the future historian of religion, whose 1930s fascism and anti-Semitism also emerged most prominently after his death. "Some of our friends," Cioran advised pal Petru Comarnescu, "will believe that I've turned Hitlerist out of sheer opportunism. The truth is that I agree with many of the things I've seen here."

Nazism, Cioran wrote, possessed "greatness." Germans had a "need for a Führer," and Hitlerism constituted "a destiny for Germany." Cioran supported a similar dictatorship for his country and believed that "only terror, brutality, and endless anxiety are likely to bring about a change in Romania. All Romanians should be arrested and beaten to a pulp; this is the only way a shallow nation could make a name for itself." "Hitler's merit," insisted the young voice of vitalist barbarism, "consists in depriving his nation of a critical spirit."

That kind of hyperbole marked Cioran's style throughout his career. In The Transfiguration of Romania and his 1930s journalism, it contributed to bombastic bursts of fascism.”

Romano’s idea that the aphorism is equivalent to the hyperbole is common; however, it isn't right. It certainly doen’t apply to Cioran, who is writing in a world in which the camps and more camps were the reality, while the missiles and more missiles were being constructed by the two great powers left. More interesting, however, from the perspective of Cioran’s own fascism, is the way in which his essay on Maistre digs with doglike persistance at the very foundations of the fascist dream. Joseph Frank, reviewing Petreu’s book and another, by Laignel-Lavastine, in the New Republic, concludes his essay with a long passage about Cioran - and I'll conclude this post with a quote from that long passage

The most complicated case of all was Cioran, whose later writings are shot through with passages that may be read as implicit expressions of regret for his earlier convictions, but who never seemed able to repudiate them publicly. He was much more forthright in his correspondence and in private conversation. In a letter to a friend, Cioran declared in 1971 that "when I contemplate certain of my past infatuations, I am brought up short: I don't understand. What madness!" This would certainly seem to indicate their rejection on his part. In conversation with the author of a book about the commandant of Auschwitz, he said: "What Germany did amounts to a damnation of mankind."

There can be no question that, unlike Eliade, the issue of his previous fascism and anti-Semitism tormented the complicated, involuted, self-questioning Cioran, whose thought was always directed toward undermining all of mankind's certainties, including his own. The analysis of the postwar Cioran given here is the most complex and controversial in Laignel-Lavastine's book. He is depicted as both evading any overt responsibility for his past and also, "unlike Eliade," weighed down by feelings "inseparable from a desire for expiation and a sense of diffuse guilt … [an] 'oppressive sensation' with which he admits sometimes awakening in the morning, 'as if I bore the weight of a thousand crimes.'"

As in the case of Eliade, Cioran's past sometimes came back to haunt him. Paul Celan, the great German poet of Romanian origin whose parents died in a Romanian camp and who had himself been deported to a labor camp, was also living in Paris and translated one of Cioran's works, Precis de decomposition (A Short History of Decay), into German in 1953. The two saw each other from time to time, and Cioran came to the poet's aid when Celan was fighting off accusations of plagiarism. Yet when a Romanian critic on his way through Paris laid out the particulars of Cioran's past, Celan refused to have anything more to do with him. Despite this break, Cioran was deeply disturbed when he heard of the poet's suicide. It is suggested that this relationship with a Jewish writer may also have been meant as the same sort of "cover" that Eliade exploited so successfully; but there is nothing to support such a suspicion except that, when Cioran was once asked whether he knew Celine, he mentioned Celan instead. One has the feeling here that, despite her own evident intention to be as fair as possible in stressing Cioran's "ambivalence," Laignel-Lavastine is pushing matters too far.

The same problem arises when she comes to Cioran's attitude toward the Jews. When, for example, a new edition of his most anti-Semitic book, The Transfiguration of Romania, was published in Romania, he insisted that the chapter on the Jews be eliminated, along with a number of remarks about them scattered through the text: "I completely renounce a very large part [of the book] which stems from the prejudices of the past, and I consider as inadmissible certain remarks about the Jews," he wrote to a friend. Nothing could be more explicit. Even more, in one of his later French books he included a section on the Jews called "Un peuple de solitaires" ("A Solitary People") that was hailed as philo-Semitic. But Laignel-Lavastine believes this to be an illusion, because on comparing this text with what Cioran had written years ago, she finds that the image now given of the Jewish people and their history is much the same as that provided earlier--except that what had been evaluated negatively in the past is now given a glowingly positive spin. Moreover, Cioran continually identifies his own situation with that of the Jews, writing that "their drama [that of the Jews] is mine." In 1970 he mused that "I lacked an essential condition fully to realize myself: to be Jewish."

This obsessive self-identification with the Jews is interpreted as "the reversed expression of the same psycho-pathological phenomenon" that had earlier led to Cioran's worst excesses. Perhaps so; but to glorify the Jews instead of vilifying them surely indicates some sort of change. Also, the objection is made that while Cioran often expresses regret about his errors of the past, he never does so except in general terms, without attempting to explain why they are now rejected. For Laignel-Lavastine, Cioran's tantalizingly ambiguous relation to his past is hardly a genuine attempt to come to terms with the practical consequences of the ideas he once espoused and still, on occasion, seemed to toy with in a rhetorically half-amused fashion. She wonders whether, as was the case with Eliade, he was merely "translating into an acceptable language ideological motifs and attitudes [that are] ideologically disqualified in the West." Petreu is much more affirmative on this issue, and cites someone who visited Cioran during his last days, when he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease: "From his hospital bed, desperately trying to overcome the symptoms of his disease, Cioran stumblingly told his guest: 'I … am not … an … anti- … Semite.'"

Let me add my personal testimony at this point. During my years in Paris I met Cioran and saw him on a number of occasions, and we had a good many conversations (particularly but not exclusively about Russian literature, in which he took a passionate interest). Whatever the twists and turns of his troubled conscience, the brilliantly sardonic, self-mocking, and fascinating personality that I knew could not have been a conscious manipulator who would set out deliberately to deceive."

Deception is the privileged instrument of the exile – as Humbert Humbert knew. The movement from anti-semitism to philo-semitism is a movement within the pure stupidity of projection, as far as I can tell – philosophical anthropology as the production of coloring books for pissants. But enough Rezeption. I’ll write about the Maistre essay soon.

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