7 July 2011

Emil Cioran - A Short History of Decay

A Short History of Decay is a book that could only have been written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Written in French and first published by Gallimard in 1949, its core message is ‘believe in nothing’ – philosopher Emil Cioran’s response to the ideologically motivated destruction wrought across Europe.

Born in Romania in 1911, Cioran studied at the University of Bucharest. There, he became an advocate of Trăirism, which merged existentialism with tenets of Fascist ideology. Spending time in Berlin between 1933 and 1936, he supported Hitler and advocated both The Night of the Long Knives and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, aligning himself with Romania’s Christian right-wing Iron Guard organisation. Moving to Paris in 1937, he disavowed the Iron Guard when it became implicated in the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. Shortly after Cioran’s final visit to Romania in 1941, the Guard attempted a coup, swiftly defeated by Ion Antonescu, who was then toppled three years later.

Cioran remained in Paris as his homeland became Communist. Paris was a popular refuge for Romanian intellectuals: Lettrist poet Isidore Isou, Surrealist fellow traveller and dramatist Eugène Ionesco, a close friend of Cioran’s from their studies in Bucharest, all settled there. Cioran also befriended Samuel Beckett, an alliance which ended as Beckett considered him too pessimistic.

First translated into English in 1976 by poet Richard Howard (subsequently awarded the PEN Translation Prize), A Short History of Decay contains barely a note of optimism. A scan of the telegrammatic contents that introduce the first essay, ‘Directions for Decomposition’, promises such reflections as ‘Magnificent Futility’ and ‘The Obselete Universe’. At times, it reads as if Nietzsche had been walked through the ruins of Berlin and told that his ideas were indirectly responsible. Although Cioran’s writing stylistically resembles Nietzsche, composed of pithy aphorisms, he dismisses the German’s oeuvre as ‘nothing but a hymn to power’, rejecting both his main philosophical influence and, implicitly, his support for Romania’s religious right.

Retaining Nietzsche’s contempt for religious influence over human values, Cioran’s problem is not that God is dead – rather that He is dull. For Cioran, only the ‘naïve or the retarded’ do not contort the idea of God to suit their own needs. This manipulation has made Jesus Christ an ‘indirect dictator’, the symbol of one of many false Absolutes used throughout history to subjugate people. Cioran feels that the most regrettable aspect of Christian theology is the Resurrection: the concept that man can be redeemed through belief, he suggests, is one of the most dangerous ever circulated.

Vehemently opposed to the notion of progress, Cioran opens with an attempt to separate man from ideas. This feels disingenuous, as all ideas are man-made, and his initial suggestion that people without values cannot be corrupted falls with the knowledge that the leaders of the French Gestapo (for example) were not ideologues but thoroughly amoral individuals who were willing to uphold a criminal society that let them pursue their own interests unfettered.

Cioran refines this: if nobody subscribed to ‘false Absolutes’, then history’s worst atrocities would never have occurred. The biggest problem has been the development of ideas into doctrinaire works that inspire the oppressed to become oppressors. Four years before The Rebel, Cioran anticipates Camus’ famous ‘A slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown’ with ‘Truths begin by a conflict with the police and end by calling them in’.

Nietzsche wrote that each great philosopher had only one thing to say: Cioran’s world-view is encapsulated in his sentence ‘Give life a specific goal and it immediately loses its attraction’. Although the relentlessly pessimistic text is best consumed in short bursts, it contains plenty of humour, and the influences of Beckett and particularly Ionesco feel as important as the existentialists. Cioran suggests that the ‘history of decay’ has led European civilisation to the point of utter absurdity: the logical conclusion is an auto-da-fé of all Europe has conceived during the last two centuries of overly serious thought.

Praising the frivolous streak in French intellectual culture, running from Molière and Diderot to Jarry and the Dadaists, Cioran echoes Theodor Adorno in proclaiming the death of the Enlightenment. ‘In order to escape sterility,’ he writes, ‘we must wear Reason’s mourning’ – but for Cioran, the best release from the self-imposed pressure to find meaning and thus cope with continued existence is the idea of suicide, historically repressed by theological institutions, who asserted that it barred access to the afterlife , to uphold their power.

Ultimately, ‘society is not a disease, it is a disaster’, and the fact that people continue to live in it is a ‘stupid miracle’. Fixing the boundaries of social acceptability via the nebulous concept of ‘madness’, the best defence man has found against futility is the necktie – a symbol of humanity’s attempts to redeem itself in productivity. The ongoing ubiquity of the necktie ensures man’s enslavement: as Cioran notes, society has evolved so that any attempt at escaping work for others will end in starvation.

On aesthetics, Cioran likens the failure of philosophy to the inability of Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé to create a work to change the face of art. Those influenced by Mallarmé, such as Paul Valéry and Stefan George, are ‘geniuses we have no need of’: their work, for all its inventiveness, is not insidious. For Cioran, poets such as Shelley, Baudelaire and Rilke are ‘agents of destruction’, their intimate writing changing his consciousness. Bleak as it sounds, the highest compliment I can pay A Short History of Decay is that several times during my reading, his poetic prose triggered nightmares: testament to the force of his transfiguration of the Hell of wartime Europe, in which Cioran provokes thought, but never prescribes it.


  1. As unrelenting as Beckett, but surely not as funny. I can honestly say this was the most depressing work of philosophy I've ever read, with or without the Sontag intro.Remember thinking that it seemed an excessively long 'No' in answer to Celan's question of whether poetry is possible after Auschwitz.
    Interesting contrasts with Mircea Eliade, biographically and intellectually.

  2. Excellent essay, Juliet. I especially liked your last paragraph.

    The following is from my essay here:

    Cioran keeps lacerating the reader until she confesses her beliefs are tired myths, and in his remorseless destruction of such expired myths, he enriches and edifies the reader. When philosophy itself was young, Plato needed youth and beauty to advance the cause of philosophy, or he would have dismissed Socrates as just another sophist. He needed a martyr myth, because creation always involves destruction – whatever is introduced as new needs a martyr, especially when it promises change. Nowadays, philosophy has decayed and expired, and is in dire need for new myths and new martyrs to resurrect a new beauty, like a phoenix out of the ashes. Cioran, in his paradoxical way, has ignited the flames with his own intellectual crucifixion.

  3. I understand your response but I think it's a misreading in that it misses a couple of levels to Cioran's style which are delectably nuanced, his main attraction, even.

    Namely that almost everything he wrote was funny, albeit a black, sarcastic humour; and everything he wrote was dazzlingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful.

    So there is poetry possible after Auschwitz, and it reads like Cioran - the most poetic of all philosophers.

    Similarly, finding his writing depressing is missing a trick, as paradoxically the lyrical pessimism goes full circle and ends up being strangely optimistic, joyous even.

    The Nietzche/Existential comparisons are often a red herring. He's your classic Stoic, Aurelius with a turbo boost of ultra-poetry and bathos.

    As for Beckett compare these (paraphrased from memory)

    Beckett: 'Help! I tried to shout, but the noise that came out was that of polite conversation'.

    Cioran: 'We had nothing to say to each other, and while we were manufacturing our phrases I felt the earth falling away from me with a speed that made me dizzy, and me falling with it'.

    1. Susan, you are right on the money regarding Cioran. A beautiful writer and mind, and yes, a wonderfully subtle humor. I first became aware of him in the '80s through "The Temptation to Exist." I have a warm letter from him I received after contacting him through his publisher. Pay no attention to Cioran's critics -- would that none of us were ever mistaken in our youth.