To be free is to rid oneself forever from the notion ofreward
To be free is to rid oneself forever from the notion of reward; to expect nothing from people or gods; to renounce not only this world and all worlds, but salvation itself; to break up even the idea of this chain among chains. (Le mauvais demiurge, p. 88.)
Emile Cioran and the Culture of Death
by Tomislav Sunic
Historical pessimism and the sense of the tragic are recurrent motives in European literature. From Heraclitus to Heidegger, from Sophocles to Schopenhauer, the exponents of the tragic view of life point out that the shortness of human existence can only be overcome by the heroic intensity of living. The philosophy of the tragic is incompatible with the Christian dogma of salvation or the optimism of some modern ideologies. Many modern political theologies and ideologies set out from the assumption that "the radiant future" is always somewhere around the corner, and that existential fear can best be subdued by the acceptance of a linear and progressive concept of history. It is interesting to observe that individuals and masses in our post-modernity increasingly avoid allusions to death and dying. Processions and wakes, which not long ago honored the postmortem communion between the dead and the living, are rapidly falling into oblivion. In a cold and super-rational society of today, someone's death causes embarrassment, as if death should have never occurred, and as if death could be postponed by a deliberate "pursuit of happiness." The belief that death can be outwitted through the search for the elixir of eternal youth and the "ideology of good looks", is widespread in modern TV-oriented society. This belief has become a formula for social and political conduct.
The French-Rumanian essayist, Emile Cioran, suggests that the awareness of existential futility represents the sole weapon against theological and ideological deliriums that have been rocking Europe for centuries. Born in Rumania in 1911, Cioran very early came to terms with the old European proverb that geography means destiny. From his native region which was once roamed by Scythian and Sarmatian hordes, and in which more recently, secular vampires and political Draculas are taking turns, he inherited a typically "balkanesque" talent for survival. Scores of ancient Greeks shunned this area of Europe, and when political circumstances forced them to flee, they preferred to search for a new homeland in Sicily or Italy--or today, like Cioran, in France. "Our epoch, writes Cioran, "will be marked by the romanticism of stateless persons. Already the picture of the universe is in the making in which nobody will have civic rights." Similar to his exiled compatriots Eugène Ionesco, Stephen Lupasco, Mircea Eliade, and many others, Cioran came to realize very early that the sense of existential futility can best by cured by the belief in a cyclical concept of history, which excludes any notion of the arrival of a new messiah or the continuation of techno-economic progress.
Cioran's political, esthetic and existential attitude towards being and time is an effort to restore the pre-Socratic thought, which Christianity, and then the heritage of rationalism and positivism, pushed into the periphery of philosophical speculation. In his essays and aphorisms, Cioran attempts to cast the foundation of a philosophy of life that, paradoxically, consists of total refutation of all living. In an age of accelerated history it appears to him senseless to speculate about human betterment or the "end of history." "Future," writes Cioran, "go and see it for yourselves if you really wish to. I prefer to cling to the unbelievable present and the unbelievable past. I leave to you the opportunity to face the very Unbelievable." Before man ventures into daydreams about his futuristic society, he should first immerse himself in the nothingness of his being, and finally restore life to what it is all about: a working hypothesis. On one of his lithographs, the 16th century French painter, J. Valverde, sketched a man who had skinned himself off his own anatomic skin. This awesome man, holding a knife in one hand and his freshly peeled off skin in the other, resembles Cioran, who now teaches his readers how best to shed their hide of political illusions. Man feels fear only on his skin, not on his skeleton. How would it be for a change, asks Cioran, if man could have thought of something unrelated to being? Has not everything that transpires caused stubborn headaches? "And I think about all those whom I have known," writes Cioran, "all those who are no longer alive, long since wallowing in their coffins, for ever exempt of their flesh--and fear."
The interesting feature about Cioran is his attempt to fight existential nihilism by means of nihilism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cioran is averse to the voguish pessimism of modern intellectuals who bemoan lost paradises, and who continue pontificating about endless economic progress. Unquestionably, the literary discourse of modernity has contributed to this mood of false pessimism, although such pessimism seems to be more induced by frustrated economic appetites, and less by what Cioran calls, "metaphysical alienation." Contrary to J.P. Sartre's existentialism that focuses on the rupture between being and non-being, Cioran regrets the split between the language and reality, and therefore the difficulty to fully convey the vision of existential nothingness. In a kind of alienation popularized by modern writers, Cioran detects the fashionable offshoot of "Parisianism" that elegantly masks a warmed-up version of a thwarted belief in progress. Such a critical attitude towards his contemporaries is maybe the reason why Cioran has never had eulogies heaped upon him, and why his enemies like to dub him "reactionary." To label Cioran a philopsher of nihilism may be more appropriate in view of the fact that Cioran is a stubborn blasphemer who never tires from calling Christ, St. Paul, and all Christian clergymen, as well as their secular Freudo-Marxian successors outright liars and masters of illusion. To reduce Cioran to some preconceived intellectual and ideological category cannot do justice to his complex temperament, nor can it objectively reflect his complicated political philosophy. Each society, be it democratic or despotic, as a rule, tries to silence those who incarnate the denial of its sacrosanct political theology. For Cioran all systems must be rejected for the simple reason that they all glorify man as an ultimate creature. Only in the praise of non-being, and in the thorough denial of life, argues Ciroan, man's existence becomes bearable. The great advantage of Cioran is, as he says, is that "I live only because it is in my power to die whenever I want; without the idea of suicide I would have killed myself long time ago." These words testify to Cioran's alienation from the philosophy of Sisyphus, as well as his disapproval of the moral pathos of the dung-infested Job. Hardly any biblical or modern democratic character would be willing to contemplate in a similar manner the possibility of breaking away from the cycle of time. As Cioran says, the paramount sense of beatitude is achievable only when man realizes that he can at any time terminate his life; only at that moment will this mean a new "temptation to exist." In other words, it could be said that Cioran draws his life force from the constant flow of the images of salutary death, thereby rendering irrelevant all attempts of any ethical or political commitment. Man should, for a change, argues Cioran, attempt to function as some form of saprophytic bacteria; or better yet as some amoebae from Paleozoic era. Such primeval forms of existence can endure the terror of being and time more easily. In a protoplasm, or lower species, there is more beauty then in all philosophies of life. And to reiterate this point, Cioran adds: "Oh, how I would like to be a plant, even if I would have to attend to someone's excrement!"
Perhaps Cioran could be depicted as a trouble maker, or as the French call it a "trouble fête", whose suicidal aphorisms offend bourgeois society, but whose words also shock modern socialist day-dreamers. In view of his acceptance of the idea of death, as well as his rejection of all political doctrines, it is no wonder that Cioran no longer feels bound to egoistical love of life. Hence, there is no reason for him to ponder over the strategy of living; one should rather start thinking about the methodology of dying, or better yet how never to be born. "Mankind has regressed so much," writes Cioran, and "nothing proves it better than the impossibility to encounter a single nation or a tribe in which a birth of a child causes mourning and lamentation." Where are those sacred times, inquires Cioran, when Balkan Bogumils and France's Cathares saw in child's birth a divine punishment? Today's generations, instead of rejoicing when their loved ones are about to die, are stunned with horror and disbelief at the vision of death. Instead of wailing and grieving when their offsprings are about to be born, they organize mass festivities:
If attachment is an evil, the cause of this evil must be sought in the scandal of birth--because to be born means to be attached. The purpose of someone's detachment should be the effacement of all traces of this scandal--the ominous and the least tolerable of all scandals.
Cioran's philosophy bears a strong imprint of Friedrich Nietzsche and Indian Upanishads. Although his inveterate pessimism often recalls Nietzsche's "Weltschmerz," his classical language and rigid syntax rarely tolerates romantic or lyrical narrative, nor the sentimental outbursts that one often finds in Nietzsche's prose. Instead of resorting to thundering gloom, Cioran's paradoxical humor expresses something which in the first place should have never been verbally construed. The weakness of Cioran prose lies probably in his lack of thematic organization. At time his aphorisms read as broken-off scores of a well-designed musical master piece, and sometimes his language is so hermetic that the reader is left to grope for meaning.
When one reads Cioran's prose the reader is confronted by an author who imposes a climate of cold apocalypse that thoroughly contradicts the heritage of progress. Real joy lies in non-being, says Cioran, that is, in the conviction that each willful act of creation perpetuates cosmic chaos. There is no purpose in endless deliberations about higher meaning of life. The entire history, be it the recorded history or mythical history, is replete with the cacophony of theological and ideological tautologies. Everything is "éternel retour," a historical carousel, with those who are today on top, ending tomorrow at the bottom.
I cannot excuse myself for being born. It is as if, when insinuating myself in this world, I profaned some mystery, betrayed some very important engagement, made a mistake of indescribable gravity.
This does not mean that Cioran is completely insulated from physical and mental torments. Aware of the possible cosmic disaster, and neurotically persuaded that some other predator may at any time deprive him of his well-planned privilege to die, he relentlessly evokes the set of death bed pictures. Is this not a truly aristocratic method to alleviate the impossibility of being?:
In order to vanquish dread or tenacious anxiety, there is nothing better than to imagine one's own funeral: efficient method, accessible to all. In order to avoid resorting to it during the day, the best is to indulge in its virtues right after getting up. Or perhaps make use of it on special occasions, similar to Pope Innocent IX who ordered the picture of himself painted on his death-bed. He would cast a glance at his picture every time he had to reach an important decision... 
At first, one may be tempted to say that Cioran is fond of wallowing in his neuroses and morbid ideas, as if they could be used to inspire his literary creativity. So exhilarating does he find his distaste for life that he suggests that, "he who succeeds in acquiring them has a future which makes everything prosper; success as well as defeat." Such frank description of his emotional spasms makes him confess that success for him is as difficult to bear as much as a failure. One and the other cause him headache.
The feeling of sublime futility with regard to everything that life entails goes hand in hand with Cioran's pessimistic attitude towards the rise and fall of states and empires. His vision of the circulation of historical time recalls Vico's corsi e ricorsi, and his cynicism about human nature draws on Spengler's "biology" of history. Everything is a merry-go-round, and each system is doomed to perish the moment it makes its entrance onto the historical scene. One can detect in Cioran's gloomy prophecies the forebodings of the Roman stoic and emperor Marcus Aurelius, who heard in the distance of the Noricum the gallop of the barbarian horses, and who discerned through the haze of Panonia the pending ruin of the Roman empire. Although today the actors are different, the setting remains similar; millions of new barbarians have begun to pound at the gates of Europe, and will soon take possession of what lies inside:
Regardless of what the world will look like in the future, Westerners will assume the role of the Graeculi of the Roman empire. Needed and despised by new conquerors, they will not have anything to offer except the jugglery of their intelligence, or the glitter of their past. 
Now is the time for the opulent Europe to pack up and leave, and cede the historical scene to other more virile peoples. Civilization becomes decadent when it takes freedom for granted; its disaster is imminent when it becomes too tolerant of every uncouth outsider. Yet, despite the fact that political tornados are lurking on the horizon, Cioran, like Marcus Aurelius, is determined to die with style. His sense of the tragic has taught him the strategy of ars moriendi, making him well prepared for all surprises, irrespective of their magnitude. Victors and victims, heroes and henchmen, do they not all take turns in this carnival of history, bemoaning and bewailing their fate while at the bottom, while taking revenge when on top? Two thousand years of Greco-Christian history is a mere trifle in comparison to eternity. One caricatural civilization is now taking shape, writes Cioran, in which those who are creating it are helping those wishing to destroy it. History has no meaning, and therefore, attempting to render it meaningful, or expecting from it a final burst of theophany, is a self-defeating chimera. For Cioran, there is more truth in occult sciences than in all philosophies that attempt to give meaning to life. Man will finally become free when he takes off the straitjacket of finalism and determinism, and when he realizes that life is an accidental mistake that sprang up from one bewildering astral circumstance. Proof? A little twist of the head clearly shows that "history, in fact, boils down to the classification of the police: "After all, does not the historian deal with the image which people have about the policeman throughout epochs ?" To succeed in mobilizing masses in the name of some obscure ideas, to enable them to sniff blood, is a certain avenue to political success. Had not the same masses which carried on their shouldered the French revolution in the name of equality and fraternity, several years later also brought on their shoulders an emperor with new clothes--an emperor on whose behalf they ran barefoot from Paris to Moscow, from Jena to Dubrovnik? For Cioran, when a society runs out of political utopia there is no more hope, and consequently there cannot be any more life. Without utopia, writes Cioran, people would be forced to commit suicide; thanks to utopia they commit homicides.
Today there are no more utopias in stock. Mass democracy has taken their place. Without democracy life makes little sense; yet democracy has no life of its own. After all, argues Cioran, had it not been for a young lunatic from the Galilee, the world would be today a very boring place. Alas, how many such lunatics are hatching today their self-styled theological and ideological derivatives! "Society is badly organized, writes Cioran, "it does nothing against lunatics who die so young." Probably all prophets and political soothsayers should immediately be put to death, "because when the mob accepts a myth--get ready for massacres or better yet for a new religion."
Unmistakable as Cioran's resentments against utopia may appear, he is far from deriding its creative importance. Nothing could be more loathsome to him than the vague cliche of modernity that associates the quest for happiness with a peaceful pleasure-seeking society. Demystified, disenchanted, castrated, and unable to weather the upcoming storm, modern society is doomed to spiritual exhaustion and slow death. It is incapable of believing in anything except in the purported humanity of its future blood-suckers. If a society truly wishes to preserve its biological well-being, argues Cioran, its paramount task is to harness and nurture its "substantial calamity;" it must keep a tally of its own capacity for destruction. After all, have not his native Balkans, in which secular vampires are today again dancing to the tune of butchery, also generated a pool of sturdy specimen ready for tomorrow's cataclysms? In this area of Europe, which is endlessly marred by political tremors and real earthquakes, a new history is today in the making--a history which will probably reward its populace for the past suffering.
Whatever their past was, and irrespective of their civilization, these countries possess a biological stock which one cannot find in the West. Maltreated, disinherited, precipitated in the anonymous martyrdom, torn apart between wretchedness and sedition, they will perhaps know in the future a reward for so many ordeals, so much humiliation and for so much cowardice.
Is this not the best portrayal of that anonymous "eastern" Europe which according to Cioran is ready today to speed up the world history? The death of communism in Eastern Europe might probably inaugurate the return of history for all of Europe. Conversely, the "better half" of Europe, the one that wallows in air-conditioned and aseptic salons, that Europe is depleted of robust ideas. It is incapable of hating and suffering, and therefore of leading. For Cioran, society becomes consolidated in danger and it atrophies in peace: "In those places where peace, hygiene and leisure ravage, psychoses also multiply... I come from a country which, while never learning to know the meaning of happiness, has also never produced a single psychoanalyst." The raw manners of new east European cannibals, not "peace and love" will determine the course of tomorrow's history. Those who have passed through hell are more likely to outlive those who have only known the cozy climate of a secular paradise.
These words of Cioran are aimed at the decadent France la Doulce in which afternoon chats about someone's obesity or sexual impotence have become major preoccupations on the hit-parade of daily concerns. Unable to put up resistance against tomorrow's conquerors, this western Europe, according to Cioran, deserves to be punished in the same manner as the noblesse of the ancien régime which, on the eve of the French Revolution, laughed at its own image, while praising the image of the bon sauvage. How many among those good-natured French aristocrats were aware that the same bon sauvage was about to roll their heads down the streets of Paris? "In the future, writes Cioran, "if mankind is to start all over again, it will be with the outcasts, with the mongols from all parts, with the dregs of the continents.." Europe is hiding in its own imbecility in front of an approaching catastrophe. Europe? "The rots that smell nice, a perfumed corpse." 
Despite gathering storms Cioran is comforted by the notion that he at least is the last heir to the vanishing "end of history." Tomorrow, when the real apocalypse begins, and as the dangers of titanic proportions take final shape on the horizon, then, even the word "regret" will disappear from our vocabulary. "My vision of the future," continues Cioran is so clear, "that if I had children I would strangle them immediately."
After a good reading of Cioran's opus one must conclude that Cioran is essentially a satirist who ridicules the stupid existential shiver of modern masses. One may be tempted to argue that Cioran offers aan elegant vade-mecum for suicide designed for those, who like him, have thoroughly delegitimized the value of life. But as Cioran says, suicide is committed by those who are no longer capable of acting out optimism, e.g. those whose thread of joy and happiness breaks into pieces. Those like him, the cautious pessimists, "given that they have no reason to live, why would they have a reason to die?"  The striking ambivalence of Cioran's literary work consists of the apocalyptic forebodings on the one hand, and enthusiastic evocations of horrors on the other. He believes that violence and destruction are the main ingredients of history, because the world without violence is bound to collapse. Yet, one wonders why is Cioran so opposed to the world of peace if, according to his logic, this peaceful world could help accelerate his own much craved demise, and thus facilitate his immersion into nothingness? Of course, Cioran never moralizes about the necessity of violence; rather, in accordance with the canons of his beloved reactionary predecessors Josephe de Maistre and Nicolo Machiavelli, he asserts that "authority, not verity, makes the law," and that consequently, the credibility of a political lie will also determine the magnitude of political justice. Granted that this is correct, how does he explain the fact that authority, at least the way he sees it, only perpetuates this odious being from which he so dearly wishes to absolve himself? This mystery will never be known other than to him. Cioran admits however, that despite his abhorrence of violence, every man, including himself is an integral part of it, and that every man has at least once in his life contemplated how to roast somebody alive, or how to chop off someone's head:
Convinced that troubles in our society come from old people, I conceived the plan of liquidating all citizens past their forties--the beginning of sclerosis and mummification. I came to believe that this was the turning point when each human becomes an insult to his nation and a burden to his community... Those who listened to this did not appreciate this discourse and they considered me a cannibal... Must this intent of mine be condemned? It only expresses something which each man, who is attached to his country desires in the bottom of his heart: liquidation of one half of his compatriots.
Cioran's literary elitism is unparalleled in modern literature, and for that reason he often appears as a nuisance for modern and sentimental ears poised for the lullaby words of eternal earthly or spiritual bliss. Cioran's hatred of the present and the future, his disrespect for life, will certainly continue to antagonize the apostles of modernity who never tire of chanting vague promises about the "better here-and-now." His paradoxical humor is so devastating that one cannot take it at face value, especially when Cioran describes his own self. His formalism in language, his impeccable choice of words, despite some similarities with modern authors of the same elitist caliber, make him sometimes difficult to follow. One wonders whether Cioran's arsenal of words such as "abulia," "schizophrenia," "apathy," etc., truly depict a nevrosé which he claims to be.
If one could reduce the portrayal of Cioran to one short paragraph, then one must depict him as an author who sees in the modern veneration of the intellect a blueprint for spiritual gulags and the uglification of the world. Indeed, for Cioran, man's task is to wash himself in the school of existential futility, for futility is not hopelessness; futility is a reward for those wishing to rid themselves of the epidemic of life and the virus of hope. Probably, this picture best befits the man who describes himself as a fanatic without any convictions--a stranded accident in the cosmos who casts nostalgic looks towards his quick disappearance.
To be free is to rid oneself forever from the notion of reward; to expect nothing from people or gods; to renounce not only this world and all worlds, but salvation itself; to break up even the idea of this chain among chains. (Le mauvais demiurge, p. 88.)
 Emile Cioran, "Syllogismes de l'amertume" (Paris: Gallimard, 1952), p. 72 (my translation) return to text
 "De l'inconvénient d'être né" (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), p. 161-162. (my translation) (The Trouble with Being Born, translated by Richard Howard: Seaver Bks., 1981) return to text
 Cioran, "Le mauvais démiurge" ( Paris: Gallimard, 1969), p. 63. (my translation) return to text
 "Syllogismes de l'amertume", p. 87. (my trans.) return to text
 Ibid., p. 176. return to text
 "De l'inconvénient d'être né", p. 11. (my trans.) return to text
 Ibid., p. 29. return to text
 Ibid., p. 23. return to text
 Ibid., p. 141. return to text
 "Syllogismes de l'amertume", p. 61. (my trans.) return to text
 "La tentation d'exister", (Paris: Gallimard, 1956), p. 37-38. (my trans.) (The temptation to exist, translated by Richard Howard; Seaver Bks., 1986) return to text
 "Syllogismes de l'amertume", p. 151. (my trans.) return to text
 Ibid., p. 156. return to text
 Ibid., p. 158. return to text
 "Histoire et utopie" (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), p. 59. (my trans.) ( History and Utopia, trans. by Richard Howard, Seaver Bks., 1987). return to text
 Syllogismes de l'amertume, p. 154. (my trans.) return to text
 Ibid., p. 86. return to text
 "De l'inconvénient d'être né", p. 154. (my trans.) return to text
 Ibid. p. 155. return to text
 "Syllogismes de l'amertume", p. 109. return to text
 "Histoire et utopie" (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), p. 14. (my trans.) return to text
The author is a writer and a former Croat diplomat. He writes from Europe.