Cioran’s first book “On the Heights of Despair”, brings together all the themes from his later work: death, loneliness, disease, suffering, the. The dark, existential despair of Romanian philosopher Cioran’s short meditations is paradoxically bracing and life-affirming. Written in , when he was On the Heights of Despair shows Cioran’s first grappling with themes he would return to in his mature works: despair and decay, absurdity and alienation, futility .
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On the Heights of Despair by Emil M. Cioran
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To take advantage of all LARB has to offer, please create an account or log in before joining There is less than a week left to support our matching grant fund drive! Your tax-deductible donation made to LARB by FOR SOME, he was one of the most subversive thinkers of his time — a 20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor.
Many, especially in his youth, thought him to be a dangerous lunatic. According to others, however, he was just a charmingly irresponsible young man, who posed no dangers to others — only to himself perhaps. When his book on mysticism went to the printers, the typesetter — a good, God-fearing man — realizing how blasphemous its contents were, refused to touch it; the publisher washed his hands of the matter and the author had to publish the blasphemy elsewhere, at his own expense.
Who was this man? Emil Cioran — was a Romanian-born French philosopher and author of some two dozen books of savage, unsettling beauty. He is an essayist in the best French tradition, and even though French was not his native tongue, many think him among the finest writers in that language. His writing style is whimsical, unsystematic, fragmentary; he is celebrated as one of the great masters of aphorism.
With him, self-contradiction is not even a weakness, but the sign a mind is alive. For writing, he believed, is not about being consistent, nor about persuasion or keeping a readership des;air writing is not even about literature.
Heighhts Cioran, just like Montaigne several centuries earlier, writing has a distinctive performative function: You write not to go mad, not to kill yourself or others. In a conversation with Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater, Cioran says at one point: Human existence, at its core, is endless anguish and despair, and writing can make things a bit more bearable.
Cioran wrote himself out of death over and over again.
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The book — to remain one of his finest in both Romanian and French — marked the beginning of a strong, intimate link in his life between writing and sleeplessness:. For seven years I could barely sleep. I need this depression, and even today before I sit down to write I play a disk of [sad] Gypsy music from Hungary. Among them failure figures prominently.
Cioran was obsessed despir it: He studied it from varying angles and at different moments, as true connoisseurs tend to, and looked for it in the most unexpected places. Not only can individuals end up as failures, Cioran believed, but also societies, peoples, and countries.
The greatest country in the world reduced to such a state of decay! Great ideas can be stained by failure, and so can books, philosophies, institutions, and political systems. The human condition itself is for Cioran just another failed project: God and the Failure. Cioran could speak so well of failure because he knew it intimately.
Cioran was someone who in his youth got involved in catastrophic political projects which he regretted all his lifewho changed countries and languages and had to start everything from scratch, who was a perpetual exile and lived a marginal life, who was almost never employed and nearly always on the verge of poverty.
He must have developed a profound familiarity with failure — even a flair heightw it. He knew how to appreciate a worthwhile case of failure, how to observe its unfolding and savor its complexity. For failure is heigjts unique: Each case of failure has a physiognomy and a beauty all of its own, and it takes a subtle connoisseur like Cioran to tell a seemingly banal but in fact great failure from a noisy yet mediocre one.
He first encountered failure in his native land, among his fellow Romanians. Cioran was born and grew up in Transylvania, a province that had for a long time been part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and only lately, inbecame part of the Romanian kingdom.
Even today Transylvanians display a strong work ethic, and seriousness, discipline, and self-control are held in high esteem. Here the winning skills were different: The mix of intellectual brilliance and a striking sense of personal failure that some of them exhibited gained his unconditional, perpetual admiration:.
In Bucharest I met lots of people, many interesting people, especially losers, who would show up at the cafe, talking endlessly and doing nothing.
I have to say that, for me, these were the most interesting people there. People who did nothing all their lives, but who otherwise were brilliant.
For the rest of his life Cioran would remain secretly indebted to that land of failure that was his country. And he was right to do so. For Romanians entertain a unique relationship to failure; just as the Eskimos have countless words for snow, the Romanian language heightz to have just as many associated with failure.
The country is truly a goldmine. Inalready in Paris, he confesses to a Romanian friend: Always the philosopher, Ionescu even developed a little theory of failure which, edspair, he preferred ths to publish. Yet Cioran did not content himself cioean being a distant observer of failure. Early on, he started practicing it himself, and he heignts so in style.
Injust out of college, he was awarded a visiting graduate studentship at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. No sooner did Cioran arrive in Germany than he fell in love with the freshly installed Nazi regime.
In November that year, he writes to his friend Mircea Eliade: While others were detecting the debut of a catastrophe of historic proportion in Germany at the time, Cioran saw only promise and historical greatness. And what exactly made Hitler so great? Barely 22 years old, he started practicing failure in all seriousness.
Now these periodicals wanted more from him; they wanted, especially, coverage of the German political scene. In a dispatch he sent to the weekly Vremea DecemberCioran wrote, pen firmly in hand: Hitler is conspicuously the man in charge, and Cioran is appropriately impressed. In a letter to another friend, Petru Comarnescu Decemberhe wrote:. In Romania, only terror, brutality and infinite anxiety could still lead to some change.
All Romanians should be arrested and beaten to a pulp; only after such a beating could a superficial people make history. Issues of public interest are often mixed in Cioran with matters of a more private nature.
On the Heights of Despair, Cioran, Zarifopol-Johnston
This unfolds in several layers. First, an odd notion seems to have hatched in his mind that he is not allowed to separate his personal worth from the historical merits of the national community to which he belongs.
So at a relatively young age Cioran has managed to lock himself within a most serious existential impasse. The practice of failure can be a bloody business. He writes it, above all, to treat a wounded pride. In The Trouble with Being Bornone of the aphorisms reads: Spanish, Russian, cannibal — anything, except what I was.
To be Romanian is not some biographical fact, but a metaphysical catastrophe, a personal tragedy of enormous proportions. How can one be something so close to nothingness, so unlikely to exist?
For the life of him Cioran cannot accept such a people as his own. Impossibly passive and self-effacing, Romanians have missed all the chances to leave any significant trace in the world. Romania is a country that has slept its way through history. But Cioran is nothing if not self-contradictory. All triumphs are moral. Only a dictatorship of the irrational, the like of which Cioran has seen in Germany, can save this country from itself.
You wonder sometimes for how long can one toy with failure before being crushed by it? Romanian Jews were hunted down and murdered in cold blood, their properties looted and burned to the ground, while the gentile population was subjected to brutal religious-fundamentalist brainwashing. By then Cioran was already in France, reinventing himself in another language. Against the background of a precarious democratic culture in interwar Romania, aided by personal charisma and a singular lack of scruples, Codreanu almost singlehandedly pushed the country into chaos in the s.
And now Cioran was praising him. When it comes to failing, a thinker — even one as notoriously irresponsible as the young Cioran was — could hardly sink any lower.
What was wrong with him, you are asking, just as his democratically minded friends were at the time? In the coming years Cioran himself would be visited by the question, over and over again, with depressing urgency.
The horrors of the war, the enormity of the Holocaust, in which some of his Jewish friends died, woke him up abruptly; those texts must have looked to him now like the stuff of nightmares. Then the working of time made him see things ever more clearly. We once had this illness, from which nobody wants to believe we have recovered.
One day you look for yourself in the mirror only to discover someone else there staring at you. Failure hates to travel alone: In another letter to his brother, Cioran writes: Never forgiven, never forgotten. Everything else failed in comparison. This split personality characterized the later Cioran, and it makes sense, for a philosopher who sees the world as a failure of grand proportions, to mock the cosmic order and himself in the process by pretending that there is some meaning where there is none.
He who laughs last laughs hardest.