Reading (and Rereading) Cioran: Preternatural Slacker
By Daniel Lawless
A sentence I read somewhere whose paraprosdokian charm is undeniable: Beckett broke off his friendship with Cioran because he found him “too pessimistic.”
At first glance, a pronouncement one takes to be a matter of degree: X has advanced beyond acceptable measures along an identified spectrum: Abramovic or, say, “The Aristocrats” – apotheosis of the dirty joke. A taking-too-far, in other words. But I don’t think that’s what Beckett meant, what caused the breakup, if only apocryphally. No, I think that can be put down to duration – Cioran was too often pessimistic. Like the hermits and mystics with whom he was fascinated and among which I think he himself should be situated (to his credit and horror no doubt), Cioran is insupportable by reason of a maddening single-mindedness. Not a quality (narcissistic, tiresome) many friendships are built to endure, however much we might want it to be otherwise.
(“Charm,” too, a descriptor I choose not unadvisedly: from the Latin, carmen: song, verse, incantation -- repetitious wordiness used to conceal a lack of content. Indictments (except wordiness, of course) often leveled at Cioran and, at one time or another, at such disparate figures as the authors of Genesis and The Illiad, Cervantes, Pound, Durrell, Woolfe, Marcuse, Knausgaard. That last of particular interest, by the way, and to whom I’ll return in a moment, to conclude this brief rumination on the effects of a lifetime’s reading of Cioran.
First, though, a day-trip to the usual why-I-read so-and-so tourist traps:
He is sui generis. Close your eyes, stick your finger in any book by Cioran, and ask yourself, Could anyone else have written this passage? E.g.,
Every neophyte being a spoilsport, once someone gets excited over anything, even my own vagaries, I prepare for a rift – and my revenge.
What is a “contemporary”? Someone you’d like to kill, without quite knowing how.
The mediocrity of my grief at funerals. Impossible to feel sorry for the deceased; conversely, every birth casts me into consternation. It is incomprehensible, it is insane that people can show a baby, that they can exhibit this potential disaster and rejoice over it.
The case has been made for crowning Cioran “The Last Philosopher in Europe”; as these passages indicate (and there are literally hundreds like them) a better or at least equally valid title might be “The Last Comedian in Europe.” Sui generis, yes, and wildly funny – a quality I have savored perhaps more than any other over the years.
Party of One. Close on the above is the fact of his obdurate obscurity, which nevertheless I have found comforting: the evergreen frisson of the undiscovered bistro or boite. Relief that there is no school or movement tagged Cioran-ian, too. Try as you will to file him under “misanthrope” or “nihilist” or some such drivel (though you might consider “insomniacs”), in the sense that there are Lacanians, or Tillich-ians he has resisted for some seventy-odd years academic pigeon-holing and largely evaded the depredations of the dissertation, an oversight of fantastic stupidity for which we all can be grateful. (Or perhaps not an oversight but integral to the nature of the aphoristic style. As Cioran observes, professors can’t do anything with it, can’t annotate or categorize its position: “When they read a book of aphorisms, they say, ‘Oh, look what this fellow said ten pages back, now he’s saying the contrary. He’s not serious.’”)
No better testimony on this subject than Charles Simic’s, who asks in his New York Review of Books piece from 2010,
Who reads E.M. Cioran nowadays? Someone must, since most of his books have been translated and are in print. At universities where graduate students and professors are familiar with every recent French philosopher and literary theorist, he’s practically unknown, though he was a much finer thinker and wrote far better prose than a whole lot of them.
Tribal Marker. Just as in sixties’ (or before) western gay semiotics the left-or right-side positioned handkerchief, earing, or keychain signified sexual preferences, or as the above-mentioned “The Aristocrats” has served as a kind of secret handshake for in-the-know comedians at least since vaudeville days, I have found dropping the name “Cioran” in casual conversation (unlikely as that might sound), or in a letter or email, to be a reliable assessor of my correspondent’s literary (even psycho-social) predilections. A blank stare or its written equivalent is, per Simic, all too often the response and suggests our acquaintance for as long as it lasts will be fundamentally flawed, at odds and ends. On the other hand, an enthusiastic response – I’ve never received any other kind from those who’ve actually read him – means approximately some variation of: Ah, comrade! Cioran as the PiL button of ye olde punk days.
The Pleasures of the Aphorism. I know, Cioran is an essayist, though I don’t think this is his natural métier. Nor is it why I am here, nor likely why you have read or will read Cioran one day: that would be because you stumbled across one of his aphorisms. Like the poet Don Paterson writing in The Telegraph in 2004, these years I, too, “pass much of my time in a state of guilt-ridden paralysis, [from which] I emerge most days with nothing to show for my efforts but 40 e-mails, a dead leg and an empty box of Solpadeine (substitute reserved supplies of Tylenol # 3).” Which is to say that I, like Paterson, value the notion of, after all that too-often pointless and diversionary reading, “rescuing something from the day.” How welcome, then, the aphorism -- its brevity and lightning-strike nature so arresting to the benumbed mind. And Paterson gives it its mordant due: “…no one ever sewed Thackeray into the lining of their greatcoat as they marched off to the trenches. It was Marcus Aurelius or Pascal.” But where Mr. Paterson sees only “rubbish” in the second advertisement for the aphorism, its tone, we part ways. For him, that tone is enormously irritating: “…one of absolute self-certainty. The aphorism talks to you as if you were an idiot. This also makes them all sound rather generic, like the ravings of some wee disenfranchised god, bellowing away in the abyss to no one in particular.” Close to home, yes, and I feel the brush of that assertion’s ragged fingernails sometimes. But, usually I find in this certainty precisely what I crave. Why? Maybe because as an editor and poet I read a lot of poetry, whose insights or apercus -- aphorisms of a sort -- are almost always fatally collegial, wan, qualified and requalified, delivered almost as questions, aslant, as the famous adjective has it. They intimate – with a flourish: a certain flattery of the reader or sheepishness often lingers about them, as if to mumble, “Of course, you, gentle reader, know this… “Also, a self-conscious, off-putting timidity, an odor of the humble-brag: “I’m not sure, what do you think, is it possible that…? “ One tires of feigned humility, of courtesy, at last, suffused as it is with a displaced servility. Like Cubs fans and certain fetishists, one longs to be treated abysmally sometimes, taken for an idiot: even the monologue of a twee deity, barked into the void, can be preferable to the acceptable, well-appointed whisper of a talented friend. (Which in another universe and another context might explain the mystery of Trump – god forbid.) Not to mention, the “aphorisms” of poetry all too rarely reside anywhere but the work’s final lines; the reader is more or less sumptuously frog-marched through the author’s let’s-pretend-this-isn’t-all-set-up in order to get to the “wise-saying.” Surely there are exceptions, many, but a frequent enough occurrence as to discompose.
Which brings us to the matter of Cioran’s style, whose elegance and lucidity moved St.-John Perse to proclaim him “one of the greatest French writers to honor our language since the death of Paul Valery." What did Sontag say? “That most delicate of minds…” Outside of Barthes, perhaps, who else in philosophy is so imbued with a sense of the fine-ness of words, their wonders and conceits? (Cioran loved Dickinson, by the way – how right that seems.) Again, the work of others – Valery, yes, and Char, Davidowitz, Cocteau, Krause, Bierce, Lichtenberg, Jabbes, Chesterton, Santayana, La Bruyere, et.al. – would seem to contradict this point. But look again: which of these sustains our interest over the long haul, fascinates and challenges us with such astonishing regularity? Maybe we take Cioran’s accomplishments for granted – see: Jordan, Picasso, Pei. You will say it is in the quality of his thought that his genius lies, and I would assent, but add: read the words. They are the distillation of ideas, as poems are, yet Cioran has distilled even the poem to its essence (the image), rather like the Surrealists, whom he detested, I imagine, who had no use for narratives or context. To the question posed by some interviewer as to why he chose to write in this manner, he replied laconically, and one assumes perfectly disingenuously given his prodigious output:
I’m not sure exactly. I think it was a phenomenon of laziness perhaps… Aphorisms are conclusions, the development is suppressed, and they are what remains. It’s a dubious genre, suspect, and it is rather French. For me it was mostly due to my dislike of developing things.
How not to adore such a preternatural slacker?
The Great Curator. Oh, how this term has been denigrated: board games, Victorian mourning brooches, ramen, for God’s sake. Cioran has re-explored nearly the whole of western (and eastern, for that matter) thought, and provided a pocket guide to its forgotten monuments, scenic vistas lost to “progress.” Yes, Steiner, Queneau, Manguel, Coetzee, Henry Miller have their fans, but, would they have pointed me to Alcmaeon of Croton, Nāgārjuna, Théognis de Mégare, Fondane, Ceronetti? I don’t think so.
Enough. I mentioned Knausgaard. The five books of his My Struggle (Min Kamp) totter on my bedside table alongside Cioran’s Oeuvres; the two authors remain, apart from youthful flings with Kerouac and Malcolm Lowry, virtually the only complete works I have under my belt. The anti-Cioran, let’s call him, Knausgaard, the man who, as James Wood, writing for the New Yorker, notes, is “unable to leave anything out” – shoestrings, cups of tea, the eyes of a fish, solvents, construction equipment, sketches, a teen-age New year’s Eve party (70 pages, here or there), amplifiers, the scent of graphite, a glimpse of his father urinating, on and on and on. Whereas Cioran, one concludes in short order, would like to leave everything out. And yet. Doesn’t Woods have it just right when he goes on to say, “Knausgaard’s omnivorousness proves anything but accidental…the banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive…hypnotic”? Couldn’t the same be claimed of Cioran, his relentless intellectualism, his obsessive skepticism and tropismal melancholia so extreme it, too, eventually becomes its opposite – playful, almost light-fingered, hilarious -- and mesmerizing? (Knausgaard and Cioran share other mirror-features, as well: for example, the former concerned only or we can say primarily with presenting an accurate representation of himself, his physical being-in-the-world; the latter of his thought.) As Manguel writes, some books “call to one another” on the library shelves, for reasons known only to the reader. Such is the case, for me, with these two masters: their effects on me are mysteriously of a piece.
A bit vague, right? How to say it?
There’s a marvelous poem by Ron Slate titled “Night Crossing” about a ferry ride, that begins with these words, that capture uncannily the undulative nature of (re)reading Cioran (or Knausgaard):
Back and forth is a way to move
when the visible is spacious.
For this is how I read Cioran: moving sideways from thought to thought, text to text, a recursive voyage that I have taken almost nightly for fifty years. (I find him best read just before sleep.) Like the passenger in the poem, my destination is so well-known as to be inconsequential. No plot whose threads I must pick up again, no capital S symbols or annoying or competing characters with their vying perspectives to inhabit or perspectives to filter. I relax, perpetually in a transeat a familar, assured of missing nothing of importance, nothing that will not reappear again, anyway, elsewhere, only slightly altered. Just the two of us, in the dark. Here or there the occasional sense of a new (as opposed to remembered) discovery, perhaps – an epiphany, but so fleeting I wonder if it existed at all –
wings seen, instantly gone,
As the poem has it.
And throughout, the silent perceived voice of Cioran, exhausted, vital: that disembodied soliloquy that Slate conjures exquisitely (though of course utterly unaware of my subject) that is like
the parting waters [that] make the sound of a god
murmuring for both the first and last time.
A Note About the Author: Daniel Lawless’s book, The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With and Other Poems is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry, February 2018. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Asheville Review, Cortland Review, B O D Y, The Common, FIELD, Fulcrum, The Louisville Review, Manhattan Review, Numero Cinq, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. He is the founder and editor of Plume: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry.