Michael Dirda on 'Searching for Cioran'
The life of a Romanian writer who remade himself as a Parisian aphorist.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 25, 2009; BW10


By Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston

Edited by Kenneth R. Johnston

Indiana Univ. 284 pp. $27.95

The philosophical essayist E.M. Cioran (1911-1995) was born and educated in Romania, where he belonged to an extraordinary generation of young intellectuals, one that included the historian of religion Mircea Eliade (The Myth of the Eternal Return, The Sacred & the Profane) and the playwright Eugene Ionesco ("The Bald Soprano," "Rhinoceros"). Like his friends, the young Cioran eventually left Romania, in his case traveling to Paris on a scholarship in the late 1930s. Somehow he eked out an existence during the war years and in 1949 emerged as a French writer with his first book in that language, Prcis de decomposition, translated as A Short History of Decay. While this won him critical praise and a major prize, Cioran nonetheless continued to live the life of an impoverished undergraduate, eating in student cafeterias, sleeping in university housing or cheap hotel rooms. He seems to have owned almost nothing.

Only in about 1960 did he acquire a garret-like apartment, even though he had by then published several other books, now regarded as modern classics, both for the purity of their French and the starkness of their pessimistic thought: All Gall is Divided, The Temptation to Exist and History and Utopia. These, along with such later collections of essays and aphorisms as The New Gods, The Trouble with Being Born and Anathemas and Admirations were all translated over three decades by Richard Howard, starting in the late 1960s. They made an enormous impact on readers, eliciting long appreciations by Susan Sontag, William Gass and many others.

In these books, Cioran is largely a master of the pense -- what one might call the philosophical aphorism. As he once said, his work characteristically "foundered somewhere between the epigram and the sigh!" For the fatalistic Cioran, the master-thinkers include the Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, Pascal and Chamfort, Lichtenberg and Nietzsche. In the darkness of his themes -- the sadness of life, hypochondria and sickness, despair, failure, death, the decline of the West -- he recalls his contemporary Samuel Beckett, whom he admired:

"The only thing the young should be taught is that there is virtually nothing to be hoped for from life. One dreams of a Catalogue of Disappointments which would include all the disillusionments reserved for each and every one of us, to be posted in the schools."

"To live is to lose ground."

"According to a Chinese sage, a single hour of happiness is all that a centenarian could acknowledge after carefully reflecting upon the vicissitudes of his existence. . . . Since everyone exaggerates, why should the sages constitute an exception?"

"Love's great (and sole) originality is to make happiness indistinct from misery."

"Only what we have not accomplished and what we could not accomplish matters to us, so that what remains of a whole life is only what it will not have been."

"Old age, after all, is merely the punishment for having lived."

Throughout his life in France, Cioran (whose name the French pronounce "Cee Oh Rahn") notoriously sought to avoid fame -- "I am an enemy of glory" -- but not, it turns out, for entirely philosophical reasons. As Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston reveals in this biography and memoir, Cioran had in his youth -- like Eliade to an even greater extent -- espoused right-wing nationalist views, full of zealotry and tinged with anti-Semitism.

While originally intending to write a full biography, Zarifopol-Johnston died before she had progressed beyond the rough drafts of Cioran's Romanian years. These sections her husband has edited, along with her research diary. Thus Searching for Cioran presents portraits of the young Cioran, full of visionary passion and ambition, and of the aged philosopher, suffering from Alzheimer's disease in a Paris hospice. There is also a long account of Zarifopol-Johnston's own thoughts and feelings when she returned to her native Romania to speak with Cioran's brother and surviving friends.

The resulting book presents a young provincial's progress: an idyllic childhood as the son of an Orthodox priest, intense periods of reading, a fondness for drink and prostitutes, resentment of Romanian backwardness, increasing ambition and, following a period of study in Hitler's Berlin, the adoption of repugnant political views. Only when Cioran came to France was he able to transform himself into "the ironic moralist and elegant stylist so admired today." To his biographer, Cioran's evolution follows "what Erik Erikson calls 'a classical pattern of repudiation and devotion.' First, repudiation of a career as a Romanian intellectual; next, temporary devotion to an extreme ideology, apocalyptic nationalism, that was for him always problematic; then, the sense of a spiritual mission which gradually narrowed its focus from the nation to the self, finally mobilizing the creative capacities of the self into the born-again writer." Throughout, Zarifopol-Johnston seeks to understand Cioran rather than accuse him, aiming above all to avoid any simple-minded "trial mentality."

The young Cioran saw being Romanian as a misfortune. He was reared, he felt, in a backwater country, home to a primitive culture and an obscure language. "Forgive me God because I was born Romanian" became his personal motto. He grew up feeling simultaneously bored and disgusted with Romanian life, increasingly prey to vicious insomnia and even to epileptic fits. Like so many romantic young men and women before him, he also "believed in the prestige of unhappy passions."

After schooling in Bucharest, Cioran won a scholarship to Berlin, where he skipped classes and began the practice of what he called "abstract indiscretion." This impudent style of philosophizing, observes Zarifopol-Johnston, appears throughout his youthful and mature writing: As an example, she cites Cioran's mot: "Jesus was the Don Juan of agony!" In his early 20s, Cioran returned home from Germany and suddenly emerged as a full-blown writer. "Between 1934 and 1937, the year of his self-exile to France, Cioran published four books in Romania, of which one, On the Heights of Despair, was a paean to lyricism, another, Romania's Transfiguration, was a paean to totalitarianism, and a third one, Tears and Saints, was a meditation on mysticism, an extreme form of religious lyricism. These three books mark three important stages -- existential, political, and religious -- in young Cioran's personal identity crisis."

On the Heights of Despair and Tears and Saints are now both available in English translations by Zarifopol-Johnston. But not Romania's Transfiguration, which the older Cioran condemned and largely tried to suppress (though late in his life he did allow republication of an edited version, but only in Romanian). In this book, we are told by his biographer, Cioran "recommends, with utmost seriousness, extreme measures such as the extermination of three quarters of Romania's population, the 'fanaticization' of its remaining population, and dictatorship as the sure means to create a 'Romania with China's population and France's destiny!' " This call for radical change was made even more reprehensible because Cioran openly sympathized with the Iron Guard, a fascistic and mystical military organization supposedly devoted to "moral and spiritual change, ethnic 'regeneration' by returning to Orthodox Christian values, and 'salvation' through asceticism and sacrifice."

While Zarifopol-Johnston points out both continuities and rifts between the thought of the "Romanian" Cioran and the "French" Cioran, her biography unfortunately breaks off just at the crucial, lost years: that first decade in Paris, when Cioran turned his back on his native country, his language and his wrong-headed youthful enthusiasms before re-emerging as a master of French prose in A Short History of Decay. Still, she does include a wrenching portrait of the writer's last years, when an intellect that valued lucidity and self-awareness above all else was cruelly destroyed by the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. The very last section of Zarifopol-Johnston's book provides an equally dismal account of squabbles over Cioran's literary estate and the right to quote from some of his unpublished works.

Despite its fragmentary character, Searching for Cioran offers valuable material about an important writer's early life. Nonetheless, it is too incomplete to be more than a supplement to some fuller future biography. In the meantime, readers can still return to, or discover, Cioran's own almost hyperbolically desolate essays and aphorisms. Turn to virtually any page and you are likely to find some striking, if lugubrious observation. "Any and all water is the color of drowning." "When you know yourself well and do not despise yourself utterly, it is because you are too exhausted to indulge in extreme feelings." "Only one thing matters: learning to be the loser."

E.M. Cioran crisply summarized life's essential absurdity -- his own and yours and mine -- in a wonderfully cheeky and dismissive phrase: "After all, I have not wasted my time, I too have fidgeted, like anyone else, in this aberrant universe."

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.