BOOK REVIEW / Warmth at the art of aphorism: The trouble with being born - E M Cioran, trs Richard Howard: Quartet, pounds 8.95

Nicholas Lezard
Saturday 29 May 1993 23:02 BST

'WHAT'S it all about, then?' The cabbie's question, apocryphally asked of Bertrand Russell, is even more comically futile now than it was then. Living philosophers who know what it's all about and, moreover, could explain it to a cabbie, are not easily found, or keep their thoughts to themselves. Perhaps this is why E M Cioran isn't as well known as he ought to be.

He is, in the old-fashioned sense of the term, a philosopher, but he doesn't write in mathematical symbols or agonise about sense-data and other phenomenological curios ('to scribble a postcard comes closer to creative activity than to read The Phenomenology of Mind,' writes Cioran here, and there's more Hegel-bashing where that came from). Cioran is a writer - arguably the last living writer - who occupies the space where philosophy and literature meet. So what does he do? He gives two answers here: 'I endure myself' is one; 'Do I look like someone who has something to do here on earth?' is the other.

His biography reinforces the sense of a man out of time. Born in 1911 in Austro-Hungarian southern Transylvania, he moved to Paris in 1937, adopted French as his favoured language, and has since lived an ascetic life in a Paris garret. Which might remind you of Samuel Beckett, who moved to Paris in the same year and began to compose in French. Cioran and Beckett were pals, which you will be able to guess after reading half a dozen Cioran sentences. You wonder if the pair of them didn't embrace like Vladimir and Estragon when they met. If anything, Cioran has had a harder time of it than Beckett, and according to a memoir of Beckett from an earlier collection, Anathemas and Admirations, Cioran used to visit him to cheer himself up. 'If disgust for the world conferred sanctity of itself,' Cioran writes here, with breezy nihilism, 'I fail to see how I could avoid canonisation.' Elsewhere: 'Sometimes I wish I were a cannibal - less for the pleasure of eating someone than for the pleasure of vomiting him.'

The Trouble with Being Born is a collection of aphorisms. ('An aphorism? Fire without flames,' Cioran says here: 'Understandable that no one tries to warm himself at it.') The aphorism is, as Auden said, an aristocratic genre, which fits Cioran's position perfectly: there's no more aristocratic position than to equate existence with torment.

This collection, published in French in 1973, shows Cioran softening a little from the furious rages revealed in earlier collections. He has passed beyond despair: 'There's no point in killing yourself, because you always kill yourself too late.' Of all religions, Buddhism is the one that soothes him the most, but an irrepressible (and covertly relished) capacity for doubt stops him from subscribing to any system. He is closer now to Marcus Aurelius than to Nietzsche, an early influence: '(Nietzsche) observed men only from a distance. Had he come closer, he could have neither conceived nor promulgated the superman, that preposterous . . . chimera, a crotchet which could occur only to a mind without time to age, to know the long serene disgust of detachment.'

So why should we be interested in the opinions of this eccentric, who is, moreover, contradictory, perverse, resistant to intellectual theory and uninterested in questions of semiotics? Because Cioran actually makes his philosophy perfectly democratic, assimilable by anyone - including Russell's cabbie - who can read a sentence. Cioran's loathing is genuine, all-inclusive, and yet perversely generous (the book's second-last aphorism begins 'No one has loved the world more than I . . .', which might be a joke). Only someone so doubtful of the world's fundamental givens can be trusted. His scepticism lights things up like a torch.

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