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Obituary: Emil Cioran

James Kirkup
Saturday 24 June 1995 00:02 BST

Emil Mihai Cioran, philosopher, essayist: born Rasinari 8 April 1911; died Paris 20 June 1995.

In few authors is the work so much a part of the life as in the writings of Emil Cioran.

Cioran was an antiphilosopher, an antimoralist, perhaps because in his youth he had read such a wide variety of European philosophers, and all the elegant, ironic French moralists, He wrote: "Everything I have undertaken, everything I have expatiated upon all my life is inseparable from what I have lived. I invented nothing. I've been the one and only secretary of my own sensations."

The very titles of Cioran's books read like a litany of the writer's obsessions: A Short Account of Decomposition (1949), Syllogisms of Bitterness (1952), The Inconvenience of Having Been Born (1973), Hacked to Pieces (1979), The Tears of the Saints (1988), On the Summits of Despair (1990), Breviary of the Vanquished (1992) among a host of others. An album of very fine black-and-white photographs of Cioran by Irmeli Jung, accompanied by his own text, is called The Rush Towards the Worst (1988).

Such despairing pessimism had, as is often the case, profound roots in childhood. The prosperous country town of Rasinari in Saxon Transylvania seemed like an earthly paradise to the little boy. His father was the orthodox priest of the place, and Cioran loved the cemetery where he made friends with the gravedigger who would give him skulls to play football with. There was a beautiful orchard where he played with his sister and younger brother Aurel. Above all, there was the hill called Coasta Boacu, looking down on Rasinari. In later life, Cioran wrote: "One should live and die where one was born . . . I've been bored everywhere I went. What was the point of leaving Coasta Boacu?"

But leave it he did, heartbroken at being driven out of his paradise, at the age of 10, in order to attend school in Sibiu, and three years later his father was appointed to its imposing church as orthodox protopope or high priest. At 14, Emil was reading the great national poet Mihail Eminescu, but also Diderot, Balzac, Tagore, the aphorist Lichtenberg, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Schopenhauer and above all, Nietzsche. At 17, he enrolled in the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy in Bucharest, where he gained the reputation of a wild young bohemian. Already he was subject to chronic insomnia, when he spent whole weeks without sleeping. In 1933, aged 22, he started writing his first book, Pe Culmile disperarii ("On the Summits of Despair"). He had finished his university studies with a thesis on Bergson, and was back home in Sibiu. In a preface to the French translation, he wrote:

The capital phenomenon, the most catastrophic disaster, is uninterrupted sleeplessness, that nothingness without release. For hours and hours I would walk the night's deserted streets, or, sometimes, those haunted by my fellow-insomniacs, the prostitutes, the ideal companions in moments of supreme distress. Insomnia is a vertiginous lucidity that can convert paradise itself into a place of torture . . . It was during those infernal nights that I came to understand the inanity of all philosophy. The hours without sleep are at bottom an interminable rejection of thought by thought itself . . . an infernal ultimatum of the mind delivered to the mind.

When the work was published in Bucharest, it received the first prize of the Royal Academy at the same time as Ionesco's Nu ("No"). It was the first of only two literary prizes that Cioran did not reject.

From 1933 to the end of 1935 Cioran studied philosophy in Berlin with a grant from the Humboldt Foundation; he was taught by Ludwig Klages, whom he greatly admired. He also discovered the expressionist artists, particularly Kokoschka, as well as the ideals of the rising Hitler. Back in Bucharest in 1936, he had his one brief teaching post: his colleagues and pupils were puzzled, then dismayed by his eccentricity and his passionate discourses on the Spanish mystics, Dostoevsky, Proust and Shakespeare for whom he had an unbounded admiration because of the "excessive" nature of his characters. His Cartea Amagirilor ("The Book of Deceptions") was published.

In his book on Bucharest, Paul Moraud gives a sketch of bohemian intellectual life and its unbridled ferment of new ideas in all-night discussion and passionate quarrels at the legendary Brasserie Capsa in the Calea Victoriei, where Cioran proposed his nightmare visions of despair to Eugene Ionesco, Mircea Eliade and an assortment of pugnacious Romanian revolutionary thinkers.

Yet Cioran, after his experiences in Germany, was beginning to see salvation only in totalitarian regimes and he wrote a work of which he was later deeply ashamed, a youthful squib, The Transformation of Romania (1937). An expurgated edition was reprinted in Bucharest in 1991, but a French specialist in Romanian studies, Pierre-Yves Boisseau, dissected the thought in the original edition, which shows young Cioran to have been both xenophobic and antisemitic, uttering nonsense like: "The Judaic invasions of recent years made antisemitism the essential component of our nationalism."

These were the times of the infamous Iron Guard in Romania, and Cioran expresses similar xenophobic prejudice against the Hungarians. It was an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable passage from youthful idiocy to a more mature, disabused view of the follies of dictators and of all politicians, whom Cioran looked upon with loathing and contempt.

The passage came with his departure for Paris with a grant from the Institut Francais in Bucharest, the gift of an enlightened director who was one of the rare people fully to appreciate Cioran's unique personality, and his special needs as a writer. Cioran did absolutely no work to justify the grant, yet the sympathetic director renewed it until 1945.

Cioran lived in various small Latin Quarter hotels, first in the Rue Racine, opposite the house where Sarah Bernhardt was born, then in the Hotel Marignan in the Rue Sommer and, near the Librairie Portugaise and a number of esoteric bookshops. Just a short way up the Rue Jean de Beauvais stands the charming little Romanian Orthodox church, and further on the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace, where Cioran could often be seen towards the end of his life taking his constitutional in the direction of Port Royal, a neat little figure, like a bank-clerk, with his sober attache- case and mid-season raincoat.

But his Aries character shows through the conventional appearance in his great, lined, thick-eyebrowed forehead and his abundant prow of dense dark hair, his plunging, obstinate nose, a mouth whose initial fullness was elongated into a bitter, brooding thinness within the deepening ravines bracketing it on either side. Gisele Freud's remarkable 1982 series of colour photographs of the man, and Irmeli Jung's black-and-white studies are profoundly revealing of the genius who was an aristocrat of doubt and a mystical misanthrope of disturbing lucidity, but whose grim sense of destructive humour is deeply satisfying.

In 1947, after trying unsuccessfully to translate Mallarme into Romanian, Cioran made the dangerous decision to go into "linguistic exile" and to write all his future works in French. He mastered the written language taking as models the 18th- century moralists whose world-weary cynicism he adored and also the few moderns he admitted to his pantheon of letters. He disliked Sartre and hated Camus, who, he said, had the mentality and culture of a substitute teacher.

Today, the only true pleasure in reading comes from an appreciation of sheer style, something very few writers now possess. The works of Cioran are everlastingly readable, disturbing, provocative, comical. He was the supreme farceur of philosophy, and always provides entertaining companionship for his fellow insomniacs, who mingle their sleepless lucidity with his.

Cioran said that one of the greatest jokes in his absurd existence was when in 1974 the Spanish regime of Franco, already in a state of decomposition, scorned his book Le Mauvais Demiurge, accusing it of being "aetheist, blasphemous and anti-Christian". Cioran's wry comment was: "The Inquisition is not yet dead." At a time when I, too, was being subjected to similar ignorant attacks by self-appointed guardians of bigotry, such words from Cioran were infinitely refreshing. In fact, he claimed that Buddhism was his one religion, and the only worthwhile philosophy. When I pointed out to him that he had been born on the birthday of Buddha, he gave a sudden rare laugh of pure joy. "Jesus is revenging himself on us for not having died on a sofa."

He often quoted Montesquieu's witty saying: "I'd like to banish all funeral ceremonies. One should weep for men at their birth, not at their death." Emil Mihai Cioran was after all given a traditional funeral service at the little Romanian Orthodox Eglise des Saints-Archangel and a funeral cortege to the Cimetiere Montparnasse, where he lies now with Baudelaire, poet of the Flowers of Evil that was one of Cioran's bibles of the beauties of excess and ennui.

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