A Miserable Beatitude, The Hidden Philosopher Perfect For Our Uncertain Times
E. M. Cioran, the philosopher who captured the deep ironies of living
E.M. Cioran stands as one of the most brilliant, yet criminally unheard of, philosophers of the Parisian scene. Undergoing his self imposed exile from his native Romania to study in Paris where he would remain for the rest of his life, Cioran sat in Cafe’s with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the rest of the heavyweights of that time. A quiet man, he was often seen standing to light Beauvoir’s cigarettes any time she took one out. A lifelong sufferer of insomnia, Cioran would take to wandering the Parisian streets late at night, or furiously writing into the early hours. His style, both of philosophy and writing, remains difficult to categorise, often in aphorisms though occasionally breaching into longer essays, Cioran’s writing often portrays the effect of philosophy on a person.
His miserable and nihilistic outlook is not, like Schopanhauer or Nietzsche, an integral part of any theory, it is not a conclusion, but a result of the observations of a philosophical mind. Entering the dying buzz of the Parisian scene as a young man, Cioran’s work encapsulates macrocosms and microcosms as societies at the time struggled with their technological, economical (it may not have been a growth, but the strain on economies was suddenly of worldwide and personal concern) and population booms, Cioran invades the only question worth asking, why are we here when we did not ask to be?
In his native Romania Cioran’s father was an orthodox priest, because of this, his work is always haunted by the spectre of religion, the Oedipal strings of faith he is constantly at pains to unravel. God is for him a figure “dispossessed” and “lamentable”, his work emerges from the shadow of Nietzsche’s most famous proclamation, “God is dead and we have killed him”, as man “no longer lives in” the shadow of God. It is impossible not to think that his obsession with faith was not a Freudian rebellion against the authoritarianism of an establishment his father represented, and yet it begun his questioning, and lead him to his most useful philosophical tool, doubt.
Since Plato, doubt had permeated the foundations of philosophy, finding a kind of pinnacle with the Cartesian maxim “I think, therefore I am”, yet Cioran began to take this further, he doubted the act of doubting. He writes:
“it’s not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late”.
“when you know quite absolutely that everything is unreal, you then cannot see why you should take the trouble to prove it”
Cioran does not just doubt the world, but doubts the very fabric of doubt from which the world is cut. You will never be released from the indifference of existence, to live is to either accept or reject apathy, either result is pointless. “I think therefore I am” does not, for Cioran, hold true, for him “I” is flawed, “think” is flawed and to be is the most flawed of them all.
In his magnum opus The Trouble With Being Born Cioran passes his nihilistic eye over the inconvenience of being. He labels fatherhood a “crime” and longs for the time “before birth”. He does not quite advocate suicide, but venerates those who “succeeded in dying”. It may seem to the optimist that Cioran’s views are barbaric, ceaselessly depressing and, often, intensely difficult to accept. Yet there is a lightness, a playfulness almost, Cioran understands, perhaps more than anyone, that we are all in this together, none of us asked to be here, none of us know what it is we are doing here. It is typified when at a lecture, after his introduction he replied with, “but I am just a joker”.
With this statement, Cioran opens up his views to an entirely new reading, that of irony. Not to say that when he wrote all this he was being ironic, but that there is a heavy irony laced throughout the fabric of existence. Irony is often defined as “expressing one’s meaning by using language that signifies the opposite, often for humorous effect”, and it is in this that we see Cioran’s great delicacy. We are all afraid of death, we are all afraid of the unknown and we are all afraid of the void of meaning, in confronting these things Cioran plays them into objects of humour. As we read, we find ourselves laughing at death, the unknown and the emptiness of the universe, they are nothing but trivial. It is comedy that best expresses the tenants of nihilism, as it is in comedy that what terrifies us does not consume us and is instead seen as un-meaningful and unimportant, as is that which makes us happy, which is so easy to dismiss when we are sad.
Cioran has remained criminally unheard of even in the philosophical communities, labelled often as a “miserablist” and a “stoic” it is easy to see why his work resisted mainstream recognition. At his best, Cioran is as delicate as a candle in the darkness and, at his worst, he is as miserable and afraid as we are, crouched and alone in the dark. For the uncertain and often terrifying times we are currently living through it is no bad thing to have a gentle hand offered to you and, perhaps, to hear the echo of laughter.