Emil Cioran: The Criticism of the Idea of Historical Progress

by Daniel Branco

Melbourne: Manticore Press, 2019

This work by the Brazilian author Daniel Branco is a lucid and revealing biographical portrait of Emil Cioran in his childhood, adolescence, and early youth. In it, the author identifies the foundations of Cioran’s thought, considers his peculiar literary style, and explores that somewhat skimpy “asceticism” that accompanied Cioran throughout the vicissitudes of his existence, most especially after moving to France.

As Branco rightly points out in the preface to his work (which previously appeared in Spanish and Portuguese), we cannot consider Emil Cioran to be strictly a philosopher; nor can we apply to him any kind of label without the risk of error and misunderstanding. In fact, for someone so heterodox and ‘elusive’ as Cioran, any qualifier runs the risk of falling into inaccuracy, eclipsing, obscuring, or disfiguring the ‘true face’ of his ideas and their meaning. So, kudos to Daniel Branco for completing this study of a thinker with such characteristics in so remarkable and meritorious a way.

Emil Cioran was born on April 8, 1911, in Răşinari in the Transylvanian county of Sibiu, Romania. Traditionally, this area has been prone to German and Hungarian influence. There, Cioran spent his childhood years until he had to leave because of his academic responsibilities. Born into a religious family of Orthodox Christians, Cioran’s father was a priest and his mother presided over a congregation of religious women. Obviously, the young Cioran was conditioned by his family environment and by his family’s Orthodox identity.

Although he did not develop any religious vocation, religious language, especially that of the Book of Genesis, is not exempt from his work or his thoughts and ideas. As Branco describes, the personality that Cioran developed from his early years was in a permanent dichotomy between tradition and rebellion, and as a youth in the interwar period, he did not remain indifferent to the new ideological challenges that arose. In this case, his contacts with the Romanian Iron Guard fascist movement of Corneliu Codreanu (1899-1938), his seduction by anti-liberal and anti-democratic narrative, the exaltation of force and action, and his sympathies towards Adolf Hitler were part of his youth. After World War II, he abandoned these ideas and began shaping his thinking based on very personal experiences, such as the insomnia he suffered for seven years, the nihilistic thinking he developed during the interwar period, and the experience of fascism. Later, he would give up all the ideas he acquired during this stage, especially following the 1948 arrest of his brother Aurel on accusations of belonging to a subversive movement.

It was precisely in the interwar period, during the development of his academic life, around 1928, when Cioran began his studies at the University of Bucharest, where he pursed a degree in philosophy, although he did not graduate. He was a contemporary of Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994) and Mircea Eliade, with whom he forged a solid friendship, as well as Professor Nae Ionescu (1890-1940), Professor of Metaphysics and Logic at the University of Bucharest and one of the main ideologues of the Iron Guard, who inspired the young thinker. In 1934, he published his first work, On the Heights of Despair, while still living in Romania, and by 1937 he had moved permanently to France, studying at the French Institute of Paris thanks to a scholarship.

At that time, his intellectual influences were diverse and included Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and, especially, Friedrich Nietzsche, an author whose writings ended up disappointing him. Cioran was also impacted by Henri Bergson, who was an important part of his innumerable studies. His literary output in the Romanian language includes Tears and Saints (1937) and The Twilight of Thoughts (1940). It was in his Francophone writing that he developed the most fruitful and mature part of his work. As a result, A Short History of Decay (1949), All Gall Is Divided (1952), and History and Utopia (1960) were published; these works are precisely the basis of Branco’s study of the controversial Romanian author.

During his stay in Paris, Emil Cioran was exposed to a multitude of intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, distinguished representatives of the existentialist current whom he did not personally meet and who he became the subject of his criticism in A Short History of Decay. He also corresponded with a series of great intellectuals of his time, such as Mircea Eliade, Eugène Ionesco, Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, Henri Michaux, and Fernando Savater, among many others. From the Latin Quarter, a mecca of the Parisian cultural bohemia, Emil Cioran developed his intellectual activity under very humble conditions, living practically all his adult life in a dormitory-style apartment, paying high rent, avoiding any honor or tribute, and consistently refusing to integrate with the academic establishment.

Finally, on June 20, 1995, the life of Emil Cioran ended at the age of eighty-four. Apart from his works and fruitful intellectual work, a series of interviews that were carried out in the last years of Cioran’s life from 1983 to 1995 serve as a basis in the bibliography of Branco’s work.

Much has been said about the peculiar style Emil Cioran used to express himself in his work, one that was very different from that which was conventionally adopted by philosophers, of which he did not consider it to be part, because, as Branco points out, his works “do not investigate ontological truths, nor is its language built by systems. His philosophy is present in the metaphysical character of his works.” The use of a literary style was the author’s main currency, and the aphorism, used by earlier thinkers such as Nietzsche, was his preferred rhetorical device. Dominant themes throughout his work are the alienation of man and existence in general wrapped in an atmosphere of bitter and sorrowful pessimism and nihilism. Emil Cioran’s work is a kind of confession to himself; these confessions have been recorded in some of the interviews he granted to the media during the last stage of his life.

Unlike other thinkers, Emil Cioran never tried to systematize his thinking, instead granting great importance to physiology and the subjective perception of reality through the senses, which somehow exercised the filter function for their interpretations. For Branco, Emil Cioran is the most important thinker of postmodernity, and thus the Romanian author has founded his ideas and interpretations in an alternative discourse to the prevailing modernity, the realm of reason and the “great truths” founded in this one for the understanding of reality. In History and Utopia, Cioran expresses his criticism of modern thinking and the spirit of progress that it spreads. In parallel, and to implement a whole hermeneutic interpretation of the writings of the Romanian author, Branco uses A Short History of Decay as a reference to incorporate those reflections on deep philosophical topics, such as those that refer us to metaphysics, into his research. In this way, different problems around the philosophical tradition are combined with others that refer us to the history and evolution of civilizations, and in their context of the manifestation of utopia itself and the utopian thinking under which reason underlies.

Daniel Branco’s work has the virtue of analyzing the major philosophical, historical, existential themes of Emil Cioran’s thought in a solid and perfectly equipped discourse. Prominent themes in this work include religion, God, boredom, insomnia, time, and eternity. It is that strangeness and ambiguity that may derive from Cioran’s ideas, many times cherished by a certain irony and cynicism; there are also deeply religious and mystical themes. Despite not having had a religious vocation, he also did not consider himself an atheist and always maintained admiration for the writings of some mystics, which was not without significance, as Branco insists on the metaphysical character of Cioran’s work. In the same way, and within the polyhedral reality and the complexity that the figure and work of the Romanian thinker presents, we cannot avoid the presence of enormous paradoxes, such as that of denying philosophizing philosophy.