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Witness to intellectual suicide

A bitter farewell to Cioran on his 100th birthday. Fritz Raddatz on the Romanian philosopher's newly published essays from the 1930s.

Outrageous, devilish, heinous, and highly explosive in its historical analysis, "Über Deutschland" (on Germany) tracks E.M. Cioran's consistent erring towards fascism. The book makes us witnesses to intellectual suicide. It is therefore seductively compelling - a verbal Hitchcock; you read on and on with growing horror (as you would watch the films of the king of thrills), swept along by the atmosphere at first, with only an inkling of the approaching disaster. Then, with the realisation that this is a skilled swimmer heading straight for the vortex in powerful strokes, you want to shout: "Stop, watch out, you'll be sucked under." But there is no stopping the deadly consequences.

In the beginning you still sense the lust of scepticism, which the later Cioran (who lived in Paris from 1940 on) celebrated as the philosophy of decay - in coquettish apercus and sinister, visionary prophecies by turn; a laughing sphinx of Montparnasse, contemptuous of the joys of sexus and the elegant restaurants he enjoyed. An apocalyptic taxi driver. His scorn sensual and his end-time visions intoned with a mischievous twinkle of the eye. His credo was the irratio. How soon this emerged and how strong it was - is shown by these early texts.

In the beginning you want to disagree but disgust has yet to set in; especially because of the way certain apodictic sentences sound like a self-definition: "A metaphysical masochism blends lust with the phenomenon of decay and finds joy in cosmic chaos." His mistrust of purely rationalist solutions to world historical problems is worth bearing in mind. There are plenty of warning signs here which could just as easily have been authored by the herald of fairytale Marxism, Ernst Bloch, who described the failures of communism in the face of oncoming National Socialism by pointing to the very same deficiency: the failure to take the human psyche into consideration.

This Cioran decree is pure Bloch: "Rationalism has no power of its own, it has a purely formative function; it wants to offer mankind a closed view of the world, it wants to establish a set of values, it wants to offer mankind a direction in life." So far, so good - for now. Even his analysis of Dürer's "Melencolia" as entirely lacking in gaiety, i.e. typical German gloom, is an interpretation you might accept as a fresh reading of traditional signs; especially when he compares it with the Italianate. "The restless gothic soul has never found atonement and equilibrium. (...) And then one understands why in Italy melancholy is tempered with a smile and in the north, is exacerbated by painful tension. Dürer's Melencolia is devoid of any expression of irony."

Yet Cioran soon interrupts himself, rebuking for example "Kokoschka's new found anarchistic consciousness" which "destroys man's spiritual stability (...) in order to plunge into an absurd elan, where chaos is the norm and madness the intent. (...) Kokoschka's art is an expression of the soul's decay." He is heading for the vortex in rapid strokes. Yet for a moment you still think: alright, this is something Thomas Mann could have written (in his "Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man"). But when he vaunts German profundity - "not just ardour but also a multiplicity of layers", the waves come crashing overhead: as he celebrates "uncontrollable inner dynamism" which "breathes everything the Germans created": as he babbles - this is November 1933 - about "fateful development" and "intrinsic life forms". A poor man's Gottfried Benn. Indeed much of this fanfare is reminiscent of Benn's infamies. Not only in brusque commands to (re)think a la: "The time has come to proclaim the irrational not only in philosophy but also in politics," or: "In this world only the immoderate deserve love," but also in carefully phrased Gregorian: "You have to admire it when a regime, in order to justify its existence changes the law, transforms religions, gives art a new direction, construes a new historical perspective, brutally eliminates and furiously negates three-quarters of all accepted values, pulsating with enthusiasm all the while."

This is not some adolescent flirtation. In 1933/34 Cioran was over 20, the son of a priest, he had passed through high school and studied philosophy (with a Berlin scholarship), he was highly educated and extremely well read in the classics from Kant to Nietzsche. He had succumbed to this frenzied thinking as if under hypnosis, casting aside all intellectual standards to conjure up a phantasmic anticipation of redemption not shying from the worship of infamy. Nor from the votive bell-tinkling of the brochures of obscure sects, which babble on about "mission", "historical heights", "destiny" and "creative barbarity". This young Romanian sweats like a frustrated masturbator: "If I like anything about Hitler's followers, then it is the cult of the irrational, the adulation of the life force per se, the manly striding, without fault-finding, without reserve, without control."

A mental abuse scandal. This is not some priest groping at young boys' crotches, this is a fanatical high priest spitting into the brains of all thinking people, his own thinking having been abandoned at Hitler's belt buckle: "There is no politician in today's world who instills more sympathy in me than Hitler (...) The Führer mysticism in Germany is utterly justifiable. (...) Credit belongs to Hitler for having robbed a nation of its critical senses." This was published on 4 July 1934. A week later Erich Mühsam was murdered in the Oranienburg concentration camp. Did he belong, in Cioran's thinking, to "those people whose lives should be taken, those beasts whose blood should be spilled as a matter of duty?" "What has mankind lost with the deaths of a few idiots?" he asks a few lines earlier in a "Letter from Berlin" dated 15 July 1934 and adds: "Disgust for mankind is undergoing such terrifying justification that the death of a few zeros cannot make an impression." This was his justification for the murder of Röhm, and whom else?

You really don't even want to read it or comment on it, this hair-raising torrent of abominations which, again and again, intones adorational observances in keeping with the chant "I believe - even in Germany - there are very few people who hold Hitler in greater admiration than I do." His rhapsodic ecstasy is mostly lofty and heroic - "The masses want to be given orders" - and yet there is something bloated about it; especially when Cioran, who was later to lace though the streets of Paris by night scouting for adventure, also demands clean sexual morals. His Dix-like drawings of brothels and syphilis betray the trembling hand of a pious churchgoer, who nevertheless does not sing the praises of heavenly salvation but voices the desire for dictatorship. Repugnant crowing. Cioran's praise for military music as the accompaniment for the throes of ecstasy ends with this bizarre conclusion: "Adam was a sergeant."

Compared with this, the heroic diarist Ernst Jünger was a bonehead; Celine, husky with hatred, a sweetheart, and Ezra Pound a poet of verses for friendship albums. Many a philosopheme of the Hitler-man who gibed France, his future homeland, make for lofty reading - but are merely fatuous: "Individualism leads to atomisation. ... Which is why today the only redemption is the formula of typification through dictatorship."

In these earlier outpourings Cioran has mangled Goya's Caprichos, of which the most haunting is titled "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters." I wish I had never read this book. An abominable read. And yet I have to ask myself: Does this mean Cioran's other books have to be read again, with new eyes? Are perhaps many of the much-vaunted aphorisms whose caustic qualities were so admired and whose razor sharp dissections of the soul actually seemed delectable - are these not echoes of his tub thumping against reason, ratio, thinking? I find phrases I underlined in "History and Utopia" which certainly fuel this suspicion.

At the time, when I read that it is better to act out of jealousy and greed than out of noble-mindedness and disinterest, I attributed this to a certain Oscar Wilde cockiness. Today I can no longer find this gracious, and Cioran's contempt for humankind, with which he curses "us maniacs of procreation", with which he despises everyone and everything, now strikes me as more coquettish than profound. Haughtily our homme-a-femmes decrees: "The multiplication of our kind borders on the obscene; the duty to love them, on the preposterous." Of course we applauded. "We"? I - applauded such dancing frivolity, also because in the sixties and seventies, in the days of stuffy communes and bare-breasted lack of reserve, it felt like an amusing perceptual game. "A world without tyrants would be as boring as a zoo without hyenas" - such apodictic cheek we thought (while fighting the Shah for example) we could appreciate it in the spirit in which it was written; as expressed in what the French call "le deuxieme degre" - in other words, with a wink and a nudge. No one knew then how fervidly Cioran had actually sung the praises of a tyrant.

And his main work "Precis de decomposition" (published in English as "A Short History of Decay"), translated into German by none other than Paul Celan, was seen as a somewhat brash extension of Walter Benjamin's notion of history as catastrophe; indeed Cioran said: "History has no meaning" and "world history - a history of evil." A younger generation did not read this as an affirmation; rather the opposite: these young people, whether in San Francisco or shortly after in St. Germain felt driven to exorcise history's evils and attempt progress. While in his obviously more quoted than understood "Short History of Decay", history was denounced as a "mass manufacture of ideals" and reality as a "deadly craving for fiction", in large parts of the globe belief in the possibility of change was breaking out like a flu epidemic. The spokes in this potential wheel of change were ridiculed by our garret genius: "Yesterday, today, tomorrow - these are servants' categories." How I had it out with Cioran over these mental pirouettes, laughing over a good wine, once even offering to become his servant, which I did gladly. No one would have imagined that he was wading through the sludgy thinking of blood and soil and myth and mission, of national destiny, least of all himself.

Age is merciless - not only do the ghost battalions of deceased friends gallop past: from Hubert Fichte and Paul Wunderlich, to Thomas Brasch and Walter Kempowski. Now I have to bid a second farewell from my companion E.M. Cioran; a relationship like intellectual intimacy, no stay in Paris without evenings, sometimes whole nights with him that seemed so lucid in their gaily illuminated darkness, their zigzag flashes of lightning. I didn't know then that the SS runes had been looted. It's a bitter farewell.


This article originally appeared in Die Welt in German on 8 April, 2011.

Fritz Raddatz (born 1931) is one of Germany's most influential literary critics, he is the former editor of Die Zeit feuilleton and has published countless essays, novels and biographies

Translation: lp

E. M. Cioran: "Über Deutschland. Aufsätze aus den Jahren 1931-1937". Translated from the Romanian by Ferdinand Leopold. Suhrkamp, Berlin. 17,90 euro. - let's talk european