The temptation to excise

I don’t know what to make of this.

E. M. Cioran is one writer who has actually changed the way I think. Wait, that sounds a little too dramatic, although it is strictly speaking true. I mean Cioran (a "lapidary ironist," in Carlin Romano’s precise phrase) ruined St. Paul for me. I read the Temptation to Exist (I think the Romanian exile’s first book translated into English) almost 20 years ago, between the bookshelves of the Xavier University college library in Cagayan de Oro City. His aphoristic essays were provocative and profoundly disturbing, although altogether he presented only "a sum of attitudes" (his own description of Nietzsche’s work).

Twenty years later, it is his style (aphorisms soaked in the brine of pessimism)  I remember best — that, and his deconstruction of St. Paul’s whiny, manipulative, self-dramatizing nature. (I paraphrase, of course.) Today, when I read the great saint (I can recite certain passages of his from memory), I still hear Cioran’s daemon hovering over my shoulder, clucking.

Which is why I don’t know what to make of this bit of news. As it turns out, Cioran was running away from a nightmarish past.

Where have we seen this story before? An influential European writer and thinker, celebrated in his mature years for works of sophisticated philosophical nuance, turns out to have been an anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler creep in his 20s.

The standard query immediately presents itself: Will the nefarious politics destroy the reputation?

Marta Petreu’s An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania (Ivan R. Dee, 2005), inevitably hurtles humanists of a certain age back to other names and scandals — de Man, Heidegger, Eliade — with its exposé of the expatriate Romanian anointed by Susan Sontag in her 1968 introduction to The Temptation to Exist as "the most distinguished figure" then writing in the lyrical, aphoristic, antisystematic tradition of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.

To be sure, and unlike the unholy trinity of de Man (whom I never read), Heidegger (whom I did, in small bites, and in translation), and Eliade (whose books on myth I dipped into, as any self-respecting metaphor-obsessed poet in the 1980s had to), Cioran did not deny his Nazi past.

Cioran, by contrast, appears to have evolved from fear to regret to a mixture of self-astonishment and shame. Petreu concedes that Cioran may have been motivated by selfish reasons to distance himself from his work of the 1930s. Yet, by old age, she believes, he "had substantially reconsidered his earlier ideas and come to detest them profoundly." He described Transfiguration in a 1979 letter as "unacceptable."

First thoughts? I’m afraid it was his very style, the straining after extremes which recommended his work in his maturity, that led him astray in his (relative) youth.

PS. Here’s another article on him. And here’s a sampling from his work.

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Filed under Notes on Readings, Readings in Religion

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