Charting The History Of Decay: Emil Cioran’s Rhapsody To The Absurd

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“The flowering of absurdities reveals an existence before which all clarity of vision seems mockingly poor.”

“There are writers that one seeks out, and there are writers that one stumbles upon,” writes Eugene Thacker, author of The Horror of Philosophy series. “Emil Cioran is arguably of the latter kind.” The absurdist-obsessed writer repeatedly appeared in my life before I finally read his Rivarol Prize winning book A Short History Of Decay, an award the author rejected. In its pages Cioran’s tireless pessimism pronounces decay as the natural order. With poetic lyricism he strips concepts, exposing repulsive void peering between the universe’s cracks. Existence is meaningless, a horror Thomas Ligotti would later evoke in The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance Of Horror. But Cioran’s mordant aphorisms do not condemn life to ennui. His words electrify the blood to entertain absurdity with unabated eyes.

“Of all the goals proposed for existence, which one, subjected to analysis, escapes the music-hall or the morgue?”

Inheriting the nihilism of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer Cioran rejects philosophy. The discipline is a nullity, an honorable distraction dressing breath in formal systems out of despair. “We do not argue the universe; we express it. And philosophy does not express it.” The philosopher is addicted to words and misrepresents reality through tyrannous concepts as a “pleonastic universe,” offering no consolation that Bach’s fugues or Shakespeare’s tragedies do not impart.

“We cannot elude existence by explanations, we can only endure it, love or hate it, adore or dread it, in that alternation of happiness and horror which expresses the very rhythm of being, its oscillations, its dissonances, its bright or bitter vehemences.”

[…]

“We do not find more rigor in philosophy than in poetry, nor in the mind than in the heart; rigor exists only so long as we identify ourself with the principle or thing which we confront or endure; from outside, everything is arbitrary: reasons and sentiments.”

While philosophy cannot capture the nature of existence Cioran offers no outlet to escape the incomprehensible, like H.P. Lovecrafts eldritch horror. We live lying to ourselves, trapped in the asylum of the absurd. An incomprehensible infinity has mistakenly bred humanity, a cosmic joke. Unrelenting belief in truth is a dangerous absurdity that corrupts minds and creates new gods after the last crucifix has been burned. In a world teeming with beliefs even atheists contemplate murder in the name of a higher ideal.

“Consider the accent which which a man utters the word ‘truth,’the inflection of assurance or reserve he uses, the expression of believing or doubting it, and you will be edified as to the nature of his opinions and quality of his mind. No word is emptier; yet men make an idol of it and convert its non-meaning at once into a criterion and a goal of thought.”

Cioran encapsulates W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” A portent reminder in an age of ideological worship. But the doubter cannot save himself from his own deception.

“Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par excellence; and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them.”

“Once man loses his faculty of indifference he becomes a potential murderer; once he transforms his idea into a god the consequences are incalculable. We kill only in the name of a god or his counterfeits: the excesses provoked by the goddess Reason, by the concept of nation, class, or race are akin to those of the Inquisition or the Reformation.”

Even humanity’s organizations cannot escape Cioran’s scrutiny. Unlike Marx and Engels, Cioran traces history as a virulent sickness, a timeline eaten by decadence. Temporally-enslaved people live for the illusion that creates their history. “The activity of a productive civilization consists in drawing ideas out of their abstract nothingness, in transforming concepts into myths.” Progress is a phantom. Civilization teaches citizens to obsess over abstract values, distracting them from life itself.

“A nation dies when it no longer has the strength to invent new gods, new myths, new absurdities; its idols blur and vanish; it seeks them elsewhere, and feels alone before unknown monsters. This too is decadence. But if one of these monsters prevails, another world sets itself in motion, crude, dim, intolerant, until it exhausts its god and emancipates itself from him; for man is free—and sterile—only in the interval when the gods die; slave—and creative—only in the interval when, as tyrants, they flourish.”

[…]

“Knowledge—if it is profound—never changes: only its decor varies, Love continues without Venus, war without Mars, and if the gods no longer intervene in events, those events are neither more explicable nor less disconcerting: the paraphernilia of formulas merely replaces the pomp of the old legends, without the constants of human life being thereby modified, science apprehending them no more intimately than poetic narratives.”

Insatiably quotable Cioran’s aphorisms take on a life of their own ripped from the context of his work. They are as haunting and transfixing as Francisco Goya’s Witches Club, offering no consolation beyond lucid expression. And a quick reading offers an interpretation that resonates like a stone across a pond. But while Cioran writes poetically he ultimately rejects the art’s value.

“This is how I recognize an authentic poet: by frequenting him, living a long time in the intimacy of his work, something changes in myself: not so much my inclinations or my tastes as my very blood, as if a subtle disease has been injected to alter its course, its density and nature.”

[…]

“For the poet is an agent of destruction , a virus, a disguised disease, and the gravest danger, though a wonderfully vague one, for our red corpuscles. To live around him is to feel your blood run thin, to dream a paradise of anemia, and to hear, in your veins, the rustle of tears…”

Like Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, Cioran is captivated by ennui, listlessness that condemns the weary to sloth. But fervor compels Cioran to embellish the void. Even when the world is an asphyxiating unknown horror, only existing to service melancholy. Without language humanity would be doomed. Words are the rope we holds on to to save ourselves from the devil’s yawn. We would slip into chaos unable to catalog experience without concepts to organize reality.

“If, by accident or miracle, words were to disappear, we should be plunged into an intolerable anguish and stupor. Such sudden dumbness would expose us to the cruelest torment. It is the use of concepts which makes us masters of our fears. We say: Death—and this abstraction releases us from experiencing its infinity, its horror. By baptizing events and things, we elude the Inexplicable: the mind’s activity is a salutary deception, a conjuring trick; it allows us to circulate in a tempered reality, comfortable and inexact.”

At less than 200 pages A Short History Of Decay is an ostentatiously quick read but is as dense as neutronium and explosive. A single line encapsulates a universe of ideas. Considering his unrelenting indifference it’s heartening to recognize Cioran embodied Van Gogh’s directions for futility. “However meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, or warmth … steps in and does something.” When a flower dies and decays it nourishes new life. Cioran’s words echo, pressing up against the void in their advocation for nothingness. The universe hurdles towards oblivion, an incandescent apocalypse swallowed by darkness. Overwhelmed by nightfall’s oppressiveness Cioran illuminates the void, sprouting life under a star destined to decay.