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A writer who does stupid things in his youth is like a woman with a shameful past—never forgiven, never forgotten. E. M. Cioran, the renowned Romanian-French nihilist philosopher and literary figure, knew this better than anyone. Alongside Heidegger, Sartre, Paul de Mann, and others, Cioran was one of the great scholars of the twentieth century to be seduced by totalitarianism: he experienced a most disturbing intellectual and moral drama. More than any other study of Cioran, Marta Petreu's intensive investigation of his life and work confronts the central problem of his biography: his relationship with political extremism. The scene of Cioran's excesses is Romania and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, a time of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, Nazism, and Stalinism. In an incendiary book published in the mid-thirties, Cioran openly praised Hitler and Lenin and compared the leader of the fanatical Romanian Iron Guard to Jesus himself. This book, The Transfiguration of Romania, is the focal element of Ms. Petreu's analysis, which she carries on to Cioran's posthumously published Notebooks, characterized by the regret and remorse of his twilight years. In straightforward and lucid prose, grounded in a wealth of documentary evidence, she provides the entire history of a painful individual and collective drama. For many of Cioran's yearnings would later be realized in Ceausescu's dictatorship of Romania—to the regret of the Romanian people. Norman Manea's Foreword reminds us of Cioran's stature in Western intellectual circles and explains the critical importance of An Infamous Past.
IN 1936 a book appeared that holds a special place among the writings of E. M. Cioran, the Romanian philosopher and aphorist of humorous despair. It was his third book, The Transfiguration of Romania (Schimbarea la fata? a României), and Cioran's only systematic work. The Transfiguration is unique in its choice of topics: it is dedicated to the greatly debated issue of "Romanianism." Cioran's singular approach to this obsessive topic of Romanian culture is such that The Transfiguration also includes his perspective on culture generally and on history and politics, reflected through an analysis of-for Cioran-a rather painful case study: Romania.
The Transfiguration was to prove a major headache for Cioran, haunting him to the end of his life. More often than not, I believe, he regretted ever writing it. And this because the book, like Cioran's political writings that appeared in the press between the two world wars, symbolizes for Western readers the disgraceful secret of his life and work; for Cioran himself it displays the most vulnerable experience in his Romanian past. For Romanian culture, the book is an uncomfortable and disconcerting presence. Romanians prefer to see it as a pretext chosen by Westernerswhenever they wish to question Cioran's stature. They feel less inclined to clarify for themselves the important issues and perhaps the current relevance of The Transfiguration.
"The writer who has done some stupid things in his youth, upon his debut, is like a woman with a shameful past. Never forgiven, never forgotten," Cioran complained in a 1979 letter to his brother. In a 1981 letter to Nicolae Tertulian, a critic of his work, he wrote that when it came to talking of the political component of his Romanian past, he "reacted ... like a woman with a certain past...." His post-1945 correspondence with friends and family who remained in Romania shows how unhappy or threatened he felt whenever someone reopened the chapter-for him entirely closed and repressed-of his Romanian political past. During his entire stay in France, from 1945 to 1995, Cioran was simply terrified by the thought that small fragments of his early years would be brought to light.
The question is, What exactly is Cioran's "shameful," ever reproachable past? The answer can be found first and foremost in The Transfiguration of Romania, and second in Cioran's numerous articles published in the Romanian press between 1931 and 1941, articles in which the young philosopher explicitly stated his political beliefs.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY AND CULTURE, 1930-1933
The political component of Cioran's thought cannot be separated from his philosophy of history and culture, and from the issue of Romanianism as presented in his writings. To isolate his political ideas from their metaphysical foundations would distort them and render incomprehensible Cioran's preference for the Romanian far right. Besides, Cioran's interest in politics derived from his early and spontaneous concern with the philosophy of history and culture.
Like others of the "1927 generation," Cioran was initially apolitical. Mircea Eliade, the acknowledged intellectual leader of that generation, proclaimed in his "Spiritual Itinerary" the new generation's rejection of all things political and their preference for the purely "spiritual": "We wish to see a triumph of those values that do not come from political economy, from technology, or from parliamentarianism. The pure, spiritual, indeed absurdly spiritual values. The values of Christianity."
In turn, advocating the purism of a "geometric" culture, the philosopher Constantin Noica rejected history: "Forget about history," 5 he wrote in his first book. Cioran, following this general inclination, also rejected politics, this "tremendous abomination," and declared himself "a man of such pride, and with such an exacerbated sense of eternity, that all political involvement is impossible for me." In On the Heights of Despair (Pe culmile disperarii) (written in 1933 and published in 1934) he refuted history, the "ideals of the time," and all concern with social issues. He was interested only in the philosophy of history and of culture.
"I don't know what you think about the philosophy of history. I find it quite appealing. Its study is indeed fascinating, and not just because I happen to be reading a lot of it, but also because I tend to spontaneously think about it," Cioran confessed in a December 1930 letter to his friend Bucur Tincu, a native of Cioran's own village, Rasinari. As is clearly indicated in Cioran's letters to Tincu, by the books he read during this period, and by his writings in the press, this preference, combined with his penchant for metaphysics, remained dominant until the autumn of 1933. In his letters to Tincu, Cioran seemed concerned with the crisis of modern culture, expressing his annoyance with the fact that "They often condemn me for investigating various aspects concerning the philosophy of history and of culture, claiming that such matters are trivial and indicative of dilettantism." He restated his belief: "The matters pertaining to the philosophy of culture, of history, of characterology, and of philosophical anthropology fascinate me to such extent that I cannot contemplate the thought of ever abandoning them."
Cioran's readings of the time-Max Stirner (The Ego and Its Own), Spengler (The Decline of the West), Hegel (on history), Ernst Troeltsch (Historicism and Its Problems), and others-confirm this preference. Many of his writings from 1931 to October 1933 are pervaded by concepts and ideas inspired by Spengler. Taking up Spengler's typology, Cioran wrote of great original cultures; of smaller cultures that imitate the larger; of the "productive fund" of cultures and their "destiny"; of cultural style; of the crisis and eclecticism of modern culture; and about the "end of culture," implacably reducing all creators to the status of "people of a dying culture."
From general reflections upon culture and history, Cioran gradually shifted his attention toward local cultural and historical realities. With a harshness that foreshadowed his vituperative tone in The Transfiguration of Romania, he judged the Romanian experience from the vantage point of Spengler's theories. For instance, he saw the student circles of Bucharest as a world of "meek lads," "lacking historical perspective," with "rural thinking" and therefore incapable of understanding the "problems related to the agony of civilizations." "Peasants will be peasants," Cioran argued, "even when in the capital city." Once stirred, his interest in Romanian culture became an obsession, a recurrent presence in his articles: he complained of the absence of all greatness in Romanian culture, the lack of "an original style," the "Romanian indifference" born of a "most dreadful impotence and platitude, of a constitutional deficiency." He blamed Romanian culture for lacking a "more alert rhythm" and a tragic sensibility. Hence his conclusion-foreshadowing some passages from The Transfiguration: "I expect nothing from the Romanian intelligentsia"; or "One of the things that sadden me most is the fact that I can describe local realities only in negative terms," because "we have been living a permanent inexistence."
As Cioran shifted his attention from general considerations of culture, based upon elements of Spengler's historical interpretation, to local cultural-historical realities, he nonetheless continued to reject the political, which he considered inconsistent and tainted. For instance, in an article published in January 1933, he criticized his generation for having forgotten the original meaning of its philosophical and religious orientation, and for having turned toward the pursuit of politics, toward the right-wing Legion or the far left. Furthermore, argued an extremely annoyed Cioran, his "generation" demanded that all its members embrace one of the two political extremes. Outraged by this imperious requirement for political regimentation, he declared that he could not pledge his loyalty to any "petty organization," for he supported "no social doctrine and no political orientation." All things political, he declared, were nothing but superficial manifestations, "on the fringes of spiritual values," a clear symptom of spiritual poverty and platitude.
For Cioran, culture and politics were still radically opposed. The young philosopher believed that the political frenzy experienced by Romanians in general and by the people of his native Transylvania in particular was nothing more than an indication of their lack of "soul." Poverty of soul was also the reason why Transylvania-which until 1918 had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and not to Romania-had failed to generate a solid Romanian culture: "It is usually claimed that Transylvanians have failed to create something of consequence because they were nearly all involved in political struggle. Could it be possible that they entered politics precisely because they found culture to be of comparatively little appeal?" Cioran wondered. He was clearly frustrated with the "limited resources of inner life" possessed by Transylvanians and with the poverty of Romanian culture.
Let us note in passing that Cioran's observations were far from singular at the time. In The Myth of the Useful, the philosopher D. D. Rosca condemned the preeminence in Romania and especially in Transylvania of the "politician," "the man of action," at the expense of the "pure intellectual." He lamented the fact that "useful" political activities were deemed more valuable than the "useless" cultural creation.
In 1933, the year when the 1927 generation turned en masse toward politics, Cioran remained faithful to his initial beliefs and on the side of culture, rejecting politics. In a letter to Tincu he wrote: "I am a man of such pride, and with such an exacerbated sense of eternity, that all political involvement is impossible for me. It is not just democracy that is radically flawed; all political and social systems are equally defective."
As a firm supporter of culture, the young philosopher generally regarded it from the perspective of the German, chiefly Spenglerian, doctrine of vitalism. As a way to end contemporary "decadence," he dreamed of an "apocalypse" that would "shatter all forms, revealing their emptiness and pointlessness." On the ground thus cleared, "barbarism" would emerge. Because, Cioran argued, "barbarism is the first symptom indicating the dawn of a culture." Since, in his opinion, European culture was "utterly exhausted," only a "barbarian sense of life and culture," a descent into "chaos," was likely to offer a promise of redemption and "fecundity."
POLITICAL CONVERSION, NOVEMBER 1933
Barely a few months after writing this letter to Tincu-more precisely in November 1933-Cioran's open contempt for politics was transformed into an equally open enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler's political order. This political conversion can be dated with considerable accuracy: late October and early November 1933, the time when Cioran arrived in Berlin as the recipient of a Humboldt doctoral grant at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University. After only two weeks in Germany, he wrote to Mircea Eliade saying, "I am absolutely enthralled by the political order they've set up here." Impressed by Hitler's dictatorship, in December Cioran observed in a letter to Nicolae Tatu: "As far as I am concerned, only a dictatorial regime is still worthy of attention. People do not deserve to be free. And I am somewhat saddened by the fact that you and others like you pointlessly praise a democracy which can't really do anything good for Romania."
He took up the same idea in a letter to his friend Petru Comarnescu, on December 27:
Some of our friends will believe that I have turned Hitlerist out of sheer opportunism. The truth is that I agree with many of the things I've seen here, and I firmly believe that a dictatorship could stifle or even eliminate for good the imposture plaguing our society. Only terror, brutality, and endless anxiety are likely to bring about a change in Romania. All Romanians should be arrested and beaten to a pulp; this is the only way a shallow nation could make a name for itself.
Apart from his letters to friends back home-letters that show how sincere his choice was-while in Germany Cioran also wrote a series of articles for the Bucharest weekly Vremea (The Times), describing with growing enthusiasm Hitler's political order. In "Aspects of Germany" he seemed quite impressed with the fact that all Germans believed their country to be the greatest one on the face of the earth whereas Romanians saw their homeland as "the lousiest country in the world." He also argued that "In order to understand the spirit of contemporary Germany, one must love all exaggeration, all that which is born of excessive and overwhelming passion. One must be thrilled by all irrational élan and disconcerting monumentality." As for the political situation in Germany, Cioran described it with a word invested with entirely positive connotations: "Hitlerism has been a destiny for Germany."
His next article remained politically neutral: it was an account of his visit to a museum and described Berlin University, where Nicolai Hartmann was "considered by some to be the greatest German philosopher of today." The Romanian student clearly did not share this opinion because, as he stated, "I cannot overlook Heidegger and Klages." The latter reminded him of his professor of metaphysics in Romania, Nae Ionescu. In a following article, "Germany and France, or the Illusion of Peace," Cioran argued that there was "an element of greatness in this formidable movement" led by Hitler. And then he confessed: "If I like something about Hitlerism, it is the cult of the irrational, the exultation of pure vitality, the virile expression of strength, without any critical spirit, restraint, or control."
First, let us note that the metaphysical approach Cioran gradually came to embrace made this man with the fiercest critical spirit in twentieth- century Romanian culture an admirer of precisely the absence of critical spirit in Germany. Second, Cioran's article highlights the convergence between his metaphysical premises-irrational, vitalistic, applied by the young thinker to the philosophy of culture and of history-and a reality grounded in these premises-Hitlerism. Understanding the Nazi political system to be shaped according to his own philosophical beliefs, Cioran let himself be seduced by what he saw. Consequently he declared that Germans did not like democracy, that Germany felt the "need for a Führer," and that Hitler, now profoundly anchored in the "German consciousness," had become a "symbol." From that moment, Cioran's endorsement of the ideas of the far right was not only firm but downright public. In January 1933 he had blamed the "new generation" for its involvement in Romanian politics; in January 1934, inspired by the example of Germany, he pleaded for Romanian youth to get involved in the political struggle: "Brothers, let us embark upon a mighty, bold crusade against human filth, against those empty ideals that stifle our aspirations, against everything opposed to our mission."
Everything Cioran saw in Germany now heightened his sense of Romania's inferiority. In Germany, he noted, ethical responsibility was a concrete reality, and he immediately concluded that Romanians were entirely lacking in ethical rules. Noticing that the German "national revolution" had revived all-German qualities, he considered that, in Romania, a similar revolution would have "nothing to restore from our past," because "Our entire tradition is nothing but historical filth." The Romanians themselves were "sluggish, quiet, righteous, and wicked."
This sense of inferiority erupted rather violently in Cioran's article "Romania in the Eyes of the World," in which he listed all the German opinions of Romania he could find. These included the fact that the Germans "see us as inferior to the Bulgarians," that for them Romania was "a primitive land covered with forests, living the life of elder times; trivial and shallow in its more modern aspects; traditionally uninteresting and therefore ignored. They believe that in our country a secure life is but wishful thinking. Some people asked me how we defended ourselves against the outlaws living in the forests, or whether we had any gendarmes."
<%TOC%>Contents Foreword by Norman Manea....................vii
Excerpted from An Infamous Past by MARTA PETREU Copyright © 1999 by Marta Petreu and Biblioteca Apostrof. Excerpted by permission.
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