The New Gods: Translated from the French by Richard Howard

The New Gods: Translated from the French by Richard Howard

by E. M. Cioran

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Dubbed “Nietzsche without his hammer” by literary critic James Wood, the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran is known as much for his profound pessimism and fatalistic approach as for the lyrical, raging prose with which he communicates them. Unlike many of his other works, such as On the Heights of Despair and Tears and Saints, The New


Dubbed “Nietzsche without his hammer” by literary critic James Wood, the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran is known as much for his profound pessimism and fatalistic approach as for the lyrical, raging prose with which he communicates them. Unlike many of his other works, such as On the Heights of Despair and Tears and Saints, The New Gods eschews his usual aphoristic approach in favor of more extensive and analytic essays.
Returning to many of Cioran’s favorite themes, The New Gods explores humanity’s attachment to gods, death, fear, and infirmity, in essays that vary widely in form and approach. In “Paleontology” Cioran describes a visit to a museum, finding the relatively pedestrian destination rife with decay, death, and human weakness. In another chapter, Cioran explores suicide in shorter, impressionistic bursts, while “The Demiurge” is a shambolic exploration of man’s relationship with good, evil, and God. All the while, The New Gods reaffirms Cioran’s belief in “lucid despair,” and his own signature mixture of pessimism and skepticism in language that never fails to be a pleasure. Perhaps his prose itself is an argument against Cioran’s near-nihilism: there is beauty in his books.

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The New Gods

By E. M. Cioran, Richard Howard

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1969 Éditions Gallimard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03710-3



With the exception of some aberrant cases, man does not incline to the good: what god would impel him to do so? Man must vanquish himself, must do himself violence, in order to perform the slightest action untainted by evil. And each time he succeeds, he provokes or humiliates his Creator. If he manages to be good—no longer by effort or calculation, but by nature—he owes his achievement to an inadvertence from on high: he situates himself outside the universal order; he was foreseen by no divine plan. It is difficult to say what station the good man occupies among what we call beings, even if he is one. Perhaps he is a ghost?

The good is what was or will be—it is what never is. Parasite of memory or of anticipation, past or possible, it cannot be actual—present—nor subsist in and of itself: as such, consciousness knows it not, and apprehends it only when it disappears. Everything proves its insubstantiality; the good is a great, unreal force, a principle which has miscarried from the start: lapse, immemorial failure, its effects are accentuated with the course of history. In the beginning, in that primal promiscuity where the swerve toward life occurred, something unspeakable must have happened which continues in our discomforts, if not in our reasonings. Who could help concluding that existence has been vitiated at its source, existence and the elements themselves? The man who fails to envisage this hypothesis at least once a day has gone through life as a sleepwalker.

* * *

It is difficult, it is impossible to believe that the Good Lord—"Our Father"—had a hand in the scandal of creation. Everything suggests that He took no part in it, that it proceeds from a god without scruples, a feculent god. Goodness does not create, lacking imagination; it takes imagination to put together a world, however botched. At the very least, there must be a mixture of good and evil in order to produce an action or a work. Or a universe. Considering ours, it is altogether easier to trace matters back to a suspect god than to an honorable one.

The Good Lord was certainly not equipped for creating: He possesses everything except omnipotence. Great by His weaknesses (anemia and kindness are partners), He is the prototype of ineffectuality: He can help no one.... Moreover, we cling to Him only when we cast off our historical dimension; as soon as we resume it, He is alien to us, incomprehensible: He has nothing which fascinates us, nothing of the monster. Whereupon we turn to the creator, inferior and officious god, instigator of events. In order to understand how he could have created, we must imagine him at grips with evil, which is innovation, and with good, which is inertia. This struggle must have been fatal to evil, which was thereby obliged to endure the contamination of good—thus, the creation could not be altogether wicked.

Since evil presides over all that is corruptible, in other words over all that is alive, it is absurd to try to prove it comprises less being than good does, or even that it contains none at all. Those who identify evil with nothingness suppose they are thereby saving their poor Good Lord. We save Him only if we have the courage to sever His cause from that of the Demiurge. Having refused to do so, Christianity inveterately sought to impose the inevidence of a merciful Creator: a hopeless enterprise which has exhausted Christianity and compromised the God it sought to preserve.

We cannot help thinking that the Creation, had it remained in the rough, neither could be completed nor deserved to be; the Creation is in fact a fault, man's famous sin thereby appearing as a minor version of a much graver one. What are we guilty of, except of having followed, more or less slavishly, the Creator's example? Easy to recognize in ourselves the fatality which was His: not for nothing have we issued from the hands of a wicked and woebegone god, a god accursed.

* * *

Some doomed to believe in the supreme but impotent God, others in the Demiurge, still others in the Devil, we choose neither our venerations nor our blasphemies.

The Devil is the representative, the delegate of the Demiurge, whose affairs he manages here on earth. Despite his prestige and the terror attached to his name, he is merely an administrator, merely an angel assigned to a menial task—to history.

Quite different is the sway of the Demiurge: how, in his absence, would we face our ordeals? If we were equal to them, or even worthy of them to some degree, we could abstain from invoking him. Before our evident inadequacies, we cling to him, we even beg him to exist: if he were to turn out to be a fiction, conceive our distress, our shame! Upon whom else would we vent our failures, our miseries, ourselves? Appointed by our fiat the author of our deficiencies, he serves as our excuse for all we cannot be. When furthermore we make him assume the responsibility for this defective universe, we enjoy a certain peace: no more uncertainty about our origins or our prospects, but the utmost security in the insoluble, outside the nightmare of promises. His merit is indeed inestimable: indeed he releases us from our regrets, since he has taken upon himself even the initiative of our defeats.

It is more important to recover, in divinity, our vices than our virtues. We are resigned to our qualities, whereas our defects pursue us, torment us. What a comfort, what a reassurance to be able to project them into a god susceptible of falling to our level, a god not confined in the insipidity of commonly acknowledged attributes. The Demiurge is the most useful god who ever was. If he were not under our hand, where would our bile be poured out? Each and every form of hate tends as a last resort toward him. Since we all believe that our merits are misunderstood or flouted, how admit that so general an iniquity could be the doing of mere man? It must go back further and belong to some ancient dirty work, to the very act of the Creation. Thus we know whom to blame, whom to disparage: nothing flatters and sustains us so much as being able to put the source of our indignity as far away from us as possible.

As for God in the strict sense, the good and debilitated One, we come to terms with Him whenever there no longer remains in us the trace of a world, in those moments that postulate Him, those moments that, attached to Him from the start, provoke Him, create Him, and during which He ascends from our depths for the greatest humiliation of our gibes. God is the grief of irony. Yet let our sarcasms get a hold of themselves, let them regain the upper hand, and our relations with Him are strained and broken. Then we tire of questioning ourselves on His account, we want to dismiss Him from our preoccupations and our passions, even from our contempt. So many others before us have dealt Him telling blows that it seems futile to come now and pummel a corpse. And yet He still counts for us, if only by our regret at not having trounced Him ourselves.

* * *

In order to evade the difficulties inherent in dualism, we might postulate a single God whose history would develop in two phases: in the first, discreet, anemic, retiring, with no impulse to manifest Himself, a sleeping God exhausted by His own eternity; in the second phase, ambitious, frenzied, a God committing mistake after mistake, participating in a supremely blameworthy activity. Upon reflection, this hypothesis seems less clear-cut and less advantageous than that of the two distinct gods. But if we find that neither one accounts for what this world is worth, we shall then always have the resource of believing, with certain Gnostics, that it was drawn by lot among the angels.

(It is pitiable, it is degrading to identify the divinity with a person. Divinity will never be an idea nor an anonymous principle for the man who has frequented the Testaments. Twenty centuries of altercation are not forgotten overnight. Whether taking its inspiration from Job or from Saint Paul, our religious life is dispute, outrage, excess. Atheists, so ready with their invective, prove that they have someone in their sights. They should be less conceited; their emancipation is not so complete as they suppose: they have exactly the same notion of God as believers.)

* * *

The Creator is the absolute of external man; the inner man, in return, considers the Creation as an awkward detail, as a futile episode, even a fatal one. Every profound religious experience begins precisely where the realm of the Demiurge ends. It has only him to deal with—it denounces him, it is his negation. So much does he obsess us, he and the world, that there is no way of escaping either, in order to unite, in an outburst of annihilation, with the uncreated and to dissolve within it.

With the help of ecstasy, whose object is a god without attributes, an essence of god, we raise ourselves toward a purer form of apathy than that of the supreme God Himself, and if we plunge into the divine, we are nonetheless beyond any form of divinity for that. Here is the final stage, the goal of mysticism; the point of departure being the break with the Demiurge, the refusal to consort further with him and to applaud his works. No one kneels to him; no one venerates him. The only words we address to the Demiurge are backward supplications—sole mode of communication between an equally fallen creature and creator.

* * *

By inflicting upon the official God the functions of Father, Creator and general manager, we exposed Him to attacks to which He was to succumb. What might have been His longevity if only we had heeded Marcion, of all heresiarchs the one who most vigorously opposed evil's sleight of hand, who contributed most to the glory of the Demiurge by the hatred he felt for him! There is no example of another religion which, at the outset, has missed so many opportunities. We should assuredly be quite different if the Christian era had been inaugurated by the execration of the Creator, for the permission to abuse Him would not have failed to lighten our burden, and to render the last two millennia that much less oppressive. By refusing to incriminate Him and to adopt the doctrines which would unhesitatingly do so, the Church was to commit itself to cunning and deception. At least we have the comfort of observing that what is most alluring in its history are its most intimate enemies, all those it has opposed and rejected, those who, in order to safeguard God's honor, impugned—at the risk of martyrdom—His role as Creator. Fanatics of the divine nothingness, of that absence in which the Supreme Good delights, they knew the joy of hating this God and of loving that one without restrictions, without second thoughts. Swept on by their faith, they would have been in no position to discern the touch of imposture which enters into even the sincerest torment. The notion of pretext was not yet born, nor was that quite modern temptation of hiding our agonies behind some theological acrobatics.

Yet a certain ambiguity existed among them: what were these Gnostics and these Manicheans of every sort but perverts of purity, compulsives of horror? Evil attracted them, almost overwhelmed them: without evil, their existence would have been ... vacant. They hunted it down, unflagging. And if they argued so vehemently that evil was uncreated, it was because they secretly longed for it to subsist forever, in order that they might delight in it, might practice, through all eternity, their combative virtues. Having, for love of the Father, reflected to excess upon the Adversary, they were to end by understanding damnation better than salvation. This is why they had grasped so well the essence of the fallen world. Will the Church, after having spewed them forth, be clever enough to appropriate their theses, and charitable enough to cast the Creator in a starring role in order to excommunicate Him at the end? It will be reborn only by exhuming the heresies, by annulling its old anathemas in order to pronounce new ones.

* * *

Timid, devoid of dynamism, the good is inept at communicating itself. Evil, much more zealous, seeks to transmit itself, and succeeds because it possesses the double privilege of being fascinating and contagious. Hence we see a bad Demiurge extend himself, get outside himself more easily than a good God.

We have all inherited something of this incapacity to remain within ourselves, whereof the Creator was to make so vexing a demonstration: to engender is to continue in another fashion and on another scale the enterprise which bears his name—it is, by a deplorable mimicry, to add to His "creation." Without the encouragement He has given, the desire to extend the chain of beings would not exist, nor that necessity to subscribe to the gimmicks of the flesh. Every childbirth is suspect: the angels, luckily, are unsuited to it, the propagation of life being reserved to the fallen. The plague is impatient and greedy; it loves to spread. There is every reason to discourage generation, for the fear of seeing humanity die out has no basis: whatever happens, there will everywhere be enough fools who ask only to perpetuate themselves, and, if they themselves end by flinching from the task, there will always be found, to devote themselves to the cause, some hideous couple....

It is not so much the appetite for life that is to be opposed as the lust for lineage. Parents—genitors—are provocateurs or mad. What could be more demoralizing than the fact that the worst freak should have the faculty of giving life, of "bringing into the world?" How contemplate without dread or repulsion the wonder that makes the first man in the street a demiurge on the brink? What should be a gift as exceptional as genius has been conferred indiscriminately upon all: a liberality of base coinage which forever disqualifies nature.

The criminal injunction of Genesis—"Be fruitful and multiply ..."—could never have come out of the mouth of the Good Lord. "Be ye rare," He would have suggested, surely, if He had had any say in the matter. Nor could He ever have added the fatal words: "... and replenish the earth." They should be erased without delay, in order to cleanse the Bible of the shame of having garnered them.

The flesh spreads, further and further, like a gangrene upon the surface of the globe. It cannot impose limits upon itself, it continues to be rife despite its rebuffs, it takes its defeats for conquests, it has never learned anything. It belongs above all to the realm of the Creator, and it is indeed in the flesh that He has projected His maleficent instincts. Normally, the flesh should be less harmful to those who contemplate it than to those who extend its duration and assure its progress. Far from it, for they do not know what aberration it is that they are accomplices of. Pregnant women will some day be stoned to death, the maternal instinct proscribed, sterility acclaimed. It is with good reason that in the sects which held fecundity in suspicion—the Bogomils, for instance, and the Cathari—marriage was condemned; that abominable institution which all societies have always protected, to the despair of those who do not yield to the common delirium. To procreate is to love the scourge—to seek to maintain and to augment it. They were right, those ancient philosophers who identified fire with the principle of the universe, and with desire, for desire burns, devours, annihilates: At once agent and destroyer of beings, it is sombre, it is infernal by essence.

This world was not created in joy. Yet we procreate in pleasure. True enough—but pleasure is not joy, it is joy's simulacrum: its function consists in deceiving, in making us forget that creation bears, down to its least detail, the mark of that initial melancholy from which it issued. Necessarily illusory, it is pleasure too which permits us to carry out certain performances which in theory we repudiate. Without its cooperation, continence, gaining ground, would seduce even the rats. But it is in what we call the transports of the flesh that we understand how fraudulent pleasure is. In the flesh, pleasure reaches its peak, its maximum intensity, and it is here, at the zenith of its success, that it suddenly opens to its unreality, that it collapses in its own void. The voluptuous flesh is the disaster of pleasure.

We cannot grant that a god, or even a man, proceeds from a gymnastic climaxed by a moan. It is curious that at the end of such a long period of time, "evolution" has not managed to perfect another formula. Why should it take the trouble, moreover, when the one in force functions so well and suits everybody? Let there be no mistake: life in itself is not in question, life is as mysterious and enervating as could be wished. What is not so is the exercise in question, of an inadmissible facility, given the consequences. When we know what fate permits each man, we remain stunned by the disproportion between a moment's oblivion and the prodigious quantity of disgraces which result from it. The more one reverts to this subject, the more one finds that the only men who have understood anything about it are those who have opted for orgy or for asceticism, the debauched or the castrated.


Excerpted from The New Gods by E. M. Cioran, Richard Howard. Copyright © 1969 Éditions Gallimard. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

E. M. Cioran (1911-95) was born and educated in Romania and lived in Paris from 1937 until his death. He is the author of numerous works, including On the Heights of Despair, also available from the University of Chicago Press. Richard Howard is professor of writing at Columbia University.

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