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Cioran on Decline

873 words

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note: The following are some rare more-or-less political comments from the post-war Emil Cioran, more in keeping with his pessimistic outlook. These are translated from Emil Cioran, De l’inconvénient d’être né (Paris: Gallimard, 1973). The title is editorial.

To revolt against heredity is to revolt against billions of years, against the first cell. (11)

In allowing man to exist, nature has done something much worse than a miscalculation: an attack against itself. (94)

Any nation, at a certain point in its career, believes itself to be chosen. That is when they bring out the best and the worst in themselves. (147)

If the nations were to become apathetic all at the same time, there would be no more conflicts, no more wars, no more empires. But misfortune commands that there be young peoples, and young people period – a major obstacle to the philanthropists’ dreams: ensuring that all men reach the same degree of weariness or sloth[1] . . . (149)

Only false values have currency, because everyone can adopt them, counterfeit them (second-degree falsehood). A successful idea is necessarily a pseudo-idea. (149)

Revolutions are the sublime form of bad literature. (149)

The decadent Romans only appreciated Greek leisure (otium greacum), that which they had most despised when they had been vigorous. The analogy with the civilized nations of today is so flagrant that it would be indecent to belabor the point. (151)

The West: sweet-smelling rot, a perfumed corpse. (152)

All these peoples were great because they had great prejudices. They no longer have any. Are they still nations? At most, disaggregated crowds. (152)

The whites more and more deserve the name of palefaces given to them by the Indians of America. (152)

So long as a nation retains consciousness of its superiority, it is ferocious, and respected. As soon as it loses it, it becomes humanized and no longer counts for much. (153)

Morally, Carneades and his companions were as deadly [to the Romans] as the Carthaginians had been militarily. Rising nations fear above all the absence of prejudices and taboos, intellectual indecency, which make for the attractiveness of dying civilizations. (155)

For having been too successful in all his endeavors, Heracles was punished. Similarly, too happy, Troy had to die. Considering this common vision of tragedies, one is despite oneself brought to think that the so-called free world, blessed with all good fortunes, will inevitably know the fate of Ilium, because the gods’ jealousy survives their disappearance. (155)

A society is doomed when it no longer has the strength to be narrow-minded. With an open, too open mind, how could it protect itself from the excesses, the mortal threats of liberty? (156)

A people which has exhausted its mission is like an author who repeats himself. Scratch that, like an author who has nothing more to say. Because to repeat oneself is to prove that one still believes in oneself and what one has stood for. But a finished nation does not even have the strength to harp on about its old slogans, which had ensured its preeminence and its brilliance. (156)

This head of state’s strength is in being chimerical and cynical. An unscrupulous dreamer. (159)

History, strictly speaking, does not repeat itself. But as the delusions of which man is capable are limited in number, they always come back under another disguise, giving some tired old crap[2] an air of novelty and a tragic veneer.

Montaigne, a sage, had no posterity; Rousseau, a hysteric, is still stirring the nations. I only like thinkers who have inspired no orators. (165)

In 1441, at the Council of Florence, it was decreed that pagans, Jews, heretics, and schismatics would have no share of “eternal life” and that all, unless turned before death to the true religion, would go straight to Hell. It was in the days when the Church professed such outrageous absurdities that it really was still the Church. An institution is only alive and strong if it rejects all that isn’t itself. Unfortunately, the same is true for a nation or a regime. (165)

The Aztecs were right to think that we had to appease the gods, to offer them human blood every day to prevent the universe from collapsing and falling back again into chaos. We have long ceased believing in the gods for a long time and we no longer offer them sacrifices. The world is still here, however. No doubt. Only we no longer have the good fortune of knowing why it doesn’t collapse immediately. (167)

Trees massacred. Houses rise. Gobs, gobs everywhere. Man spreads. Man is the cancer of the Earth. (199)

A nation achieves preeminence and conserves it only so long as it accepts necessarily inept conventions and that it is subservient to its prejudices, without understanding them to be so. As soon as she calls them by their name, all is unmasked, all is compromised. The will to dominate, to play a role, to lay down the law, cannot exist without a strong dose of stupidity: history, in its essence, is stupid . . . It continues, it advances, because the nations liquidate their prejudices one after the other. If they were to get rid of them all at the same time, there would no more than a blissful universal disintegration. (222-23)


[1] For “lassitude ou avachissement,” which should perhaps also convey connotations of “boredom and domestication.”

[2][U]ne saloperie archidécrépite”!

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  1. BroncoColorado
    Posted January 9, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Slow down the negativity express!
    Cioran definitely goes several steps beyond Spengler’s detached analytical approach. Why does he, Cioran, take a perverse pleasure in observing the decadence and decay of his own culture? That in itself is an indictment of his own apathy and moral paralysis. How can a man immersed in negativity ever hope to raise his compatriots out of their slumber! At least the prophetic figures of the Old Testament were sufficiently energized in indignation to rail against the moral laxity of their peers.
    It is significant that China, a millennial old culture, does not appear to have succumbed to the weariness of relativism. Through all its vicissitudes China is still confident of its superiority and mission as the “Middle Kingdom”. What poison was injected into the still youthful veins of the West?

    • mudfish
      Posted January 9, 2019 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Nice comment bronco , on spot !

    • Paul
      Posted January 9, 2019 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      Harnack, a student of Heidegger’s and a disciple of Spengler, identified the rise of this sort of world hating gnosticism as a recurring symptom of civilization’s terminal illness. I see it almost as a part of natural mechanism that speeds up the process.

    • alexei
      Posted January 10, 2019 at 4:33 am | Permalink

      Erich Neumann actually identified pessimism with self-emasculation, a surrender to the feminine principle. He writes that “all such pessimistic systems are thinly veiled expositions of the Great Mother’s ascendancy over the ego and consciousness.”

    • Guillaume Durocher
      Posted January 10, 2019 at 4:59 am | Permalink

      I am half-tempted to translate Alain Soral’s indecorous thoughts on Cioran.

      I suspect Cioran would have agreed that he was fundamentally a décadent.

  2. Ovidiu
    Posted January 9, 2019 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Cioran, by the time he wrote these things, was living in France and he had lost all his own prejudices. He had become open minded and, consequently, he had become a disaggregated and apathetic personality. However he could still look back at the inter-war period when he was a young man living in Romania and he was fascinated by the Iron Guard leader C.Z.Codreanu, a typical narrow-minded fanatic.

    For Cioran, the traumatic experience of WW2 led to disillusionment and to the rejection of all fanaticism and narrow-mindedness. Cioran disidentified and detached himself from any particular (narrow) viewpoint. He rejected all of them as ‘false’, as leading eventually to murder and catastrophe, and became a sort of post-modern avant la lettre. Somebody for whom seriousness and faith has become impossible.

    He could not live. It is hard to live when you reject all ‘what for’ so to avoid becoming a fanatic and eventually a criminal, and once you have lost your illusions you can not deceive yourself back into believing merely because you want to be a happy ‘true-believer’ again.
    He could not die either, since to commit suicide requires first that you genuinely value something, requires that you have a value system in which you honestly believe, otherwise (without a value system) the factual difference between life and death can not make a difference in value.

    He expressed that state (in which is lived after 1945 until his death) in many ways :
    “Only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists. The others, having no reason to live, why would they have any to die ?” or “The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live-moreover, the only one”.

    • Guillaume Durocher
      Posted January 10, 2019 at 4:58 am | Permalink

      Very interesting information. Thank you for the comment!

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