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The Greatness & Decay of France


The French signing the armistice with the Germans at Compiègne on June 22, 1940.

3,210 words

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note: The following extracts are drawn from Emil Cioran, De la France [2] (Paris: L’Herne, 2015). The original was written in Romanian in 1941. The title is editorial.

I do not think that the French would be so dear to me if they hadn’t been so bored throughout their history. But their ennui is deprived of the infinite. It is the ennui of clarity. It is the weariness of things understood.

Whereas for the Germans banalities are considered the honorable substance of conversation, the French prefer a well told lie to a poorly expressed truth.

An entire people suffering from the cafard.[1] [3] Here is the most frequently used word, as much by high society as by the lower classes. Cafard is visceral or psychological depression; it is the moment invaded by a sudden emptiness, without reason – whereas ennui is the prolongation in the spiritual of an immanent emptiness of being. By comparison, Langeweile is merely the lack of things to do.

The most French century is the eighteenth. It is the salon become the universe, it is the century of intelligence in lace, of pure finesse, of pleasant and beautiful artifice. It is also the century which was the most bored, which had too much time, which worked merely to pass the time. (11-12)

* * *

What did she love, France? Styles, the pleasures of intelligence, the salons, reason, the little perfections. Expression precedes Nature. It is a culture in which form covers the elemental forces and, over all passionate resurgences, spreads the thoughtful varnish of refinement.

Life – when it is not suffering – is a game.

We must be grateful to France for having cultivated it with mastery and inspiration. It is from her that I have learned to take things seriously in private only and, in public, to make light of everything. . . . Her great art is in the distinction and grace of superficiality. To put one’s talent in insignificant things – that is to say existence and the teachings of the world – is an initiation to French doubt.

The conclusion of the eighteenth century, not yet polluted by the idea of progress: the world is a joke of the mind. (13-14)

* * *

France’s divinity: taste. Good taste.

According to which the world – to exist – must be pleasing; be well-made; consolidate itself aesthetically; have limits; be a graspable enchantment; a sweet flowering of finitude. (14-15)

* * *

The sin and the merit of France are in her sociability. The people seem made for getting together and chatting. (16)

* * *

France? The refusal of Mystery.

If we still read the Romans of the era of decline, it’s because they deepened the idea of destiny and compared it with man’s wanderings through nature. Among the French moralists – and among all the French – we do not find this. They have not created a tragic culture. Reason – and more the cult of reason than reason itself – calmed the stormy agitation of our inner life . . . France is lacking on the irrational side, that of fatal possibility. She has not been an unhappy country. Greece – whose harmony and serenity we admire – suffered the torment of the unknown. The French language cannot bear Aeschylus. He is too powerful. As for Shakespeare, he rings sweet and gentle [in French] . . . The infinite does not have a place in the French landscape. Maxims, paradoxes, notes, and attempts, yes. Greece was more complex.

It is an acosmic culture, not without land but above it. . . .

She rather resembles ancient Greece. But whereas the Greeks combined mental gymnastics with the breath of metaphysics, the French did not go so far. They were not capable – they who love paradox in conversation – to live paradox as a situation.

Two peoples: the most intelligent under the Sun. (18-19)

* * *

[Paul] Valéry’s claim that man is an animal born for conversation is obvious in France and incomprehensible elsewhere. Definitions have geographical limits stricter than those of customs. (19)

* * *

. . . France has been contented with herself. Neither foreign languages, nor cultural imports, nor any curiosity towards the outside world. Such is the glorious flaw of a perfect culture – which finds, in her own law, her only way of life. (21)

* * *

In the eighteenth century, France used to lay down the law in Europe. Since then, she has only exercised her influence. (23)

* * *

A happy civilization. How could it be otherwise, when she had never known the temptation of emigration? Only Napoleon could lead the French throughout the world, they lived in the ideal province of Europe. He had to arrive from his island to shake them up a bit. He was able to give an imperialist content to their vanity, also called glory. This is perhaps why all these expeditions are inseparable from literature. They fought to have a tale worth telling. There was no need in this great adventure, they merely sought to be great in the eyes of Paris. They do not long for travel, but rather for the home, the salon, and for property. Especially the latter. (23)

* * *

One of France’s vices has been the sterility of perfection – which is never so clearly manifest as in writing. (24)

* * *

The French, since their birth, have stayed in their own country. They have a physical and intimate fatherland which they loved unconditionally and they have not been humiliated by comparisons; they have not been uprooted in their own country, they have not known the disquiet of an insatiable nostalgia. It is perhaps the only people in Europe who does not experience nostalgia – that kind of infinite sentimental incompleteness. Without folk music either, which we find in the south (Basque Country, Provence, under Spanish and Italian influence), they are not tormented by the inability to establish themselves which troubles the Slavs, the Germanics, and the Balkan peoples, and which expresses itself in various kinds of Sehnsucht.[2] [4]

A people devastated by good fortune, gifted with clarity, capable of ennui but not of sadness, loving in its beliefs, imprecision, and – above all – having a normal history, without empty periods, without failures or absences – it has developed itself century after century, it has promoted what it believed in, it spread its ideals, and has been present in the modern era like no other. It pays for this presence with decadence; it expiates a significant lived experience, the shining achievement, the world of values it created. If it had remained inactive, its vitality would not have been compromised. For great nations, their twilight is a noble punishment. (27-28)

* * *

France does not offer you grand prospects; she teaches you form, she gives you the phrase, but not the vigor. (31)

* * *

There is nothing less German than the French eighteenth century – and nothing more French than this century. Everything in it is decorative, from the external attire to the mental trinkets. Intelligence becomes man’s exclusive ornament. Its elegant laziness and subtle chatter define its noble superficiality. It has forgotten the idea of sin: it is the century’s great excuse. Hence, its libertinism was not condemned . . . (34)

* * *

For centuries, France only believed and, when she doubted, she doubted within her beliefs. She believed, one after the other, in Classicism, in the Enlightenment, in the Revolution, in the Empire, in the Republic. She has had the ideals of the aristocracy, of the Church, of the bourgeoisie, of the proletariat; and she has suffered for each of them. These efforts, turned into phrases, she proposed to Europe and the world, who imitated, perfected, and compromised them. But France was the one who experienced their growth and their disintegration in the first instance, and with the greatest intensity. She created ideals, used them up, and practiced them to the end, to the point of disgust. However, a nation cannot perpetually generate faith, ideologies, state forms, and inner ways of life. She trips up sooner or later. The spiritual fountains dry up and she awakens before her wasteland, sitting idly, fearful for the future. (36)

* * *

If I put myself in the shoes of a Frenchman of the past decades, to what could I adhere?

To democracy? But, after a century of abusing the word peuple, after the mystique of liberty and its exhaustion, after verifying the usefulness or uselessness of the Revolution’s principles, what new content could I attribute to it? A people may have accomplished a great Revolution, imitated everywhere; the day its ideas are compromised, it loses its ideological primacy. A century dedicated to preparing the Revolution and another one to spreading it have made France unavoidable in terms of doctrine and politics. But the ideals of 1789 have changed; there remains of their prestige only an outdated grandiloquence. The greatest modern revolution ends as spiritual old tat. What was it? A combination of rationalism and myths: a rationalist mythology. To be more precise: the meeting of Descartes and the man in the street.

Democracy does not inspire any excitement anymore and, as an aspiration, it is insipid and anachronistic.

And the fatherland? But what could it still be good for? France was a fatherland already in the Middle Ages, when the other nations had not yet even become conscious of themselves. She was admired, glorified. She promoted all the ideals that she could. At no moment in her history did she inspire regret. Every period witnessed the realization of the maximum of possibilities; not one empty breath, no serious absence. Everywhere, the men had the required level. In the name of what could she still touch men? What can she propose to humanity and to herself?

The French can no longer die for anything. Cerebral skepticism has become organic. The absence of a future is the substance of the present. The hero is no longer conceivable – because no one is either unconscious or deep anymore.

A nation is creative so long as life is not its sole value, so long as its values are its standard. To believe in the fiction of freedom and to die for it; to participation in an expedition for glory; to consider the prestige of one’s country to be necessary for humanity; to replace the latter with what one believes in – here are values.

To be more attached to one’s skin than to an idea; to think with one’s stomach; to hesitate between honor and pleasure; to believe that to live is more important than anything, here is life. . . . And Decadence is no more than the exclusive worship of life. (37-39)

* * *

Decadence equals collective lucidity: expiration of the soul. To no longer have a soul. This is France’s case. How did she lose it? (40)

* * *

Their emotional anemia is not of a temporary nature, it is not a crisis of growth or a historical accident, but the conclusion of a centuries-long process, the final crowning of a destiny. Not only do they not have feelings anymore, but what’s more, they are ashamed of this. Nothing upsets a Frenchman more than the soul. A people which is mummifying itself in doubt. An Alexandrianism, without the Greco-Roman scale. An obvious end, without clamor or drama. Because this tragedy is greater for the seeker, for whom France can only be a field to verify a few philosophical and cultural themes. (41)

* * *

Whatever you would do in France, whatever measure you would take, no one will be able to convince the French to have children. When a people loves life, it implicitly renounces its continuation. Between pleasure and the family, the abyss is total. Sexual refinement is the death of the nation. . . . . The biological counterpart to lucidity, to the will to no longer be dupe,[3] [5] has catastrophic consequences. . . .

A people without myths is on the path to depopulation. The emptiness of the French countryside is the devastating sign of the lack of a day-to-day mythology. A nation cannot live without idols, and the individual is incapable of acting without the obsession of fetishes.

As long as France could transform concepts into myths, her vital substance was not compromised. The strength to give an emotional content to ideas, to pour one’s vital substance into fictions – that is the meaning of this transformation, as well as the secret of a flourishing culture. To engender myths and to adhere to them, to fight, suffer, and die for them, that is what reveals the fecundity of a people. The “ideas” of France were vital ideas, for the validity of which they fought body and soul. If she retains a decisive role in Europe’s spiritual history, it is because she has animated ideas which she drew from the abstract nothingness of pure neutrality. To believe means to animate.

But the French can no longer either believe or animate. And they do not want to believe, for fear of being ridiculous. Decadence is the opposite of the age of greatness: the retransformation of myths into concepts. . . . .

She still has intelligence, but unattached to the heart. Therefore sterile. (42-44)

* * *

“Eternal” France, before losing herself, will become a country like the others. (45)

* * *

How great she was, France!

The Revolution of 1789 has had its day, and the bourgeoisie with it. We all may believe that at its beginning it was generous, prodigal, welcoming. But whoever has known her in her period of decay, with her miserly, quarrelsome, and petty spirit, will have understand that such a social foundation could only quickly lead to ruin. It has concentrated all the vices of the French people. Of the individualism and the cult of liberty for which, in the past, she spilled her blood, she has only retained, in her crepuscular form, money and pleasure. Her end marks the most mediocre period in the history of France. (46)

* * *

France’s deficiencies will embellish the energies of fresher nations, and will also encourage their process of disintegration. France will also serve as a model to great modern nations; she will show them where they are going and where they will finish, she will temper their enthusiasm. Because France prefigures the destiny of other countries. (49)

* * *

From the Frenchmen of the Crusades they have become the Frenchmen of the kitchen and of the bistro, bien-être and boredom.

Nothing is more awkward than to see a nation which abused – rightly – the attribute of “greatness” – grande nation, grande armée, la grandeur de la France – debase itself into a human herd panting after happiness. . . . “Le Français moyen,” le petit-bourgeois”: widespread shameful categories, which have flourished on the ruins of past exploits. (53-54)

* * *

France is the least primitive thing in the world, that is to say, the least fresh, direct, and absolute. (55)

* * *

The contamination of instinct is a catastrophic victory of the mind and culture; in its totality, it only questions biology. These questions increase proportionally with the level of spiritual refinement. The history of civilizations coincides with biological crises, which honor “life” by diminishing it.

The French are used up by the excess of being. They do not love themselves anymore, because they so greatly feel what they had once been. Patriotism emanates from an excess of vital reflexes; love of country is the least spiritual thing of all, a sentimental expression of animalistic solidarity. Nothing offends intelligence as much as patriotism. The mind, in refining itself, suffocates the ancestors in blood and erases the memory of the call of that strip of land called, in a fanatical illusion, the fatherland.

How could reason, returned to its essential vocation – the universal and the void – again push the individual, disgusted with being a citizen, towards the City’s mind-numbing palavers? The loss of her instincts has sealed France’s fate . . . (56-57)

* * *

When Europe will be draped in shadow, France will remain her liveliest tomb. (60)

* * *

When one believes in nothing, the senses become a religion. And the stomach an end in itself. The phenomenon of decadence is inseparable from that of gastronomy. (60-61)

* * *

Her decline, obvious for almost a century, has not been opposed by any of her sons with a desperate protest. (63)

* * *

If the French weren’t disgusted with themselves, they would deserve contempt. It is the first time in their history that they are experiencing this feeling. We others, chained to our approximate destinies, we feel it from our first thought, we are born with it and develop it growing up, experiencing alienation – like poor Jews spared from messianic temptations. All failed nations share in the ambiguity of the Judaic destiny: they are devoured by the obsession of implacable incompletion. As though we were not born in our element, the “fatherland” is a symbol of unending doubts, a question mark which finds no answer – neither ethnic, nor sentimental, nor even geographical.

France has existed here; she has found her place in the world at all levels. She has only lost the future. How could she avoid her own old age? . . . A decline which is not understood loses its poetry and becomes ridiculous. (64)

* * *

An advanced country does not suffer any complicity with some ideal. It concentrates in itself all that can negate the Gothic, that is to say vitality, transcendence, elevation. Its energy does not tend upwards; it hangs. France is the Notre-Dame Cathedral reflected in the Seine – a cathedral which spurns the sky. . . .

An entire country which no longer believes in anything, what an exalting and degrading spectacle! To hear them, from the lowest of citizens to the most lucid, say the obvious with detachment: “La France n’existe plus,” “Nous sommes finis,” “Nous n’avons plus d’avenir,” “Nous sommes un pays en décadence,” what a reinvigorating lesson, when you are no longer a devotee of delusions! (68-69)[4] [6]

* * *

France’s revolutionary career is almost over. She can only fight for her stomach. Heroism, which presupposes a strange mix of blood and uselessness, can no longer be her oxygen. (73)

* * *

I cannot think of a country more lacking in marrow than France. Not a single holy illusion – and all illusions are holy – still sleeps in her bones. (88)

* * *

The nation which most promoted the idea of progress is reduced to excluding herself from it. Is this not a fine atonement and a punishment full of meaning? The concept of progress – at the historical level, a rejection of death – which grew from the most dynamic and superficial optimism, sins by a lack of a metaphysical basis. . . .

France is ironically punished not only for her superstitious belief in progress, but also for the grand and noble phrases under which she hid her temporality. “La civilisation française,” “la France dans le monde” – have these not expressed under their concise and grandiloquent appearances the idea that the French form of civilization is unique? Does adding the adjective “national” to all her values not have no other meaning than that of individualizing a form of culture considered to be a universal symbol? But, above all, has not “la France éternelle” fixed in two words her deceptive attempt to flee the ultimate solution, that of time? . . . That no Frenchman foresaw “la France mortelle” is, of course, an omission of the truth due to fear. But the contemporary foreigner cannot allow himself such a fallacious hope when, for him, the awareness of history’s irrevocability is a glory which negatively decorates the soul. (90-92)


[1] [7] Italicized French words were in French in the original Romanian text. Cafard means depression or doldrums.

[2] [8] German: longing.

[3] [9] “To be dupe” means “to be taken for a fool.”

[4] [10] This recalls Sartre’s later claim (in the 1961 preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth) that every day since the 1930s in France, at least one Frenchman has told another, “Nous sommes foutus!” [We are messed up!]