Anathemas and Admirations
by E. M. Cioran
Arcade Publishing, Nov 2012
272 pages / $14.95 Buy from Amazon
E.M. Cioran’s work indicates the caustic philosophical consequences of sleepless rumination upon insignificance and failure. It is thick with anxiety, but retains buoyancy, the sick humour of sneering into the abyss. For a generation allied by smug cynicism and chic nihilism, to encounter a space of understanding free of the sour stench of complaint might be palliative! It could correct the posture, provide iron to the will, destroy some friendships, and it might well be a taste of joy, a flicker of warmth… at the very least, it might mortify those prone to complaint…
Cioran was a Romanian born philosopher mystic who honed his craft in French, known for sharp edged aphorisms, fragments, recalling Nietzsche’s Daybreak. His was the bleak philosophy of insomnia, horrific laboring through late hours, candid lamentations of his very birth, his eyes drooping down his skull, a cigarette sizzling against an open sore. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche states “the thought of suicide is a strong consolation; one can get through many a bad night with it.” Cioran’s entire oeuvre can be seen as exploring this sentiment.
In 2012, a number of his books were published in fine editions. Anathemas and Admirations collects two of his books, Exercise d’admiration and Aveux et anathèmes. The resulting combination allies a series of literary essays – the admirations of a wide range of writers including Borges, Beckett, Fitzgerald – alongside clusters of confessional aphorisms:
“To have nothing more in common with men than the fact of being a man!”
“One can imagine everything, predict everything, save for how long one can sink.”
Cioran’s admirations offer intimate curmudgeonly affection on other writers, and are exemplary accounts of his method and approach. For instance, in Some Meetings, Cioran offers moments of intimacy with Beckett which reveal as much about Beckett’s saintly detachment as Cioran’s brooding disgust: “he disparages no one, unaware of the hygienic function of malevolence.” For reference points on other literary admirations, Henry Miller’s love letter to himself in the guise of a study of Rimbaud and Nick Land’s deranged engagement with Bataille both come to mind in the sense that they eschew the deft theoretical engagement of masters like Blanchot for a biographical confession of obsession and ruin.
I’d like to discuss one of these admirations in depth, because it reveals much about Cioran’s work, because it is a timely reflection, because it is a great essay worth discussion. Fitzgerald: The Pascalian Experience Of An American Novelist would make a great companion piece to the recent Luhrmann production of The Great Gatsby. An indication of the decline in Fitzgerald’s interpretation and cultural value. A kind of how-to-read Fitzgerald, hardening the resolve of teens forced to endure limp scholastic interpretations. Imagine a generation of lit-thugs interpreting Gatsby through Cioran instead of Luhrmann! Cinemas ablaze, Dicaprio holed up in some secure locale offering daily apologies to the world via twitter, his fatwah anguish consoled by Rushdie. Given the resurgence in interest in Fitzgerald’s work, the publication of Anathemas and Admirations is fortuitous!
In 1955, when Cioran’s essay was written, Fitzgerald was dead 15 years. He’d drank himself to death after his wife, Zelda, was institutionalized as a schizophrenic. His degradation was preserved in intimate detail in a series of essays he wrote long before his death, between 1935-1936, collected as The Crack-Up. He was forty years old and experiencing his bout of lucidity, the consequence of a crash after seven years of alcoholic, hedonistic excess. In these essays, Fitzgerald attempts to locate his experience within the general tumult of his Lost Generation, dismissed by Cioran as a complacent gesture. Where Cioran finds value is precisely that very specific and very personal experience of ruin that Fitzgerald expresses: “they partake of an essence, of an intensity, that transcends contingencies and continents.”
Cioran’s admiration of Fitzgerald opens with a study of two experiences of lucidity: innate lucidity as graceful immanence, and lucidity developed as an affliction, experienced as a curse. Fitzgerald’s struggle with developed lucidity is established with a quote from The Crack-Up that presents failure as a response to trauma felt long after the event, a kind of corruptive cancer. Cioran expresses his regard for this Fitzgerald, and asserts that The Crack-Up is no mere curio of the degradation of a populist author, but the only piece of literature of Fitzgerald’s worth considering a success.
It is immediately clear that Cioran does not find merit in any of Fitzgerald’s highly regarded novels, including Tender Is The Night and The Great Gatsby, stating that he found it “incomprehensible” that T.S. Eliot could have read the latter three times! Cioran cites with grave distaste the private correspondence of the young, successful Fitzgerald as evidence of pandering desperation and need for approbation. The inference is that this desperation affected the quality of Fitzgerald’s novels. A tenuous inference, one entirely appropriate from Cioran, an impulsive contrarian that snubbed at constructing arguments but reveled in hurling fragments of sense into a void of nonsense. It does not weaken the essay, but establishes a kind of protective intimacy between Cioran and the suffering Fitzgerald. Those in need of a consistent line of argument would shrink at Cioran, apparently regarded in an uncredited quote on the book jacked as “the last worthy disciple of Nietzsche”…
Success achieved without toil is soporific. It smothers the instincts with validation and reward. Fitzgerald’s success reduced his existence to a waking slumber. To wake from a long sleep is to enter a state of confusion. Fitzgerald was confronted by his inability to do much more than be intoxicated, both in the sense of having his senses gratified and in the sense of being fucked up. Cioran examines Fitzgerald’s night visions and anxiety at being unable to return to the shade, living in a dream, without illusions of God to provide him comfort in his respite from respite. The fruit of Fitzgerald’s nocturnal introspection is bitter, a journal of decay. This is to Cioran’s taste, acceding to the sick their productive purpose is to be sick to the limitations of experience, to lick the ground with gratitude for being the only thing lower.
Fitzgerald mopes that insomnia robbed him of mental clarity and the capacity to reflect why he’d “become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion.” Cioran defines sickness in distinction to the compulsion of health: to be an object, to be propelled and compelled as an expression of unrestrained will. The sick see their suffering and indignity in the world around them, a solipsism that reads into all reality an expression of one’s horrors or compassions: “to be sick is to coincide totally with oneself”. The sick are incapable of being an object, and are incapable of action. To act is to partake in the unsympathetic field of objects engaged in motion. Self pity condemns action, regards the self as unclean or faulty, and glorifies capitulation, depression, death. Self pity does all this, and it does this to keep one sane, to keep one in the throes of reason. It’s the final expression of self preservation by those who have deprived life of all value and worth.
The Crack-Up, then, should be interpreted as the literary expression of self pity. It reads like a deflated Hamlet if you cut the final act and present Hamlet, his face caught in a pained grin, sharing wine with his new father and laughing over some crass sexual remark. There is no redemption, but defeat and retreat: “his crises would lead him not to mysticism or a final despair or suicide, but to disillusion.”
To disillusion, and to Hollywood.
Fitzgerald’s admirers deplored his descent into hell and subsequent reflections as having “spoiled his literary career,” to which Cioran counters that we must only deplore that he was not equal to the task of being loyal to his failure, to explore it to its nadir, to fail and to fail again. Cioran compares the suffering of Fitzgerald to the suffering of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Dos, finding Fitzgerald’s worth is only in that he was incapable of facing up to the horrific truths that he’d stumbled upon in his season in hell. The Crack Up indicates that Fitzgerald failed at being a failure, and for Cioran this is his sole literary value, concluding “it is a second-order mind that cannot choose between literature and the ‘real dark night of the soul.’”
DX writes and works in Melbourne, Australia. Publisher of Distort (“Australia’s Only Magazine”: distortcult.blogspot.com). Member of Total Control, The UV Race and Straightjacket Nation.