An Infamous Past: E. M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005
‘The Romanians, what have they ever done for us, eh?’ So might Emil Cioran, himself a Romanian, have wondered when he wrote his third book The Transfiguration of Romania, published in 1936. Bewailing Romania’s insignificant past and culture, he proposed a program that would transform the country in parallel with the contemporary national revivals in Germany and Italy then underway.
In An Infamous Past, Matra Petreu divides Cioran’s career into three chronological time periods. During his early and late periods, Cioran was an apolitical writer of philosophical essays, in Romanian and French, respectively. The middle period, the time of The Transfiguration, from roughly 1933 to 1945, marks the occasion Cioran stuck his head above the parapet of political neutrality, providing him with his titular ‘infamous past’. Petreu points out how anomalous The Transfiguration is in relation to Cioran’s other work, attributing its genesis to Cioran’s political awakening in Nazi Germany. She then outlines the doctrines of Cornelius Codreanu’s Legionary movement, a significant Romanian far-right organisation contemporary with Cioran, and contrasts the Legion’s doctrines with Cioran’s thought in The Transfiguration. Petreu examines the main philosophical influences on Cioran. She devotes a chapter to ‘foreigners’ — the the most controversial topic dealt with in Cioran’s book — and examines the details of the revolution Cioran wanted to bring to interwar Romania. Finally, she describes the public’s reaction to The Transfiguration and the aftermath for its author.
Cioran is best known for the third period of his career, from 1947 onwards, as a writer of philosophical aphorisms in French. Nevertheless, in an age when celebrities are famous for being famous, he was famous for being unknown. Apart from accepting a prize for A Short History of Decay (1949), his first work in French, he refused all literary honors and eschewed all publicity, preferring instead to live as a sort of latter-day Diogenes.
In a sense, Cioran is a very derivative writer. According to the author, his influences are mainly German. Arthur Schopenhauer is a major influence, especially his metaphysical belief that the fundamental reality is the will to live, and his conclusion that human life is some kind of mistake. Another influence is Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly his proclamation of the death of God and the cosmic insignificance this subsequently entails: the Earth is a rock, spinning and floating in the void, going nowhere, and awaiting annihilation by an asteroid strike or a solar flare. Unlike in Nietzsche, however, Cioran makes no attempt to transcend nihilism: whereas Nietzsche wrote, ‘that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’; Cioran might have written, ‘that which doesn’t kill me merely delays the inevitable.’ A third influence, particularly for The Transfiguration, is Spengler’s philosophical history, The Decline of the West. The crepuscular atmosphere of a spent civilisation, however, pervades his entire corpus.
During and after WWII Cioran lived in Paris, never returning to Romania. Despite living there in obscurity and poverty, Cioran also lived fearing that The Transfiguration and his ‘infamous past’ would not remain dead and buried. For Cioran, the insomniac philosopher, had sleepwalked into Nazi Germany, on a scholarship, and was awakened from his apolitical slumber by Adolf Hitler: “The organised megalomania”! “The cult of irrationality”! “The disconcerting monumentality”! After the precise trivializing of academic philosophy and the mediocrity of Romanian democracy, Hitler’s Germany came as a revelation to him. His reaction was unlike that of his mentor Spengler, who was not enamoured by Hitler and the Nazis. Cioran, on the other hand, was particularly impressed with the uniformed, marching Hitler Youth: he thought they could become an inspiration for Romanian youth. He admitted, however, that he could have been as impressed by Communist youth, because what mattered to Cioran was not ideology, but fanaticism and extremism. It was through such forces he envisaged the revival of a moribund Romania.
For Cioran, Romania had always been a marginal country. For centuries it was occupied by Roman border legions defending the Empire from the Goths and other Germanic tribes. Cioran described Romania as ‘daubed with Latinity’. This daubing, almost a mark of shame, implied a superficial Westernization. For despite its language, in terms of both its history — it wasn’t until the 1870s that Romania won independence from the Ottoman Empire — and its Orthodox faith, Romania faced the Orient. Amid the collapse of empires following WWI, Romania had gained the new territories of Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bukovina. These gains brought problems as Romania went from a homogeneous nation to an ethnically diverse one, which now included Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, and Bulgarians. These minorities amounted to just over five million, almost a third of the population. Diversity is, of course, a strength; what it strengthened was ethnic tension as the Romanian majority perceived the Hungarians, Germans, and Jews as economically better-off than themselves. As Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, democracy tends to generate an atomized society where people are reduced to numbers. Democracy in Romania was, unsurprisingly, unable to deal with its newly acquired minorities and its rising nationalism.
Cioran saw history and culture in Spenglerian terms. Spengler’s morphology of culture was quasi-biological: major cultures are like organisms in that they experience cycles of growth and decay. Spengler saw Europe at that moment as having entered the period of transition from culture to civilization, which marks the process of irreversible decline. Spengler compared this period in Europe to the last phases of the Roman Empire. The fate of Rome provided the key to understanding our own future. Europe was like the other civilizations that had preceded it, and like them would also suffer an inevitable denouement. Cioran, however, didn’t see the Spenglerian model applying to Romania since it was not a major culture. Romania was, rather, an ahistorical peasant culture condemned to eternal stagnation. Cioran thought Romania could never build a Gothic cathedral — the archetypal symbol of Faustian culture — because Romanian culture was too much ‘of the moment,’ lacking both a viable heritage and destiny. To escape this cultural nothingness, to enter the ontological space of history, Cioran proposed a leap — inspired by the ideas of Nae Ionescu, his professor of philosophy — which would synchronise Romania with the rest of Europe through a seven-year plan of rapid urbanization and industrialization. Only a dictatorship could unleash the forces necessary for such a transformation. Cioran thought democracy unable to revolutionize the country because the individualism it engenders resists any organizational principle. Having failed to pass through the organic stages of cultural birth, growth and maturity, Romania needed to follow the path of Eugen Lovinescu’s ‘imitative revolution,’ inspired by the models of Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia, and thus by ‘cutting corners’ could join ‘the sinking of the lands of evening’. (Lovinescu being another major influence on Cioran.) Cioran believed Europe even in dissolution was preferable to Romania in paralysis. Decline, in any case, was inevitable; there was little the individual could do to alter destiny. To imagine an alternative outcome is, for both Spengler and Cioran, optimism; optimism for both is a form of cowardice.
Certainly no one could accuse Cioran of optimism, except perhaps during the time period of The Transfiguration, when he uncharacteristically placed faith in reason and politics to deliver some future fulfilment for Romania. The author contrasts the radicalism of Cioran with the reactionary Codreanu: both radical and reactionary (or conservative) thought arise from modernity’s loss of roots, but whereas radicalism sees this loss as inevitable, reactionism and conservatism sees it as tragic. Although Cioran was atheist, there is a marked religious dimension in his thought; explicable, perhaps, given that his father was a Greek Orthodox priest. The very title of his work speaks of an almost religious transformation, or transfiguration, of Romania. The messianism of The Transfiguration, although limited to secular salvation, can be traced to religious roots. Similarly, his sense of the material realm being a transient illusion and his preoccupation with eschatology are both characteristic themes of Orthodox Christianity. Influenced by both Nietzsche and Spengler, however, Cioran saw religious belief as no longer authentically possible, but rather as lying in a culture’s past. This contrasts with the Legion, who venerated tradition, particularly Orthodox Christianity. The Legionaires considered the people — which included the living, the dead and the unborn — and the nation as one. They believed Orthodox Christianity could produce the ‘new man,’ namely, the perfect Christian. Cioran was sceptical about ‘the new man’; he doubted that Orthodox Christianity would be able to energise Romania because it was itself too passive and contemplative. Despite being obsessed with death and proclaiming himself ‘an expert in the matter of death,’ Cioran had no sympathy with the idea of ‘the Legionaire’s death,’ i.e., martyrdom for the cause of Romania. Although Cioran doesn’t mention Codreanu or the Legion in The Transfiguration, and despite their significant differences, he nevertheless believed that the Legion’s fanaticism could foist dictatorship on the country.
Apart from his admiration of the Führer, it was Cioran’s writings on the Jews, and to a lesser extent the Hungarians, which constitutes his ‘infamous past’. When The Transfiguration came to be republished in 1990, Cioran deleted the chapter dealing with the Jewish question. Originally, Cioran was much more ambivalent than the overtly anti-Semitic Legion on the issue of the Jews. Cioran thought the Legion was excessively dominated by xenophobia. Unlike the Legion, he believed it was the Romanians themselves and not the Jews who were responsible for the country’s plight. Although he allowed that the Jews were defined by ‘vampirism’ — not the Count Dracula (another Romanian!) variety, but rather exploitation of the peoples they managed to infiltrate — he nonetheless believed they were only a peripheral problem. He doesn’t seem to have made the link between the Jews and Communism and didn’t hold them responsible for the Bolshevik revolution. Paradoxically, he sees the Jewish problem as ‘the curse of history,’ impossible to solve. For Cioran, however, opposition to the Jews was a mark of the health of the nation: they were enemies to nationalism other than their own and Romanian democracy was in the service of the Jews. Like the Legionaires, he believed that Romania had far too many Jews. For him a small number would have been acceptable as they tended to quicken the pace of historical development; too many, however, and the fabric of the nation becomes threatened. If what constituted the correct quantity remained vague so did his solution to the problem: the ‘isolation of foreigners’. On this point, the Legionaires were unequivocal: the expulsion of the Jews.
WWI was one of the greatest catastrophes in European history. The war undermined the belief in progress and the faith in human reason which had gained prominence over the course of the 19th century. The dominant characteristic of WWI was that it seemed to lack purpose or meaning. The war itself, however, was seen as the symptom of a much deeper crisis for which intellectuals of the generation between the wars sought solutions in political extremes. Cioran, as part of this generation, wasn’t immune from this extremism, but he sought solutions in the extremes of both the right and the left rather than one or the other. (Perhaps, for Cioran, at the extremities these ideologies merge.) Certainly, aspects of Marxism influenced Cioran: he saw capitalism and the bourgeois world as doomed; he also saw that the purpose of philosophy — during his political phase — is to change the world, rather than merely to understand it. The reason Cioran’s radicalism should be considered right-wing, however, is its emphasis on the collective entity of the Romanian nation; left-wing radicalism is typically internationalistic.
The Transformation is a work of metapolitics, and therefore does not deal much with how to attain political power. Codreanu’s Legionaires on the other hand, apart from having worked out a program for the acquisition of power, were explicitly Christian. Given their fundamental differences, it is unsurprising that Codreanu should write Cioran a polite but dismissive letter following publication of The Transfiguration. Like many other such works, The Transfiguration fell stillborn from the press. With the failure of his political ambition, Cioran moved to Paris — ostensibly on another scholarship — where gradually his interest in Romania and politics declined. He abandoned all hope in political solutions and came to see the need for solutions as the problem. In Paris he lived a parasitical existence, refusing to work, and resumed acquaintance with whores, winos, and derelicts, feeling he would learn more about life from them than from professors of philosophy.
The idea of some crime or mistake in the past coming to haunt the present is at least as old as Oedipus Rex. As Petreu suggests in An Infamous Past, Cioran was plagued by the guilt that he had committed such a mistake: the primordial mistake of writing less-than-complimentary things about the Jews. But even if, as judged by the most feverish snowflake, Cioran’s writings constitute a crime; surely, in a Godless universe there is no necessary connection between crime and punishment. It is also difficult to see what could constitute a mistake in terms of Cioran’s philosophy, where truth and falsehood are conflated with one another. (Perhaps the feeling of being a charlatan is inescapable for the philosopher, as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski said.) Although he subsequently revised his opinion of Hitler and the Jews, Cioran regretted he had ever entered the treacherous shallows of political commitment.
It may have been his association with the likes of Samuel Beckett which exacerbated his sense of guilt. Beckett, a writer who dwelt on similar themes of angst, despair and exhaustion, chose to fight the Nazis by joining the French Resistance, although there is nothing in his (Beckett’s) writing to suggest his motivation for doing so. Like Josef K in The Trial, Cioran felt that punishment is drawn remorselessly towards guilt, but unlike Josef K, Cioran seems to have suffered no actual punishment. The only evidence the author cites of such is the Romanian playwright Eugen Ionesco, who said he could never forgive Cioran for his fascist past, and the Legionaires, who denounced him as a traitor and a philo-Semite.
Indeed there is evidence that his ‘infamous past’ was exonerated, which the author fails to mention. No less an éminence grise than Susan Sontag (of the infamous quote, ‘the White race is the cancer of human history,’ who herself ironically enough was to die of cancer) granted Cioran an imprimatur, writing the introduction to the English translation of his collection The Temptation to Exist (1956); she only awarded a B-, however, for ‘A Solitary People,’ his revised essay on the Jews. Perhaps the thought that he could have done better prompted the remark Cioran made on his deathbed, “I…am…not…an…anti-…Semite.” A comparison with Nietzsche again seems appropriate: Nietzsche stared into the abyss, saw there is no God and went mad; Cioran stared into the abyss, saw there is no God and worried that people might think him anti-Semitic. After all, as Revilo P. Oliver put it: God is the Big Jew of the Old Testament.