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Cioran on Decline

[1]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] [2] . . . (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 [3] 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] [4] 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] [5] For “lassitude ou avachissement,” which should perhaps also convey connotations of “boredom and domestication.”

[2] [6][U]ne saloperie archidécrépite”!