Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Some Aphorisms of E. M. Cioran with Comments

How to disentangle profundity from puffery in any obscure formulation? Clear thought stops short, a victim of its own probity; the other kind, vague and indecisive, extends into the distance and escapes by its suspect but unassailable mystery. (131)

Excellent except for ‘victim,’ which betrays Cioran’s mannered negativism. Substitute ‘beneficiary’ and the thought’s expression approaches perfection.

Indolence saves us from prolixity and thereby from the shamelessness inherent in production. (133)

An exaggeration, but something for bloggers to consider.

To be is to be cornered. (93)

Striking, and certainly no worse than W. V. Quine’s “To be is to be the value of a variable.”

Nothing makes us modest, not even the sight of a corpse. (87)

Cioran hits the mark here: the plain truth is set before us without exaggeration in a concise and striking manner.

Conversation is fruitful only between minds given to consolidating their perplexities. (163)

Brilliant. Philosophy, as Plato remarks (Theaetetus St. 155) and Aristotle repeats (Metaphysics 982b10), is about wonder, perplexity, thaumaxein. Fruitful philosophical conversation, rare as it is and must be given the woeful state of humanity, is therefore a consolidation and appreciation of problems and aporiai, much more than an attempt to convince one’s interlocutor of something. Herein lies a key difference between philosophy and ideology.

Time, accomplice of exterminators, disposes of morality. Who, today, bears a grudge against Nebuchadnezzar? (178)

This is quite bad, and not become of its literary form, but because the thought is false. If enough time passes, people forget about past injustices. True. But how does it follow that morality is abrogated? Cioran is confusing two distinct propositions. One is that the passage of time disposes of moral memories, memories of acts just and unjust. The other is that the passage of
time disposes of morality itself, rightness and wrongness themselves, so that unjust acts eventually become neither just not unjust. The fact that Cioran’s aphorism conflates these two propositions is enough to condemn it, quite apart from the fact that the second proposition is arguably false. A good aphorism cannot merely be clever; it must also express an insight. An insight, of course, is an insight only if it is true. Nor is an aphorism good if it merely betrays a mental quirk of its author. For then it would be of merely psychological or biographical interest.

There is no other world. Nor even this one. What, then, is there? The inner smile provoked in us by the patent nonexistence of both. (134)

A statement of Cioran’s nihilism. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, it is self-contradictory. It cannot be true both that nothing exists and that an inner smile, a bemused realization that nothing exists, exists. So what is he trying to tell us? If you say that he is not trying to tell us anything, then what is he doing? If you say that he is merely playing at being
clever, then I say to hell with him: he stands condemned by the very probity that he himself invokes in the first aphorism quoted supra.

Everything is nothing, including the consciousness of nothing. (144)

An even more pithy statement of Cioran’s nihilism. But if the consciousness of nothing is nothing, then there is no consciousness of nothing, which implies that the nihilist of Cioran’s type cannot be aware of himself as a nihilist. Thus Cioran’s thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can’t be good.

Will you accuse me of applying logic to Cioran’s aphorism? But what exempts nihilists from logic? Note that his language is not imperative, interrogative, or optative, but declarative. He is purporting to state a fact, in a broad sense of ‘fact.’ He is saying: this is the way it is. But if there is a way things are, then it cannot be true that everything is nothing. The way things are is not

“It is of no importance to know who I am since some day I shall no longer be” – that is what each of us should answer those who bother about our identity and desire at any price to coop us up in a category or a definition. (144)

This presupposes that only the absolutely permanent is real and important. It is this (Platonic) assumption that drives Cioran’s nihilism: this world is nothing since it fails to satisfy the Platonic criterion of reality and importance. Now if Cioran were consistently sceptical, he would call this criterion into question, and with it, his nihilism. He would learn to embrace the finite as finite
and cheerfully abandon his mannered negativism. If, on the other hand, he really believes in the Platonic criterion – as he must if he is to use it to affirm, by contrast, the nullity of the experienced world – then he ought to ask whence derives its validity. This might lead him away from nihilism to an affirmation of the ens realissimum.

X, who instead of looking at things directly has spent his life juggling with concepts and abusing abstract terms, now that he must envisage his own death, is in desperate straits. Fortunately for him, he flings himself, as is his custom, into abstractions, into commonplaces illustrated by jargon. A glamorous hocus-pocus, such is philosophy. But ultimately, everything is hocus-pocus, except for this very assertion that participates in an order of propositions one dares not question because they emanate from an unverifiable certitude, one somehow anterior to the brain’s career. (153)

A statement of Cioran’s scepticism. But his scepticism is half-hearted since he insulates his central claim from sceptical corrosion. To asseverate that his central claim issues from “an unverifiable certitude” is sheer dogmatism since there is no way that this certitude can become a self-certitude luminous to itself. Compare the Cartesian cogito. In the cogito situation, a self’s
indubitability is revealed to itself, and thus grounds itself. But Cioran invokes something anterior to the mind, something which, precisely because of it anteriority, cannot be known by any mind. Why then should we not consider his central claim – according to which everything is a vain and empty posturing – to be itself a vain and empty posturing?

Indeed, is this not the way we must interpret it given Cioran’s two statements of nihilism cited above? If everything is nothing, then surely there cannot be “an unverifiable certitude” anterior to the mind that is impervious to sceptical assault.

Again, one may protest that I am applying logic in that I am comparing different aphorisms with an eye towards evaluating their mutual consistency. It might be suggested that our man is imply not trying to be consistent. But then I say that he is an unserious literary scribbler with no claim on our attention. But the truth of the matter lies a bit deeper: he is trying have it both ways at once. He is trying to say something true but without satisfying the canons satisfaction of which is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of anything’s being true.

My interim judgement, then, is this. What we have before us is a form of cognitive malfunction brought about by hypertrophy of the sceptical faculty. Doubt is the engine of inquiry. Thus there is a healthy form of scepticism. But Cioran’s extreme scepticism is a disease of cognition rather than a means to it.

The quotations are from E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (New York: Seaver Books, 1983), translated from the French by Richard Howard.