Tuesday, June 2, 2009

cioran and chamfort

Cioran and Chamfort

Last year, in Mexico, I read quite a bit of Cioran, and made notes – thinking that Cioran would make a perfect commenter on the happiness culture; or at least demonstrate the evolution of reactionary alienation from that culture.

I haven’t used all of those notes. So many notebooks of unused notes! It is my version of drying flower petals in a book – it leaves a faint scent, an impress of an intention that never quite realized its aim, and a stain on the page.

Cioran is often compared to Chamfort. Indeed, there is some uncanny sympathy between the two writers. Both threw themselves into violent revolutionary change. Cioran, in his youth, went to Germany and fell under the spell of Hitlerism. Coming back to Romania, he was a fellow traveler of the Iron Guard, Romania’s fascist party. Cioran seems to have always resented, as an almost personal affront, Romania’s insignificance. Although Cioran lived modestly, by choice, his whole life long, he lived immodestly, grandiosely, on the mental plane. And to think that the words he used, the concepts he formed, would be so wrapped within a minor language as to travel, merely, from Bucharest to Sibiu and back infuriated him.

Chamfort, too, lived a double life. In his body, he’d been a young Don Juan, until disease had suddenly made him ugly – like a Christmas tree from which all the ornaments were shaken. In his mind, he lived on the margins of the great Enlightenment system. He was capable of insights that were beyond Voltaire, or even Rousseau:

“A delicate philanthropist must reflect that there is, within the charitable gift, a material portion of which the idea must be disguised to the one who is the object of his charity. It is necessary, so to speak, that this idea be lost and enveloped in the sentiment that produces the gift; as, between two lovers, the idea of sexual pleasure is enveloped and ennobled in the charm of the love which gave it birth.”

Cioran, whose muse was dedicated to resentment, could not, perhaps, rise to such an insight. Here is where the two differ. Chamfort was well versed in the “charlatanery of the moralists” and the system that grew out of l’amour de soi. But he lived in a society in which the conditions that made vanity such an axis of social emotion were changing. He knew that. He dug under vanity. Cioran, on the other hand, witnessed a world in which vanity had turned to hate, and hate into the principle utopian impulse of his time: in the perfect society, one would crush and crush again the happiness of one’s enemies. Tertullian’s heaven – a heaven compounded of the cries of the damned – would be realized on earth. And in his long repentance and nostalgia for the crimes of his youth – which he recognized as crimes - he saw before the world only two options: terminal boredom, or terminal violence. Reluctantly, he opted for terminal boredom, but bleated out his complaints in book after book, like a beef cow under a dull knife.

To be continued.

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