This is a remarkable book and, as I wrote in my book, The Criminal’s Search for God: Sources:
“The last book I read before being released from McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in 1969 was The Temptation to Exist by E. M. Cioran (1968) whose very opening spoke to criminals.
Almost all our discoveries are due to our violences, to the exacerbation of our instability. Even God, insofar as He interests us—it is not in our innermost selves that we discern God, but at the extreme limits of our fever, at the very point where, our rage confronting His, a shock results, an encounter as ruinous for Him as for us. Blasted by the curse attached to acts, the man of violence forces his nature, rises above himself only to relapse, an aggressor, followed by his enterprises, which come to punish him for having instigated them. Every work turns against its author: the poem will crush the poet, the system the philosopher, the event the man of action. Destruction awaits anyone who, answering to his vocation and fulfilling it, exerts himself within history; only the man who sacrifices every gift and talent escapes: released from his humanity, he may lodge himself in Being. (p. 33)” p. 67
This article from the LA Review of Books, about Cioran, is excellent.
FOR SOME, he was one of the most subversive thinkers of his time — a 20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor. Many, especially in his youth, thought him to be a dangerous lunatic. According to others, however, he was just a charmingly irresponsible young man, who posed no dangers to others — only to himself perhaps. When his book on mysticism went to the printers, the typesetter — a good, God-fearing man — realizing how blasphemous its contents were, refused to touch it; the publisher washed his hands of the matter and the author had to publish the blasphemy elsewhere, at his own expense. Who was this man?
Emil Cioran (1911–1995) was a Romanian-born French philosopher and author of some two dozen books of savage, unsettling beauty. He is an essayist in the best French tradition, and even though French was not his native tongue, many think him among the finest writers in that language. His writing style is whimsical, unsystematic, fragmentary; he is celebrated as one of the great masters of aphorism. But the “fragment” was for Cioran more than a writing style: it was a vocation and a way of life; he called himself “un homme de fragment.”
Cioran often contradicts himself, but that’s the least of his worries. With him, self-contradiction is not even a weakness, but the sign a mind is alive. For writing, he believed, is not about being consistent, nor about persuasion or keeping a readership entertained; writing is not even about literature. For Cioran, just like Montaigne several centuries earlier, writing has a distinctive performative function: you write not to produce some body of text, but to act upon yourself; to bring yourself together after a personal disaster or to pull yourself out of a bad depression; to come to terms with a deadly disease or to mourn the loss of a close friend. You write not to go mad, not to kill yourself or others. In a conversation with Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater, Cioran says at one point: “If I didn’t write, I could have become an assassin.” Writing is a matter of life and death. Human existence, at its core, is endless anguish and despair, and writing can make things a bit more bearable. “A book,” said Cioran, “is a suicide postponed.”
Cioran wrote himself out of death over and over again. He composed his first book, On the Heights of Despair (Pe culmile disperării, 1934), when he was 23 years old, in just a few weeks, while suffering from a terrible bout of insomnia. The book — to remain one of his finest in both Romanian and French — marked the beginning of a strong, intimate link in his life between writing and sleeplessness:
I’ve never been able to write otherwise than in the midst of the depression [cafard] brought about by my nights of insomnia. For seven years I could barely sleep. I need this depression, and even today before I sit down to write I play a disk of [sad] Gypsy music from Hungary.
That Cioran is an unsystematic thinker doesn’t mean that his work lacks unity; on the contrary, it is kept tightly together not only by his unique writing style and manner of thinking, but also by a distinct set of philosophical themes, motifs, and idiosyncrasies. Among them failure figures prominently. Cioran was obsessed with it: the specter of failure haunts his oeuvre starting with his earliest, Romanian book; then, throughout his life, he never strayed away from failure. He studied it from varying angles and at different moments, as true connoisseurs tend to, and looked for it in the most unexpected places. Not only can individuals end up as failures, Cioran believed, but also societies, peoples, and countries. Especially countries. “I was fascinated with Spain,” he said once, “because it offered the example of the most spectacular failure. The greatest country in the world reduced to such a state of decay!”
Failure permeates everything. Great ideas can be stained by failure, and so can books, philosophies, institutions, and political systems. The human condition itself is for Cioran just another failed project: “No longer wanting to be a man,” he writes in The Trouble with Being Born (De l’inconvénient d’être né, 1973), he is “dreaming of another form of failure.” The universe is one big failure, and so is life itself. “Before being a fundamental mistake,” says Cioran, “life is a failure of taste which neither death nor even poetry succeeds in correcting.” Failure rules the world like the whimsical God of the Old Testament. One of Cioran’s aphorisms reads: “‘You were wrong to count on me.’ Who can speak in such terms? God and the Failure.”
Cioran could speak so well of failure because he knew it intimately. Cioran was someone who in his youth got involved in catastrophic political projects (which he regretted all his life), who changed countries and languages and had to start everything from scratch, who was a perpetual exile and lived a marginal life, who was almost never employed and nearly always on the verge of poverty. He must have developed a profound familiarity with failure — even a flair for it. He knew how to appreciate a worthwhile case of failure, how to observe its unfolding and savor its complexity. For failure is irreducibly unique: successful people always manage to look the same, but those who fail fail so differently. Each case of failure has a physiognomy and a beauty all of its own, and it takes a subtle connoisseur like Cioran to tell a seemingly banal but in fact great failure from a noisy yet mediocre one.
He first encountered failure in his native land, among his fellow Romanians. Cioran was born and grew up in Transylvania, a province that had for a long time been part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and only lately, in 1918, became part of the Romanian kingdom. Even today Transylvanians display a strong work ethic, and seriousness, discipline, and self-control are held in high esteem. But when Cioran went to college in Bucharest, the country’s southern capital, he stepped into a whole new cultural universe. Here the winning skills were different: the art of doing nothing, sophistry (from slightly playful to plainly cynical) trumping intellectual soundness, procrastination as métier, wasting one’s life as vocation. As an undergraduate philosophy student, Cioran came in touch with some of Bucharest’s best performers in this respect. The mix of intellectual brilliance and a striking sense of personal failure that some of them exhibited gained his unconditional, perpetual admiration.
In Bucharest I met lots of people, many interesting people, especially losers, who would show up at the cafe, talking endlessly and doing nothing. I have to say that, for me, these were the most interesting people there. People who did nothing all their lives, but who otherwise were brilliant.