You wanted it, you asked for it, you waited for it: so here we are with the comment to Cioran, one of the most brilliant philosophers of the last century, a Romanian mind naturalized French. Of Cioran one usually doesn’t even find a quote in a corner of the page in the philosophy schoolbooks, a thing this that left me with a big question mark, given that it is perfectly in line with some of his contemporary names such as Camus, Sartre and Ionesco (apparently he was also a friend of the latter). Pupil of existentialism, Leopardi’s spiritual brother, there is a rumor that he used to have tea with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer (just kidding).
I hope dear Emil doesn’t get angry in reading this: in fact, despite the initial pressure, I ended up appreciating the booklet we are talking about today, the collection of aphorisms (can you say so?) called The trouble with being born. A title to understand it all: the first two lines are enough to get the leitmotiv of the collection and prepare for what is coming. That will not be easy, on the contrary, there is a great dose of anxiety to deal with. Of course, as a collection of sentences it would not be right to read it as a novel: a pill before each meal is more than enough. It is not recommended after meals, because it may blocks digestion.
As Schopenhauer talked about “the pendulum that fluctuates between boredom and pain”, with Cioran we find what is called “daring disillusionment”: I understand that all his thought is permeated by the idea that failure is inevitable, but at least it’s somehow useful. On one hand, it consoles us: in an era in which the intellectual panorama gravitated around various manifestations of ennui, introspective conditions of existence and total indifference to the outside (oh spare me the Ardengos), Cioran sneaks a vein of irony that relieves those painful souls who for the first time are about to explore his work.
Yet again, as Schopenhauer was inspired by the Veil of Māyā to explain the distinction between our reality and the need for spiritual liberation, so Cioran exposes the Buddhist concept of samsāra clarifying the problem at the basis of existence: birth itself. The mere fact of being born (or, in this case, of being born again) puts men in a state of suffering from which he cannot recover, not even with suicide.
“I don’t forgive myself for being born. It is as if, insinuating myself into this world, I had profaned a mystery, betrayed some solemn commitment, committed a fault of unprecedented gravity. However, I happen to be less peremptory: being born then appears to me to be a calamity that I would be inconsolable not to have known.”.
Cioran’s position on suicide itself also sounds quite outside the box: the act itself is basically useless, but the simple fact of conceiving the idea would make us free. Honestly, this “I kill myself but I don’t do it” reminds me a bit of a little quirky guy who could very well say “the world is rowing against me, but I’m smarter”. Not that existentialists called for suicide, for heaven’s sake. But I was pleased to discover this aspect, which detaches itself a bit from the main trend.
I open a small parenthesis to explain what samsāra is, for non-Buddhist speakers. It is the cycle of rebirth, almost eternal, to which every animated or even inanimate being is forced during his stay in this universe. Whenever I explain this in class, the students look dreamy. It means that we live forever! Oh yes, and it’s not a good thing, because the cycle of rebirths is a kind of punishment for not behaving according to the Buddha’s Doctrine. It is a sort of earthly purgatory that you are forced to face all over again, passing through innumerable forms, from the restless spirit (read: tormented soul that resides in hell) to the rock, the plant, gradually up to the human being, to go up even higher towards hierarchical levels ever closer to the perfection of the Buddha himself. Note: not to be left aside that everything has to be conceived with a rigid distinction between men and women. The woman as such, even behaving in the most irreproachable way, can only aspire to be reborn as a poor peasant (male). Still far from liberation from samsāra, anyway.
This is exactly The trouble with being born. Forced to be born from the choice of others or from one’s own too light judgment, the destiny that unites us is one and only: to be agitated in the hatred of an unwanted existence, and to let ourselves macerate to escape from the ego.
“The real, only misfortune: to be born. It goes back to aggression, to the principle of expansion and anger nestled in the origins, to the momentum towards the worst that shook them”.
Sometimes I have a bad habit of buying a book after reading only the title. This in particular was supposed to be a birthday present that I never gave to the person it was dedicated to, so it is out of my favorite genres and actually quite different from what I expected. I don’t appreciate collections of fragments without context – and with context I don’t mean the frame of the author’s thought but a situation, a moment, real or fictitious, in which events take place. Reading the complete collection of aphorisms by Oscar Wilde, a few years ago, I felt like I was digesting a tire. So reading Cioran, which I knew absolutely nothing about, was difficult indeed. The subject is also quite heavy, although perfectly in line with what a well-documented person might expect. Overall, however, I appreciated it for the various references that I managed to grasp with landscapes I juggle better in. Nietzschean references here and there help the less experienced – who doesn’t know Nietzsche? –, and all in all it is an added, and rather original voice, in the French existentialist landscape of the 1930s.
Italian translation by Luigia Zilli
1991 (I ed. 1973), pp. 187
Overall impression: ★★★☆☆