The Transfiguration of Cultures

On Emil Cioran’s Philosophy

Rarely has a writer’s work been as conditioned by his temperament as the work of Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. The tone that dominates his writing is despair. In his first book, written in Romania at the age of just twenty-two, On the Heights of Despair, Cioran already argues that there is nothing worth believing in and that the only salvation lies in oblivion. History appears as a set of closed, defunct worlds. It is impossible to build a hierarchy of nations and epochs. We have no criteria to judge them and don’t even really need them: history creates them, demolishes them, and brings forth new ones.

To the young Cioran, philosophy appeared as futile as contemplation of history. In his pre-war notes published by Cahiers de l’Herne, he argues that modern philosophers are people who have not actually lived their own lives. Our era has no Diogenes Laertios because “one does not write a biography of a professor.” Outside the university, we find “semi-philosophers” like Socrates, Pascal, Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche. But according to Cioran these men had too many things to say. They overwhelmed philosophy with their own tragedies, and that is why – being “amateurs of anxiety, curious not about thought, but about dangers of thought” – we intoxicate ourselves with their troubles.

It was insomnia that helped Cioran see the vanity of philosophy. Unable to sleep, he roamed the streets at night, where he grasped at the age of twenty that philosophy not only provides no answers, but does not even ask important questions. Philosophical thinking, he says, is a sign of disturbed vitality. He rejected society, work, history, and philosophy, and allowed himself to be “lured by faraway distances, the immense void I project upon the world.”

History drew Cioran out of his meditation on emptiness. At twenty-four years old in 1936 he went to Nazi Germany on a scholarship. The Nazis inspired in him an admiration, yet numerous letters and notes from the war show that no trace of his brief fascination with 1930s Germany remained. His stay in the country, however, spurred him to reflect on history, which he had previously considered pointless. Cioran will write – still in his mother tongue – Transfiguration of Romania, a Spenglerian treatise on nations of minor destinies.

The book borrows concepts from The Decline of the West but sheds its fatalism. Whereas Spengler wrote from a perspective of a great culture, Cioran belongs to a culture of negligible significance. “The pride of a man who was born into an insignificant culture is perpetually wounded,” he writes. “His lucidity becomes a tragedy.” From this feeling of wounded pride emerges a different conception of a historical pattern.

Cioran argues that every culture develops from a certain core. It comes into the world with it, and emerges from it. While great nations, realizing their potential, make their mark on the world, countries of minor destinies, if they succumb to their natural inclinations, degenerate into “caricatures of history.” 

This initial core, however, is not their destiny, because history is not nature. Small nations can only burst into history by an effort of will. Great cultures develop as if unconsciously, by force of instinct. Nations that have previously had a minor destiny must make the leap into history with full awareness, “the beginning of our lives coincides with the breadth of perspective that other nations reach only at their decline.” 

Cioran’s thought unfolds in the shadow of Spengler’s reflections, but the idea of “transfiguration” alludes to other Romanian thinkers such as Radulescu-Motru and Draghicescu. Cioran’s precursors considered Romania of the early 20th century as a work of imitation, formed from the pressures exerted by Western Europe. Many saw the chance to modernize and strengthen the country by copying the best solutions coming from the West. The Spenglerian nationalism of the Transfiguration of Romania does not idealize the nation’s folk roots, but rather views the formless past with detachment if not contempt, and calls for a “leap” into modernization. 

The goal for Romanians should not be a cult of tradition, but a cult of strength. Cioran regards the effort to emulate the West as praiseworthy, though insufficient.

Without consciously accelerating and skipping the stages of development, Romania will forever remain on the margins of history. A nationalist, Cioran notes, is one who strives with all his efforts to see his country achieve a “transfiguration.” According to Cioran, one of the necessary conditions for such a transformation is industrial development. The relative decline of France in relation to England and Germany has its root in industrial backwardness. In Transfiguration of Romania, Japan of the Meiji era – capable of a violent, modernizing rupture – is an object of admiration.

Count Hermann von Keyserling, in his essay “Spengler der Tatsachenmensch” (“Spengler, Man of Facts”), develops similar ideas to those of Cioran. Keyserling rejects Spengler’s “organic” pattern of rise and fall and argues that nations are often “children of their own deeds,” and that a great event can transform a country’s consciousness to such an extent that it discovers within itself new resources to shape its fate. He adds that the Napoleons of the future will not exercise their will in conquests, but in domestic politics. Men like de Gaulle, Piłsudski, Ataturk, Lee Kuan Yew, or Deng seem to count among these “Napoleons of domestic politics.” An energetic minority is essential to what Cioran calls Adamic cultures, that is, nations that have virtually no past and must start anew to truly matter in history.

Shortly after visiting Germany, Cioran goes to France on a scholarship. He is employed at the Romanian embassy in Paris, but the position bores him and he eventually stops showing up for work. He prefers to take notes on French decadence, which he contemplates closely. The result is his first book written in France –  but still written in Romanian – and only published after his death. In a sense, it is a “transitional” book. The heroic optimism of Transfiguration of Romania fades, giving way to cold observations of decline. But Cioran does not yet revert fully to the pessimism that set the tone and theme of his later work. The Romanian writer sides with the vanquished. 

Cioran is in Paris when Germans march triumphantly into the city. Cured of his cult of strength, now he places French concern for clarity and form above it. He recalls his youthful readings of Heidegger and now sees him as a thinker whose entire talent can be reduced to “verbal genius.” What sets him apart is his drive to be profound, to invent linguistic oddities, and avoid ordinary expressions at all costs. “This verbal demiurgy is disconcerting,” Cioran notes, and recognizes that such hubris may be acceptable in a poet or a madman, but not in a thinker. “Heidegger could not have been born in France,” he concludes. 

France is a country of taste – a category that applies to the visible – not of metaphysical sense and yearning for the infinite. Cioran takes aesthetic pleasure in describing this particular moment in French history. Decadence has gone so deep that the essential historical image of that culture will no longer change, yet not too deep, so that the country’s features are still recognizable. He examines France through the prism of Spenglerian fatalism. Cioran does not believe that France can be saved by a leap. She has exhausted herself, and no longer worships any ideals, except for life for its own sake. The only thing left for her is to maintain elegance until the very end.

Cioran argues that some cultures are creative in decay. The spectacle of decadent France provides an example. He admits that “we are once again feeding on the back of France. We are the intellectual vampires of her suffering.” However, the writer does not want the last word to belong to the “consumption of impressions” produced by decline. Historical spectacles of this kind, he writes, should remind us that it is our fate to fight against fate. “I feel closer to the Romans of the late empire, but I have a reverence for altars erected to the noble illusions and for temples that have not been torn down by irony.” 

In a 1947 letter to his brother, Cioran expresses amazement that he could write something like The Transfiguration of Romania. It seemed “comical” to him. “I think I have freed myself from many mistakes and vain hopes,” he explained to his brother. He will emphasize despair and isolation. In his first book written in French, Précis de la décomposition – or Short History of Decay in English – a return to the pessimism of his youthful years becomes apparent.

I once came across the claim in one of Cioran’s biographies that he is one of the writers you should read in your youth due to the affinity between the extreme inner states expressed by Cioran and the intense emotions of young people. As a psychological type, Cioran should be regarded as a cautionary example. But in some passages of his work, the possibility of another moral type glimmers through, one that may have been beyond his own reach. This is the opposite of a man who indulges in the spectacle of dying cultures, but is someone who is able to keep himself “from falling in love with the great sunsets.” He described this type in On the Heights of Despair:

“The joy of achieving and the ecstasy of efficiency are the essential characteristics of the man for whom life is a leap toward heights where destructive forces lose their negative intensity.”

In his book on Romania, Cioran remarks that if its transformation turns out to be only an illusory hope, the problem of Romania will cease to matter to him. Here lies the tragic doubt faced by people belonging to both small and significant cultures, full of uncertainty as to whether a minor or great destiny still awaits them. The choice between leap and despair will be one of the most important decisions of their youth.

Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski is an analyst in one of the Polish governmental agencies overseeing industrial policy.

Scroll to top