It sits in the elongated, latticed shade of the Eiffel Tower. Stippled with Gothic architecture: ribbed vaults sit like blackened bones of whales, flying buttresses which paralyze viewers with indecision, pointed arches which could summon convenient elemental spirits if need be, and steep roofs down which certain arcane energies slide. No longer au courant in today’s hypercivilized world, all this Gothicism pushes back the odor of progress. But you must agree it has a certain charm.
Here is the palpable reality of the doctrine of worth through magnitude. The prevailing virtues here are bigger, better and more flamboyant. All this Gothic architecture shouts of sophisticated hylotheism, which states that matter is God and that there is no God except matter.
All that matters here and now is the fancy hem of matter – the ornate tombstones – under which the residents reside.
The tourists come, tiptoe around, and look. They don’t say much, and when they do they whisper. For here words are stale, emotion spends its force against nothing. For here are the dead, and the famous. The dead famous, the famously dead.
Gothic cemeteries have a smell, the scent of smooth bourbon and vanilla flavored Cavendish tobacco. The odor of an elusive familiarity. It mixes with sounds half-muffled by massive Gothic monuments – low arias for the dead. All together, the sights, the sounds, the scents, they form a necessary overcompensation. For the dead are not interesting, only their lives are interesting. Embarrassed, they make up for their present humdrum condition by not-so-subtle sensory hallucinizers.
It is Montparnasse Cemetery. The place of petrified history. The French know it as Cimetiere du Montparnasse, located in the 14th arrondissement of Paris.
Montparnasse is the permanent residence of the French elite, intellectuals, artists, authors and their publishers. Included among them, like saucers beneath cups, are policemen and firefighters who sacrificed their lives for Paris.
One of the residents wrote about God: that “without Bach, God would be a complete second rate figure,” and that “Bach’s music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe cannot be regarded a complete failure.”
This dolorous pronouncement was made by Emil Michelle Cioran, known primarily as E. M. Cioran, the Romanian philosopher. Lying beside him in the Montparnasse grave is Simone Boue, his lifetime lover.
Born in Rasinari, a part of Austria-Hungary at the time of his birth, he entered the world as the son of a Romanian Orthodox Priest. When he was seventeen years old he began his philosophical studies at the University of Bucharest. While there he became friends with Eugene Ionesco and Mircea Eliade.
A peculiar combination of qualities – existentialism and facism – formed Cioran’s personal philosophy at this time, which, in essence, was that everything is meaningless. Called Trairism, this philosophy grew out of his study of Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Not unsurprisingly, he presented himself as agnostic. His motto was “the inconvenience of existence,” which summed up his perspective of despair.
Awarded a scholarship to the University of Berlin, there he became enamored of Adolf Hitler’s policies. About the Night of the Long Knives, Cioran wrote: “what has humanity lost if the lives of a few imbeciles were taken.” And this statement, if taken literally and out of context, seems monstrous. But it cannot be divorced from Cioran’s viewpoint that all life is meaningless and without purpose.
This viewpoint became the theme of his first book, On the Heights of Despair, published when he was twenty-three years old. The next year he published The Book of Delusions, followed one year later by The Transfiguration of Romania. Another year’s effort brought Tears and Saints into publication.
Cioran believed his mother country, Romania, had lost itself in tradition and that like the Pharisees the Romanian people had succumbed to an incestuous affair with that same tradition. The only exit from this bog, according to Cioran, was totalitarianism. Romania must be jerked by force and against its will into the twentieth century.
Returning from Berlin when he was twenty-five, Cioran taught philosophy at the high school level for one year. Then he departed to the city of lights, Paris, where he studied on scholarship at the French Institute of Bucharest. And except for a four-month sojourn a few years later, he never returned to Romania.
Once residing in Paris, Cioran never again wrote in Romanian. All his literary efforts were in French. In effect, he divorced himself from Romania physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Yet such harsh measures usually camouflage unrequited sentiment and love.
Cioran’s first French publication was A Short History of Decay, which received the Rivarol Prize. This prize was the first and last Cioran ever deigned to accept. He refused all others. In such actions, Cioran remained faithful to his solipsistic nihilism, namely, that each of us is alone and nothing. Therefore, prizes and awards and honors are less than nothing.
For lack of a better term, Cioran was a happy pessimist, full of a delighted despair, which emanated from his belief in God – a God whom he viewed as disinterested, and therefore suspect. Which is evidence of great intellectual capacity. For those who never doubt God do not believe in the Person of God, they only believe in the idea of God.
Cioran’s theological system is a constant theme throughout his literary output. Many, if not all of his themes, are a cynical exploration of religious concepts: death and suffering, life as a form of exile, the absoluteness of God, the denial of a workable faith, sin, the end of civilization, the tragicomedy of history.
Like an archaeologist he dug at these subjects with his favorite tool – aphorisms: short sentences or maxims, which carry vital truths. Aphorisms, while providing an easy intimacy demand wisdom and talent. Stylistically, the mode is extremely difficult. It is equivalent to boiling down three pages of text into one passionate apostrophe. Each single word hints and cajoles, and each sentence bares philosophic truth, even though the truth may be negative, and the reader may disagree.
Cioran’s aphorisms not only communicate, but they flow easily as they do. It’s more like listening to music than reading, for the tune is melodious and the words sound good together.
Moreover, unlike in our faded times, where writers are cautioned against using adverbs because they are so loose and so distracting, like hookers standing in a doorway, waiting for their next dupe, Cioran uses them conspicuously – literary flamboyance with an almost palpable energy. He breaks all the rules and is better for it.
My favorite books by Cioran are Tears and Saints, and Anathemas and Admirations. In the former, Tears and Saints, Cioran plumbs the depths and the lives of history and the Church’s saints. He is envious of the saints, of their love affair with God. And he does not understand how such ecstasy is attained.
The latter book, Anathemas and Admirations, covers a panorama of subjects, and is like looking into a holy kaleidoscope. For example: “My mission is to see things as they are. Exactly the contrary of a mission.”
Or this one: “The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live – moreover, the only one.”
And, indulgently, this: “A stroll through Montparnasse Cemetery. All, young or old, made plans. They make no more. Strengthened by their example, I swear as a good pupil, returning, never to make any myself – ever. Undeniably beneficial outing.”
Were we to place E.M. Cioran in the story Where the Wild Things Are, sensibility necessitates his being one of the wild things on the island. And like the wild things who are stared down by Max, Cioran is waiting to be stared down by God. Snarling and growling, half-depressed, despairing at the absurdity of his very existence, nevertheless there’s a bouncy joy inside him. A joy at simply being alive and able to wonder, doubt and philosophize.
Cioran wanted to be loved most of all. And he wanted God to do it. It’s just that he doubted there was a God. I suspect the joy within him he couldn’t hide was rooted in some secret guess that there is indeed a God – somewhere – who would eventually stare him down, crumbling all his despair. Otherwise why would he write so beautifully of tears and saints – the tears of existence and the saints of being loved most of all.