Cioran, Emil Mihai
Emil Cioran was born on 8 April 1911 in the village of Răşinari, in the southern part of Transylvania, and died on 20 June 1995 in Paris, France. At that the time of his birth, his native province was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Emilian Cioran, was a Romanian Orthodox priest involved in the political emancipation movement of the Romanians in Transylvania. Emil Cioran had a happy childhood (Liiceanu 1995, 16) in his native village, a place which at the beginning of the twentieth century was still not changed by the rhythms of modern life. According to Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, the fact that Cioran was born in a historical region where Romanians had a marginal social and political position marked his personality, and this aspect strongly influenced his intellectual work because he wanted to overcome a complex of inferiority (Zarifopol-Johnston 2009, 25).
In 1924, his family moved to Sibiu, where the young Emil Cioran was already attending middle school. The experience of a cosmopolitan city like Sibiu, where Transylvanian Saxons, Romanians, Hungarians, and Jews cohabited, was important for Cioran’s intellectual formation. Here he was introduced to German language and culture, which influenced his entire intellectual work. In the period 1928–1932, Cioran attended courses in the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy at the University of Bucharest, graduating with a Bachelor thesis concerning the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. During his university studies in Bucharest he was strongly influenced –as were other intellectuals of his generation – by Nae Ionescu, professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Bucharest, who had a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Munich (1919). Ionescu was also an active journalist, who shaped public opinion through his articles in the newspaper Cuvântul on key issues such as democracy, nationalism, and Orthodox Christianity. He questioned the process of modernisation in Romania based on Western political values and institutions, and criticised the democratic system, following the organicist approach of Oswald Spengler (Petreu 2016, 15–16). Nae Ionescu considered that democracy was foreign to Romanian political tradition, and displayed an anti-liberal discourse (Petreu 2016, 16–17). At the end of 1933 he became an active supporter of the Legion of the Archangel Michael and thereafter he manifested an increasingly virulent anti-Semitism.
The adjustment to the new cultural milieu was difficult for the young Cioran, who had been raised in a school system with strong German influences. The cultural elite of the Romanian capital was more oriented towards French culture, which caused him inferiority complexes. In the early 1930s, he managed to enter into the so-called Criterion group of intellectuals. Criterion was a cultural association which in the period 1932–1934 brought together young intellectual such as Petru Comarnescu, Constantin Noica, Emil Cioran, Mircea Vulcănescu, Sandu Tudor, and Mihail Polihroniade. Criterion aimed at organising lectures open to the general public on a broad variety of cultural topics. Within the Criterion group, Cioran developed lifelong friendships with intellectuals such as Mircea Eliade, Constantin Noica, and Petre Ţuţea. During his student years he published articles in the Romanian cultural press. His book debut took place in 1934 when the King Carol II Foundation published Pe Culmile Disperării (On the Heights of Despair). The book received literary awards and was a best-seller in interwar Romania, making him one of the most prominent young intellectuals. Afterwards he published several volumes in Romania: Schimbarea la faţă a României (The Transfiguration of Romania), Cartea Amăgirilor (The Book of Delusions), Lacrimi şi Sfinţi (Tears and Saints), Amurgul Gîndurilor (The Twilight of Thought).
In 1933, Cioran was awarded a Humboldt fellowship and he spent the period 1933–1935 in Berlin. During his stay in Germany, he was influenced by his readings of Georg Simmel and Ludwig Klages (Zarifopol-Johnston 2009, 84–86). He was strongly impressed by the Nazi movement, which he perceived as “vitalist”, a “solution” for the crisis of European civilisation (Laignel-Lavastine 2004, 152). Starting from the Nazi example, he considered that a similar revolution would solve the political problems in interwar Romania, a country where democracy was weakened by rampant corruption and the authoritarian tendencies of King Carol II. This experience led him to write Schimbarea la faţă a României (The Transfiguration of Romania), a book which was on the one hand a virulent critique of the social and political situation in Romanian, and on the other a call to a violent revolution and to the end of the interwar Romanian political and social system. The nationalism promoted by Cioran was different from that displayed by Romanian far-right movements (such as the Legion) because he rejected the mixing of nationalism with Orthodox Christianity and was critical of the worship of the culture of the Romanian peasantry (Laignel-Lavastine 2004, 175–176). According to Zarifopol-Johnston, Cioran’s book “reflects the country’s increasingly radical political climate in the 1930s” (Zarifopol-Johnston 2009, 92). The experience of Nazi Germany and the influence of his professor Nae Ionescu made Cioran draw close to the Legionary Movement. From1933 onwards, Cioran openly manifested his support for it through his articles in the Romanian press.
In 1937, Cioran received another fellowship from the French Institute in Bucharest, and he spent the period 1937–1940 in Paris. In the autumn of 1940, when the Legion came to power alongside general Ion Antonescu, he came back to Romania. During that period, in the course of a radio broadcast, he delivered praise to Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, the leader of the Legion murdered in 1938 by King Carol II’s regime. Due to his political involvement, Cioran was appointed in 1941 “cultural adviser” at the Romanian legation in Vichy France. He prolonged his stay in France in 1942 with a fellowship from the Romanian School at Fontenay-aux-Roses. In 1945, Cioran decided not to return to Romania and, during the late 1940s and 1950s he lived a modest life, living in student dormitories and taking meals at student cafeterias. In 1942, Cioran met Simone Boué, who became his companion for all his life. From 1945 onwards, he decided to give up writing in Romanian and chose to write in French. After the publication of his first book in French (Précis de decomposition) in 1949, he became integrated in French literary circles and he was awarded several literary prices. He continued to publish several books of essays in French such as: Précis de decomposition (1949); Syllogismes de l'amertume (1952); La Tentation d'exister (1956); Histoire et utopie (1960); Le Mauvais démiurge (1969); De l'inconvénient d'être né (1973). Although he became a famous writer in the West, Cioran avoided giving interviews to the press. Alexandra Laignel Lavastine has argued that this reluctance and his weak public reaction to the political repression in communist Romania targeting his former friends were caused by the “constant psychological threat” that his fascist past might be uncovered (Laignel-Lavastine 2004, 477, 547). According to the literary critic Matei Călinescu, Cioran tried to deal with his past by rewriting his former texts. Călinescu considers that through his 1956 essay “Un peuple de solitaires”, Cioran “wanted not only to communicate directly with his Western reader, but also to revisit his Romanian older texts in order to distance himself from them–but under the seal of secrecy” (Călinescu 1996, 207–208).
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- Rășinari, Romania
Date of death
Author(s) of this page
- Pintilescu, Corneliu
Călinescu, Matei. 1996. “‘How Can One Be What One Is?’ Reading the Romanian and the French Cioran.” Salmagundi 112: 192–215.
Laignel-Lavanstine, Alexandra. 2004. Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco: Uitarea fascismului. Trei intelectuali români în vâltoarea secolului (Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco: forgetting fascism. Three Romanian intellectuals in the turmoil of the century).Bucharest: Editura EST–Samuel Tastet Éditeur.
Liiceanu, Gabriel. 1995. Itinerările unei vieţi: E.M Cioran; urmat de Apocalipsa după Cioran: trei zile de convorbiri – 1990 (The itineraries of a life: E.M. Cioran; followed by The Apocalypse according to Cioran: Three days of conversations – 1990). Bucharest: Humanitas.
Petreu, Marta. 1999. Un trecut deocheat sau „Schimbarea la faţă a României’”! (An infamous past or “The transfiguration of Romania”). Cluj-Napoca: Biblioteca Apostrof
Zarifopol-Johnston, Ilinca.2009. Searching for Cioran. Edited by Kenneth R. Johnston. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.