E. M. Cioran
Portions of this interview were first published in the Los Angeles Times (October 5, 1984)
Was it philosophy you were first interested in?
I studied philosophy almost exclusively from the age of seventeen to twenty-one, and only the great philosophical systems. I disregarded most poetry and other literature. But I broke happily very soon with the university, which I consider a great intellectual misfortune, and even a danger.
Were you reading Nietzsche then?
When I was studying philosophy I wasn’t reading Nietzsche. I read “serious” philosophers. It’s when I finished studying it, at the point when I stopped believing in philosophy, that I began to read Nietzsche. Well, I realized that he wasn’t a philosopher, he was more: a temperament. So, I read him but never systematically. Now and then I’d read things by him, but really I don’t read him anymore. What I consider his most authentic work is his letters, because in them he’s truthful, while in his other work he’s prisoner to his vision. In his letters one sees that he’s just a poor guy, that he’s ill, exactly the opposite of everything he claimed.
You write in The Trouble with Being Born that you stopped reading him because you found him “too naïve.”
That’s a bit excessive, yes. It’s because that whole vision, of the will to power and all that, he imposed that grandiose vision on himself because he was a pitiful invalid. Its whole basis was false, nonexistent. His work is an unspeakable megalomania. When one reads the letters he wrote at the same time, one sees that he’s pathetic, it’s very touching, like a character out of Chekhov. I was attached to him in my youth, but not after. He’s a great writer, though, a great stylist.
Yet critics often compare you to him, saying you follow in his tracks.
No, that’s a mistake, I think. But it is obvious that his way of writing made an impression on me. He had things that other Germans didn’t, because he read a lot of the French writers, that’s very important.
You’ve said that you also read a lot of poetry in your youth.
That was after. It was, if you like, the disappointment of philosophy that made me turn to literature. To tell the truth, it’s from that point on I realized that Dostoyevsky was much more important than a great philosopher. And that the great poetry was something extraordinary.
How did your severe insomnia affect this attitude at the time?
It was really the profound cause of my break with philosophy. I realized that in moments of great despair philosophy is no help at all, that it holds absolutely no answers. And so I turned to poetry and literature, where I found no answers either, but states that were analogous to my own. I can say that the white nights, the sleepless nights, brought about the break with my idolatry of philosophy.
When did these sleepless nights begin?
They began in my youth, at about nineteen. It wasn’t simply a medical problem, it was deeper than that. It was the fundamental period of my life, the most serious experience. All the rest is secondary. Those sleepless nights opened my eyes, everything changed for me because of that.
Do you suffer it still?
A lot less. But that was a precise period, about six or seven years, where my whole perspective on the world changed. I think it’s a very important problem. It happens like this: normally someone who goes to bed and sleeps all night, the next day he begins a new life almost. It’s not simply another day, it’s another life. And so, he can undertake things, he can express himself, he has a present, a future, and so on. But for someone who doesn’t sleep, from the time of going to bed at night to waking up in the morning it’s all continuous, there’s no interruption. Which means, there is no suppression of consciousness. It all turns around that. So, instead of starting a new life, at eight in the morning you’re like you were at eight the evening before. The nightmare continues uninterrupted in a way, and in the morning, start what? Since there’s no difference from the night before. That new life doesn’t exist. The whole day is a trial, it’s the continuity of the trial. While everyone rushes toward the future, you are outside. So, when that’s stretched out for months and years, it causes the sense of things, the conception of life, to be forcibly changed. You don’t see what future to look forward to, because you don’t have any future. And I really consider that the most terrible, most unsettling, in short the principal experience of my life. There’s also the fact that you are alone with yourself. In the middle of the night, everyone’s asleep, you are the only one who is awake. Right away I’m not a part of mankind, I live in another world. And it requires an extraordinary will to not succumb.
Did you write much through all those sleepless nights?
Yes, but not so much. You know, I’ve written very little, I never assumed it as a profession. I’m not a writer. I write these little books, that’s nothing at all, it’s not an oeuvre. I haven’t done anything in my life. I only practiced a trade for a year, I was a high-school teacher in Romania. But since, I’ve never practiced a trade. I lived just like that, like a sort of student and such. And that, I consider the greatest success of my life. My life hasn’t been a failure because I succeeded in doing nothing.
When did you start studying French?
I hadn’t studied it. In Romania everyone knew a little French, not that they studied it. There were people who knew French extremely well, but that wasn’t my case. Because I was born in Austria-Hungary. My parents didn’t know a word of French, they spoke Romanian and Hungarian. We had absolutely no French culture. But in Bucharest, French was the second language in the intellectual milieu. Everyone knew French, everyone read it. And it was very humiliating for me, I spoke French very poorly. My peers knew French quite well, especially among the bourgeoisie, of course. I read French, naturally, but I didn’t speak it. And so I came to France in ‘37, I was twenty-six, and instead of setting about to write in French, I wrote in Romanian up until ‘47. But without publishing anything. I wrote lots of things. Then I was in a village in Normandy in 1947 and I was translating Mallarmé into Romanian. All of a sudden it struck me, that it made no sense. I’m in France, I’m not a poet to begin with, I translate poorly, why am I doing this? I didn’t want to go back to my own country. And that was a sort of illumination. I said, “You have to renounce your native tongue.” I came back to Paris with the idea of writing in French, and set right to it. But, it was much more difficult than I thought. It was even very difficult. I thought I’d just start writing like that. I wrote about a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages and showed them to a friend, who said, “That’s not right, you’ll have to do it all over.” I was furious, but that made me get serious about it. And I threw myself into the French language like a crazy person, surrounded by dictionaries and everything. I did an enormous amount of work. I wrote the first book four times. Then, when I wrote the next after that, I couldn’t write anymore. Because the words disgusted me, why write? TheSyllogismes de l’amertume are little odds and ends, fragments. And now it’s the book of mine they read most in France.
Did the first book change much, writing it four times?
Yes, the style, a lot. Really, I wanted revenge in a way on all those fellows in Romania who knew French, but it wasn’t conscious. And too, I had the complex of being a foreigner.
I read that. “Years now without coffee, without alcohol, without tobacco,” you wrote. Was it because of health?
Yes, health. I had to choose. I was drinking coffee all the time, I’d drink seven cups of coffee in the morning, it was one or the other. But with tobacco, it was the most difficult. I was a big smoker. It took me five years to quit smoking. And I was absolutely desperate each time I tried, I’d cry, I’d say, “I’m the vilest of men.” It was an extraordinary struggle. In the middle of the night I’d throw the cigarettes out the window, first thing in the morning I’d go buy some more. It was a comedy that lasted five years. When I stopped smoking, I felt like I’d lost my soul. I made the decision, it was a question of honor, “Even if I don’t write another line, I’m going to stop.” Tobacco was absolutely tied up with my life. I couldn’t make a phone call without a cigarette, I couldn’t answer a letter, I couldn’t look at a landscape without it.
You felt better after, I hope.
Yes. When I’m depressed, I tell myself, “You did succeed in conquering tobacco.” It was a struggle to the death. And that’s always made me think of a story Dostoyevsky speaks about. In Siberia there was an anarchist at the time who was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. And one day they cut off his tobacco. Right away he gave a declaration that he was renouncing all his ideas and everything at the feet of the tsar. When I read that in my youth, I hadn’t understood it. And I remember where I smoked my last cigarette, about fourteen years ago. It was near Barcelona. It was seven in the morning, it was cold, the end of September, and there was a foolish German who dove into the water and started swimming. I said, “If this German can do that at his age, I’m going to show that I can too.” So I went in like that and I had the flu that night!