“The Progress of Irony” and “The Sense That Everything Is Going Wrong”
The Progress of Irony
An idea’s initial burst sometimes possesses a value that is masked by subsequent corrections. This is, no doubt, one of the reasons Cioran did not publish this text. The first version (ms. 242), published here, is, as a matter of fact, more finished than the second, abandoned version (ms. 243). This text reworks the theme of the chapter “Irony and Self-Irony” in On the Heights of Despair (1934) with its Kierkegaardian accents and seems to anticipate passages in The Temptation of Existence (1956), in which we again find the ideas of the turn back upon one’s self, of the renunciation of health, of masochism, etc. Furthermore, in a crossed-out passage this text treats ironically the “revelations of psychology,” the very source of this modern, now impure, irony. Aurélien Demars
Advanced though the ancients were in this bitter knowledge, they nonetheless possessed a kind of astonishment, a freshness when faced with the incomprehensibility of existence. [. . .] One cannot imagine Hamlet in Athens or in Rome.1 Self-irony is a modern phenomenon. And this phenomenon has only become more pronounced, more widespread. No matter where we turn, we encounter only ourselves. We are irresistibly aware of the psychological world in which concepts, theories, universes, and the absolute are related to certain more or less perceptible combinations at work within us. The modern individual is his own object; he has no other. All he once searched for or placed outside himself, he now discovers within. Onto what shall he now discharge his bitterness? Such awareness turns him back upon himself; and self-irony becomes a kind of imperative, a self-honesty. We experience this attachment to self, this horror of self, with an exasperation the ancients would have found inconceivable. No modern man is able to make detachment his virtue. Christianity was fundamentally a rebellion against detachment, the virtue prized above all others by the Greco-Romans. And to the extent that detachment is foreign to us, we are Christians unaware of ourselves, survivors of Christianity. This is evident even in our self-irony; instead of representing a distance from ourselves, a form of detachment from and superiority to our misery, it is simply a form of self-torment, a source of agony. And we practice it not to escape ourselves, but to increase our suffering, to chafe and maintain our wounds, to make them flourish, to disguise and refine our ailments. So it was with Hamlet who was the first to give the modern soul its tone. He flagellates and diminishes himself, reviles himself, proclaims his misery, not to escape it but to deepen it; he considers himself ridiculous and draws from this sentiment an extra measure of pride; he finds in it another reason to revel in his suffering. In this way self-irony, instead of marking a distance between us and our self, multiplies the points of contact between the two; it is our way of being present with ourselves, of exacerbating our stupors or our pleasures. Masochism is the only link between us and our self. It is the modern version of the Socratic “Know thyself.” The ancients may have been more unhappy than we are, but on the other hand, they were surely not as ill as we are. Furthermore, they were not burdened with themselves or with the encumbrances and seductions of their “I.” They lived without “ego.” That was the source of their health. Their irony was an objective complaint, a recrimination against the world, against the imperfections of man and the gods, or else it was simply a subtle form of amusement, one to the Sophists’ taste, an intellectual exercise, a shrewd mockery without consequence, a gratuitous smile, a concession to futility. They were frivolous by instinct, not out of boredom. Their irony, whether that of the Sophists or of the tragedians, still had a pure resonance. Ours is hoarse, venomous, sickly; it emanates from our inability to accuse anyone but ourselves; it has revealed the evil in each of us; it is the way in which the subject punishes himself for being what he is since he knows the remedies are contained within himself, but he does not want to have recourse to them. Modern self-irony is the tragic form of rebellion against detachment, it is the renunciation of salvation for the self’s greatest good and greatest ill; it is the accepted loss, the voluptuous abandonment, of salvation.
The Sense That Everything Is Going Wrong
The genesis of this text began with a letter Cioran wrote dated March 12, 1981. In it, Cioran offered advice to his reader, whose name is not given, on organizing a conference: “You are right: the sense that everything is going wrong has existed in every era [. . .]. What is one to do? Become a Buddhist or a skeptic or else blindly consent to Progress. That is what your conference should focus on. If I were you, I would insist on the role this modern superstition has played since Condorcet, and I would present the idea of Progress as a reasonable form of utopia.” Cioran then wrote a text that took up this letter again with a few new formulations in its first four paragraphs. He added a long development. This is the version below (ms. 706), consisting of five manuscript leaflets and eight photocopied pages with corrections. A third, incomplete version dated January 1982 and dedicated to Larese (no doubt the initial addressee) consists of several photocopied pages of the text with a few changes.
Franz Larese worked with the gallery, bookstore, and publishing house Éditions Erker in St. Gallen in Switzerland. He and Jürg Janett had encouraged Eugène Ionesco to paint and devoted an exhibition to him at the Erker Gallery in February 1981. It was no doubt through his fellow countryman that Cioran met Larese. In any case, Cioran and Larese first met at Silvaplana, as we learn from a letter Cioran wrote to Friedgard Thomas (July 5, 1981), then again during two visits Cioran made to St. Gallen in the spring of the following year. Following these meetings, Larese edited in book form, with illustrations by Eduardo Chilida, Cioran’s The Cursed Self (1983), a text Cioran later reworked in the opening chapter of Anathemas and Admirations (1987). Cioran also contributed a text entitled “The Anxious Biologist,” with illustrations by Piero Dorazio, to the collective work Erker-Treffen 4 (Erker Encounters 4, 1987).
The text below was translated into German by Verena von der Heyden-Rynsch as “Sind wir die Letzten?” (“Are We the Last?”). The eschatological perspective recalls the chapter “Urgency of the Worst” in Drawn and Quartered (1979). A.D.
The sense that everything is going wrong has existed in every era, and rightly so since men have found no greater pleasure than in inventing new ways to make each other miserable. The conservatives’ claim that today’s society is bad, but the one to follow will be worse, is irritating, even exasperating. And yet, history confirms this diagnosis to the letter. What is one to do? Become Buddhist or consent blindly to Progress? This superstition dates from the Marquis de Condorcet, and its role has been enormous. The idea of Progress is an attenuated form of utopianism, an apparently reasonable delusion without which the ideologies of the last century, like those of our own, would have been impossible. The originality of the historical turning point we are witnessing lies in the fact that this delusion is being challenged, subjected to a fatal lucidity—an awakening at once liberating and appalling. The old categories of “right” and “left” seem outdated. Evidently we can still employ them from time to time, but in fact they only evade the essential. Why subscribe to illusions to the point of proclaiming them, of working them into the core of a doctrine?
No one today truly believes in the future, I mean by that no one who is normal. Lunatics, yes. The optimism of Hegel or of Auguste Comte2 seems outmoded and inconceivable. I named Hegel because he accorded History an extraordinary status and preemptively justified all efforts toward ideological gigantism. What I mean to say is that afterwards his system was not nearly as inspiring as his megalomania. Seeing large—Hegel is the one who provided an example, and that is how Marx succeeded and failed, or will fail. If History has meaning, it can only be to invalidate monumental3 visions that have tried to interpret, reconfigure, or refashion it . . .
The idea of catastrophe is perhaps less important than that of impasse. Because that is history’s future: a procession of impasses, a succession of dead ends, an immobility in motion—and that is why people have always felt that everything was going badly. History, like life in general, unfolds but does not progress. Can one reasonably say: I am progressing toward old age? I am progressing toward death? One advances toward it and that is all. And so it is with universal history and even with Hegel’s Absolute Spirit.
For a long time, minds infatuated with illusions were paradoxically referred to as enlightened, those who, obsessed with enthusiasm, believed in man, in his ability to triumph over the evil within himself and around him. Modern civilization—and here we touch upon the roots of its success and its fiasco—was created by those opposed to Original Sin, by disciples of Rousseau, by all those who refuse to admit that man’s very essence is contaminated and that he is and always has been cursed, regardless of the external circumstances, social or other, in which he lives. The author of the book of Genesis4 and the author of the Apocalypse perceived more clearly the incurable misery of our lot than the modern apostles of science, and they have shown us that to know is to yield to a dangerous temptation, that one does not become passionate for knowledge with impunity, and that the tree of science is the antipode of the tree of life. Our first ancestor’s curiosity has had fatal consequences for us. Man began with a transgression, with a perilous choice, because one, that is to say, God, had clearly warned him of the risk he ran.
To know is to strive to see within, to violate the secret of things. History is the consequence of this poisonous curiosity, of this initial indiscretion. Each of us, with our ventures and investigations, repeats the greedy incursion, the act of dismantling, the impassioned subversion that turned a chimpanzee into an adventurer and would culminate, over the millennia, with the dismantling of Creation, the supreme aggression whose consequences we know all too well.
We have been assured over and over again that science would save us, that it would make us powerful. Well, we are so powerful that we would submit to almost anything that would rid us of this regrettable supremacy. Knowledge as scourge! Our original ancestors understood this; we have waited a long time to understand it as well, but the damage is done and it is too late for it to be remedied. Even as an extraordinary exception, man cannot end well. Just like the tragic hero, he has the privilege of collapsing, of being able to elude his downfall. Disaster was engraven in his nature.
His misfortune stems from his desire to be noticed, to shine, to rise above the anonymity in which he should have remained like all other creatures. His will to affirm himself, to be known, almost brought about the destruction of paradise, and we can say that whoever wishes to call attention to himself, to distinguish himself from others, advances toward his ruin. As immodest as Lucifer, man has imitated his manners as a devoted follower, desirous, he too, of achieving fame through his fall. We can assume he has an appetite that is oblivious of its self-destruction, otherwise we would not know how to explain his piling catastrophe upon catastrophe, how, above all, he has managed to place himself before the catastrophe.
A brutal end, that is what everyone expects and dreads at the same time. But one can, if necessary, imagine an end through exhaustion, after millennia. In a corner of Argentina before the war, there remained only a few dozen members of an indigenous tribe. Having lost all desire to work, they lapsed into complete apathy and answered those who tried to buck them up with “We are the last, we are the last.” This refrain was their justification for their supreme indolence, for their incapacity to cling to anything but the void. The sight of the last man, of this moral and physical rot, has always haunted minds: how can one admit that the animal that had always seen itself as master of the universe now exists only as a caricature of itself? All living things are stimulated by want and necessarily aspire to conquest. Even the microbe is a conqueror. More than any other creature, man is inspired by two contradictory emotions: admiration and horror. Or, rather: he inspired these emotions because he has entered a phase in which, if he must decline slowly, he will become an object of pitying aversion or, if he must suddenly disappear, of dazzling stupefaction.
At the point we have reached, we will only be able to save ourselves if we manage to halt the process of history, and if we recognize that we have gone down the wrong path, if, in short, we agree, all of us, to abdicate. This universal capitulation, which would also be an act of unprecedented wisdom, presupposes an effort made for oneself, an internal victory over one’s past, over all the centuries that have preceded us. But this is a gorgeous extravagance, an extreme utopia. What is left to us? It is useless to go into detail. What we can specify, nonetheless, is that those who are responsible for having forced open the mystery of matter, the disciples of Prometheus, the instigators of an incredible cosmic riot, the “civilized” ones, in sum, will be the first to suffer the consequences. One sometimes wishes that not only they, but the entire human race, would be wiped out, if only so that one could regret it. What voluptuousness there is in this mad image of oneself as a lone survivor! But let us leave aside for a moment these fantasies, these certainties, and this alarm, let us be skeptical and confident, for once. After all nothing is certain in this world, not even the end of the world.5
[Translated by Tess Lewis]
1 In the second version (ms. 243), Cioran adds: “He diminishes and reviles himself, proclaims his misery, not to escape it but to deepen it. He considers himself ridiculous and draws from this sentiment an extra measure of pride and suffering. He is the incarnation of modern irony, subservient and impure
2 In his letter, Cioran had initially included Lenin and Ernst Bloch (ms. 705, fol. 1).
3 Cioran adds “and falsely generous” (ms. 705, fol. 2).
4 Cioran adds (crossed out) “of Job, of Ecclesiastes” (ibid. fol. 5).
5 The Hudson Review wishes to acknowledge Aurélien Demars who made the original transcription of E. M. Cioran’s hitherto unpublished manuscripts. In addition, special appreciation is due the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet, the Centre nationale du livre, and Le Magazine Littéraire, in which these selections were originally published.