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Reviewed by:
  • Searching for Cioran
  • Gavin Bowd
Searching for Cioran. By Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Edited by Kenneth R. Johnston. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. xxiv + 284 pp. Hb $27.95.

Romania, it is often said, is not a nation but a vocation. Emil Cioran, born the son of a priest in occupied Transylvania in 1911, is one dramatic example of a mission to overcome a crippling sense of marginality. The late Zarifopol-Johnston, translator of two of Cioran’s Romanian works, On the Heights of Despair and Tears and Saints, traces the philosopher’s oft-neglected roots, with the intention of shedding light on the intellectual so lionized in postwar Paris and beyond. Torn from his childhood rural idyll, then growing up in a ‘Greater Romania’ that toiled to overcome its stagnation on the periphery of Europe, Cioran was attracted to the mystical violence propounded by ‘Captain’ Codreanu’s virulently anti-Semitic Iron Guard. The young philosopher gave [End Page 364] lyrical expression to the movement’s project in his notorious essay Romania’s Transfiguration (1937), where he dreams of a Romania with the destiny of France and the population of China. It is at this moment, however, that Zarifopol-Johnston attempts to abstract Cioran from his socio-political context, claiming that Romania’s drama is only a reflection of his own struggle to assert his creative self against an uncomprehending world. This concern with self-aggrandizement and existential isolation is developed in Tears and Saints, before Cioran leaves for wartime Vichy and on to a brilliant, if far from lucrative, career as nihilist aphorist. Zarifopol-Johnston’s desire to close off the political and emphasize the self and its texts leads her to minimize the importance of Cioran’s 1940 broadcast in praise of Codreanu, and to dismiss in a mere footnote Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine’s flawed but important Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco: l’oubli du fascisme (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2002). The author also makes the preposterous claim that ‘European cultural critics have been more forgiving towards youthful Communist sympathies than towards youthful fascist leanings’ (p. 112): this has certainly not been the case in France, let alone in post-Ceausescu Romania. In the second half of this incomplete manuscript, Zarifopol-Johnston keeps a journal of meeting Cioran and his partner Simone Boué during their last years in Paris, and retracing the philosopher’s steps in post-Communist Romania. There are some interesting snippets of conversation where Cioran frets about his Fascist youth, but unfortunately nothing on his reaction to the fall of Communism and the ‘triumph’ of the ‘decadent’ Western civilization he once consigned to oblivion. As for her narrative of return to Romania, Zarifopol-Johnston combines self-obsession with remarks dwelling on the stray dogs and potholes of Romania’s ‘extended slum’ (p. 180): a combination that echoes, without the style, the inferiority complex of Cioran and other Western-oriented Romanian intellectuals. The text also includes photographs of the author with Cioran and his family. This narcissistic approach perhaps helps explain why Simone Boué ends up accusing her of trying to steal Cioran’s journal. This is a book that starts well but veers towards hagiography of both authors.

Gavin Bowd
University of St Andrews


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pp. 364-365
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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