Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Czech Mates; Caught for Centuries between Warring Empires, the Cluster of Nations at the Centre of Europe Has Left Us a Remarkable Literary Legacy, Writes Adam Thirlwell

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Czech Mates; Caught for Centuries between Warring Empires, the Cluster of Nations at the Centre of Europe Has Left Us a Remarkable Literary Legacy, Writes Adam Thirlwell

Article excerpt

I can put it like this. On the one hand, I'm not sure that central European literature exists. How could it? Central Europe is just an accident of politics: the variously tentacled octopi of the Austro-Hungarian empire; the Nazi invasions; the Soviet empire; glasnost, perestroika; the European Union ... Whereas literature is a sequence of singularities--oblivious to such minor things as nations, or states, or empires.

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On the other hand, could the following sentence have been written anywhere else?

  In itself, every idea is neutral, or should be; but man animates
  ideas, projects his flames and flaws into them; impure, transformed
  into beliefs, ideas take their place in time, take shape as events:
  the trajectory is complete, from logic to epilepsy ... whence the
  birth of ideologies, doctrines, deadly games.

That sentence--with its savage disregard for the grand ideas that other people take so seriously, all the 20th century's ideologies--is a pure product of central Europe. Its author--the great essayist E M Cioran--was born in 1911 in Transylvania, in a village called Rasinari. (And the accents on this name are important. They are the proof of central Europe, of an absolute geographical singularity.) In 1911, the village was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the First World War, it became part of Romania.

And yet, and yet ... That ironic, unimpressed, sardonic sentence was written by Cioran in French and published in France, when Cioran was 38. He would never return to Romania.

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But then, exile is part of central European history. In this demented area of small nations, ideas were subjected by literature to the greatest scepticism. That was only because, simultaneously, politicians were subjecting culture to the absolute impress of ideology. Which is one reason why so much central European literature is written in exile, in French, English or American--why central European literature is not central European at all.

I want to pause on the biography of Cioran. He went to Berlin to study philosophy when he was 22. Three years later, in 1936, he returned to Romania for a year, then left once more to study in Paris. During the winter of 1940-41, he lived in Romania again. The Iron Guard--a nationalist, extremist, anti-Semitic party--was in power, and for a moment, aged 30, Cioran flirted in a literary manner with this fascist movement. Soon, he renounced this aspect of his life entirely. In 1941, he returned to France and, in 1949, published his first book in French, A Short History of Decay. Its first section was called "Genealogy of Fanaticism".

The discovery of Cioran's mature style, therefore, is marked by two aspects: the decision to write in French, rather than Romanian; and the decision to abandon the seemingly objective moves of philosophy and invent an aphoristic, essayistic form. In both cases, it is a rejection of conventional allegiances: to one's native language, and to the nobility of human wisdom. In both cases, it is a rejection of what another great central European, the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, called kitsch.

With these historical and literary inflections, in exile, Cioran began his long examination of human frailty. Because yes, they should be neutral, those sad things we call ideas. But human beings never let them be. Human beings so long to be fanatical. And after all, Cioran--with his moment of fascist fanaticism--should know. The irony that marks so many of these writers--Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera--is never an invention only of style: it has been forced on them by their own history. And so, in his history of ideology, Cioran can come up with this great excoriation of all those who think in groups:

  It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals,
  about the future, about philosophy, to hear him say "we" with a
  certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke "others" and
  regard himself as their interpreter--for me to
  consider him my enemy. … 
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