Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Drawn and Quartered by E.M. Cioran

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This is one of those rare books that provides deep emotional and intellectual sustenance, and opens up new avenues of thought with every new reading.

Emil Cioran, a Romanian essayist and philosopher, is a master of the savage aphorism and undisputed king of the nihilists. His philosophy pushes well beyond the limits of existential humanism — which suggests we can find, if not meaning, at least absolutes by weighing our actions and behaviors against a universal means test — and into a kind of pessimistic acceptance that life is short, brutal and pointless. Moreover, he thinks the point of it all is to truly “be,” and truly being requires suffering and despair — and quiet contemplation and stoicism — to jolt us out of our simple, mindless existence.

Drawn and Quartered is a collection of very short essays and aphorism published in 1979 that aims both barrels of his unique pessimism at society, culture and the lies we tell ourselves to avoid confronting the truth — that outside of despair, life is meaningless and we are doomed to die and degrade into nothingness.

I find something perversely joyful and reaffirming in his skepticism, his nihilism and the unwavering sense of gloomy torment that shrouds his writing.

He’s certainly not a fan of organized religion as a source of meaning: “The ancient world must have been terribly afflicted to need so crude an antidote as the one Christianity was to administer.

And: “…the early Christians, so greedy for the worst. To their intense disappointment, the worst did not occur…”

He seemed to anticipate our modern world: “we now know that the Future is compatible with the atrocious, that it even leads there or, at least, that it gives rise to prosperity and horror with equal facility.”

And: “…it is legitimate to wonder if humanity as it is would not be better off eliminating itself now rather than fading and foundering in expectation, exposing itself to an era of agony in which it would risk losing all ambition, even the ambition to vanish.”

Ouch.

And this seems almost eerily accurate for today’s always connected, screen-gazing world of noisy, clamoring narcissists: “The disappearance of silence must be counted among the harbingers of the end. It is no longer on account of its shamelessness or its debauchery that today’s Babylon the Great deserves to fall, but because of its racket and its noise, the stridency of its hardware and of the desperate types who cannot manage to quiet down.”

I’m pretty sure he didn’t have many friends: “There is no one whose death I have not longed for, at one moment or another.” (I totally get this…)

And if he did have any friends, they didn’t invite him over much: “I shall be reconciled with myself only when I accept death the way one accepts an invitation to a dinner: with amused distaste.”

I love the sense of indignity, of his bruised intellectual ego in this line: “Death, what a dishonor! To become suddenly an object…”

This little jewel perfectly captures his belief that humans are forever mistaking simple existence for exceptionalism: “If the waves began to reflect, they would suppose that they were advancing, that they had a goal, that they were making progress, that they were working for the Sea’s good, and they would not fail to elaborate a philosophy as stupid as their zeal.”

This is one of those rare books that provides deep emotional and intellectual sustenance, and opens up new avenues of thought with every new reading. I ended up highlighting practically all of it.

Especially this line: “A book should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. A book should be a danger.”

Rest easy, Cioran, Drawn and Quartered is a danger indeed.