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When all is wrong

Behind every cynic lies a pompous jerk who thinks
he's better than everyone else. The singular exception is the case of E.M. Cioran, a little-known Romanian philosopher who has made it his mission to assault most people's ideals and beliefs with far-flung rage. Cioran offers an explanation for his motivations: "For at any price we must keep those who have too clear a conscience from living and dying in peace."

Cioran paints himself into a nihilist's corner, offering no solutions, no hope, no happiness, and above all, no certainty. After tidily demolishing most major religions in a few pages, all he can do for an encore is attack materialists. After a while, Cioran's particular beef becomes less important than the overriding truth that it is wrong. More specifically, you are wrong, no matter what you believe. He picks himself as the first example, repeatedly looking in the mirror and going into conniptions over what he sees.

The only thing Cioran positively declares is a war on smugness. Unable to legitimate altruism and egalitarianism any more than fascism, he's happy enough to ensure that no one is ever again led around by their beliefs. Unfortunately, he includes himself in the enemies' list, and so his writings descend into an inextricable Gordian knot. He wants everyone to be as miserable as he, because he's scared of what will happen if everyone isn't. Despite all the intentional pointlessness of his efforts, you can't criticize Cioran for being puerile. With every indulgence into self-pity, Cioran gives a frightening example of what happens when conviction overcomes doubt: collaboration, oppression, and tyranny. The solitary good society is moved to doubt before all else; only then is it placed in check.

The same is true of his writings. Cioran intentionally antagonizes all who would seek to hold him up as thoughtful, mature, or worthwhile, because he does not want that respect. To him, it is poisonous, the seed of self-aggrandizing, self-propelling authority. And for those who have the conviction of their beliefs, and Cioran wants those with conviction in their beliefs accountable for them; that this precludes happiness is coincidental. But he phrases it in such an irritating manner that any such people would disregard him, because if they listened, he could not maintain his air of condescension. So Cioran excludes himself by minimizing himself: he writes a self-negating philosophical screed that will surely be ignored.

Albert Camus said his greatest temptation was cynicism, and we all share that weakness. There's a great comfort in a hopeless stupor where the chasm between action and effectiveness is uncrossable, but it's ultimately as self-indulgent as Cioran's more tiring rants against everything and the horse it rode in on. The stupor presumes some established system of thought by which we can make ourselves feel worthless, and exploit ourselves into laziness. But when Cioran resists that impulse and treads carefully between skepticism and fear, attacking his beliefs and not his failures, his critique of wrongfully empowering smugness assaults anyone who dares exercise the power of influence. Failing to completely negate himself, he still comes pretty close.

Moderate, healthy skepticism, when thoughtfully pursued, leads into either utter self-doubt or a superiority complex. Either you become paralyzed with uncertainty like Kafka, or you preach negation as gospel to the masses, like Alex Zubatov. Cioran is smart enough to combine both elements, refusing to extend his beliefs in any amiable fashion and undercutting them at every step. And at a school where well over 10 percent of undergraduates are spoon-fed antidepressants to foster the arrogance that others were just born with, we'd do well to consider Cioran's maxim that affirmation, not negation, produces pressure and fear.

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