E.M Cioran on Skepticism

An interview in Grand Street Magazine

JW:  You’ve said that you also read a lot of poetry in your youth.

EMC:  That was later. It was if you like, the disappointment of philosophy that made me turn to literature. To tell the truth, its from that point on that I realized that Dostoyevsky was much more important that a great philosopher. And that great poetry was something extraordinary.

JW:  I read that you wrote, “Years now without coffee, without alcohol, without tobacco.” Was it because of your health?

EMC:  Yes, health. I had to choose. I was drinking coffee all the time, I’d drink seven cups of coffee in the morning, it was one or the other. But tobacco was the most difficult. I was a big smoker. It took me five years to quit smoking. And I was absolutely desperate each time I tried, I’d cry, I’d say, “I’m the vilest of men.” It was an extraordinary struggle. In the middle of the night I’d throw the cigarettes out the window, first thing in the morning I’d go to buy some more. It was a comedy that lasted five years. When I stopped smoking, I felt as if I’d lost my soul. I made the decision, it was a question of honor, “Even if I don’t write another line, I’m going to stop.” Tobacco was absolutely tied up with my life. I couldn’t make a phone call without a cigarette, I couldn’t answer a letter, I couldn’t look at a landscape without it.

JW: You felt better after, I hope.

EMC: Yes. When I am depressed, I tell myself, “You did succeed in conquering tobacco.” It was a struggle to the death, and that always made me think of a story Dostoyevsky speaks about. In Siberia, there was an anarchist who was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. And one day they cut off his tobacco. Immediately he declared he was ready to renounce all his ideas at the feet of the czar. When I read this in my youth, I hadn’t understood it. I also remember where I smoked my last cigarette, about fourteen years ago. It was near Barcelona. It was seven in the morning, it was cold, the end of September, and there was a foolish German who dived into the sea and started swimming. I said, “If this German can do it at this age, I am going to show that I can too.” So I went in like that and I had the flu that night.

JW: You, on the other hand, have always been a skeptic.

EMC:  Skeptism has played an enormous role in my life. It’s been therapeutic, a painkiller. I’m not a skeptic by temperament, because I’m a bit frenetic. Perhaps I’m a false skeptic. I’ll illustrate this with a bit of German nonsense.  They phone me from Munich one day, a few years ago: “Monsieur, we have invited a number of scholars for a conference on the future of humanity. There are physicist, philosophers, and so on, but we need a skeptic and we can’t find one. Would you be interested in participating?” I refused, I’m not a skeptic in the service of the Western word. But I found it unbelievable to be summoned by telephone, like one calls a doctor. I could put skeptic down as a profession. But I’m not a skeptic all the time.

JW:  You’ve often expressed in your books your interest in biographies.

EMC:  Above all I like to see how people end. When you read about someone’s life, you see what illusions he started out with, and it’s very interesting to see how they fail him.

Read the full interview here

Emil Cioran was a Romanian philosopher and essayist, who published works in both Romanian and French.

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