Top critical review
4 May 2019
I brought this book based on the description of work on the back cover which seemed intriguing. I didn't really know what to expect but there are quite a few issues.
In terms of book design/production this is quite an oddity for penguin modern classics. It is one of a few books in this range that includes an endorsement from a literary review on the front cover. Also uncharacteristic for penguin modern classics there is no introduction to the work. This would not be an issue if a book is simply written, but I would say that this book is not as straightforward as the absence of an introduction implies. For example essays or paragraphs may end with “...” or a “....”might appear mid sentence. I was not sure what this was meant to communicate, is it a direction on how to read the essay? Is it a dramatic pause as the essay is intended to be read aloud to an audience? Is it to communicate that a point has reached an impasse or dead-end? There are also a number of essays that have and additional, often lengthy, paragraph at the end which is contained within ( ). Is this an implication that these are afterthoughts or perhaps intended to augment or qualify what was written before? An introduction from an academic familiar with Cioran would be of much value in helping readers get to grips with what Cioran is trying to achieve with this book.
In terms of essays themselves the books is split into six groups of essays or in the case of section five a single essay (part 1 accounts for about half the book). There are a few interesting ideas. Cioran makes an interesting point that the moment someone attempts to influence someone else, harm is being done by that influencer. Likewise Cioran inverts the traditional seat of mystery when it comes to life and death. In Cioran's view it is death that holds no mystery (being a unambiguous state) whereas what makes life (it's purpose/meaning) difficult to deal with is that there is no agreed meaning or purpose and that is why mystery lays with life rather than death. What makes death appear a mystery is the conspicuous lack of mystery.
The interesting ideas and perspectives however tend to get obscured by Cioran's writing style. Cioran's style like his use of “...” and ( ) is florid. Be prepared to take your dictionary along with your copy of Cioran. However the language is not complicated because the ideas are subtle or the language technical, it is complicated because Cioran is showing off. I don't believe that the intention is to alienate the reader; rather it is more like Cioran is revelling in language. The result however is not virtuosity of language so much as Cioran is writing for his own pleasure. It's like listening to a clever but very boring friend. You listen, have a feel for what is said, but quickly lose interest because your friend is only talking for their own pleasure.
I also find Cioran’s nihilistic pose a cause for concern. I am inclined to think that Cioran’s pose is often ironic. At times the futility of a certain way of living may reveal that we need to rethink how we structure society and roles within society. At other times it is living itself that is called into question. Cioran’s statement that life is bearable because we have the power to end our lives might empower those who feel powerless, but God help anyone who might take him seriously. I can’t help thinking that Cioran’s flirtations with nihilism are nascent.
The endorsement from the times literary supplement on the front cover reads "passionate, forensic, lyrical”, but really it should be indulgent, verbose and frequently boring. This is a harsh criticism and this represents the worst elements of the book. I found parts 3, 4 and 5 a lot more measured and in my opinion this gave the breathing space for Cioran's ideas to shine through and this was when I thought Cioran’s writing was at its best. I think that Cioran intended this book to be an enjoyable read, to be a fun read despite the darkness of some the subject matter, the flowery language intended to be a fun use of language. As such I think the most apt description of the work is heavy entertainment.