The story of Oedipus' gradual discovery of his primal crime, killing his father and marrying his mother, filmed by the famed British theatrical director Sir Tyrone Guthrie. This elegant version of Sophocles' play adds a brilliant stroke: the actors wear masks just as the Greeks did in the playwright's day.
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The Bayreuth of Hobo Pythagoreanism: The University of Washington’s Harry Partch Festival
(”Oedipus Rex” is briefly mentioned in this.)
The sounds are strange to the Western ear, but undeniably, humanly compelling — a fact borne out by the hundreds of people who flock to Seattle from far flung locales just to hear these instruments.
And flock we did! Constant Readers will recall my tireless promotion of the music of American original Harry Partch, and when news of the festival to be held at the University of Washington (UW) reached us at the palatial offices of Casa Counter-Currents, Greg Johnson and I dug out our passports and, by a typically circuitous route, made our way back to the USA, hopping freights Partch-style, Seattle-bound.
Twentieth century American composer Harry Partch created an original musical world and hand-hewn instruments on which to perform his microtonal compositions, which continue to inspire and influence musicians and composers today. This festival celebrates the music and influence of this unique composer, whose collection of hand-made musical instruments are in long-term residence at the UW under the curatorship of composer and Partch scholar Charles Corey. Programs include premiers of new works composed for Partch’s instruments as well as rarely or never-before performed works from the composer’s archives. Other activities, including master classes, demos, and talks, complete this homage to a uniquely American artist.
Already in its first sentence, the announcement hits on an essential feature of this festival: Partch’s hand-made instruments. As the title, “Our Wagner, Only Better” suggested, my essay was an attempt to promote the work of Partch among the Dissident Rightist community by taking Richard Wagner as a point of common interest; simultaneously pointing out their similarities as well as suggesting ways in which Partch was superior, or at least had gone further.
Rather than Wagner’s expansion of the tonal palette of European music, which ultimately produced only the dead-end of atonality, Partch, in the manner of Traditionalists like Julius Evola and Alain Daniélou, rejected such ultimately bourgeois conventions of so-called “high art” altogether and sought a return to the world of natural intonation.
Partch laboured to create new tuning systems based on the pure intervals of the ancient Greeks. These would replace the impure intervals of our equal-tempered system, which he hated with an ethical fervour because they cheated the ear of real beauty. Better to have the true pure colours of nature than the artificial rouge and powder of Western harmony, was his view.
His objection to the standard western classical scale wasn’t so much along the philosophical lines of Schoenberg and other early 20th-century atonalists; he was mainly frustrated by the musical limitations of the equal-tempered octave, so [he] devised a system that split the octave into 43 notes instead.
At the same time, unlike the Traditionalists, Partch, in his stubborn individualism and eccentricity, in both life and work (which I summed up as the pursuit of integrity or oneness), hewed to a true American archetype and was thus a better, or at least more useful, role model for the Dissident Right.
One way I compared and contrasted Wagner and Partch was that while both pursued the idea of a complete work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), Wagner, with the benefit of royal patronage, created a unique site, Bayreuth, while feeling the need only for one new instrument, the “Wagner tuba”; Partch, who lacked grants and patronage until his very last years, and indeed lived as an actual hobo for the better part of a decade (of which more anon), devoted himself to the creation of new instruments themselves. As he would occasionally remark, reflecting on his past, “I’m a strange kind of hobo, carrying around several tons of instruments.”
With 20/20 hindsight, and acknowledging that no “choice” was involved, Wagner does seem to have had the better part of the deal; while technically, one should only perform Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth, one only needs a large but orthodox orchestra to perform them anywhere. On the other hand, Partch’s music can be played on any suitable stage, but requires the actual Partch instruments,  of which there is exactly one set.
His instruments were for years housed at Montclair State University in New Jersey; music professor Dean Drummond, who worked as an assistant to Partch in the 1960s and recorded with him, was the curator, until his death in April 2013. Since 2014, Partch’s entire collection of musical creations has been in residence at UW under the curatorial hand of Charles Corey, affiliate assistant professor of music, and the instruments are presented in public concerts each year.
And so, the Partch Fest, a combination of performances of both Partch and Partch-inspired works, alternating with academic lectures and practical workshops; details are available here. Indeed, like the Ring Cycle, too much perhaps to be taken in as a whole over a single weekend, but here are some reflections.
The opening concert, after bringing us Partch’s “Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales” (1946, 1949), devoted the remainder of its time to Partch-inspired works. Of these, the most interesting and successful was the premier of Crystal Paths by Gareth Knox (Boulez’ Ensemble InterContemporain, Arditti Quartet), a kind of Partchian take on Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, this time using mostly Partch instruments:
The work is basically a series of duets between Knox and, in succession, Partch’s Crychord, Bass Marimba, Surrogate Kithara, Chromelodeon and Harmonic Canon. An interesting twist is that once each duet has been underway for a minute or so, the previous Partch instrument joins in to make it a trio, kind of like having a jealous ex-lover butt in wanting attention.
Knox says “each duo is based on a specific ratio which forms the harmonic and rhythmic basis for the relationship between the instruments”, and his structural metaphor is fluids coalescing into crystals (hence the title). But given that he physically walked around the stage, moving from duet partner to duet partner (his viola being the only portable instrument among six immobile Partch ones), the more obvious metaphor is the Partchian wanderer character ambling from conversation to conversation—a connection to the cantankerous American maverick that works on a literary/symbolic level without trying to conjure up his specific Depression-era hobo persona.
The instruments used in this piece are indeed monumental and immobile, so the use of the wandering player is a striking way to introduce Partch’s demand for corporeality in performance; and the viola d’amore is a brilliant way to show how Partch’s music, despite its supposed avant-garde “weirdness,” connects up with the roots of European music, and is far more traditional – and Traditional – than it might seem to the average concert-goer:
This Baroque-era monstrosity with seven primary strings and additional sympathetic strings has a penchant for microtonal inflections and sustained double- and triple- stops, both of which mesh well with the sound world of the Partch instruments. Many of the duets (which follow one another continuously) featured these sustained multiple stops, usually with microtonal slides, while others featured pizzicato playing and (in the case of the duet with the Harmonic Canon) even a “preparation” in the form of paper inserted between the strings. The piece concluded with a gentle tutti built around a diatonic viola melody.
Further, on a (purely?) personal note, the viola d’amore is the instrument of choice for Serenus Zeitblom, the pedantic narrator of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, whose protagonist is also seeking a way out from the dead-end of nineteenth-century European music.
Far less successful was the final and longest work, Richard Karpen’s Ode, which explored the similarities of the Partch instruments with the traditional Vietnamese dan bau and dan tranh. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese performers (Ngô Trà My and Nguyễn Thanh Thùy), though excellent musicians, added the kind of vocal ululations that brought to mind the very worst kind of “avant garde” excesses, thus reviving the image of Partch the weirdo. As Greg Johnson aptly commented, “We’ve been Yoko’d.”
On the contrary, Partch’s music can sometimes sound almost embarrassingly gauche and simple. If your first encounter with Partch was with US Highball, which recounts his experiences as a hobo living in federal work camps during the Great Depression, you might think you’d stumbled across a folk singer with a strangely out-of-tune guitar.
Indeed; and fortunately, the following concert brought us back to the real Partch. At the seemingly strange but really quite appropriate time of mid-morning, curator Charles Corey presented a free concert of the Complete Works for Adapted Guitar and Intoning Voice, consisting of Barstow (1941), December 1942, and yes, U.S. Highball (1942). That “strangely out-of-tune guitar” was the final incarnation of the “Adapted Guitar,” which has six strings, tuned in unison, played with a slide. Here again, the links between Partch and tradition are foregrounded, this time textually: December 1942 sets texts by Ella Young, Ki no Tsurayuki and, yes, Shakespeare, while being bookended by Barstow and U.S. Highball, both setting Partch’s famous collections of hobo inscriptions.
That afternoon’s symposium continued the hobo theme, with Andrew Granade’s “Going Home: The Persistence of Partch’s Hobo Persona” exploring the waxing and waning of the hobo figure in Partch’s work and self-identity, measured against the similar metamorphoses of the hobo in American culture.
I was particularly looking forward to Paul West’s “Pythagoras, Plato and Partch: Breaking the Chains of a Theoretical Art Form,” but found it to be a bit of a bait and switch. West, a Grammy™-nominated microtonal composer and student of “tuning systems and intonation” (as well as, currently, Orthodox theology), did not pursue a critique of Pythagoras so much as use Plato’s Divided Line to argue against constructing any theoretical system of music at all, in favor of “artistic emotional response,” whatever that is.
A far more satisfying demonstration of “artistic response” was given by the last presentation, Stephanie Liapis’ discussion of her attempt to choreograph Partch’s Castor & Pollux, resulting in her work, “Castor & Pollux: a Movement Score.”
While Castor and Pollux is explicitly a piece for dance, it has become one of Partch’s better-known compositions and often is performed as concert music. Opportunities to perform this work live with dance are rare, as Partch’s music is written for unique, sculptural instruments he invented and built himself—Castor and Pollux in particular uses instruments he built between 1946 and 54. With Partch’s instruments now in-residence at the University of Washington School of Music, we are able to present this work as Partch intended, something which has happened less than a dozen times since its premiere 64 years ago!
Liapis provided a fascinating insight into the problems of grappling with the physical demands of Partch’s ideal of corporeality in music (his version of the Gesamtkunstwerk), from letting the instruments themselves inspire the choreography, to the unexpected problems of dealing with mike cords and electrical wires. She found it impossible to incorporate the musicians into the dance (they’re far too busy!), but as the dancers are all “dead” by the end of the piece, she realized that this would provide two or so minutes at the end when the intricate and athletic movements of the musicians would in fact take center stage in the audience’s attention, thus realizing Partch’s ideal. However, as she read further into the troubled history of Partch and the various attempts to present Castor and Pollux, she realized he probably would have hated her work, anyway; prickly Partch was not the best of collaborators.
That evening’s concert was devoted almost entirely to Partch’s own works, and the hobo returned again in the second half, a full-(’30s period)-dress orchestration of The Wayward (1955, 1958, 1968), a multi-part work including the Barstow and U.S. Highball from the morning’s Adapted Guitar concert. This was probably the musical highlight of the festival, presenting the closest approximation to Partch’s corporeal or total work of art ideal; sort of as if Sullivan’s Travels had been staged as a microtonal musical.
Corporeality would then provide the link to the next afternoon’s “lecture-recital,” Sarah Kolat’s “Adapted Voice: Interpreting the Vocal Works of Harry Partch.” Kolat, like Liapas, had never heard of Partch before having the opportunity of working with the instruments; she also had never heard Partch, either, and she described the difficulty of learning to adjust both ear and body (corporeality!) to not only Partch’s intonational system but his performance idea of the “intoning voice,” which she finally managed to get the hang of by analogizing it to the Sprechstimme of Schoenberg’s Pierre Lunaire.
The climax of Kolat’s recital was Partch’s setting of “The Potion Scene” (1955) from Romeo and Juliet, and the conjunction of Schoenberg and Shakespeare again called to mind Dr. Faustus, where the composer Adrian Leverkühn, whose musical system seems based on Arnold Schoenberg (much to the latter’s dismay), devotes much attention to an opera based on Love’s Labour’s Lost (libretto by the aforementioned viola d’amore-playing Zeitblom). One wonders how Partch would have set and staged such works, including Leverkühn’s final magnum opus, the Apocalypsis cum figuris (an oratorio after the Revelation of St. John); or if Partch’s music would make a suitable stand-in for Schoenberg in a production of Mann’s novel.
The festival concluded with another concert of Partch and Partch-inspired works, the finale being a reprise of The Wayward.
Despite the exhilaration of the weekend’s events, there was a something of a shadow over the proceedings due to the deaths and illnesses within the Counter-Currents gang, as well as the news that Adam Parfrey, another Partchian iconoclast, had died here in Seattle. Even University of Washington School of Music director Richard Karpen sounded a pessimistic tone:
Noting that the instruments require proper storage and maintenance, he says so far he’s been cobbling together funding from the School of Music, but worries this may be the last Partch festival unless donors step up. “It’s just not sustainable,” he says.
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! One hopes things don’t get that bad, and that the music of Harry Partch, a true American-style oddball traditionalist, will continue to be heard and to inspire.
 Partch, describing his viewpoint, even avails himself of a metaphor that the “Dark Enlightenment” would wield: “’The great cathedral of modern music, erected in trial and labor and pain through most of the Christian era, is a safe and beautiful sanctuary Its one sad aspect is that it seems to be finished. On the other hand,’ he continued, ‘in the wild, little-known country of subtle tones beyond the safe cathedral, the trails are old and dim, they disappear completely, and there are many hazards.’” Quoted from Jeremy Eichler, “Celebrating ‘Harry Partch Legacy’,’” The Boston Globe, September 15, 2012.
 “But few others grasped what Partch was after, and when he returned to the United States he couldn’t summon the will to beg for more money. Instead, he decided to drop out, and it wasn’t your feel-good hippie kind of dropping out. He spent much of the next eight years living as a hobo—riding trains, doing manual labor, sleeping in shelters or in the wild, contracting syphilis, working occasionally as a proofreader, and, all the while, rethinking every parameter of music.” Alex Ross, “Off the Rails: A Rare Performance of Harry Partch’s Oedipus,” The New Yorker, April 18, 2005.
 Have a (virtual) go on Partch’s instruments yourself, here.
 Partch would sometimes point out, somewhat peevishly, that he had merely expanded the available notes, rather than replacing them; you could just as easily play Chopin on one of his instruments as on a piano.
 In fact, the Partch instruments are large enough to be considered part of the staging, and the movements of the players are part of the choreography, as we’ll see later; in this way Partch was also creating his own portable Bayreuth. “The constructions look superb (after a performance in Amsterdam in June, the audience crowded around the stage, everyone keen for an up-close ogle). This isn’t an incidental point. Visuals were important to Partch, who believed that the central feature of a set design should be the instruments and the people who play them. It had to do with his concept of ‘corporeal music’, in which a musician’s physicality is integral to performance. ‘The person who plays the instrument is a part of the instrument,’ he said. ‘It is a oneness, a wholeness, and if I have anything to say about it he’s not going to look like an amateur Californian prune-picker.'” Molleson, op. cit.
 The ensemble included Knox on viola d’amore, instrument curator Charles Corey on Crychord, Knox’s fellow violist Melia Watras in her secondary career as a Bass Marimba player, Swedish guitarist Stefan Östersjö on Surrogate Kithara, composer and Director of the UW School of Music Richard Karpen on Chromelodeon, and Vietnamese đàn tranh player Nguyễn Thanh Thủy on Harmonic Canon.
 Knox tuned the lowest string down from the usual A2 to G2 to match the “tonic” of Partch’s microtonal scale.
Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).
 In “Our Wagner” and occasionally after, I’ve mentioned Mann’s novel in relation to Partch; we’ll see another link soon.
 These are pithy, rather noir-ish epigraphs left behind by those hitchhiking or riding the rails, rather than the symbolic “hobo code” signs providing directions, warnings, etc. “Here’s wishing all who read this, if they can get a lift, and the best of luck to you. Why in hell did you come, anyway?”
 Based on his Harry Partch, Hobo Composer (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2014, Eastman Studies in Music, Vol. 120).
 “A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a ‘tramp’, who works only when forced to, and a ‘bum’, who does not work at all, a ‘hobo’ is a traveling worker”—Wikipedia. Partch, like Roark in The Fountainhead, is a proud Aryan who asks only for his freedom, and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. In these terms, I was wrong to call Griffin and his companions “hoboes” in my essay on the films of Coleman Francis (Coffee? I Like Coffee! The Metaphysical Cinema of Coleman Francis [Amazon Kindle, 2017]); Griffin is, appropriately, a bum (unless rape, robbery, and murder are work), and his two companions are tramps: “Lookin’ for work! We follow the harvest!” The MST3k episode (619) errs too, in saying they are trying to “get to the Hobo Gathering.”
 I gently asked West afterwards if he had ever read Alain Daniélou’s Music and the Power of Sound: The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1995, first published in India in 1943), but he had not. When I pointed out that Daniélou also rejects Pythagoras but does so from the point of view of a correct intonational system, he simply replied, “Well, everyone thinks they have a system.”
 On the other hand, “In 1933, Partch landed a short but interesting job at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles transcribing Native American songs recorded on Edison wax cylinders by the Museum’s founder Charles Lummis. Partch must have been struck by the diffuse and inflected pitch of many of the indigenous singers, whose vocal style was often closer to heightened speech than to Western folk or classical singing. Partch’s own intoning voice technique, honed in early works like the 17 Lyrics by Li Po, owes an obvious debt to this style.” See Michael Schell, “Not Even Harry Partch Can Be An Island,” Second Inversion, May 9, 2018.
 “It is well known that Mann was heavily indebted to Theodor W. Adorno’s analysis of Arnold Schoenberg in Philosophy of Modern Music (1949) for his depiction of Leverkühn’s aesthetic education and experiments in composition. . . . [For Mann,] Schoenberg could be said to have hit on the correct diagnosis of the ills of his time, but he prescribed poison to deal with them.” Evelyn Cobley, “Decentred Totalities in Doctor Faustus: Thomas Mann and Theodor W. Adorno,” Modernist Cultures.
 It’s not just me: previously cited New Yorker music critic Alex Ross is not only a fan of Partch but also an admitted “Faustus Fanatic.” In the Trekkie spirit, Alex Ross has compiled “An Adrian Leverkühn Companion,” based on Mann’s novel, as well as a potted biography: “Independent of the Second Viennese School, he evolved a non-tonal, at times idiosyncratically serialist language, although he also incorporated parodic imitations of past styles and anticipated certain developments of the postwar avant-garde. The manifest difficulty of his musical idiom hindered public acceptance . . .” He also suggests that “[t]he Apocalipsis makes one think variously of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (the Dance Around the Golden Calf), Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc (the episode for shouting chorus), Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, andearly experimental works of John Cage (the use of amplifiers and loudspeakers).” Partch also set an Oedipus Rex for intoning voice and monochord; of course, one must recall that Partch despised Cage.
Marta Petreu An Infamous Past: E. M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005
‘The Romanians, what have they ever done for us, eh?’ So might Emil Cioran, himself a Romanian, have wondered when he wrote his third book The Transfiguration of Romania, published in 1936. Bewailing Romania’s insignificant past and culture, he proposed a program that would transform the country in parallel with the contemporary national revivals in Germany and Italy then underway.
In AnInfamous Past, Matra Petreu divides Cioran’s career into three chronological time periods. During his early and late periods, Cioran was an apolitical writer of philosophical essays, in Romanian and French, respectively. The middle period, the time of The Transfiguration, from roughly 1933 to 1945, marks the occasion Cioran stuck his head above the parapet of political neutrality, providing him with his titular ‘infamous past’. Petreu points out how anomalous The Transfiguration is in relation to Cioran’s other work, attributing its genesis to Cioran’s political awakening in Nazi Germany. She then outlines the doctrines of Cornelius Codreanu’s Legionary movement, a significant Romanian far-right organisation contemporary with Cioran, and contrasts the Legion’s doctrines with Cioran’s thought in The Transfiguration. Petreu examines the main philosophical influences on Cioran. She devotes a chapter to ‘foreigners’ — the the most controversial topic dealt with in Cioran’s book — and examines the details of the revolution Cioran wanted to bring to interwar Romania. Finally, she describes the public’s reaction to The Transfiguration and the aftermath for its author.
Cioran is best known for the third period of his career, from 1947 onwards, as a writer of philosophical aphorisms in French. Nevertheless, in an age when celebrities are famous for being famous, he was famous for being unknown. Apart from accepting a prize for A Short History of Decay (1949), his first work in French, he refused all literary honors and eschewed all publicity, preferring instead to live as a sort of latter-day Diogenes.
In a sense, Cioran is a very derivative writer. According to the author, his influences are mainly German. Arthur Schopenhauer is a major influence, especially his metaphysical belief that the fundamental reality is the will to live, and his conclusion that human life is some kind of mistake. Another influence is Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly his proclamation of the death of God and the cosmic insignificance this subsequently entails: the Earth is a rock, spinning and floating in the void, going nowhere, and awaiting annihilation by an asteroid strike or a solar flare. Unlike in Nietzsche, however, Cioran makes no attempt to transcend nihilism: whereas Nietzsche wrote, ‘that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’; Cioran might have written, ‘that which doesn’t kill me merely delays the inevitable.’ A third influence, particularly for The Transfiguration, is Spengler’s philosophical history, The Decline of the West. The crepuscular atmosphere of a spent civilisation, however, pervades his entire corpus.
During and after WWII Cioran lived in Paris, never returning to Romania. Despite living there in obscurity and poverty, Cioran also lived fearing that The Transfiguration and his ‘infamous past’ would not remain dead and buried. For Cioran, the insomniac philosopher, had sleepwalked into Nazi Germany, on a scholarship, and was awakened from his apolitical slumber by Adolf Hitler: “The organised megalomania”! “The cult of irrationality”! “The disconcerting monumentality”! After the precise trivializing of academic philosophy and the mediocrity of Romanian democracy, Hitler’s Germany came as a revelation to him. His reaction was unlike that of his mentor Spengler, who was not enamoured by Hitler and the Nazis. Cioran, on the other hand, was particularly impressed with the uniformed, marching Hitler Youth: he thought they could become an inspiration for Romanian youth. He admitted, however, that he could have been as impressed by Communist youth, because what mattered to Cioran was not ideology, but fanaticism and extremism. It was through such forces he envisaged the revival of a moribund Romania.
For Cioran, Romania had always been a marginal country. For centuries it was occupied by Roman border legions defending the Empire from the Goths and other Germanic tribes. Cioran described Romania as ‘daubed with Latinity’. This daubing, almost a mark of shame, implied a superficial Westernization. For despite its language, in terms of both its history — it wasn’t until the 1870s that Romania won independence from the Ottoman Empire — and its Orthodox faith, Romania faced the Orient. Amid the collapse of empires following WWI, Romania had gained the new territories of Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bukovina. These gains brought problems as Romania went from a homogeneous nation to an ethnically diverse one, which now included Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, and Bulgarians. These minorities amounted to just over five million, almost a third of the population. Diversity is, of course, a strength; what it strengthened was ethnic tension as the Romanian majority perceived the Hungarians, Germans, and Jews as economically better-off than themselves. As Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, democracy tends to generate an atomized society where people are reduced to numbers. Democracy in Romania was, unsurprisingly, unable to deal with its newly acquired minorities and its rising nationalism.
Cioran saw history and culture in Spenglerian terms. Spengler’s morphology of culture was quasi-biological: major cultures are like organisms in that they experience cycles of growth and decay. Spengler saw Europe at that moment as having entered the period of transition from culture to civilization, which marks the process of irreversible decline. Spengler compared this period in Europe to the last phases of the Roman Empire. The fate of Rome provided the key to understanding our own future. Europe was like the other civilizations that had preceded it, and like them would also suffer an inevitable denouement. Cioran, however, didn’t see the Spenglerian model applying to Romania since it was not a major culture. Romania was, rather, an ahistorical peasant culture condemned to eternal stagnation. Cioran thought Romania could never build a Gothic cathedral — the archetypal symbol of Faustian culture — because Romanian culture was too much ‘of the moment,’ lacking both a viable heritage and destiny. To escape this cultural nothingness, to enter the ontological space of history, Cioran proposed a leap — inspired by the ideas of Nae Ionescu, his professor of philosophy — which would synchronise Romania with the rest of Europe through a seven-year plan of rapid urbanization and industrialization. Only a dictatorship could unleash the forces necessary for such a transformation. Cioran thought democracy unable to revolutionize the country because the individualism it engenders resists any organizational principle. Having failed to pass through the organic stages of cultural birth, growth and maturity, Romania needed to follow the path of Eugen Lovinescu’s ‘imitative revolution,’ inspired by the models of Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia, and thus by ‘cutting corners’ could join ‘the sinking of the lands of evening’. (Lovinescu being another major influence on Cioran.) Cioran believed Europe even in dissolution was preferable to Romania in paralysis. Decline, in any case, was inevitable; there was little the individual could do to alter destiny. To imagine an alternative outcome is, for both Spengler and Cioran, optimism; optimism for both is a form of cowardice.
Certainly no one could accuse Cioran of optimism, except perhaps during the time period of The Transfiguration, when he uncharacteristically placed faith in reason and politics to deliver some future fulfilment for Romania. The author contrasts the radicalism of Cioran with the reactionary Codreanu: both radical and reactionary (or conservative) thought arise from modernity’s loss of roots, but whereas radicalism sees this loss as inevitable, reactionism and conservatism sees it as tragic. Although Cioran was atheist, there is a marked religious dimension in his thought; explicable, perhaps, given that his father was a Greek Orthodox priest. The very title of his work speaks of an almost religious transformation, or transfiguration, of Romania. The messianism of The Transfiguration, although limited to secular salvation, can be traced to religious roots. Similarly, his sense of the material realm being a transient illusion and his preoccupation with eschatology are both characteristic themes of Orthodox Christianity. Influenced by both Nietzsche and Spengler, however, Cioran saw religious belief as no longer authentically possible, but rather as lying in a culture’s past. This contrasts with the Legion, who venerated tradition, particularly Orthodox Christianity. The Legionaires considered the people — which included the living, the dead and the unborn — and the nation as one. They believed Orthodox Christianity could produce the ‘new man,’ namely, the perfect Christian. Cioran was sceptical about ‘the new man’; he doubted that Orthodox Christianity would be able to energise Romania because it was itself too passive and contemplative. Despite being obsessed with death and proclaiming himself ‘an expert in the matter of death,’ Cioran had no sympathy with the idea of ‘the Legionaire’s death,’ i.e., martyrdom for the cause of Romania. Although Cioran doesn’t mention Codreanu or the Legion in The Transfiguration, and despite their significant differences, he nevertheless believed that the Legion’s fanaticism could foist dictatorship on the country.
Apart from his admiration of the Führer, it was Cioran’s writings on the Jews, and to a lesser extent the Hungarians, which constitutes his ‘infamous past’. When The Transfiguration came to be republished in 1990, Cioran deleted the chapter dealing with the Jewish question. Originally, Cioran was much more ambivalent than the overtly anti-Semitic Legion on the issue of the Jews. Cioran thought the Legion was excessively dominated by xenophobia. Unlike the Legion, he believed it was the Romanians themselves and not the Jews who were responsible for the country’s plight. Although he allowed that the Jews were defined by ‘vampirism’ — not the Count Dracula (another Romanian!) variety, but rather exploitation of the peoples they managed to infiltrate — he nonetheless believed they were only a peripheral problem. He doesn’t seem to have made the link between the Jews and Communism and didn’t hold them responsible for the Bolshevik revolution. Paradoxically, he sees the Jewish problem as ‘the curse of history,’ impossible to solve. For Cioran, however, opposition to the Jews was a mark of the health of the nation: they were enemies to nationalism other than their own and Romanian democracy was in the service of the Jews. Like the Legionaires, he believed that Romania had far too many Jews. For him a small number would have been acceptable as they tended to quicken the pace of historical development; too many, however, and the fabric of the nation becomes threatened. If what constituted the correct quantity remained vague so did his solution to the problem: the ‘isolation of foreigners’. On this point, the Legionaires were unequivocal: the expulsion of the Jews.
WWI was one of the greatest catastrophes in European history. The war undermined the belief in progress and the faith in human reason which had gained prominence over the course of the 19th century. The dominant characteristic of WWI was that it seemed to lack purpose or meaning. The war itself, however, was seen as the symptom of a much deeper crisis for which intellectuals of the generation between the wars sought solutions in political extremes. Cioran, as part of this generation, wasn’t immune from this extremism, but he sought solutions in the extremes of both the right and the left rather than one or the other. (Perhaps, for Cioran, at the extremities these ideologies merge.) Certainly, aspects of Marxism influenced Cioran: he saw capitalism and the bourgeois world as doomed; he also saw that the purpose of philosophy — during his political phase — is to change the world, rather than merely to understand it. The reason Cioran’s radicalism should be considered right-wing, however, is its emphasis on the collective entity of the Romanian nation; left-wing radicalism is typically internationalistic.
The Transformation is a work of metapolitics, and therefore does not deal much with how to attain political power. Codreanu’s Legionaires on the other hand, apart from having worked out a program for the acquisition of power, were explicitly Christian. Given their fundamental differences, it is unsurprising that Codreanu should write Cioran a polite but dismissive letter following publication of The Transfiguration. Like many other such works, The Transfiguration fell stillborn from the press. With the failure of his political ambition, Cioran moved to Paris — ostensibly on another scholarship — where gradually his interest in Romania and politics declined. He abandoned all hope in political solutions and came to see the need for solutions as the problem. In Paris he lived a parasitical existence, refusing to work, and resumed acquaintance with whores, winos, and derelicts, feeling he would learn more about life from them than from professors of philosophy.
The idea of some crime or mistake in the past coming to haunt the present is at least as old as Oedipus Rex. As Petreu suggests in An Infamous Past, Cioran was plagued by the guilt that he had committed such a mistake: the primordial mistake of writing less-than-complimentary things about the Jews. But even if, as judged by the most feverish snowflake, Cioran’s writings constitute a crime; surely, in a Godless universe there is no necessary connection between crime and punishment. It is also difficult to see what could constitute a mistake in terms of Cioran’s philosophy, where truth and falsehood are conflated with one another. (Perhaps the feeling of being a charlatan is inescapable for the philosopher, as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski said.) Although he subsequently revised his opinion of Hitler and the Jews, Cioran regretted he had ever entered the treacherous shallows of political commitment.
It may have been his association with the likes of Samuel Beckett which exacerbated his sense of guilt. Beckett, a writer who dwelt on similar themes of angst, despair and exhaustion, chose to fight the Nazis by joining the French Resistance, although there is nothing in his (Beckett’s) writing to suggest his motivation for doing so. Like Josef K in The Trial, Cioran felt that punishment is drawn remorselessly towards guilt, but unlike Josef K, Cioran seems to have suffered no actual punishment. The only evidence the author cites of such is the Romanian playwright Eugen Ionesco, who said he could never forgive Cioran for his fascist past, and the Legionaires, who denounced him as a traitor and a philo-Semite.
Indeed there is evidence that his ‘infamous past’ was exonerated, which the author fails to mention. No less an éminence grise than Susan Sontag (of the infamous quote, ‘the White race is the cancer of human history,’ who herself ironically enough was to die of cancer) granted Cioran an imprimatur, writing the introduction to the English translation of his collection The Temptation to Exist (1956); she only awarded a B-, however, for ‘A Solitary People,’ his revised essay on the Jews. Perhaps the thought that he could have done better prompted the remark Cioran made on his deathbed, “I…am…not…an…anti-…Semite.” A comparison with Nietzsche again seems appropriate: Nietzsche stared into the abyss, saw there is no God and went mad; Cioran stared into the abyss, saw there is no God and worried that people might think him anti-Semitic. After all, as Revilo P. Oliver put it: God is the Big Jew of the Old Testament.
Roger L. Simon
I got further confirmation of the decline of Hollywood the other day from my Fedex delivery man. He showed up at my door on the eve of Thanksgiving with yet another pile of Academy screeners I was required to sign for fear, if they were not delivered to me personally, they could end up being whisked over the Internet to waiting DVD pirates in Hong Kong. (They should be so lucky.)As I dutifully signed, the Fedex guy asked me what I thought of the movies that were arriving. He had evidently been getting feedback from others. (Don't shoot me, but I live in a neighborhood dotted with Academy members who vote in the Oscars). Before I could answer -- maybe he was reading my blasé expression, or did I let out a weary sigh -- he said that's what everyone on his route was saying. It was a lousy year.Lousy, indeed. Of the thirty or so screeners that had already arrived at my house, there was hardly a one I wanted to see -- even for free. Voting in the Oscars, once a thrill, was getting to be a chore.In fact, it had been a chore for a number of years now. Movies were on a steep decline and everyone knew it. The films of today -- from the puerile eco-babble of Avatar on the one hand to you pick the solemn indy of the year on the other -- were a far cry from Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia, almost not the same art form, certainly a lesser one.It set me to wondering, once again, why this was happening. Sure, there was the well-known excessive liberalism of Hollywood, but that was there back in the seventies when they made The Godfather and Chinatown.No, it was something else and I have to think the very technology we love plays a great role in it. The medium has outrun the message (the message in this case being the art of film... as well as other art forms, I'm afraid.)
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