Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Colonizing Heaven

Recently, my friend Casey asked me to look at an essay by E.M Cioran called "A People of Solitaries." It's an essay about the Jewish people in which, as Susan Sontag suggests in the introduction to the book, he demonstrates a "startling moral insensitivity to the contemporary aspects of his themes." The interesting thing, is that I skimmed through a few of the other essays in the book and like what I see; Cioran's stuff is somewhat addictive.

But here are a few of the most shocking lines (and my commentary) from this particular essay:

"Is this people not the first to have colonized heaven, to have placed its God there?" Now, call me crazy, but it seems a little gross to suddenly characterize the Jews -- a group of people who have been persecuted from the beginning, and people who until very recently did not even have a homeland -- as colonizers of anything, let alone heaven. This is one of the most insensitive statements one could make, to characterize the Jews as imperialists of heaven. In fact, Judaism is one of the few religions that doesn't actively seek proselytes. They don't send out evangelists into all corners of the earth in search of converts. They don't force their religion, or way of life, on others the way that "colonizers" would. Regardless of Ciroan's intentions, I think this statement contributes to anti-Semitism in yet another way.

"The most intolerant and the most persecuted of peoples unites universalism with the strictest particularism." From what I can tell, this essay was published not too long after the Holocaust. How is it possible to, in the wake of such a disaster, conceive of the Jewish people as as intolerant as they are persecuted?

"Although chosen, the Jews were to gain no advantage by that privilege: neither peace nor salvation . . . Quite the contrary, it was imposed upon them as an ordeal, as a punishment. A chosen people without Grace. Thus their prayers have all the more merit in that they are addressed to a God without an alibi." This is one of the things in this essay that is worth thinking seriously about. I'm not sure what he means about their prayers having more merit, but the concept of the prayers being addressed to a a God who has no alibi is interesting, and hints of other discussions of the end of theodicy -- the end of trying to conceive of a God who is good. The end of trying to make excuses for God in the wake of the Holocaust. But later in the essay, it seems that Cioran is blaming the Jews for inventing a God who would turn his back on them.

There are other things I could write about here, but this is already getting too long. An interesting thing towards the end of this essay -- Cioran reveals his own ambivalent relationship to the Jews, describing how at one point he may have wished to be a Jew, and at another he loathed Jews.

1 comment:

Casey said...

Big thanks for the commentary, Monica. Like you said, Cioran's writing is somehow addictive, and (I can vouch) most of his work doesn't deal with specific groups of people (thank goodness). I fear he's one of those artists who prove that no matter what level you reach by technique, disturbing content (even if it is only a small part of a large body of work) can be a deciding factor. I love his language, which is translated (I'm assuming) remarkably by poet Richard Howard, but yeah... very troubling, especially given the 1949-ish date of publication.

Thanks again -- keep the book as long as you like. My mailbox in Heavilon isn't very hungry for returns in the summer.