I’m interested in history as a narrative by philosophers of history, such as Hegel and Spengler. In this post I’ll go over the observations of two twentieth century thinkers: Oswald Spengler and Emil Cioran.
In his mature work, Cioran warned against the temptation of falling prey to the carousel of appearances. Given that, history is a territory of evil, a necessarily painful period that induces a fatal self-destruction, a remorseless force that subjects everything to the inexorable corrosion of time, speeding up the pace towards the end. The theme of destiny is prominent in Cioran’s French work, which continues the thread of Spengler’s World as History thesis.
In Cioran’s first French work, A Short History of Decay, the section “faces of decadence” is heavily influenced by Spengler’s descriptions of a culture that is on the verge of decline. Cioran starts with Spengler’s observations: in contrast with the unconscious individual of his cultural periods, the declined individual institutes a “reign of lucidity.” (pp. 115) The myths of the creative periods of Spengler are replaced by the concepts.
This degradation enforces the abdication of exhausted instincts and a tyranny of reason, which inhibits the natural spontaneity of emotions: “Decadence is merely instinct gone impure under the action of consciousness.” (pp. 116) Religious fermentation is replaced by the inability of belief, leading to the decline of divinity. Man kills his gods in order to be free, but at the cost of his creativity. “…for man is free – and sterile – only in the interval when the gods die; slave – and creative – only in the interval when, as tyrants, they flourish.”
Spengler on the other hand, interprets decline differently. He saw a formula in civilization the culture adopts once it reached its end, without the end questioning the survival of the entire species, and without intending a general twilight, denying the possibility for new cultures to emerge, a universal decline. Cioran chose an alternative vision that contradicted the cyclic perspective of Spengler’s morphology of culture, one that saw in the symptomatology of decadence either preparing for an apocalyptic extinction of the entire human race, or proof of a permanent decline.
Instead of the circularity of the model of Spengler, Cioran has a reckless, dangerous path towards catastrophe that results in either the final annihilation of the species or a post-historical condition that is inevitably resigned to a regression towards a race of the sub-human.
Cioran appropriates Spengler’s diagnosis of decline, but in a unitary vision of history that rejects discontinuity and abandons the structural homologies that were intended for studying major culture:
“we are the great invalids, overwhelmed by old dreams, forever incapable of utopia, technicians of lassitude, gravediggers of the future, horrified by the avatars of the Old Adam. The Tree of Life will no longer have spring as one of its seasons: so much dry wood; out of it will be made coffins for our bones, our dreams, and our griefs.” (ASHoD, pp. 124)
You may be asking yourself just how well do these narratives stand up empirically? I come from the Hayden White school of thought when it comes to history, or more appropriately, historical methodology and the consciousness of historians. If history is conceived as a narrative, as a literary genre, then the claims of truth and objectivity in historical work is called under question. If historical narratives are verbal fictions, then their contents are as much invented as found, and their forms have more in common with literature than they do with the sciences.
Yes, historical narratives do proceed from empirically validated facts (existence of locations and persons and things) and events (chronology), they always require imaginative steps to place them in a coherent story. All history is always only a selection of a number of historical events, therefore, truth is compromised from the get-go.
If the objective reconstruction of the past is the intent, then history will always fail, because the process involved in writing history is a literary one with interpretative narrative, instead of objective empiricism or social theory. The rhetorical and metaphorical and ideological strategies of explanations of all historians are the crux of the issue. Narratives explain why such and such took place, but they’re embedded within the assumptions the historian holds about the forces that influence the appearance of causation. These forces are a combination of the following elements: race, gender, class, culture, weather, coincidence, geography, region, politicians with blunderbuss rhetoric, etc., etc. While individual statements may be true or false, narrative as a collection of individual statements exceeds their sum.
Spengler‘s mode of emplotment is satirical, where individuals are prisoners of history. His mode of argument seems mechanistic, where his World as History is about laws that govern the operations of human activities. Spengler’s ideology seems conservative, because according to him history evolves, but change occurs slowly as part of a “natural” rhythm. He prefigures the writing of history with the particular trope or deep poetic structure of synecdoche, where the part represents the whole.
Cioran, on the other hand, uses irony as a trope in order to provide oxymoronic examples or absurd expressions in a negational manner. His ideology is anarchic, because the West is corrupt and must be destroyed, and a new community must begin. Cioran’s mode of argumentation is clearly contextualist, where events are explained by their relationships to other events and they can be traced back to origins – the origins of self-consciousness in Paradise. For Cioran, like Spengler, history is satirical throughout.