I am at the end of a 1969 interview of Vladimir Nabokov by BBC-2, as published in Strong Opinions (1973):
Tolstoy said, so they say, that life was a “tartine de merde” which one was obliged to eat slowly. Do you agree?
VN: I’ve never heard that story. The old boy was sometimes rather disgusting, wasn’t he? My own life is fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey. (152 of the Vintage paperback)
Sometime in the 1860s Leo Tolstoy fell under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer. He was an early adopter, so to speak, along with Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche. Schopenhauer picked up more major readers in the 1880s and 1890s, like Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust and Thomas Hardy and all of the French Symbolists and decadents.
The Schopenhauer entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a long list of writers influenced by Schopenhauer, some more plausible than others. Beckett and Bernhard and Machado de Assis, certainly; Poe and Melville – really? I have doubts about the timing; similarly, the idea that the work of Maupassant was influenced by any philosophy whatsoever seems unlikely.
But what is “influence”? I suspect that many writers responded strongly not so much to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, to his metaphysics or arguments, but to his stance, to passages like the one that leads Essays and Aphorisms:
If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world: for it is absurd to suppose that the endless affliction of which the world is everywhere full, and which arises out of the need and distress pertaining essentially to life, should be purposeless and purely accidental. Each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule. (41)
Schopenhauer’s pessimism, his idea that suffering is the norm and happiness or pleasure the exception, is not, in this book at least, argued but rather assumed. It is not clear to me how his metaphysics requires his pessimism – they seem separable.
Even the “influence” of Schopenhauer’s pessimism is questionable. I had assumed that Hardy was a clear case of influence, but it turns out this is an issue of contention among Hardy scholars.* Hardy did not read Schopenhauer until 1886 or later, after he had written numerous novels. Jude the Obscure is usually identified as the most “influenced” later novel, and Schopenhauer is mentioned in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where a character has “a renunciative philosophy which had cousinship with that of Schopenhauer and Leopardi” (Ch. 15).
Perhaps, then, it was the great poet and essayist Giacomo Leopardi** who was the great influence on Hardy. Leopardi makes Schopenhauer look almost cheery. Or perhaps a creatively mature Hardy was delighted or surprised, reading Schopenhauer, to discover a kindred spirit, a philosopher who supported Hardy’s existing views.
Now, add the special place that the arts*** play in Schopenhauer’s system as one of the few ways to escape suffering, however briefly, and no wonder so many artists found Schopenhauer so interesting. He preceded them, and he flattered them.
Curiously, a writer who I am now quite sure was influenced by Schopenhauer, even though he does not appear on any list I have seen and I had had no idea before I read Schopenhauer myself, was Vladimir Nabokov, who was not any kind of pessimist. But I too am an optimist, and I too read Schopenhauer with pleasure.
* For all of the details see T. J. Diffey, “Metaphysics and aesthetics: a case study of Schopenhauer and Thomas Hardy” in Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts, ed. Dale Jacquettte, Cambridge UP, 1996.
** This summer, Leopardi’s Zibaldone, a massive collection (2,500+ pages) of his notebooks, will for the first time be available in its entirety in English. Readalong! Am I right? Who’s with me?
*** Especially music. The relationship between Schopenhauer and a long line of composers beginning with Wagner seems more complex and perhaps deeper than that of Schopenhauer and most writers.