Friday, March 22, 2013

Maupassant's Schopenhauer - this one is more of a head scratcher

This one’ll be a little less – I don’t know – significant than the one about Nabokov.

I was puzzled by the inclusion of Guy de Maupassant in a couple of lists of writers influenced by Schopenhauer.  I can hardly think of a less philosophical writer than Maupassant.  From me, this is no criticism, but closer to a compliment.

Maupassant’s contemporaries were smitten with Schopenhauer.  A bunch of decadents and art-for-art’s-sakers, the combination of pessimism and aestheticism must have been irresistible, and I can see how someone like Stephane Mallarmé could have been deeply affected by Schopenhauer.  But I suspect much of the attraction was a confirmation of existing beliefs, a kind of received Schopenhauer.  “Ah! Schopenhauer alone was right,” writes J.-K. Huysman in A Rebours.  What I am asking is, would Maupassant’s fiction have been any different if he had never heard of Schopenhauer?  That is what I mean by “influence.”

At least one story would have been different, I acknowledge that.  “Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse” is one of Maupassant’s “newspaper” stories, presumably one of the 250 he wrote between 1882 and 1887.  It is no more than 1,500 words, and half of those belong to the narrative frame.  Take a look for yourself, in what must be a translation from one of the century-old “complete” Maupassant sets, before I mention the inevitable twist.

Maupassant, the narrator, meets a dying disciple of Schopenhauer, a German, at a resort.  He is spending his last days reading Schopenhauer, “always the same book… all his wasting body seemed to read, all his soul plunged, lost, disappeared, in this book, up to the hour when the cool air made him cough a little.”  He is temporarily escaping his earthly torments with the assistance of  a work of genius, just as Schopenhauer suggests.

The narrator drops in his own comments on Schopenhauer here and there, calling him “[a] disabused pleasure-seeker ,” which coming from Maupassant does not sound like praise, and “the greatest shatterer of dreams who had ever dwelt on earth.”  I have seen these phrases cited, presumably by people who do not understand fiction, as evidence of Maupassant’s devotion to Schopenhauer.

The disciple tells a brief anecdote about Schopenhauer during his life (he argued “as a dog tears with one bite of his teeth the tissues with which he plays” and had “a frightful smile”), and then a longer story about his death.

Although it begins on a solemn note, “[a] feeling of mystery,” with the disciples, sitting by the corpse, feeling that they are “enveloped” by Schopenhauer’s thoughts, the emphasis shifts to the dead man’s strange laughing face, which makes the watchers “feel ill at ease, oppressed, on the point of fainting.”  It seems the story will take an uncanny turn.  “Suddenly a shiver passed through our bones…”

Well.  I will skip the mechanics, the way Maupassant builds up the scare.  What happened is the decomposing Schopenhauer’s false teeth popped out of his head.  That’s the story Schopenhauer’s devoted follower tells about his master.  “I was really frightened that day, monsieur.”

It just seems to me that, looked at from a certain angle (the direct angle), this story looks like a frivolous, disrespectful attack on Schopenhauer, or on his disciples, or, really, on the fashion for Schopenhauer.  The materialist Maupassant dismisses the elaborate idealism of Schopenhauer’s system as the fantasy of fools.  Death is not a return to another state, but simply an end of life, a stinking corpse and mortifying tendons.

For some reason none of the Maupassant collections I read a couple of years ago included this one.  It is admittedly kind of awful.

Since I skipped Monday, I believe I will write a Saturday post.  Perhaps I will spend some time enjoying the writing of Schopenhauer himself.


  1. Love this story. It doesn't seem to me to a disrespectful attack on Schopenhauer. If feels more like Schopenhauer's ironic revenge on a romanticized misreading.

    Death is not a return to another state, but simply an end of life, a stinking corpse and mortifying tendons.

    This to me, sounds like a view that could be embraced by Schopenhauer, and Maupassant. The narrator, however is reading Musset, who provides a romantic/gothic/supernatural mocking of the dead atheist, Voltaire and regrets "the greatest shatterer of dreams." Romantic supernaturalism also appears as the doctrinaire Republican who thinks Schopenhauer to be the devil. A viewpoint perhaps inadvertently shared the consumptive follower of Schopenhauer.” The bodies of these men disappear, but they themselves remain."

    Despite the clear evidence of their senses that Schopenhauer is dead and decaying, the followers, in the best romantic gothic tradition, continue to look for something to happen. "'It seems to me that he is going to speak." Their ludicrous supernaturalism "One would have said that his immaterial essence, liberated, free, all-powerful and dominating, was flitting around us" is directly juxtaposed with Schopenhauer's gruesome realism "the dreadful odor of the decomposed body came toward us and penetrated us, sickening and indefinable."

    Schopenhauer, though dead, gets the last laugh at the expense of his romantic, hero-worshipping followers. The wry smile and teeth "open as if to bite" being quite familiar to those who read him.

    Could this story have been written with someone other than Schopenhauer? From a philosophical perspective Voltaire, Darwin or Spencer might all have been acceptable choices. Darwin is too earnest and Spencer is too direct. Voltaire has the required sense of humor but is too old to fit the chronology of the frame tale. Only Schopenhauer can match an influential materialist worldview with the self-mocking ironic wit that makes this story work.

  2. I think we roughly agree that the target is the Schopenhauer cult. I am perhaps more skeptical that the narrator's effusions should be taken at face value.

    The use of Voltaire is exceedingly clever, but Maupassant is as clever as they come.

    It is true that Schopenhauer is the ideal candidate for this story, but if the fashionable figure had been Kierkegaard, I suspect that a story similar in spirit would have been written instead of this one.

  3. Yes, Tom, read Schopenhauer. He is a spell-binding writer, and a poetic philosopher of existence. He is not a romantic. Maybe nobody has ever seen things more clearly. He disabuses us of our ideals about the meaning of existence, to show that the only possible attitude towards it can be one of compassion for living things. Death is bodily dissolution, and there is no otherworld solution; consciousness is of the body. The body is, as everything in the phenomenal world, an objectification of will to life, a will to being, but in death the constituents of each particular life are reabsorbed into the continuum of matter. "It is not the individual that nature cares for, only the species" ('The World as Will and Representation' vol. II, chapter 54). Phenomena come and go but the noumenal Will abides. "The existence of a plant is just such a restless, never satisfied striving, a ceaseless activity through higher and higher forms, till the final point, the seed, becomes a new starting point; and this is repeated ad infinitum; nowhere is there a goal, nowhere a final satisfaction, nowhere a point of rest" (WWR, II.56).

  4. Maupassant is writing to remind us of the facts of mortality with a grim humour. The corpse is a dark mirror held up to life. This is the 'hideous smile' of Musset.
    Also, I think the skincare advertising on the story page is disgustingly appropriate.

  5. Trying to imagine the Kierkegaard version of the story and I keep ending up with something like the opening of The Brothers Karamazov.

  6. Tim, thanks for the visiting, thanks for the comments. I am sure I will read more Schopenhauer, although likely more aesthetics than metaphysics. Do not expect him to make a convert of me! You have read his views on women, yes? Many people have seen at least some things more clearly.

    several4many, I wish I had not brought it up, because now I have a strong desire to read that imaginary Maupassant story you suggest.

  7. Hmmmm. Maupassant has Schopenhauer in the title of one of his stories and you question whether he was influenced by the German? Seems obvious to me that he was.

  8. Is there a way to redo the argument without the "hmmmmm"?

    "Influence" is a question of ideas, or style. A name in a title is evidence of nothing. Although this is rather more than a name in a title. It seems obvious to me that the post itself has gone unread.