Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Misfortune in general is the rule - influential Schopenhauer

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.


  1. So the line from the Gershwins' song - "my nights were sour, spent with Schopenhauer" - is more than just a clever rhyme.

    So what is the chief influence of Schopenhauer on these writers: his pessimism - and I'm assuming this was a factor in the turn towards the base and sordid in realism - or was it more the influence on aesthetics and the writer's view of the purpose of his or her art? Or maybe those can't be pulled apart. I'm now curious about his likely influence on Carl Jonas Love Almqvist's The Queen's Tiara n given that work's rooting about in suffering and pessimism, its attempt to transcend all that through art, and what seems a very Schopenhauer-worthy effort to fuse music and literature.

    (I'll probably have to opt out of the Zibaldone read-along - I doubt my back will support it - but thanks anyway!).

  2. Woah now, Tom does philosophy, what's happening? I'm scared! But seriously.

    It is not clear to me how his metaphysics requires his pessimism – they seem separable.

    I agree about this, and the idea that it's his "stance" that was very influential. I expect, also, that your speculation about Hardy's introduction and reaction is probably right for many writers (and many readers of Schopenhauer in general).

    But you tease about VN! Are you going to post more on this? And have you seen this?

  3. Ah ha, ah ha! I see the direction I should have taken. It is too late now. Next time.

    Here we have Scott's piece about The Queen's Tiara by Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, published in 1834, a date that makes it not impossible but unlikely that Almqvist had been reading Schopenhauer, since almost no one read Schopenhauer until 1851 or so.

    More likely is that we are seeing the common links of Schopenhauer and Almqvist to Kant and to the merry world of German Romanticism, to Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was a composer and whose works are full of music.

    So the posts I should have written - or the novel someone else should write - would treat Schopenhauer as a Hoffmann character. Scott Bailey urged me to treat Schopenhauer's book as a novel, but I did not see a way in. This is a way in. This could work.

    Now, as to your question, Scott, I think the answer must be made on a case by case basis. Wagner responded deeply to Schopenhauer, absorbing all of it (several, four, many recently wrote about this). For Maupassant, Schopenhauer added some intellectual weight to a fashionable attitude. D. H. Lawrence made use of a completely different part of Schopenhauer, something I have not mentioned, his ethical rather than aesthetic side, erotic love as a transcendence of the self. Nabokov had no use for the pessimism, but did something with the metaphysics.

    nicole, is this doing philosophy, or avoiding philosophy?

    Yes, I will at least scratch the surface of the surprising influence on Nabokov. In the elite world he grew up in, Schopenhauer must have been common currency, just as it was in Vienna and Paris at the time.

    I will tell you my problem, as a temperamental optimist, with that Bookforum piece. Osteen is of course ridiculous, but I find Schopenhauer similarly ridiculous, with the difference that Sch. is much, much funnier. Someone should replace the Osteen part with quotations from 30 Rock's Kenneth Parcell for comedic balance.

  4. I'd never call VN a pessimist. He was more a frustrated realist romantic, I think. His books are full of dashed hopes, but it's the hope that drives the narrative.

    And yeah, you should write about philosophers as if they were characters in other writers' novels. That would be fun. I have vague plans to someday write about Wittgenstein as if he's a Chekhov character. Give me about five years.

  5. I do not mean that VN was a "frustrated artist" type. I think anyone who's a romantic and a realist is probably frustrated by life, but that's a comment about me, not about Nabokov. Though I've never read his memoirs, so I juat make old Vladimir up: an imaginary character who wrote a bunch of novels that I have read.

  6. The character Nabokov played was definitely not frustrated by life - see above, Alpine honey. The butterflies alone kept him happy.

    I have doubts about "realist," too, but that's a separate topic. Madame Bovary is a "fairy tale," etc.

  7. What we call Schopenhauer's "pessimism" is indeed inseparable from his philosophy. The blind striving and violent state of nature are the results of human epistemology. In order to know, we must objectify and fragment the Will. Objectified and fragmented Will leads to violence and strife. This is not something we can control or change through reason or education or socialism. Hence we must learn to deal with it.

    Of course, for those of us living in the 21st century, this isn't really news. We accept it as a matter of course. It doesn't seem so much pessimism as reality. But for generation raised on Kant's Erklarung, Goethe's Bildung and Fourier's Phalanx this is a very dark and deeply disturbing vision of the world. And by mid-century one that largely comes to pass.

    Those reading Schopenhauer today often miss the pessimism (as opposed to reading about Schopenhauer where all you hear about is pessimism). We know from Psychology that we are not entirely in control of our actions and from recent History that the world can be a nasty place so we are not shocked or surprised. What we do see is a philosopher with a sharp wit and delightful sense of humor. And today that is about as optimistic as we get.

  8. I think we use "realist" to mean different things. Bovary is an unrealistic story that uses realist narrative technique. Invitation to a Beheading is a realist story that uses un- or hyper-realistic narrative technique. The "real" to which I refer has to to do with the inner lives of protagonists as portrayed in VN's novels. He sometimes surrounds these protagonists with clowns and stereotypes, but the internal worlds of the central characters are always true-to-life. You can't say that about Bovary. Emma and Charles are about as real as Little Red Riding Hood. The triumph of Flaubert seems to be a technical one, not one of artistict or emotional perceptiveness. I'm sure I'm not being clear at all. I find it harder to talk coherently about writing as time goes on.

    1. What's so unreal about Emma?

    2. Hey, you beat me to the question. Scott, I'll just say that lots of people say exactly that about Emma, so it can be done. Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a whole book about it.

      Nabokov writes somewhere that the word "reality" should always be in quotation marks (which is, I now see, an idea related to Schopenhauer).

    3. She's an idea, not a person. I admire Flaubert's craft, but I never believed in any of the characters. What's real about her? She's selfish desire in a frilly dress and gloves, but she's got no soul. Gustave gets closer to reality when he leans on Emma's naivete, but she's still an emblem, too much just one thing.

    4. I don't want to knock Bovary too much. I do like the book, after all.

  9. And today that is about as optimistic as we get.

    Oh no, we can get way more optimistic than that. Just ask any optimist! He'll tell you.

    I get that for Schopenhauer's system the pessimism comes out of the metaphysics. Well, I kind of get it. I don't really get it - some of this sounds like he is writing out the rules for casting spells in his fantasy role-playing game. Let's pretend I get it. What I don't see is how the pessimism logically follows. Surely some philosopher has started from the same premise and ended up in a different place?

    In fairness to myself, setting aside my ignorance, in Essays and Aphorisms the argument you describe is not spelled out at all.

    I'll point out to anyone interested that severalfourmany's comment shows another reason why Schopenhauer's idea became so useful - they fit comfortably with Darwinism and other, later scientific ideas, and also with Freud. The philosophy and science complemented each other nicely.

  10. sounds like he is writing out the rules for casting spells in his fantasy role-playing game.

    Yes, when you condense a 1,000 page philosophical system with 1,200 pages of supplements into a few sentences it does start to have a rather cartoon-like character.

    The Internet Encyclopedia has a more detailed explanation that might be helpful.

  11. Speaking of cartoon-like characters, Neil Gaiman's Sandman series turns out to be full of Schopenhauer, too. The god-like characters who are personalized representations of abstract forces - Dream, Death, and so on - are aspects of Schopenhauer's Will given human-like consciousness, with the kind of human-like consequences severalfourmany describes above. The conclusion of the long series relates directly to what I described in the next Nabokov post.

    Someone should write an essay about this. I am just giving the idea away, free of charge.

  12. another reason why Schopenhauer's idea became so useful - they fit comfortably

    Not just a comfortable fit, in many cases they were the cause or at least the spark of those ideas.

    Unlike the cases of Poe and Melville, Schopenhauer's influence on later scientific thinking is clear and well established. The new disciplines of the human sciences, particularly psychology, are developed from his philosophy.

    Freud, in particular, was a close reader of Schopenhauer. There are striking parallels between their two systems. Even their German prose styles have some affinity.

  13. Ah, you are in the "Freud was lying when he said he hadn't read Schopenhauer" camp. That seems likely. The Schopenhauer scholars all seem to believe it, at least.

  14. Freud was extremely well read. Any well read Viennese at the time would be swimming Schopenhauer and his influence. Even more, it is hard to convincingly argue that you have never read someone when you directly quote them in your writings.

    Just one of many examples:

  15. That is part of Janaway's argument, that even if Freud really did not read Sch. until relatively late in his life, his educational and cultural setting was awash in Schopenhauer's ideas - at the very least "Freud must have known at some level what to avoid reading, in order to preserve this title to originality" (107).

    Jung, by contrast, noted that he read Sch, with enthusiasm in his teens, in the 1890s.

  16. I know he claims in An Autobiographical Study that he did not read Schopenhauer until late in life but this is clearly not true. Perhaps Schopenhauer was such an integral part of his thinking that he forgot where it came from. Interpretation of Dreams, and early work from 1900 refers to Schopenhauer several times and Parerga and Paralipomena is listed in the bibliography.

  17. His metaphysical arguments and his so-called "pessimism" (in reality it has no value: it just is, you -and many others- put it a label as "pessimism") are inseparable. His stance to life comes from the realization of the Will psychological represented as volition. Since we can not, by any means satiate our desires, or we suffer, or we become bored (which, to Schopenhauer, it is even worse). The only ones who doesn't suffer are the stupid people, cause they "jump" from one superficial desire to another superficial desire...endlessly until the end of their days. To think is to suffer.

  18. I fear I will never understand philosophy. "To think is to suffer." Like hell it is.

  19. Now, to be fair, thinking may have been suffering to Schopenhauer. I find I enjoy philosophy more if I read it as subjective scribbling, like all other writing.

  20. To Schopenhauer, and apparently to poor Mr. Demos. I should have expressed sympathy for his sad condition. Very sorry, Mr. Demos - I hope it all clears up soon. I hope you are having a pleasant autumn in Peru.

    My only hope with philosophy is to read it just as you say, Doug, as literature, as essays written artfully or otherwise.

  21. I suppose I read many books that I don't know how to categorize. I've been reading Agrippa's "Occult Philosophy" and Rousseau's "Reveries of a Solitary Walker." Are they philosophy? Maybe; I don't know what the hell they are. Except, of course, odd books written by lively writers.

  22. Long ago, in the first post I ever wrote that was devoted to whining about philosophy, a number of friendly, well-meaning commenters suggested some Philosophers for the Fearful. My little joke, except that I was not joking, was to define each candidate as something other than philosophy. I more or less know how to read Reveries of a Solitary Walker on its own terms.