From the north

Caspar David Friedrich, Das Eismeer, 1823-24.

I first became aware of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy through a reading of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks during my sophomore year of college. Towards the end of the book, middle-class merchant Thomas Buddenbrooks, in late middle age and grimly contemplating the slow disarray into which his business and family had fallen over three or four generations, takes a book down from his shelf and rather randomly opens it to an essay called “On Death and Its Relation to the Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature.” (Neither its author nor the name of the essay itself is revealed by Mann.) I don’t have a copy of the novel with me now, but the Wikipedia page for the novel describes Buddenbrooks’ reaction this way:

From this chapter’s influence, he had such thoughts as “Where shall I be when I am dead? … I shall be in all those who have ever, do ever, or ever shall say ‘I’” … “Who, what, how could I be if I were not — if this my external self, my consciousness, did not cut me off from those who are not I?” … “Soon will that in me which loves you be free and be in and with you — in and with you all.” “I shall live … Blind, thoughtless, pitiful eruption of the urging will!” Schopenhauer had written that “Egoism really consists in man’s restricting all reality to his own person, in that he imagines he lives in this alone, and not in others. Death teaches him something better, since it abolishes this person, so that man’s true nature, that is his will, will henceforth live only in other individuals.” According to this teaching, there really is no self to lose when death occurs. What is usually considered to be the self is really the same in all people and animals, at all times and everywhere. … However, a few days after reading Schopenhauer, “his middle-class instincts” brought Thomas Buddenbrook back to his former belief in a personal Father God and in Heaven, the home of departed individual souls. There could be no consolation if conscious personal identity is lost at death.

However deeply affected by this reading, Thomas Buddenbrooks eventually once again becomes, as T.S. Eliot might have it in “Burnt Norton,” “Distracted from distraction by distraction,” and soon the realization is lost in the familial and professional requirements of his daily life.

Obviously I was much younger than old Tom Buddenbrooks when I followed up Mann’s reference to Schopenhauer, but soon enough I was quite affected by Schopenhauer as well, and not just by this passage. The philosophy appealed to my temperament, and soon I was also tracing it in the work of artists like Richard Wagner and Samuel Beckett, who both explicitly acknowledged Schopenhauer’s influence; culturally, Schopenhauer also influenced the philosophical foundations of the Central and Eastern European cultures of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Readers of this blog over the years may remember I wrote quite a bit about it ten to fifteen years ago. Alas, those posts have gone the way of all things, and I too became distracted from distraction by distraction — but this result constitutes the aftermath of most epiphanies.

Unlike the artists and philosophers of Western Europe and ancient Greece, those of Central and Eastern Europe lived in a colder climate: No south of France, no Mediterranean Sea to which to escape for most of them, and although writers like Plato and Voltaire were central to the culture of Europe, those of Austria, Germany, and Norway were similarly somewhat chillier than their southern counterparts. To what extent the weather affected their thinking is an amusing question. But certainly the mythologies of Northern Europe — the Icelandic eddas, the Central European epics of the Nibelungenlied, Tristan, and Parsifal — are more spare, less sunny than those of their Southern European counterparts. Their eroticism (for they’re just as erotic as those of ancient Greece) is also more spare, cooler, but I believe more intense and even metaphysical (hence Freud’s admission that Schopenhauer had in some ways gotten to everything before him).

Unfortunately we do not live in an Age of Schopenhauer but an Age of Nietzsche, an age of some pretty shoddy Übermenschen, for who are people like Donald Trump or Elon Musk but powerful individuals who believe they are above the concerns of ordinary people and beyond good and evil (or, to put it another way, legal and illegal), who believe they can remake the world in their own image? Colleges and universities are still filled with glib, armchair Übermenschen, they and their charges chuckling at the ignorance of the rest of the world. The grim realism of Schopenhauer is immensely less attractive than the sunny Dionysian paroxysms of power, egotism, and self-assertion of Nietzsche. Schopenhauer’s urge to renunciation and resignation are qualities perhaps more appropriate to maturity than to youth. And so is explained their appeal to Thomas Buddenbrooks, however much he may have lost track of this insight in his remaining years.

As Buddenbrooks and Schopenhauer realized, though, this renunciation and resignation is itself a celebration of love, the love that flows in and through all things once the destructive power of will is recognized and renounced. “Soon will that in me which loves you be free and be in and with you — in and with you all,” Thomas realizes — a realization that is not beyond good and evil, but beyond optimism and pessimism, no matter how much Schopenhauer has been charged with the latter. (But Schopenhauer, unlike Nietzsche, is still somewhat out-of-fashion, especially in philosophy departments. Maybe this is appropriate, for his book is more reminiscent of a four-movement symphony than a dialectical tract: a Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony of thought.)

Through the years my library has grown and shrunk as my interests have waxed and waned, but I’ve never given up my copy of The World as Will and Representation since I bought it after reading Buddenbrooks. Of course, since then I too have been distracted from distraction by distraction, but lately I’ve been drawn to reading it again and to revisiting Wagner’s operas, which perhaps have more to say to me now that I’m at the age at which Thomas Buddenbrooks first pulled that book from the shelf. Certainly this is a chilly morning here in New York. And certainly this may be an — or, at least, another — Age of Schopenhauer as well.


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