The Grinch who stole happiness
“In the Presence of Schopenhauer,” by Michel Houellebecq (Polity Press)
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Every volume by Arthur Schopenhauer, and in particular “The World as Will and Representation,” should carry a warning label: Not to be read before the age of 30, especially by those maintaining a “Romantic” outlook on life. Why? because the German philosopher (1788-1860) isn’t out to bolster our illusions but to dispel them. In other words, no dangling carrot of false hope. In “The Pessimist’s Handbook” he writes: “For the safest way of not being miserable is not to expect to be happy.”
However, Schopenhauer is among the most readable of the great philosophers, with his hardcore pessimism delivered in a candy wrapper so that the unsuspecting young consumer may not immediately realize what it is he or she is digesting. Others, Frances Bowen for instance, have cautioned us: “The man had a positive genius for literature and metaphysics, though unquestionably it was an evil genius.” And H.G. Schenk: “The futility of life… is the dominant theme of Schopenhauer’s gloomy philosophy, but here such depth is reached that, in some ways, his nihilism has a strong diabolical tinge.”
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When he was in his mid-twenties, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq checked out Schopenhauer’s “Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life” from the library in the Latour-Maubourg district of Paris. It was, he writes, “very late in life for such a major discovery.” After listing many of the books and authors he’d already encountered he comes to a full stop: “And then, in a few minutes, everything dramatically changed.”
In later years, Houellebecq (born 1956) became an acclaimed and rather controversial novelist. His books include “Platform,” “The Possibility of an Island,” “Submission,” and “Serotonin.” Despite the uproar generated by his writing, in 2010 he was given the prestigious Prix Goncourt and in 2019 was awarded France’s highest order of merit, the Légion d’honneur.
In her introduction to the current work, ably translated by Andrew Brown, Agathe Novak-Lechevalier writes that “Schopenhauer, the expert in suffering, the radical pessimist, the solitary misanthrope, proved to be ‘reinvigorating’ reading for Houellebecq—you feel less lonely when there are two of you.”
But 10 years after discovering Schopenhauer, Houellebecq chanced upon Auguste Comte and became a positivist. Perhaps this was a reprieve, or a breath of badly-needed fresh air. And today? Houellebecq tells us that “I nowadays rarely reread Comte.” Schopenhauer, of course, forever lingers.
It was after finishing his novel “The Possibility of An Island” (published in 2005) that Houellebeq considered a book-length project devoted to the German philosopher, and he began to translate select passages while also adding to them his own commentary. There were some 30 extracts when he put the project aside, and “In the Presence of Schopenhauer” is what we’re left with. Most of what he quoted was taken from the book of aphorisms he’d earlier come across and also “The World as Will and Representation,” a very long work (I have it in two volumes, amounting to over 1100 pages, and I, too, read them in my mid-twenties).
“I propose to show, through some of my favorite passages,” Houellebecq begins, “why Schopenhauer’s intellectual attitude remains to me a model for any future philosopher; and also why, even if you ultimately find yourself in disagreement with him, you cannot fail to be deeply grateful to him.”Holiday Cheer? No, not here
Referring to Schopenhauer’s principal conceit, Morse Peckham wrote that, “The true analogy by which we can grasp the world is not from the structure of the mind but from the drive of the will.” In Schopenhauer’s universe—and, very unusual for his time, he was influenced by the Upanishads—all of nature is blindly striving, pushing and clawing its way forward, without any altruism in the mix whatsoever. Only rarely, caught up in this endless surge, can we stick our heads above the muck and briefly deny the will its power over us. But let’s look at some examples from the text. Here’s Schopenhauer, circumscribing our potential as human beings:
“Nobody can escape from his individuality. And it is the same for a man as for an animal: whatever the conditions in which we place him, he remains trapped in the narrow circle that nature has irrevocably drawn for his being, which explains, for example, why our efforts to make happy a loved animal must, because of these limits in its being and its consciousness, necessarily remain within very restricted limits; man also has his possibilities of happiness fixed in advance by his individuality. In particular, the limits of his intellectual power determine once and for all his aptitude for elevated enjoyment… Even education cannot do much, if anything, to expand this circle.” In short, “until the end of his days a fool remains a fool, a moron remains a moron, even if he is in paradise and surrounded by ‘houris.’” (Houris being willing young women)
Houellebecq’s rejoinder, in part: “It is easy to agree that a moron is largely unable to enjoy the beauties of a symphony or a subtle piece of reasoning; this is more surprising in the case of, say, fellatio; and yet experience confirms it. The richness of pleasure, even sexual pleasure, resides in the intellect, and it is directly proportional to the power of the latter; unfortunately, the same is true of pain.”
Schopenhauer again: “As all the external sources of happiness and pleasure are, by their nature, highly uncertain, doubtful, ephemeral, and subject to chance, they dry up in certain circumstances; moreover, this is inevitable, as they cannot always be at hand. In old age, they almost all inevitably decline; for it is then that we are abandoned by love, banter, the pleasure of traveling and horse riding, as well as the aptitude to play a part in the world, and even by our friends and relatives who are taken from us by death…
“There is not much to be gained in this world: privation and suffering fill it, and for those who have avoided these, boredom lurks at every corner. Moreover, it is usually mediocrity that governs this world and foolishness that speaks out. Fate is cruel and men are wretched.”
We need not say more. A little Schopenhauer never hurt anyone; a lot of Schopenhauer can kill you. ER