Friday, January 13, 2012

I Read Schopenhauer and Got Sad

I purchased a copy of Key Selections from The World as Will and Representation and Other Writings, edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher. I actually read this back in December, but I never blogged about it. I got a little down, let’s say. Not depressed or anything – just down. It was the weather, or the school, or the Schopenhauer, or the me. Let’s blame it on the Schopenhauer because that sounds most romantic.

The first selection is On the Suffering of the World, in which Schopenhauer boldly begins:
“If suffering is not the first and immediate object of our life, then our existence is the most inexpedient and inappropriate thing in the world. For it is absurd to assume that the infinite pain, which everywhere abounds in the world and springs from the want and misery essential to life, could be purposeless and purely accidental. Our susceptibility to pain is well-nigh infinite; but that to pleasure has narrow limits. It is true that each separate piece of misfortune seems to be an exception, but misfortune in general is the rule.”
One of his main points, which he brings up later, is that pleasure is merely the absence of pain. Think of a pulled muscle which has been relieved by an ice pack – the ice pack lessens the pain, and we perceive this as pleasure.

I don't understand why he wrote this without addressing the obvious argument, or perhaps I'm missing something. What about sources of pleasure that pain has no part in? Eating chocolate, for example, or hearing someone else's laughter. What about the way my ears smile when they hear Rachmaninov? They're not smiling because they're not bleeding, they're smiling because the piano is good! Schopenhauer liked sex. Did he think sex was just the absence of some pain? How does pleasure have a "negative nature" and pain a "positive" when all these pleasurable things fill us up so wonderfully? How is he defining pleasure, so that these things are not included?
I obviously haven’t studied Schopenhauer in depth, so my opinions are not opinions at all, only flimsy thoughts that could very well be wrong and will almost certainly change. But people refer to Schopenhauer as a western Buddhist of sorts. Even on the back of my book, Alain de Botton’s review mentions that Schopenhauer’s “exceptionally dark philosophy liberates us,” and Irvin Yalom has a novel out (which I haven’t read) called The Schopenhauer Cure.
This book, however, did not free me. It took my darkest thoughts and most petty grievances and put them on its pages for all the world to see. Reading Schopenhauer was like looking into a mirror; a selective, shadowy mirror. It was Schopenhauer's child Nietzsche who said "...if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes also into you." This book doesn't gaze into you so much as climb onto your back and make you carry it around, but eventually you have to shake it off. The longer it clung to me the sadder I felt, allowing this book to paint my world with deep murky purples instead of the colors of Buddhism, blue and blue and blue.*
Also, Schopenhauer has not written a word I have not thought, and subsequently I am confused as to why he’s famous today. Typically when my understanding of a subject broadens, my understanding of why that subject is appreciated broadens as well. Not so with Schopenhauer. I have no idea what makes him remarkable; reading his work did not impress me at all. What am I missing?

Finally, I haven’t read even half the essays in this book yet, but so far my favorite is On Noise. I know others laugh at Schopenhauer’s irritability where noise is involved, but I find myself very sympathetic. I too have been plagued by the useless, inane sound of the external world, and a quote I now think of daily is his:

“At times, I am tormented and disturbed for a while by a moderate and constant noise before I am clearly conscious thereof, since I feel it merely as a constant increase in the difficulty of thinking, like a weight tied to my foot, until I become aware of what it is.”
Yes. Yes, yes!

So thanks for the mirror Schopenhauer, or the monster on my back, or whatever it is I want to say you gave me. I’m a little confused about it, but that’s okay. It made for a nice, dark winter.

*This probably doesn't make sense to anyone, but I didn't want to clutter the above post by explaining more thoroughly. When I read Buddhist texts, I feel full of...emptiness, but a good emptiness, the emptiness Buddhist's speak of. You know what I'm talking about. And to me these texts are blue - a bright, vivid blue. But Schopenhauer's book made me feel dark purple. I know this isn't good evidence, saying, "Schopenhauer can't be the western Buddhist, because he's purple and not blue," but it pretty much settles the issue for me. And no one but me reads this blog anyway, so if I want to use my synesthetic proclivities as proof of something, I will.