Three Novels of Love and War viewed from a Schopenhauerian Perspective: Introduction


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Three Novels of Love and War: A Schopenhauerian Perspective

 

 

this essay started off as a comment on the unjustly forgotten novel whose setting is China during the Japanese occupation, A Leaf in the Storm. As a ‘novel of love and war’ it immediately made me think of two other great novels with similar themes and settings, War and Peace set in Russia during Napoleon’s invasion and Gone with the Wind, set in Georgia during the American Civil War. I was re-reading Schopenhauer at the time and I felt strongly that he would have very much approved of A Leaf in the Storm, with its Buddhistic moral of self-sacrifice and renunciation. This in turn drove me to re-read War and Peace and Gone with the Wind and to ponder whether a similar Schopenhauerian analysis could be applied to them.

            Nietzsche’s powerful antithesis between the Apollonian and Dionysian elements in a culture or personality has been used time and again since the author’s death to get a handle on all sorts of things which otherwise would be slippery or impenetrable. Schopenhauer’s dichotomy between the ‘World as Will’ and the ‘World as Idea’ is even more useful but has not been much applied in works of criticism (mainly, one feels, because of the difficult and rather misleading term ‘Idea’). As it happens, the Schopenhauerian dichotomy fits these three novels I have mentioned amazingly well but before I deal with  them, it is as well to give a brief résumé of Schopenhauer’s views on life and the world as I understand them.        

 

Schopenhauer, the Supreme Pessimist

 

The world and ourselves within it are not self-explanatory. There is, seemingly, something (or someone) behind and within phenomena, and behind and within ourselves. But this something is not a loving God, nor even a Being at all, it is a sort of power that Schopenhauer, not inappropriately, calls ‘Will’. This Will manifests itself within individual human beings as the ‘will to live’ or survival instinct, it informs the Darwinian struggle for existence, is what drives sexual and commercial competitiveness and manifests itself historically as the force propelling men to carry out ‘great deeds’ of conquest, exploration, industrial invention and so forth.

            But Schopenhauer takes matters a good deal further than most life-denying philosophies of East and West in that he views activities in the inorganic world as manifestations of this same merciless Will. Even rocks and pools of water are engaged in the selfsame horrible struggle — by occupying a position in space and time a humble pebble is by implication excluding all other pebbles from occupying the selfsame position, and it is not even satisfied with where it is since it is attracted by gravity to a position which it does not currently occupy.       

            Organic nature is even worse :

 

“The existence of the plant is just such a restless, never satisfied striving, a ceaseless activity through higher and higher forms, till the final point, the seed, becomes anew a starting-point; and this is repeated ad infinitum; nowhere is there a goal, nowhere a final satisfaction, nowhere a point of rest.”

 

  Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Part I  (p. 309)   

 

            Mankind is subject to the same ceaseless striving, what in Buddhism is called ‘trishna’ (‘craving’, ‘needing’) and, being more sensitive than pebbles or plants, suffers more than they do. Everywhere  we have the spectacle of 

 

“…constant suffering without any lasting happiness. For all striving springs from want or deficiency, from dissatisfaction with one’s own state or condition, and is therefore suffering so long as it is not satisfied. No satisfaction, however, is lasting; on the contrary, it is always merely the starting-point of a fresh striving. (…) That there is no ultimate aim of striving means that there is no measure or end of suffering.”    

                 

                Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation  Part I  (p. 309)   

 

            Like Buddhism, Schopenhauer’s philosophy is a philosophy of salvation since the gloomy Western thinker does give indications of how to escape from the interminable misery of being-in-the-world. By renouncing one’s individual will, one can attain to a kind of liberation within this life, at least for a few precious moments :

 

 “The man in whom the denial of the will-to-live has dawned, however poor, cheerless, and full of privation his state may be when looked at from outside, is full of inner cheerfulness and heavenly peace.  (…) Nothing can distress or alarm him any more; nothing can any longer move him; for he has cut the thousand threads of willing which hold us bound to the world and which as craving, fear, envy, and anger drag us here and there in constant pain. He now looks back calmly and with a smile on the phantasmagoria of this world which was once able to move and agonize even his mind, but now stands before him as indifferently as chess-men at the end of a game, or as fancy dress cast off in the morning, the form and figure of which taunted and disquieted us on the carnival night. Life and its forms merely float before him as a fleeting phenomenon, as a light morning dream to one half-awake, through which reality already shines, and which can no longer deceive; and, like this morning dream, they too finally vanish without any violent transition. ”

                                                         (op. cit.  p. 309)

              

            It is here that, according to Schopenhauer, art has an important role to play since, for those of us who are incapable of leading a monastic style of life, viewing or hearing great works of art  offer us some temporary relief from the horror of everyday existence. Why so? Essentially because of the ‘distancing’ and ‘depersonalization’ which are essential features of all great works of art. In the tranquil contemplation of the beautiful   

 

“we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are,  so to speak, rid of ourselves.” 

 

We can, for example, admire the perfection of human form in a piece of sculpture without feeling the torments of sexual desire, or enjoy the play of light on stone and marble without needing to own the building. Music, being the least earthbound and least specific of the arts, rates highest, though tragedy is the most instructive since it demonstrates the “self-mortifying effects of will on individuals” and, in the finest examples, shows us the hero or heroine ending his or her life with an attitude of resignation, “having renounced, after a long conflict and much suffering, the aims pursued so keenly, and willingly giving up life itself” 1. This ‘quietening of the will-to-live’ produces a kind of ecstasy which is the nearest we are likely to get to happiness in this world.  

            Note that such moments are not moments of action, but rather of inaction and contemplation which is why I propose, in this essay, to use the term ‘spectacle’ rather than the technical Platonic term ‘Idea’, or the rather pompous term ‘Representation’. The term ‘spectacle’ does at least emphasize  the key notion of being present but not actively participating, and this is the philosophic attitude that Schopenhauer recommends. It is best not to take life and the phenomenal world too seriously, in effect to adopt the attitude of the spectator at a drama, who, however  much he or she is engrossed in what is happening on  the stage, nonetheless knows that the swords are made of wood and that the actress playing Desdemona does not in fact run any risk of being strangled.

            This reminded me of a famous classical simile of life, supposedly originating with Pythagoras, to which, as far as I know, Schopenhauer does not allude, but which would have suited his purposes perfectly.        

 

“Life, he [Pythagoras] said, is like the gathering at the Olympic festival, to which people flock from three motives : to compete for the glory of the crown, to buy and sell, or simply as spectators. So in life… some enter the service of fame and others of money, but the best choice is that of those few who spend their time in the contemplation of nature, as lovers of wisdom, that is, philosophers.”                                   

                                             Guthrie, Greek Philosophy

   

            From the Schopenhauerian perspective, of course, the first two classes of people, the athletes and the merchants, are one and the same : they are all persons driven by Will, the desire for glory being just as foolish and self-defeating as the desire for riches. The bystanders, however, who do not participate directly in the competitions are those persons who have renounced the Will to live in favour of peaceful contemplation.     

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