Saturday, July 24, 2010

Struggling with Schopenhauer 2

Struggling with Schopenhauer 2


Some years back a SNA acquaintance remarked of one of her charges that “that poor boy is a tormented soul.” Anyone who attempts to read Schopenhauer will realise quite quickly that Arthur was such a tormented soul, but one who was so extraordinarily gifted that he managed by reason alone to come to some equanimity and peace of mind. In the days before psychotherapy, this man worked to heal his own soul as best he could, and, to some extent he managed that. Obviously, Yalom and many others would argue that this is true, but that reason will only bring us so far, and that living the life of a recluse cuts us off from healthy human relationships and much needed human nourishment.

Arthur’s mother, being a single-minded woman, focussed largely on her own career and what she really wanted out of life after years of an oppressive marriage, desired to keep her son at a safe distance where he would not interrupt her goals. However, her letters to him show that she did care much for him, and that she knew his character very well indeed. It could also be said that, unusual for a woman at the time, that she showed him what we today call “hard love,” and laid the foundations for the intellectual success of her son. Indeed, I feel she gifted him with the precious pearl of freedom to pursue his intellectual pursuits in as strong a fashion as she pursued her own literary and cultural ones. The letters quoted by Yalom show not alone a determined and strong woman, but also a deeply understanding woman who knew her son only too well. I would say she was a very good psychologist – no wonder she became a good novelist. I especially loved the following lines from one of her letters to the young Arthur:

“That I am very fond of you I am sure you will not doubt. I have proven it to you, and will prove it to you as long as I live. It is necessary for my happiness to know that you are happy, but not to be a witness to it. I have always told you that you are very difficult to live with.... The more I get to know you the more strongly I feel this.” (Quoted The Schopenhauer Cure, p. 123)

The therapist’s skills and insight in Yalom see Arthur’s immense guilt about his father’s suicide as a major factor in his tormented personality. He would have felt guilty that it was Heinrich’s suicide that finally freed him to pursue his intellectual pursuits in philosophy. He also feared that he might have precipitated his father’s death by his lack of interest in the commercial world. Shortly, this guilt transferred itself into his fierce defence of his father’s good name, and his vicious criticism of his mother’s behaviour towards his father. There is not a little misogyny in Schopenhauer, and here we have its genesis.

Mother and son fought bitterly, and indeed there were two combatants in the fight, but it is hard not to believe from the evidence marshalled by Yalom, Russell and Magee and many other scholars that Arthur was mostly to blame as he possessed such a contrary view of life and of people. For the last twenty five years of her life mother and son were never to meet again or even to correspond.

As regards Arthur’s personality, it is quite an understatement to say that he was prickly. He habitually failed to inspire loving, generous and joyful responses even as a child. Also his father had been chronically depressed for the last few years of his life, always anxious, stubborn, distant and singularly unable to enjoy life.

From a young age, Yalom avers on the evidence adduced from correspondence between parents and son show Arthur’s disinterest in social activities. His diaries, even as a young boy, reveal his precocious ability to distance himself from most worldly concerns and to view things from a cosmic perspective. Arthur always prided himself on this objectivity, this cosmic perspective, or as he put it himself, his ability “to view things from the wrong end of the telescope.” (Quoted The Schopenhauer Cure, p. 172)

Also, as Bertrand Russell has pointed out there are two other traits evident in the young and indeed the old Arthur, viz., a deep misanthropy coupled with a relentless pessimism. Schopenhauer became a bitter, angry man who referred to all humans as “bipeds.” He would definitely agree with Thomas a Kempis that “Every time I went out among men I came back less human.”

Schopenhauer’s misanthropy is present all through his work and exquisitely expressed in his parable of the porcupines. Indeed, this parable of his is so well known that it is quoted in a major twentieth century work on human development edited by Eric Raynor et al (See Human Development: An Introduction to the Psychodynamics of Growth, Maturity and Ageing, p. 223). This parable runs thus:

One cold winter’s day a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order, through their mutual warmth, to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effects of their quills on one another, which made them move apart. Now when the need for warmth once again brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so they were tossed between two evils, until they discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the needs of society, which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s lives drives them together but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities once more drive them apart. (Quoted The Schopenhauer Cure, pp.207-208)

To finish this post, it is interesting that Raynor et al see this parable as “capturing a task facing every couple” in their relationships. (Op. cit., p. 223)



To be continued.

Above the famous statue of the Miner in city of Catazaro, a photo I took last week.  In a sense we are all miner's of our own meaning!!

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