Schopenhauer: A Biography by David E. Cartwright. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 575 pages.
The 1855 Jules Lunteschütz portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer that graces the cover of David E. Cartwright’s new biography of the philosopher depicts a different man from the stern magus of the 1859 Johann Schäfer photograph that appears on the cover of the Dover Publications edition of The World as Will and Representation, or even the romantic youth of Ludwig Ruhl’s 1818 portrait that appears on the cover of Bryan Magee’s The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. On Lunteschütz’s canvas one sees an older and formal but not uncongenial man with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, certainly not without humor but a formidable presence nonetheless. The mischief, formality and formidability all emerge from Cartwright’s own portrait, the first full-length, English-language biography of the philsopher: a worthy successor to Rudiger Safranski’s lush, sometimes romantic Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, and a timely volume as well.
Over the past twenty years, Schopenhauer’s star has once again been on the rise in both the academy and on the shelves of general bookstores, and it’s fitting that this biography accompanies the new Cambridge University Press edition of Schopenhauer’s works. Fitting because instructive: as a writer who believed that true philosophy was born in experience rather than abstract conceptualizations of the world, Schopenhauer’s own story should reveal something of the genesis of his extraordinary work. And fitting because timely: Schopenhauer would no doubt assert that the passage of nearly two centuries since the publication of his magnum opus should be no barrier to applying its conclusions today. Schopenhauer would dismiss the idea that thought over time reaches slowly towards some kind of Absolute truth or spirit, the progressivist argument that Hegel and his followers conceived as the march of history towards some kind of immanent State or Church that would conceivably demonstrate a redemption for mankind. Though science continues to search for and believes it has found some kind of physiological, evolutionary thesis for the emergence of consciousness, this would still only answer the “how,” not the “why,” of the mystery and wonder of life on earth.
Cartwright, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, has been publishing on Schopenhauer for several decades, and appropriately his breezy text is something of a warts-and-all picture. Certainly Schopenhauer’s legendary misogyny receives considerable attention, in both the first and the final portions of the biography, noting that just before his death Schopenhauer may have been changing his views on women, “telling [Richard Wagner's friend Malwida von Meysenbug] that when a woman succeeds in raising herself above the crowd, she grows ceaselessly and greater than a man” (a “tantalizing” note indeed); and he even notes the accusations of anti-Semitism that have been directed towards the philosopher on occasion over the years, accusations that were in no way alleviated by Hitler’s admission that he carried five volumes of Schopenhauer’s works in his knapsack during his service in the German army during World War I. The question about the first is whether or not this misogyny arose from his personal experience with his mother and sister (both of whom were successful authors during Schopenhauer’s lifetime, generating not a little spiteful envy) rather than his epistemology or metaphysics; about the second, the irreligious Schopenhauer castigated not the Jews themselves but the optimistic assumptions about God and existence that underlie the Judaic religion which, he believed, made the realizations of the Schopenhauerian truth behind existence more and more difficult.
Cartwright’s descriptions of Schopenhauer’s relationships with women are among the most well-hewn portions of his biography, correcting the traditional picture in certain key respects (fortunately Cartwright had access to excellent editions of both mother and daughter’s work), confirming it in others. The description of Arthur and sister Adele’s tentative but clearly significant friendship in the latter’s final years is especially touching. His nutshell paraphrases of the work of Schopenhauer as well as other philosophers are somewhat hit or miss. He provides a lengthy discussion of the color philosophy of Goethe and Schopenhauer (appropriate for the translator of On Vision and Colors, perhaps the most specialized of Schopenhauer’s writings), a discussion which illuminates this obscure text without entirely convincing the reader of its relationship to Schopenhauer’s other work; on the other hand, he treats The World as Will and Representation with considerable sensitivity, and appropriately gives the philosopher’s final major work Parerga and Paralapomena the attention that it deserves as a miscellany rather than a major theoretical statement. On other philosophers, again, Cartwright is sometimes good, sometimes not so good, such as in his discussion of Fichte’s “I and Not-I,” which for this reader remains somewhat opaque, though I suspect this has as much to do with Fichte as it does Cartwright.
Cartwright also does the signal service of clearly differentiating the man — a pessimist, no doubt; Schopenhauer did not object to the term as applied to himself — from his philosophy, which may have been tragic but was certainly beyond simple binary oppositions as pessimism and optimism. The word “pessimism” itself scarcely occurs in The World as Will and Representation, though “tragedy” does; and perhaps the best characterization of the work in these terms is that of an “anti-optimism,” since optimism, as Schopenhauer conceived it, did the suffering of the world a grave disservice, an “absurd, wicked way of thought, a bitter mockery of the unspeakable suffering of human kind,” in Cartwright’s words.
As likely the most authoritative English-language biography to emerge in this generation, Schopenhauer: A Biography is an essential addition to the bookshelf that holds the philosopher’s books; and as such it’s also open to a few piddling quibbles. One would have liked to see a section of photographs, for example; at times the proofreader appears to have been asleep (the last chapter even contains a footnote that retains an author’s proof query); these must have been beyond Cartwright’s purview. But Cartwright’s matter-of-fact tone is an essential corrective to Safranski’s sometimes purple prose, and to ask for much more than this would have produced a volume of interminable length. The biography can be highly recommended both to those who are familiar with Schopenhauer’s thought and to those who come to it for the first time.
Cartwright also reports the reaction of Schopenhauer to the music and operas of Richard Wagner, easily the earliest genius (and only among the first of many artists) to have been profoundly affected by Schopenhauer’s thought. Schopenhauer, a regular theater- and concertgoer, found The Flying Dutchman “overdone and too busy,” according to Cartwright. His reaction to Wagner’s Ring libretto, which the composer sent to the philosopher “from respect and gratitude,” was no less ambivalent. “Schopenhauer did not respond to the author, preferring instead to fill the manuscript with snide remarks, critical observations, question marks, underlingings [sic], and exclamations [sic; where is that proofreader when you need him?] marks. Frequently, he was offended by Wagner’s language — it hurt his ears: ‘He has no ears, this deaf musician.’ To a stage instruction, indicating that the curtain was to close quickly, Schopenhauer quipped, ‘Since it is high time.’” Schopenhauer’s tastes ran more to Rossini and Mozart; though one would have liked to know Schopenhauer’s reaction to Beethoven’s 1824 Choral Symphony, that orchestral work which premiered only six years after the publication of the first edition of The World as Will and Representation and which reaches similar sublime heights of human expression, that reaction alas appears lost to history.
That Schopenhauer’s philosophy has always appealed more to artists than to academic philosophers is a truism so common that it’s not worth repeating. Of course this should be so; that Schopenhauer considered art a more productive avenue into the mysteries of the thing-in-itself than philosophy, necessarily a conceptual pursuit, appeals to artists’ amour propre. But this conclusion neglects to consider Schopenhauer’s aesthetics themselves, and whether or not they can be said to emerge organically from the epistemology and metaphysics of the first two books of WWR, as Schopenhauer insisted.
I think they can, and Superfluities Redux readers will also no doubt find this not worth repeating. A recognition of time, space and causality as the only a priori means of experience — a phenomenal experience that explains all representation but cannot begin to touch the noumenal thing-in-itself that Schopenhauer identified as “will” — is a stripped-down Kantianism completed with Schopenhauer’s conception of unconscious, destructive “will” as that essence that precedes even the phenomenon. “Will” (and it must be remembered that this is an inadequate term for the thing-in-itself, suggestive but only inadequately descriptive, an imperfect metaphor for something which cannot be described in language) is only knowable through the human body’s status as the “immediate object” of all experience.
We have access to intimations of this will, if not to will itself, and we have access to it through the knowledge of our experience through our own bodies, in which we have a kind of internal recognition of our status as subject. The body is the instrument of that “single thought” that Schopenhauer believed his philosophy as a whole explicated: in Schopenhauer’s words, “The world is the self-knowledge of the will”; in John Atwell’s perhaps more comprehensive construction, “The double-sided world [as both will and representation] is the striving of the will to become conscious of itself so that, recoiling in horror of its inner, self-divisive nature, it may annul itself and thereby its self-affirmation, and then reach salvation.” It is a salvation that also includes in this world compassion, based on the Upanishadic understanding of identity of one-with-other (a recognition of the tat tvam asi (“this art thou”) of the Chandogya Upanishad) rather than the obligatory duty towards compassion of Kant — because abstract, without a meaningful moral or ethical basis — an identity that forms the subject of the magisterial final, most lyrical book of WWR.
This is far from a complete explication of Schopenhauer’s thought. But it does provide a basis for a new kind of theatrical and dramatic tragedy, a tragedy that dissociates itself from the tragedy of the aristocracy and the high-born heroic figures of both the Greek and Shakespearean exemplars of the form. Indeed, it seems possible (to Maurice Benn, at least) that Schopenhauer’s work was a major influence on Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, written less than twenty years following the first edition of WWR: a play which has been called the first modern tragedy.
For us, Schopenhauer’s positing of the body as the immediate object and the form of the dramatic tragedy as the highest discipline of aesthetic endeavor (with the unique exception of music) suggest that the tragic form can be productively recalled to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. Ulrich Pothast has suggested as much with his recent book on Schopenhauer and Beckett’s fiction and drama, The Metaphysical Vision, though I would like to go Pothast one better and suggest that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, aesthetics and ethics also serve to provide a basis for a contemporary tragedy that is additionally informed by Theodor Adorno’s post-catastrophic cultural vision and Georges Bataille’s philosophy of the body. Schopenhauer’s consideration of sexuality as the primary drive of the will, and the yearning towards the ecstasy in bodied contemplation of the thing-in-itself as experienced by this immediate object in union with the subject, provides additional foundation for a specifically erotic, sensual, physicalized tragedy as conceived by playwrights as diverse as Büchner, Samuel Beckett and Howard Barker.
It is unlikely that among modern philosophers there was a more regular theatregoer than Arthur Schopenhauer, who made it a habit to visit the theatre whenever possible; his work itself is rife with metaphors drawn from the stage. But it is doubtful that Schopenhauer would himself recognize his thought in either Adorno or Bataille, or theirs in his own. Certainly the morally conservative Frankfurter, who complained of the relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre that it was offensive to common decency (Cartwright says, “At the close of the first act of The Valkyrie, the incestuous and adulterous love scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde, Schopenhauer, who himself would sometimes suspend sexual morality, was appalled: ‘One can forget about morality occasionally, but one should not slap it in the face’”), would be unswayed by Bataille’s explorations, and Adorno was prone to irritably dismiss the nineteenth-century thinker. But I remain convinced that it is here that a 21st century tragedy may find a path.