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The Denial of the Will-To-Live in Literature and Music

Eva Cybulska considers Schopenhauer’s influence on writers and composers.

“To those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of ours, with its suns and galaxies, is – nothing.”
Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, I: p.412 (from the 1969 edition, E.F.J. Payne trans., Dover Publications Inc.)

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was, and continues to be, a philosopher in a class of his own. He is mostly admired for the richness, depth and brilliance of his insights rather than for his consistency of vision. His writing style, clear and high voltage, is enriched by his poetic gift of condensing an abstract idea into a single powerful image. His satirical wit, provocativeness and panache makes the bravado of Private Eye magazine pale by comparison. His comments on Hegel, his arch-rival, as a “dull charlatan and an unparalleled scribbler of nonsense” are even libellous.

From an early age, Schopenhauer was bewildered by the world. He attempted to solve the riddle of existence in terms of a single thought: he came to believe in the unity of the inner nature of all things, and christened this underlying nature ‘the Will’. In his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, originally published in 1818, the Will is Schopenhauer’s equivalent of Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’. According to Kant we generally perceive only the world of appearances (the phenomenal world in Kant’s terminology), while the world as it is in itself, independent of the way it appears to us to be (Kant’s noumenal world) remains unknowable and beyond our reach. Schopenhauer believed the ‘reality beyond appearance’ is endowed with immense, ruthless power. He called it ‘the Will’, and saw it as a kind of unconscious universal striving.

The concept of the Will seems to have acquired the quality of a mantra in his writings; and like all things sacred, the concept disdains a detailed explication. Some commentators, for example Bryan Magee in his book The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, see Schopenhauer’s idea of Will as an anticipation of the twentieth century’s scientific idea of energy, as a unifying force with multifarious manifestations. Quite ingeniously, Freud also adapted the Will as the id – an “unconscious and unknown” yet all-powerful part of the self (The Ego and the Id, 1923).

Schopenhauer never founded a school of followers. Yet hardly any modern philosopher, with the possible exception of Nietzsche (his one-time worshipper), can claim greater influence on literature and the arts. This has usually happened through Schopenhauer’s articulation of deeply held proto-ideas, which resonanted with many creative geniuses. He was widely read, as much in Classical Greek and Latin as contemporary literature, and he was also well versed in the Eastern philosophical tradition. Although he was a self-proclaimed atheist, his philosophy of compassion reveals a highly spiritual, albeit embattled, soul. His love of music objectified itself not only in his playing the flute, but in the penetrating critical insights which were to have such an impact on Wagner, Mahler, Scriabin and other composers.

Death as the Canonisation of Suffering

“Dying is certainly to be regarded as the real aim of life; at the moment of dying, everything is decided, which through the whole course of life was only prepared and introduced.” WWR II, p.637

The Will’s ruthless energy is a source of great creativity, but it is also a source of evil and strife, being the ultimate cause of all suffering. And for Schopenhauer, life was mostly suffering! To him there are three ways of escaping the strife caused by the Will: aesthetic contemplation, ascetic conduct, and death. He concurred with Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, that “the best thing is not to be born; the second best is to die as soon as one can.” As he wrote: “If we knocked on the graves and asked the dead whether they would like to rise again, they would shake their heads.” He also quotes Voltaire: “We like life, but all the same nothingness also has its good points.” After all, “Non-existence after death cannot be different from non-existence before birth” (WWR II, p.465). Death can also be a great inspiration: “without death there would be hardly any philosophising!” he wrote (WWR II, p.463).

To Schopenhauer, death can be seen as a form of a return to a timeless, unconscious eternity. Philip Larkin expressed this Schopenhauerian desire for oblivion with his usual ironic humour in his poem Wants:

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death –
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

Dealing with the fear of death lies at the heart of all religious creeds, and offering consolation is one of their main tasks. Following the demise of religion in the West, philosophy must carry the Socratic torch and teach us how to end the never-ending cycle of suffering. Hamlet expressed his readiness to do that, philosophically: “If it be now,’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all” (Hamlet, Act V, Sc. II).

As a young man, Schopenhauer read Hamlet in English, and it may well have inspired his subsequent philosophical deliberations. Below are some considerations of a brief selection of literary and musical works influenced by Schopenhauer.

Wagner’s Liebestod and Mahler’s Adagietto

“We find in music, in the melodies of which we recognise the universality expressed, the innermost story of the Will conscious of itself” WWR I, p.321

Richard Wagner discovered Schopenhauer’s masterpiece in 1854, at the age of forty-one, and became besotted with it. He reread it three times in rapid succession, and would speak of this “gift from heaven” to anyone who would listen. Schopenhauer’s view of music “as a direct objectification and copy of the whole Will as the world itself” (WWR I, p.333) was music to Wagner’s ears. Wagner conceived of his thoroughly Schopenhauerian masterpiece Tristan und Isolde in Venice, whilst on the run with Mathilde von Wesendonck, the wife of his benefactor. With despotic amorality Wagner wrenched his two fictional lovers away from the world of cause, reason and responsibility. Flung into the Schopenhauerian world of relentless, blind Will, Tristan and Isolde become play-things at the hands of fate. Not for nothing did Nietzsche consider Wagner a direct descendent of Aeschylus, and through him he hoped for a revival of ancient Greek tragedy.

Schopenhauer viewed “Eros as being secretly related to death” (Parerga and Paralipomena I, p.497), and this is how the anguished passion of Wagner’s star-crossed lovers dissolves into oblivion:

In the surging swell,
In the ringing sound,
In the world-breath
In the waves of the All
To drown,
To sink, to drown –
Unconscious –
Supreme bliss –

Tristan and Isolde: Act III, Scene III

Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, the year Schopenhauer died. Tristan and Isolde was one of the operas he most revered, and, not surprisingly, Liebestod (‘love death’) forms a discrete canvas for the mournful Adagietto, the penultimate movement of Mahler’s Fifth, ‘fateful’ Symphony. In it Mahler interweaves the celestial with a hint of the infernal. Alma Schindler, one of the most desired young women in Vienna at the time, was the fortunate recipient of this wordless declaration of love, and of a proposal of marriage. She also adored Tristan, and instantly understood and accepted the offer. But there was a tragic twist to the tale. Years later, Alma’s affair with Gropius was the final blow of fate that hastened Mahler into the grave. It was not until the composer’s death that Alma, as Isolde, came to realise that Mahler was the Tristan she loved.

Death In Venice And The Ecstatic Aesthetic Moment

He who ever gazed upon beauty,
Has already succumbed to death.

August von Platen, ‘Tristan’

Thomas Mann was visiting Venice in May 1911 when the news of Mahler’s death reached him. Subsequently his novella, Death in Venice, became a tribute to the composer he had personally known and admired. It was also homage to Schopenhauer, his philosophical mentor, whose magnum opus he called a “symphony in four movements.” The chief protagonist of Death in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach, finally becomes a will-less and timeless subject of knowledge, thus escaping from the temporal striving of the Will. In an ecstatic moment of aesthetic delight (Wohlgefallen), he is released from the prison of time and space – the prison of ‘individuation’ in Schopenhauer’s terminology. In the film version, this moment is condensed in the image of von Aschenbach (played impeccably by Dirk Bogarde) leaning out of a window, gazing at the boy Tadzio, the embodiment of beauty. Indeed, the theme of a gaze – be it into one’s own soul, into beauty, or into nothingness – is one of the principal leitmotifs in the novella, and is even more prominent in the film.

Mann based Death in Venice on a real encounter with a young aristocratic Pole, Wladyslaw (Wladzio) Moes, whom he first saw in the dining room of La Grand H ôtel des Bains on the Venetian island of Lido. The boy was ten years old at the time, and later he recalled how an ‘old man’ (even though Mann was only thirty-five at the time) followed him and his companion Jasiu wherever they went. He remembered an exchange of lascivious glances on the escalator. ‘Gustav von Aschenbach’ was Thomas Mann’s auto-portrait who, in the manner of Dorian Gray, suffered in place of the author.

In the 1971 film adaptation, Visconti ingeniously combined the strands of literature, breathtaking images of decaying Venice, the Schopenhauerian idea of death as a welcome release from life, and the most sublime music. Wagner died in Venice in February 1883, and we catch a glimpse of his bust in the Gardenico during the opening scene of the film. Mahler’s Adagietto forms the soundtrack, and it became instantly popular. The still waters of the Venetian lagoon resemble the menacing, deadening pool of Narcissus. In the closing scene of the film, an ambiguous, quivering smile fades away from von Aschenbach’s mask-like face as his body sinks wearily into the deckchair. Like Narcissus, he dies alone, unloved, whilst gazing into the image of Tadzio, who beckons him into the bliss of non-being, indicating that life is a tragic charade from which only death can offer a release. Even Schopenhauer could not have bettered this visual condensation of his thought.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Necessity versus Freedom

“Necessity is the kingdom of nature; freedom is the kingdom of grace”

WWR I, p.523

Thomas Hardy could be regarded as a natural Schopenhauerian. Like Schopenhauer, Hardy sees nature as blind, immutable and indifferent. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) was Hardy’s penultimate novel, and one might argue that Tess, its heroine, was an embodiment of the writer’s melancholic anima (in Jungian psychology, the anima is the female principle of the personality). Tess is, perhaps, the most poignant literary transmutation of the idea that being born is an error, and that death is emancipation from the prison of life. From the outset, she longs for an extinction of consciousness, and her sad, futile life plays its small part in the universal tragedy of existence. For Hardy, nature, man and existence itself are ultimately one, and we often find that nature reflects Tess’s despair: “the occasional heave of the wind became the sigh of some immense sad soul.”

Tess acts as if driven by some powerful, yet invisible force (ie the Will) against a background of cosmic indifference. By “abandoning herself to impulse” and climbing into Alec’s carriage, Tess sets off on the path to her own destruction. Later, Alec rapes her while she walks alone in a dark wood (an event which Freud would no doubt have interpreted as wish-fulfilling). The child born afterwards, whom she names Sorrow (Hardy could hardly have thought of a more Schopenhauerian name!), dies early, as if following Silenus’s advice. Tess’s two lovers – the moralistic, yet compassionless Angel, and the demonic, id-driven Alec – seem to externalise the inner contradictions of her embattled soul. When she finally kills Alec, she also kills a vital, albeit unacknowledged, part of herself, and her fate is sealed.

Has Tess any real choice, or is she driven by forces outside her control, an almighty necessity? Life is determined by an irrational and pervasive Will, Schopenhauer would say: you do not determine your own destiny, and freedom can only be found in the cessation of willing and the annihilation of individual consciousness. This is the freedom of extinction. Uncannily echoing Hamlet, in the closing moments of the novel Tess expresses resignation to the Will: “What must come, will come.” With a serenity of composure she surrenders her consciousness and dies on the altar at Stonehenge. The setting amplifies a sense of eternally passing time, and the monoliths suggest a stony indifference and immutability. As she rejoins the elements, the cosmic cycle is complete.

The Death and the Lightness of Being of Prince Volkonsky

Tolstoy not only read Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but lived it, by abandoning earthly desires and turning to asceticism. In his War and Peace (1869), Prince Andrei Volkonsky is a Schopenhauerian character par excellence. He courts death all his life. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he lives as if out of duty. Following the death of his wife, he lives for his son. But all this changes when he meets Natasha Rostov, the embodiment of vivacity. He falls in love with her, and with life. Unfortunately his father, who despises the Rostovs, tries to obstruct the marriage by imposing a year of delay, hoping that this will break their love. It nearly does, as Natasha becomes infatuated with Anatoli – a passion as violent as it is shallow. Andrei joins the war against Napoleon, perhaps in search of death – a suicide disguised as the heroic defence of one’s country would be a noble solution to the problem of disappointed love. Meanwhile Natasha comes to her senses and realises that it’s only Andrei whom she has ever loved. Too late! Andrei is mortally wounded at the Battle of Borodino and comes home only to die. Natasha, torn by a mixture of guilt, tenderness and hope, takes care of him, but it soon becomes clear that they can be united only in death.

Tolstoy describes the Prince’s departure from the world in Schopenhauerian terms:

“Prince Andrei not only knew he was going to die but felt that he was dying, that he was already half dead. He felt remote from everything earthly and was conscious of a strange and joyous lightness in his being. Neither impatient nor anxious, he awaited what lay before him. That sinister, eternal, unknown and distant something which he had sensed throughout his life was now close upon him, as he knew by the strange lightness of being that he experienced, almost comprehensible and palpable.”

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique: Crossing the Acheron

Vex thee not, Charon;
It is so willed there where is power to do
That which is willed; and farther question not.

Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto III

Tchaikovsky was a composer of intimate, one might say confessional, music. He communicates emotions with great authenticity and force, so when one listens to his compositions it is as if the Will speaks directly to the heart. His Symphony No. 6the Pathétique – was his last, and he died only nine days after conducting its premiere in St. Petersburg. Did he intend it to be his requiem? The circumstances of his death remain shrouded in uncertainty and controversy, and for a long time afterwards an argument raged amongst his admirers, friends and scholars, as to whether he died of cholera or at his own hand. Could the clue lie in the symphony itself?

The Pathétique was Tchaikovsky’s most tragic, most confessional work. The work commences and ends in nothingness, and has a descending spiral structure reminiscent of the funeral bells of the Russian Orthodox Church. The first movement opens in a murky, foreboding mood, which is suddenly interrupted by an upsurge of a fateful four-note figure, initially announced by the wind section. As the melody gathers strength, it is taken over by the strings. The forces of life and death, consciousness and oblivion, light and darkness, reach a climax, and the melody is then carried by a single violin, as if Charon were ferrying the listener across the river Acheron. The memories of passionate but also painful moments return briefly in the form of an undanceable waltz. But are memories enough to sustain life? In the last movement, the forces of life make a final attempt at a comeback, with a vehemence that only reinforces its futility. The decrescendo finale, highly unusual in Tchaikovsky’s time, makes one feel as if one were descending into the grave, or into Dante’s Inferno. Barely audible sounds mark the final capitulation to the Will. From a mist we came and to a mist we return; beneath it all, desire for oblivion runs.

© Dr Eva Cybulska 2012

Eva Cybulska is an independent scholar and writer living in London. Formerly a psychiatrist, she is currently working on her book Nietzsche: A Hero’s Journey into Night. Please visit her blog at thoughtsatthemeridian.blogspot.co.uk.

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