“As our walking is admittedly nothing but a constantly-prevented falling,” wrote Arthur Schopenhaur, “so the life of our bodies is nothing but a constantly-prevented dying, an ever postponed death.” The prevention of dying occupies my mind these days, now that my father and I have moved from the bottom of the country to the top to wait for a lung. Reading philosophy is a comfort that keeps me busy with a highlighter during these long arctic nights when my thoughts wander into morbid terrain. I should probably skip Schopenhauer’s gloom yet his pessimism is magnetic and irresistibly quotable, particularly in this chaotic age of terror and screens. For starters, he convincingly argues that the world is evil (“For whence did Dante take the materials of his hell but from our actual world?”) and he goes on to explain that there is no such thing as pleasure, only the absence of pain. For a moment, this rings true while I stand in a salt-stained strip mall parking lot on a grey two-degree afternoon, struggling to remember who I am, where I am, and what I like to eat.

I’d like to be a little beacon of joy for my father, chipper and zen and awake at six in the morning eating a piece of fruit. Yet my lizard brain will not cooperate with my heart and I race through the day with caffeine nerves and tumbling thoughts, unable to sleep until the hour of the wolf. And despite the circumstances of our new Wisconsin life—a lung transplant, for god’s sake—I sneak the occasional cigarette, filling my lungs with blessed nicotine and ashen shame. After such a transgression, who am I to ever judge another? Everywhere I turn, we are at war with our better selves. The man throwing a tantrum into his telephone would be mortified to be seen behaving this way. A mother in the supermarket yanks her child despite knowing this is not the type of mom she wants to be. And look at all of the cars lined up at the Taco Bell drive-thru, mine included. Here is the opening scene of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, the ominous rumble as a disembodied voice asks, “Why does nature war with herself?”

According to Schopenhauer, struggle is all we have; happiness is a myth. To illustrate this point, he turns to the stories we tell ourselves. “Every epic and dramatic poem can only represent a struggle, an effort, a fight for happiness; never enduring and complete happiness itself. It conducts its heroes through a thousand dangers and difficulties to the goal; as soon as this is reached it hastens to let the curtain fall; for now there would remain nothing for it to do but to show that the glittering goal in which the hero expected to find happiness had only disappointed him, and that after its attainment he was no better off than before.” Thus he arrives at his famous hedgehog dilemma: “We are unhappy when alone, and unhappy in society: we are like hedgehogs clustering together for warmth, uncomfortable when too closely packed, and yet miserable when kept apart.”

After midnight, I drive west on Mineral Point Road until the city sprawl fades into darkness. The dashboard howls with the day’s news while I speed with the windows down and the heat on blast. As usual, the news is deranged. We suffer from a predatory economic system and a lunatic government, yet we are a muted nation, unable to resist the violence of our politicians, police, and corporations. In the rearview mirror, I notice my face is tanned a peculiar shade of need from years spent staring into a glowing screen, monitoring headlines and chatter. For what cause? Either the news leaves me feeling paralyzed and defanged, or it beckons me into a mean kind of voyeurism. We want to know why an actress’s face looks different than it did before. We watch celebrities crash their cars and set their houses on fire and overdose in their bathtubs so we can shake our heads and say such is the price of fame. Cue the references to entropy, the distracted citizenship, the fall of Rome, etc and suddenly Schopenhauer seems like the right philosopher for our times. “Life,” he writes, “swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and ennui.”

Yet we cannot separate the philosophy from the man. He is a lovable crank who cannot stand the noise of the early 19th-century city, declaring that “the amount of noise which anyone can bear undisturbed stands in inverse proportion to his mental capacity.” Yet he was a troubled and tragic man. Believing that no family could have two geniuses, his mother pushed him down a flight of stairs. Perhaps this accounts for his awful attitude toward women (“When the laws gave women equal rights with men, they ought also to have endowed them with masculine intellects”) as well as his horrifying view of sex: Shame often accompanies our sexual impulses because we know we should not continue the misery of the human race. “He was absolutely alone, with not a single friend,” wrote Nietzsche, “and between one and none there lies an infinity.”

In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant sketches a beautiful image of Schopenhauer that I recognize in my worst moments: “Missing success and fame, he turned within and gnawed at his own soul.” An acolyte of Spinoza’s transcendental optimism and Voltaire’s vigor, Durant deftly exposes pessimism as a lazy child’s game and restores my faith:

“There is, of course, a large element of egotism in pessimism: the world is not good enough for us, and we turn up our philosophic noses to it. Perhaps disgust with existence is a cover for a secret disgust with ourselves: we have botched and bungled our lives, and we cast the blame upon the “environment,” or the “world,” which have no tongues to utter a defense. The mature man accepts the natural limitations of life; he does not expect Providence to be prejudiced in his favor; he does not ask for loaded dice with which to play the game of life. He knows, with Carlyle, that there is no sense in vilifying the sun because it will not light our cigars. And perhaps, if we are clever enough to help it, the sun will do even that; and this vast neutral cosmos may turn out to be a pleasant place enough if we bring a little sunshine of our own to help it out. In truth the world is neither with us nor against us; it is but raw material in our hands, and can be heaven or hell according to what we are.”

The critic seeks the safety of the sidelines, particularly when the world gets difficult. This is tempting but it is not living. Tomorrow I will leave Schopenhauer behind, buy some fruit and nicotine gum, stay away from the news, and tackle Voltaire in the waiting room.

Sources and further reading: The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant; A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell; more Arthur Schopenhauer, esp. The World as Will and Representation, 1818.

Books & Public Works

Tonight's Selections