Friday, July 12, 2019

The Death of Prince Volkonsky and the Lightness of Being

A Schopenhauerian interpretation

“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 (WWR)

“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.” (Ibid.)

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 of high voltage, is enriched by his poetic gift of condensing an abstract idea into a single powerful image. His satirical wit, provocativeness and panache could make the bravado of Private Eye magazine look pale. His comments on Hegel, his arch-rival, as a “dull charlatan and an unparalleled scribbler of nonsense” are even libellous. I often wondered how Schopenhauer would evaluate Derrida, for instance.
From an early age, Schopenhauer was bewildered by the world. He attempted to solve the riddle of existence by a single thought, rather like Oedipus. He came to believe in the unity of the inner nature of all things, and christened this underlying nature ‘the Will’. It is a kind of unconscious universal striving, endowed with immense, ruthless power, which approximates Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’. According to Kant we generally perceive only the world of appearances (the phenomenon), while the world as it is in itself, independent of the way it appears to us to be (the noumenon) remains unknowable and beyond our reach. Schopenhauer presented his views in his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, originally published in 1818. He was not even thirty years old then.
The concept of the Will seems to have acquired the quality of a mantra in his writings; and like all things sacred, it eschews a detailed explication. Some commentators, such as Bryan Magee in his book The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, see Schopenhauer’s idea of Will as an anticipation of the twentieth century’s Einsteinian concept of energy, as a unifying force with multifarious manifestations. Quite ingeniously, Freud adapted the Will as the id – an “unconscious and unknown” yet all-powerful part of the self (see his 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. Schopenhauer’s articulation of deeply held proto-ideas resonated with many creative geniuses. He was very well 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.
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.” 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 quoted 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 proclaimed (WWR II, p. 463).
Tolstoy not only read Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but lived it. He abandoned earthly desires, turned to asceticism and died while on the run at a remote train station.  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 radically when he meets Natasha Rostov, the embodiment of optimism and joie de vivre. Andrei falls in love with her, and with life. Sadly, 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. The Prince 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! He is mortally wounded in the battle of Borodino and comes home to die. Natasha, torn by a mixture of guilt, love 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.”
N.B. This is a revised version of my original essay published in Philosophy Now in 2012.