Monday, September 8, 2014

Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Thoroughly Schopenhauerian Heroine

“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.”

                                                                                  The World as Will and Representation, II: 637

Music to accompany article: Beim Schlafengehen (Strauss)

According to Schopenhauer, we live as if behind the veil of Maya (the world of appearances or the phenomenon), while the thing-in-itself (Ding an sich, the noumenon) remains out of reach. This ‘beyondness’, endowed with immense, ruthless power (the Dionysian, as Nietzsche would have called it) Schopenhauer called the Will. Its demonic nature is a source of great creativity, but also a source of evil and strife that causes much suffering. And for Schopenhauer, life was mostly suffering! 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”. Death can also be a great inspiration: “without death, there would be hardly any philosophising!” (WWR, II: 463). There are three ways of stilling the Will: aesthetic contemplation, ascetic conduct and death.

   The fear of death stems from a conflict between the willing (i.e. animalistic self-preservation) and knowing part of our nature (i.e. knowing that in death we only return to the oblivion from whence we came). Death could be seen as a form of restitutio ad integrum and a return to timeless eternity. With his customary wit, Schopenhauer 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 as saying: “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: 465).

   Thomas Hardy could be regarded as a natural Schopenhauerian. Tess of the d’Urbervilles was his penultimate novel and one might argue that Tess, its heroine, was none other than the writer’s melancholic anima embodied. It is, perhaps, the most poignant literary transmutation of Schopenhauer’s idea that being born is an error, and that death is the true emancipation from the ‘prison of life’. From the outset, Tess longs for the extinction of consciousness, and her sad, futile life is only a small part of the universal tragedy of existence. Like Schopenhauer, Hardy sees nature as a reflection of the Will: blind, immutable and indifferent. Nature, man and existence itself are ultimately one, and we often find that nature reflects Tess’s own despair: “the occasional heave of the wind became the sigh of some immense sad soul”. She acts as if driven by some powerful, yet invisible force against a background of cosmic indifference. By “abandoning herself to impulse” and climbing into Alec’s carriage, Tess sets off on the path to 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’ advice. Tess’ two lovers, the moralistic, yet lacking in compassion, Angel, and the demonic, id-driven Alec, seem to externalise the inner contradictoriness 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 she 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, and freedom can only be found in the cessation of all willing and annihilation of consciousness. Extinction brings about freedom. Tess expresses the resignation of the Will in the closing moments of the novel: “What must come, will come”. With the serenity of composure, she surrenders her consciousness on the altar at Stonehenge. The scenery amplifies a sense of eternally passing time, while the monoliths suggest a stony indifference and immutability. Her death becomes an apotheosis of life and a canonisation of suffering; as she rejoins the elements, the cosmic cycle is complete.