When I’d first arrived at the sprawling cemetery in Frankfurt with its massive stone buildings and imposing gate, I could not orient myself to the map I carried, so I soon asked for help. An older couple whose wife spoke perfect English to my mangled German said, ‘Oh, why didn’t you say Schopenhauer?’ with a delighted surprise. She pointed me down the path. When I got to the grave site, I walked around the black slab–with his name incised in Gothic letters – then sat down on a bench and began to tear up. I thought of how, just a couple of hours before, I had been in the archives of the university library where I saw the small love-seat where the philosopher had died.
As I hovered about the head stone, above me in a sky of milky clouds, pale blue and shafting sun, a flock of cranes flew overhead calling with an ancient, echoing rattle that Schopenhauer would have heard in his last years in Frankfurt. He loved animals and, as a youth, exalted mountains. If mountains made a sound, it would be that sound, the cranes’ call.
I’d come because Schopenhauer’s masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, was one of the things that returned me to a centre I had lost for a few years. Caught up short in unhelpful ambitions both professional and personal, I began to find myself profoundly disinterested in the tussle of contemporary literary circles that I once venerated and the sly approval of others I once thought I needed.
The autumn of my grave site visit I’d been living in Munich trying to work on a book about using technology to save us from ourselves. When I gave a talk on radical environmental approaches, such as genetically engineering wild species to cope with climate change, my audience reacted with horror. I had anticipated some of that, but the conversation that followed was so divisive (and these were largely ‘my people’) I understood with a shock that consensus would be impossible. I had tried to convey my sense that time was up, that in order to save what we can of the present-day biosphere we might have to look to heretical technologies and then work to undo those tools and the systems of power that had beget them. It’s a tall order, like taking Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto and throwing it into warp speed before returning to bucolic horse-drawn carriages. My sense of how we might meet our grand challenges was open-ended and infused with a compassion for wanting things to last by taking care, and I’d come to these thoughts after seeing the failures of mainstream environmentalism to cope with the rapidity of climate change, inequality and mass extinction. The ecomodernists have been right about one thing, at least: reminding the world over and over of the coming death of the world as it is, hasn’t changed human nature. It won’t.
So in a time of extremism, a time of shortened life spans for many species, a time of 15-minute news cycles, I could not offer anything that might matter. My first book, a natural history of extinct birds, seemed like a lifetime ago. I had lived with the real stories of such species as the Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker, the dark beneath their wings letting in light in imagined flickers. I wanted to believe, then, that reasonable people could live more equitably with the rest of the world.
In a time of extremism, a time of shortened life spans for many species, a time of 15-minute news cycles, I could not offer anything that might matter.
But by the time I was thinking about climate engineering and technocracy and more, I was exhausted by contention. Contention at work, contention with myself, contention with others, contention with ideas. In Munich, I noted the hidden histories of National Socialism and read headlines about the rise of fascist thinking, think pieces about Donald Trump.
After my talk, walking back through grey Munich streets, I knew that another project was done again, before it was fully started. I thought of Schopenhauer’s misanthropy – he called most of the human race ‘common bipeds’ – and how that misanthropy was like that of another figure I’d spent years wrestling with, the poet Robinson Jeffers, who reminded us that the republic perishes.
Our shining capacities for reason, for science, for beauty are astonishing. So is our collective failure to utilise them.
I’d brought my marked-up copy of The World as Will and Representation, though it took up a good deal of luggage space. It was like taking a mountain with me, like the one that rises across from my cabin in Utah, itself an older, deeper thing that mattered more than pursuit and more than pain. I’d read much of the book at the cabin, free of signals except those of birds and rivers and pages. In Germany I was away from that place and from my wife and home in Tucson and our three cats. Still, I felt close to them. I felt close to the sky. I felt close to the moon, which would become the object of my new writing. My time in Germany quickly became exploratory and unfocused. I wandered among classical statues in Munich’s Glypothek, among copies in The Museum of Classical Statue Replicas and stared at giant paintings of ruins by the Bavarian painter Carl Rottmann. In my sterile Munich apartment, I re-read Schopenhauer and felt like I was learning another language, not German, but philosophy, a language of studious questioning that was at once self-honest and dismissive of speed. It is impossible to read philosophy with the ringer on.
This year is the bicentennial of the publication of The World as Will and Representation. (Technically, it was published in 1818 but the printer stamped 1819 on it by mistake.) Schopenhauer called it his ‘single thought’, and, if so, it’s a very long one. His meditations on how we can know or not know things in themselves are threaded through a kind of Platonic idealism and a modification of the epistemology of Immanuel Kant. It was not easy-going for someone years removed from undergraduate philosophy classes.
But Schopenhauer’s insistence on using the body as the locus for understanding how we might understand the things of the world remains compelling, and the other half of his magnum opus – the will – speaks volumes to me. For Schopenhauer, as for Eastern thinkers there is a force we cannot wholly comprehend (he was the first Western philosopher to take them both seriously.) It’s what the poet Dylan Thomas called ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. Though he used science to describe its effects, Schopenhauer considered the will metaphysical, a blind, irrational, pointless striving against entropy. Today’s science of complex self-organisation describes the will, at least for me. It’s not divine. It is embedded in the stuff of the cosmos, and if it’s existence cannot be fully explained – here the principle of sufficient reason might break down – its effects are everywhere around and in us.
The body and the will are combined in us like a rocking boat at sea, those states of fitful desire, then a quiet harbour for rest until the next voyage beckons because the end point of rest is, for most of us most of the time, not peace but sheer boredom.
Anticipating the existentialists, Schopenhauer captured this absurd state of affairs with clarity and compassion. To escape this relentless cycle temporarily, one could turn to the creation or contemplation of the arts. To escape the will permanently, he did not propose suicide – that would be an act of will – but rather a life of asceticism and quietude.
He was no monk. He loved food and drink and music, though he was largely unhappy. His father died when Schopenhauer was a young man, and the son may have inherited his father’s depressive tendencies, traits that may have led the elder Schopenhauer to have committed suicide. The son eventually cut off contact with his mother, and this domestic travail was one root of his horrible luck with women (Schopenhauer was, alas, also famously misogynistic). His philosophy was ignored, though Schopenhauer brought some of that on himself. When he tried to become a professor, he scheduled his lectures against those of the famous Hegel, whom he despised, and few students bothered to listen to the upstart. It was not until he began to write essays for a wider public that his work earned him the fame he’d long given up on.
In Frankfurt, I sat on a bench beside the headstone, rubbing the bridge of my nose to cool the heat behind my eyes. The cranes continued to fly overhead, flock after flock. In this cemetery, everything seemed connected: dead to the living, past to the future, strife to calm. Once, years ago, I was lost with my friend Michael in the Uintas mountains in Utah. We’d overshot our tree-hidden camp after having morning coffee at a small, nearby lake. We spent hours retracing footsteps and reading the ridges and drainages. We got back. Reading Schopenhauer was like that. Coming back to a wild, safe place after losing my way.
The will in Schopenhauer does not content itself with easy consolation. There is nothing after this life and there is no meaning. What he articulated so thoroughly was what I had long felt so vaguely. Value does not come from anything other than having time to fill, and we do so in ways that are careful – no, care-full – or careless. As to the vexed question of choice, that is another matter.
We might yet preserve as much of the Holocene as we can in the Anthropocene. We might yet drink water from lunar craters. We might go to sleep and wake at Proxima Centauri. I would like that. But entropy bats last.
And the fact that everything dies looms over it all. We might yet preserve as much of the Holocene as we can in the Anthropocene. We might yet drink water from lunar craters. We might go to sleep and wake at Proxima Centauri. I would like that. But entropy bats last. Years ago I wrote an essay called ‘The Consolations of Extinction’. Nearing 60 now, my father just a few months’ dead as I write this, I feel more deeply the fact and need for death. As the anthropologist Ernest Becker and others have made clear, our failure to accept it has led to profound pain in the world, personal and collective.
Schopenhauer would not be surprised at our present state of affairs. Like Jeffers, he counselled distance from the thickening centre. My cognitive dissonance- – wanting to help things along, recognising our species-wide habits toward destruction – has been clarified with Schopenhauer. I don’t want to save the world. I want to volunteer again at the local animal shelter. I don’t want to save the world. I want to show kids in my neighbourhood views of the moon through the telescope so they might love science. I want to be alone on the mountain.
It was time to go. I wended my way out of the cemetery and took a street car to the rail station. It was dark when I returned to Munich, where, I remembered, Arthur Schopenhauer had once spent a year in bed. When I woke up in Munich that autumn, I was often disappointed. In Tucson, I had spent years starting and stopping ‘projects’, and coming to Germany was an effort to get beyond that debilitation. It didn’t work, at least not the way I thought it would, but what returned my time to me – care-full time – was, among other things, Schopenhauer’s insistence on recognising the fundamental truth of the will’s effects on our lives: We do indeed cycle from desire to boredom, and, he was right, one way to transcend or, at least, soften the cycle is to make things.
For whom? I’d forgotten that first and foremost the answer is, of course: one’s self.
At the end of Schopenhauer’s ‘single thought’, he writes (and here I adapt the translation a bit): ‘For the will that has calmed itself, this world of ours – which is so very real, with all its suns and galaxies – becomes nothing’. It’s easy to read that as a clichéd nihilism, but the compassion there is in the calm and in the reality that abides beyond one’s self. It’s not that the suns and galaxies aren’t real. They are all too real. What they tell us is that in our insignificance we are free to be less burdened with what time does to us when we fail to pay attention.