Politics Magazine

St Aubyn; Schopenhauer

Posted on the 28 May 2012 by Erictheblue

I've been reading the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St Aubyn, reviewed here by James Wood and here by Giles Harvey.  So far, I like them a lot, though perhaps not so much as either of these learned gentlemen.  More about that later. 

There is a passage in either the first or second installment--all of them, in order, are Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last (the two-word titles, as Woods observes, like curses)--wherein the narrator comments upon the audacity of beginning a book with the sentence, "There is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide."  Who did that?  Albert Camus did, in "The Myth of Sisyphus," the kind of slim, heady book favored by Patrick.  My first guess was that it had been Schopenhauer, and therefore in trying to locate it I found myself paging through his Essays and Aphorisms, noting the passages I had marked in a prior reading:

A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.

The scenes of our life resemble pictures in rough mosaic; they are ineffective from close up, and have to be viewed from a distance if they are to seem beautiful.  That is why to attain something desired is to discover how vain it is; and why, though we live all our lives in expectation of better things, we often at the same time long regretfully for what is past.  The present, on the other hand, is regarded as something quite temporary and serving only as the road to our goal.  That is why most men discover when they look back on their life that they have the whole time been living ad interim, and are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived.

The art of not reading is a very important one.  It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time.  When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public.-- A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.

In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear.  Luckily we do not know what really will appear. 

Even if Leibniz's demonstration that this is the best of all possible worlds were correct, it would still not be a vindication of divine providence.  For the Creator created not only the world, he also created possibility itself: therefore he should have created the possibility of a better world than this one.

The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instil in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are?  From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de miseres.  However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.

It will generally be found that where the terrors of life come to outweigh the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life.  But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance: they stand like a sentinel at the exit gate.  Perhaps there is no one alive who would not already have put an end to his life if this end were something purely negative, a sudden cessation of existence.  But there is something positive in it as well: the destruction of the body.  This is a deterrent, because the body is the phenomenal form of the will to live.

Enough, perhaps, to establish Schopenhauer as a candidate for the sentence to which St Aubyn refers--although, on review, disquisitions on Schopenhauer's "pessimism" should have more qualifying footnotes.

In another vein, here is a link to a poem I think of every Memorial Day; maybe I'm not the only one who thinks all the officially approved, set sentiments for the day have the effect of glorifying obscenities.


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