The twin prophets of pessimism

The novelist and the philosopher linked by a common fascination with despair

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If there is a “literary” novelist writing now who enjoys greater notoriety than Michel Houellebecq, it is Salman Rushdie. In both cases, however, the notoriety is the result of a notional offence against Muslims. In Houellebecq’s case, his novel Submission happened to be published on the day that the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were massacred in Paris. This might not have been so incendiary had the magazine not featured a caricature of Houellebecq (right) on its cover; for a while, he received police protection.

The author was denounced — not least by the then prime minister, Manuel Valls, before he had even read the novel — for his depiction of a France that had “submitted” to Islam. Eventually, the furore died down and Submission can be seen as a thought experiment aimed not at French Muslims but at the Parisian liberal establishment. Left-wing politicians such as Valls might inveigh against him (“France is not Michel Houellebecq . . . it is not intolerance, hatred, fear”) but this was grist to his mill. They threw up their hands in horror at Houellebecq’s seductive depiction of a “soft” Islamist France in which the narrator — an academic convert — is able to indulge his taste for young girls, but their hysteria left a question hanging in the air: who were the real Islamophobes here?

In our post-literary culture, novelists seldom become part of a national conversation purely on the basis of their work. They require the additional impetus provided by extraneous forces — politics or religion, crime or sex — to seize the attention of a wider audience. In Europe today, nobody does this better than Houellebecq. His most recent novel, Serotonin, appeared a year ago, at the height of the gilets jaunes protests. Its climactic scene depicts a bloody confrontation between French farmers and the riot police. The repertoire of sexual perversions that figure in the narrative includes paedophilia and bestiality, although there is nothing pornographic about it; rather, the novel includes long meditations on male impotence — another topical theme in a Europe beset by demographic decline. At one point the narrator seriously plots to murder a four-year-old child; at the last minute, mere squeamishness prevents him from pulling the trigger.

Serotonin was bound to infuriate the usual suspects. It helped that Macron happened to award Houellebecq the Légion d’Honneur, a scandalous decision in the eyes of those who saw him as a racist and Islamophobe in the mould of Jean Raspail (The Camp of the Saints), Renaud Camus (The Great Replacement) or Eric Zemmour (Le Suicide Français).

Yet Houellebecq is a very different kind of writer from these prophets of doom. He is not distancing himself from them merely for motives of self-preservation, still less intellectual snobbery. The source of Houellebecq’s world view comes from a region so remote that it might as well be the dark side of the moon. Just how different he is from any of his contemporaries emerges from a slim volume of 60 pages that originally appeared in French three years ago: In the Presence of Schopenhauer.

This title immediately indicates that, for Houellebecq, we are “in the presence” of an intellectual colossus, a “model for any future philosopher”. Houellebecq recalls his discovery of a copy of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer’s masterpiece, only after scouring the booksellers of Paris. Both the vigour and rigour of the early Schopenhauer and the ripe reflections of his last years, the aphorisms and essays collected in Parerga and Paralipomena, delight Houellebecq so much that he translates long passages for his own delectation. His prose is not misanthropic, but uniquely “agreeable and reinvigorating”. For the twenty-something Houellebecq, the encounter with Schopenhauer was a kind of epiphany.

the only other savant who claims Houellebecq’s attention is Auguste Comte, the pope of positivism. Yet he concedes that reading Comte is a “perverse pleasure” because his mind became “unbalanced” due to his obsession with a young woman, Clothilde de Vaux, whom he had designated as his muse. Despite his wide influence, Comte’s books are largely unread today, perhaps because they are close to being unreadable.

I have before me a first edition of his Politique Positive, ou Traité de Sociologie, Instituant la Religion de l’Humanité (Paris,1852-54). It sets out in grandiose form the future of the human race, once science and philosophy have been subsumed into his “Religion of Humanity”, including a new “positivist calendar” with the months named after the great and good men of past and present. (They are virtually all men, though as a concession to the other half of humanity there is a “fête générale des Saintes Femmes”.) As the title implies, Comte’s is a political as well as a philosophical system — though its incipient totalitarianism alienated his most important follower, John Stuart Mill, who denounced the proposed new world order as “a despotism of society over the individual”.

Comte found some distinguished disciples, mainly in England — apart from Mill, they were mostly women, including George Eliot and Harriet Martineau — but his religion never caught on. Houellebecq’s debt to Comte is dubious. It’s hard to find anything in common between a novelist who seems to loathe humanity and the prophet of altruism, who turned accentuating the positive into a religious doctrine. Moreover, he thinks Comte died in 1860, the same year as Schopenhauer (below) whereas he actually died in 1857. There’s no excuse for getting your guru’s dates wrong — unless he isn’t really your guru.

Huellebecq’s contempt for the thinkers of his own era is striking: “It is ultimately annoying to live in the middle of a period of mediocrities — especially when one feels incapable of raising the level . . . I am pretty sure that I would produce better novels if the thinking around me were a little more inspiring.” This is a very French perspective: how many writers in English would even dream of contributing to philosophy as well as literature?

Arthur Schopenhauer

Yet for Houellebecq, philosophy is merely another branch of literature; he stands on the shoulders of a long tradition of novelist-philosophers, from Voltaire and Rousseau to Malraux, Camus and Sartre. Yet he has no time for their successors, let alone his own contemporaries, from Bernard-Henri Lévy to Alain Finkielkraut. If they are mediocrities, it hardly matters whether he reads them or not.

In the nineteenth-century heyday of the novel, European writers thought it vital to be abreast of the thinkers of their time. George Eliot, de facto editor of the Westminster Review, commissioned the journalist, dramatist and linguist John Oxenford to assess the significance of an obscure German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. As the translator of Goethe, Oxenford was well qualified; his unsigned essay, “Iconoclasm in German Philosophy”, appeared in 1853.

The “iconoclasm” of the title referred to Schopenhauer’s lifelong hostility towards other German philosophers. He had attended Fichte’s lectures in Jena and was deeply unimpressed. Hegel, whose star had been in the ascendant during his time in Berlin, appalled him, with his apotheosis of the Prussian state. Schelling, too, was a shameless toady. They were all charlatans — all, that is, except Kant himself. Even he, whose transcendental idealism formed the basis of Schopenhauer’s own system, had been a coward. Kant had allowed his Critique of Pure Reason to be bowdlerised to avoid offending the Christian authorities.

Schopenhauer, the fiercest of atheists, rejected the Judaeo-Christian tradition outright; he refused to pay lip service to the established religion. None of this could shock Oxenford or his editor, George Eliot, however. The Westminster Review not only explained precisely how this “iconoclast” had set about subverting 40 years of German philosophy but went on to examine Schopenhauer’s entire oeuvre in detail and with considerable sympathy: “Arthur Schopenhauer is one of the most ingenious and readable authors in the world.”

This encomium struck home: it began a vogue for Schopenhauer that has lasted to this day.

Schopenhauer is known above all as the philosopher of pessimism, for the idea that, beyond the empirical world of phenomena, the ultimate reality is the blind, self-destructive will. What draws Houellebecq irresistibly into the orbit of planet Schopenhauer is not so much his deep disillusionment as his no less profound insight into everything that makes life worth living. Houellebecq contrasts this approach with that of Wittgenstein (an avid reader of Schopenhauer) in his Tractatus: “That whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Schopenhauer, by contrast, “is going to talk about what we cannot talk about . . . love, death, pity, tragedy and pain . . . Boldly, and still without parallel among philosophers, he will enter the field of novelists, musicians and sculptors.”

Most importantly for Houellebecq, Schopenhauer’s view of the artist accords with his own. What makes artists different is their ability to revert to a childlike, “dumbstruck” state of contemplation. They alone perceive the sublime, turning away from the will and its interests. So beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Total detachment from all thought and desire is neither classicism nor romanticism, nor even Western. It is found in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, to the study of which Schopenhauer devoted a great part of his life.

For him, music was the highest of the arts, because its pure abstraction affords us a direct insight into the tragic reality of the world. Wagner turned Schopenhauer’s aesthetics into a programme for a revolutionary new Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” of music drama. The old philosopher replied politely when he was sent the libretto of The Ring of the Nibelung, but he preferred the music of the past, his beloved Rossini, to Wagner’s “music of the future”.

The sole basis of Schopenhauer’s ethics is compassion (the German word is Mitleid, “suffering with”). Again, the insight that we are, metaphysically, linked in suffering comes only with a high degree of detachment; more often, man’s inhumanity to man (and other species) prevails. Schopenhauer attributed this to two fatal illusions: individuation and free will. We compete with, torment and even kill one another, unaware that we are doing all this to ourselves, meanwhile deluding ourselves that we do so freely, when in fact our choices are wholly determined.

I am holding a rare volume that appeared in the year of Schopenhauer’s death. Entitled The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, it consists of two prize essays: “On the Freedom of the Human Will” and “On the Foundations of Morality”. The first, the title page informs us, was “crowned” in Trondheim by the Royal Norwegian Academy of Sciences; the second “not crowned” in Copenhagen by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences. Indeed, Schopenhauer even prints the Latin judgment of the Danish academicians, castigating him for failing to answer their question and other faults, above all “causing serious and just offence” by “indecently” insulting “several outstanding philosophers of the modern age”.

But Schopenhauer cannot resist an irreverent footnote: by inserting a second “is” into the phrase “To preach morality is easy, to justify it [is] hard”, the Academy had demonstrated the truth of Longinus’s observation: a single superfluous syllable is enough to ruin a sentence.

My copy of this volume is the second edition. Schopenhauer’s preface, signed August 1860, was his final vindication, written as his long-neglected work was at last finding a wide public. To the Danish academicians, he replies triumphantly: “The nemesis is there . . . I have broken through, despite the many years of united resistance by the entire band of philosophy professors.” A month after writing these words, Schopenhauer was dead.

What kind of man was Schopenhauer? He was born in Danzig (now Gdansk), the son of a rich merchant. The birth was meant to happen in England, so that the boy would enjoy the benefits of a British subject. His mother had other ideas, however, and undertook the risky voyage home while heavily pregnant. A few years later, the Prussians annexed Danzig; a proud republican, Heinrich Schopenhauer moved the family to Hamburg, still an independent city state. However, he was a depressive and drowned himself in a canal. Arthur never entirely got over this loss. Years later he tried to find a father-substitute in Goethe, the greatest genius of the age. The sage indulged the brilliant young man; but when Schopenhauer sought to “improve” his Theory of Colour, which Goethe saw as his major contribution to science, the relationship cooled.

Did Arthur suffer from depression, like his father? Perhaps; at the age of six, he recalled, he convinced himself that his parents had abandoned him. In a sense, they did; but his temperament was choleric rather than melancholy. He confided to his journal about his free-floating anxiety; he kept a loaded pistol and sword at hand. His fear could be triggered by disease, politics, money, the possibility that his barber might be a Sweeney Todd, or indeed anything else. He was morbidly sensitive to noise and compulsively tidy. What sustained him was absolute confidence in the posthumous triumph of his ideas. His father’s will left Arthur, his mother Johanna and his sister Adele comfortably off. Johanna was intellectually and socially ambitious. She moved to Weimar, wrote popular novels and established a salon. Arthur may have inherited his literary talent from his mother, but the two detested one another. This left a damaging legacy. He had a few affairs but never married and became hostile to the female sex, culminating in a savage little essay “On Women”. Houellebecq, who has also been accused of misogyny, may find nothing amiss in this ugly side of Schopenhauer; for most readers it is a serious blemish.

Like many people, Schopenhauer became more reactionary as he aged. Peripatetic and polyglot, he had steeped himself in Weltliteratur, but in 1831 he settled down in Frankfurt, in a flat overlooking the River Main. His reasons included “better cafés”, “more Englishmen” and “less spied upon”. Another plus: it then had no university.

In 1848 his comfortable existence as a rentier in the “free city” was rudely interrupted by revolution. The first democratic assembly in German history met there, much to his dismay; and when Prussian troops finally arrived, he was glad to let them use his apartment as an observation post, lending them his binoculars to target revolutionaries. He even joined in the antisemitic scapegoating of Jewish radicals, which fitted with his visceral antipathy towards Judaism; though actually, some of his earliest disciples were also Jewish. Decades of neglect seem to have hardened his heart. One exception to this was his love of animals, especially his poodle, named Atman after the Sanskrit: he and his dog were one. An admirer of the newly-founded RSPCA, Schopenhauer denounced animal cruelty at length — the first, and until recently the only, philosopher to do so.

None of this prevented Schopenhauer from enjoying his life to the full. Like Kant, he was a creature of routine. He dressed in an old-fashioned frock coat and white tie, wrote until noon, played the flute, then went out for lunch. He dined at the table d’hôte (then a communal table) in the best hotel in town, the Englischer Hof. Later, accompanied by his poodle, he would take his constitutional, stopping to read The Times before returning to his rooms. Schopenhauer was a brilliant conversationalist, but he could also be touchy.

Once, absorbed in argument, he did not notice a waiter with a dish of beef at his side. His interlocutor, one Schnyder, said: “Well, do help yourself a priori so that I can help myself a posteriori.” Schopenhauer reacted with fury: “These are sacred expressions you have just used, which must not be profaned, expressions whose importance you do not understand.”

Back to Houellebecq. Why does this most bohemian of novelists adore the bourgeois philosopher par excellence? Perhaps because Houellebecq is a bourgeois too. He was a tax exile in Ireland; he has apparently ended up, like the protagonist of Serotonin, in an anonymous tower block in a “largely Chinese” (i.e. not Muslim) suburb of Paris that was “a guarantee of neutrality and politeness”. Like Schopenhauer, he loves hotels, though they do not sound as gemütlich as the Englischer Hof.

Schopenhauer has all the literary and imaginative gifts of a writer, reader and critic — never lost for an exquisitely chosen quotation in the original Spanish, Italian or English. Yet his attitude to eroticism is coldly objective. The first philosopher to open up the field, his “Metaphysics of Sexual Love” is still peerless in its pitiless dissection of sex. Towards the end of Serotonin, Houellebecq suddenly digresses into a discussion of Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann — both, incidentally, as devoted to Schopenhauer as himself. They might have been the crowns of French and German civilisation in their day, “but they were at the mercy of, and ready to prostrate themselves before” male or female genitalia, “Thomas Mann remaining undecided in this respect, and Proust being somewhat vague as well.”

In his view, “these two authors . . . were not, to put it another way, honourable men, and we would have had to go further back, probably to the start of the nineteenth century . . . to breathe a healthier and a purer air.”

It is a fallacy, of course, to attribute the thoughts of a character to his creator, especially such a depraved one. Yet here we may be forgiven for supposing that the spectacle he conjures up — of a France that is too far gone to be rescued even by Islam, that is beyond decadence and indifferent to its few remaining honourable citizens — is not merely gratuitous.

Houellebecq wants us to know that, even if he is unable to offer readers characters with any solutions to their Weltschmerz other than suicide, he himself exists “in the presence of Schopenhauer”, a thinker who, however terrible his vision of life, is at least unflinchingly honest and honourable. One must live as if his pessimism were true. Despair is a powerful drug; the only antidote is to go back to a philosophy that is even darker than the nihilism of our day.

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