Book Review: Schopenhauer’s Will (Das Testament) by Jack Matthews

Title: Schopenhauer’s Will: Das Testament
Print Editions: $29.95 (Hardcover price as of October, 2015). 167 pages.  (Ebook not available).
Purchase Information: Publisher’s Site | | BN | Read an extended book excerpt
Summary: A genre-bending work consisting of a series of 2-3 page biographical vignettes (with some fictionalizing thrown in).
Recommended if you like:  Penelope Fitzgerald’s “Blue Flower” or compact biographies

What better person could there be to write a creative meditation and dramatization of Schopenhauer’s life than philosophical novelist Jack Matthews?

Arthur Schopenhauer is a strange complex man whose life story is as engrossing as his philosophies. Already two wonderful biographies have been written about him:  Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy by Rüdiger Safranski  and – more recently —   Schopenhauer: A Biography (2010) by David Cartwright. Both are scholarly works with ample footnotes and close reading of original sources. The earlier Safranski work — though organized  in rough chronological order — focuses  more on Schopenhauer’s philosophies and how life events  influenced these ideas. The Cartwright biography has a little bit of that too, but is more concerned with describing Schopenhauer’s relationship to  19th German society, how his family and friends influenced him and the  personal qualities (and quirks) which accounted for his preeminence among Continental philosophers. The Cartwright work makes sure to present a variety of different perspectives (delving more deeply for example into  the belletristic lifestyle of his mother).
Arthur Schopenhauer
Jack Matthew’s book on Schopenhauer  has different aims. Intended more for the general reader than the scholar, it’s compact by design and consists   of  2-3 page meditations on various episodes  in Schopenhauer’s life.  Every chunk has a title (“Hearing from Momma,” “And Now the Third Mountain,”  “Escape to Venice,” etc) and  ends with a relevant  quotation  from Schopenhauer or a contemporary. Generally these vignettes stay faithful to Schopenhauer’s biography; I compared Matthews’ treatment of certain events with the two Schopenhauer biographies and found them generally consistent. This work reads like a novel (indeed, it reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald’s retelling of the life of Novalis in her  brilliant novel, Blue Flower).

At the same time, Matthews imagines certain scenes and  dialogue that certainly did not exist the way he describes them (though it probably represents Schopenhauer’s beliefs and state of mind accurately). For example, Matthews uses his gifts of imagination to depict a long dialogue with a prostitute about passion and life (“Schopenhauer Explains Love”). Another vignette (“Case of Carolyn Marquet,” the longest in the book) consists of a 30 page play about a  prolonged legal dispute between Schopenhauer and a seamstress who  lived in his flat (and was reputed to be obsessed with the philosopher).  Within the book, Matthews claims (perhaps with a nod to Borges) that the play was written by a minor 19th century German poet. But  no such poet actually exists, and  this subterfuge is a way for Matthews to vary  genres modes within the book. As fascinating as this little play was,  there was no need for the author to hide the fact that this mini-play was his own invention; indeed the rest of the book generally stays historically accurate, so it stands out. This mixing of genres here is reminiscent of the “polyphonic novel” as practiced by Kundera and others.

Behind the Matthews book (and  Schopenhauer’s life itself) lies the question of whether a lifelong dedication to ideas necessarily accompanies an ineptitude for forming healthy nurturing relationships.  Schopenhauer was lousy at family relations; he was argumentative and judgemental with his mother and sister. Perhaps his father’s suspicious death (which was believed to be a  suicide), may have brought guilt and distrust. Because he disapproved of his mother’s relationship with another man after the father’s death, Schopenhauer moved out of the house and never spoke to his mother  to the time of her death 24 years later.  He had a similar relationship with his sister (who he regarded as naive and deluded about her poetic talent). Despite these tense relations and differences in temperament (Arthur was a rationalist while his mother and sister had more romantic/artistic sensibilities),  they continued to write one another semi-regularly. But emotionally Schopenhauer was distant and almost brusque. Schopenhauer would have liked to marry,  but his lack of success led him to dismiss the undertaking altogether.

A quick look on Wikipedia reveals that both Arthur Schopenhauer’s mother Joanna and sister Adele  had been recognized in their fields (and hardly deserved the status of dilettantism  which Arthur reserved for them).  Both women  had deep and lasting relationships with Goethe — the pre-eminent artist and intellectual of that era.    In this book Matthews portrays  Arthur Schopenhauer as dismissive of their accomplishments — but it might have been more fair (and  accurate) to stress that Arthur’s  contemptuous attitude towards them existed mainly in his head and not in anyone else’s.  For women in 19th century German society,  their failure to live independently (which was the primary reason for Schopenhauer’s contempt) may simply reflect the limited opportunities available to women at the time.

Schopenhauer’s writings on the sexes and family relationships were often considered misogynistic — something which is reflected in his failure to reconcile with his mother and sister; at the same time, Matthews demonstrates (convincingly I believe) that Schopenhauer was comfortable in civil society even  though some might have viewed him as eccentric. Maybe he went through life with a disdain of family members and the opposite sex,  but he still could be pleasant or charming at a social event when he chose to. He never found love, but he still enjoyed  simple pleasures such as  walking his dog and reading novels.

Like any good biographical study, the Matthews book ends on Schopenauer’s decline and awareness of his mortality. Unlike many biographical subjects,  Schopenhauer had already written  a lot  about death and even had “immortal intimations” (to use Matthews’ phrase). This book attacks the topic  from different angles: an imagined scene of Schopenhauer entertaining a guest shortly before his death,  a discussion of how Schopenhauer kept himself entertained in his final year  (he had actually gone swimming days before his death), an essay trying to make sense of a cryptic phrase Schopenhauer used to describe death,  a discussion of Schopenhauer’s last testament and how it gibed with his priorities in life and — as a coda —  a description of how his dog and housekeeper continued to live after his death.

Schopenhauer’s Will is more approachable than conventional biographies, but also a lot more speculative.  Because each section is essentially self-contained, you can select any random page and start reading without feeling lost.  (In fact, I had more fun re-reading the book than reading it for the first time).  Organizing a biography by stringing together little sections  runs the risk of making the subject seem less complex or nuanced; on the other hand, it captures what is different and interesting about his life  while not allowing the man’s prodigious philosophical writings to overshadow it. The best thing about Schopenhauer’s Will is that it balances the need to convey Schopenhauer’s ideas with Matthews’ need to tell a good story;  it’s just as much a book about dog walking as it is about one man’s  gloomy  philosophies.

See also this book excerpt:  Arthur and Adele: A Philosopher’s Strange, Complicated (and Tragic) Relationship with his Sister

Robert Nagle is editor of Personville Press and runs the website. He was written many articles about Jack Matthews.

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