Recently I’ve been following a YouTube channel called Weltgeist, which deals (exclusively, I believe) with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and to a lesser extent, Nietzsche. This has prompted me to re-read The World as Will and Representation, the great pessimist’s magnum opus. But Schopenhauer had opinions on nearly everything, as his entertaining (and occasionally outrageous) essays show, including reading and writing. And since he was one of the few philosophers who had a clear and elegant prose style himself, and since he was clearly one of the greatest intellects of recorded history, it may be worth considering what he had to say on the subjects.
First of all, he cautions us not to read much. This is pertinent, when so many people aim to read a book a week, or more – one of my friends felt guilty if he could not manage to read two or three books in a week. But is more always better? As Schopenhauer affirms, most books are bad. If this was true in the nineteenth century, surely it’s truer still now, when almost everyone seems to have written a book. Schopenhauer’s mother was herself a successful novelist, but he dismissed her work as superficial and fashionable, and pointed out that most people only read in order to be able to discuss the latest books everyone is talking about. This is still true today. Most readers will try to read the latest novels by George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney, and so on, merely because they are discussed in The New Yorker and thus they are certain to be discussed at the cocktail and dinner parties they attend, and they (the readers) don’t want to be left out or considered philistines.
Another disadvantage of reading a book a week, let alone more, is that you are likely to have time only to read the book once, and Schopenhauer asserts that if a book is worth reading, it’s worth reading twice. In fact, he says, you have to read it twice to fully understand it. He makes this demand on his own readers, even though his style is unusually clear for a philosopher’s. And if that’s true of philosophy, I think it’s true of great fiction too. While I enjoyed War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov on the first reading, I understood them better, and had a deeper enjoyment, on re-reading them.
So what’s Schopenhauer’s solution? Simple: read the classics, that have stood the test of time. These days that’s a problematic proposal, because the canon is largely European, white and male, and diversity has become an almost unquestioned value among intellectuals and artists. The irony here is that although most soi-disant intellectuals claim to value diversity, it’s pretty strictly diversity in externals only – that is, skin colour, sex, sexuality, and so on. (And, as I’ve pointed out in this column before, ad nauseam, straight white men tend to be excluded from the happy family.) Most of the novels being published seem to have remarkably similar themes: oppression and victimisation, chiefly. So while I think Schopenhauer goes too far – clearly there must be brilliant writers and other artists working currently, if you can just find them – I do think it’s worth reading the canon, for a couple of reasons. In the first place, because if you’re European or American (North or Latin), or from the Antipodes, the canon is your heritage, and you can’t possibly understand the society you live in unless you know it, just as you can’t possibly understand it if you don’t know its history. So although you might wish that more women had written and published, and that European society had been more ethnically diverse, and perhaps that the writers of the past had had more irreproachable personal lives, the classic authors are worth reading, firstly because many of them are remarkably good, but secondly, even if you find them prejudiced and narrow-minded, at least you will be able to understand who has paved the way for you. Whenever I hear a woman saying, ‘I only read women’, I shudder, as I would if I heard a man saying that he only read men. This is not progressive: it’s as prejudiced as the sexist past was.
My own recommendation is to read the classics of philosophy and fiction, not merely the Europeans, but of course the great Asian works, Lao Tzu, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, and so on, and naturally the canonical works of Latin American fiction. That’s a good start. And read slowly and selectively.
And what about writing? In Schopenhauer’s view, clear thought is always expressed clearly. He vilifies the confused, impenetrable prose of Hegel, for example, whom he regarded simply as a charlatan. But isn’t this true of fiction too? So many people begin writing before they have clear thoughts in their heads. If the process of writing enables them to clarify their thoughts eventually, that may not be a bad thing. But if their thoughts remain muddy and confused, the prose will be too, and however ‘difficult’ it seems, it will not be profound, but simply a mess. That’s often the case.
Perhaps we should pay more attention to Arthur Schopenhauer.