We recently sat down with Robert Wicks author of Schopenhauer. In this interview, Bob tells us about his abiding interest in this enigmatic and outcast figure, and along the way covers such diverse topics as Hinduism, Zen, Afghanistan and anchovy-and-onion pizzas. Enjoy!
Hi Bob. So, why did you decide to write Schopenhauer?
Well, I can’t say that I ever had the idea to write a book on Schopenhauer. I’ve been teaching a class here in Auckland called “Schopenhauer and Nietzsche” for awhile now, and the book materialized by itself over time. It just happened, really. When I was putting the manuscript together, though, I did have an idea about who the ideal audience might be. So this is who I wrote the book “for,” one could say. It was for those who are on the edge, who live in the so-called “real world” by trade, who know it’s a lie, but who play along anyway, hoping for a big bag of money or something, feeling uneasy about selling themselves out, but who are probably going to do it anyway. Schopenhauer rips the cover off of this illusion, so I thought the book might save someone somewhere from getting themselves wrapped up in some regrettable scene.
That’s a thought. Can you say something more about this audience that you had in mind?
Let me put it like this. Here’s an image that is pure Schopenhauer that tells it like it is. There was this man a long time ago, probably a devilish guy in a way, who lusted after this aristocratic married woman, following her around, making a nuisance of himself, embarrassing her, and having it be no secret that he was… well, we know what he wanted. Finally, he found his way into the woman’s chambers thinking that he was going to have sex with her, since she was being friendly, inviting, conversational and such, when she turned towards him and pulled down her blouse. At which point he freaked out because the woman’s breast was all eaten up with cancer. Here’s someone chasing his dream like a madman, only to crash into a wall of disillusionment. It’s kind of sad, you know. Everything’s like that for Schopenhauer.
What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
The book provides an overview of Schopenhauer’s philosophy from a certain perspective, emphasizing the notion of sublimity, how Schopenhauer tends to think in terms of matters of degree, and how religious factors from Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity enter into his philosophy. There are also some sections on Schopenhauer in connection with Hegel, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Overall, though, I tried to emphasize Schopenhauer’s basic message that if one wants less, if one is less greedy and less acquisitive, there might be a lot less pain all around, not just for oneself, but for everyone else. He doesn’t think many people can actually do this, but still, trying to put his ideal into practice might do some good, given how the world is.
And what is it that draws you to this topic?
There are some lighter things and some serious things. Nietzsche mentioned that Schopenhauer’s philosophy has a “cadaverous perfume” to it, and I can identify with that. It has this Halloween feeling, or macabre feeling, like the color purple in a way, sort of creepy, sort of Gothic, Frankenstein-like, and I guess I have that quality too. Not really, well at least not the Frankenstein part, but sort of. I remember when we were living in the dorms many years ago in Michigan and we used to burn incense and order anchovy-and-onion pizzas from Domino’s. You can imagine what the room smelled like. That was before I read Schopenhauer. This was in the 1970’s. More seriously, though, I also remember watching the Vietnam War on TV when I was young, and nothing’s changed at all. Even the NY skyline now looks the same as in 1968, which is just too weird. The war’s not on TV anymore – that’s all over — but we just watch it on YouTube instead. Just type in Iraq or Afghanistan IED and there we are. It’s unbelievable. So I think that Schopenhauer’s right; the wars aren’t coming to an end, and we all need to figure out a way to be happy in this mess, as opposed to waiting for some pie-in-the-sky view like Hegel’s to happen. Nietzsche says the same thing as Schopenhauer, but I think that Schopenhauer is more profound and more moral, so I like him a lot better. I’ve also been interested in Zen since I was about 17, so the Buddhist angle in Schopenhauer is personally attractive, probably always will be.
What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
I’d be happy if it just helps one person shift their life around for the better. That would make it all worth it.
Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
There are thousands and thousands of excellent books out there. But here’s a book that I would have been entertained to have written. I don’t know the name of it. Near the end of the movie, The Razor’s Edge, with Bill Murray, Bill Murray’s on his trip up into the mountains in India or Tibet, in some monastery looking for enlightenment, and so they send him up alone to this little hut way up there in the freezing cold. He’s got his load of Buddhist books with him, and finally, just when he’s about freeze to death, he just laughs, sees the light, and lights up the pages of the book with a match to warm himself, dropping the leaves of the book one-by-one on top of the fire. That was his moment of enlightenment. I would have liked to have been the person to have written that book, so he could he have used it as firewood to become an enlightened soul. What a great moment in the movie that was.
What’s your current project? What’s next?
These days I’m writing a book on existentialism. I guess you can see why.
What’s it like to teach Schopenhauer in New Zealand?
I can only say that it’s been an outstanding experience. Every year the class has about 60 or so people, and everybody’s really interested in it. Some prefer Nietzsche to Schopenhauer, but they are both such honest philosophers and outcasts that there’s a kind of natural receptivity to their views. The best part about teaching them is that one can talk about reality for a change, the suffering that’s everywhere, the madness of chasing after illusions, the beauty of art, and the bar at 10 am in the morning, lights blazing, glasses half-filled with beer laying around, cigarette butts on the ground, stuffy air, and all of the bumpety-bump music from the night before silent and seen for what it really is. Schopenhauer talked about the carnival clothes that were so scary the night before, later seen as just clothes in the broad daylight. The Tibetans talk about the stuffed lion that looked real in the dark shadows that is finally seen for what it is during the day, but it’s all the same story and the same idea about trying to wake up. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to wake up, because I’m still so wrapped up in my own dreams that even after having read Schopenhauer, it still seems like such a mountain to climb. I do hope that I don’t die in this condition, though.