Saturday Schopenhauer

In another of Schopenhauer’s aphorisms on books and writing, he starts out by distinguishing two types of book, which “can never be more than a reproduction of the thoughts of its author. The value of these thoughts lies either in the material, that is in what he has thought upon, or in the form, i.e. the way in which the material is treated, that is in what he has thought upon it.” He finds that the latter indicates a superior quality of authorship:

…the merit of a writer who is worth reading is the greater the less it owes to his material, and even the more familiar and much-employed this material is. Thus, e.g., the three great Greek tragedians all employed the same material.

But again, not everyone’s taste is as good as Schopenhauer’s. And again, his criticism of the public is contemporary-sounding—so much so that it makes this sort of attitude seem ridiculous. I’m sympathetic to his complaint, but what exactly are we lamenting if he saw the same things in 185– that we can see now?

The public is much more interested in the material than in the form. It displays this tendency in its most ridiculous shape in regard to poetic works, in that it painstakingly tracks down the real events or personal circumstances which occasioned the work, and these, indeed, become more interesting to it than the works themselves, so that it reads more about than by Goethe and studies the Faust legend more assiduously than Faust.

Then again, you don’t hear many people complaining about the public’s interest in the Faust legend these days.

I think a lot of readers would disagree with Schopenhauer’s priorities here, but I am not one of them.

2 comments to Saturday Schopenhauer

  • Schopenhauer is such a grump about this (one of the reasons I love reading his essays) but he picks at a sore spot of contemporary literature. I think its pretty funny how this debate hasn’t gone away.

  • nicole

    His grumpiness is definitely why I love him too. I really cracked up here thinking about the recent wild popularity of “memoirs” and the accompanying lamentations on the part of fiction-preferers. I mean, I prefer fiction too, because I prefer a piece of art. But it’s just so the same thing. I can only imagine him as a public intellectual today, writing on the rise and fall of James Frey!