There’s a great section right before this on literary periodicals, which I must save for later. Here, instead, we have an attack on “anonymity, that shield for every kind of literary scoundrelism”! Do you think Schopenhauer might have gotten some bad anonymous reviews? I don’t actually know, but I feel certain that even if he hadn’t he would still have written something like this:
The pretext for [anonymity’s] introduction into literary periodicals was that it protected honest critics from the wrath of authors and their patrons. But for every case of this kind there are a hundred cases where it serves merely to allow complete irresponsibility to reviewers who would be unable to defend what they write, or even to conceal the shame of those so venal and abject as to recommend books to the public in exchange for a tip from their publisher. It often merely serves to cloak the obscurity, incompetence and insignificance of the reviewer. It is unbelievable what impudence these fellows are capable of, and from what degree of literary knavery they will not shrink, once they know themselves secure in the shadow of anonymity.
Well doesn’t that just sound remarkably apt for a book blog? It all sounds so familiar…venal, abject, incompetent, insignificant, and impudent! Too bad for Schopenhauer and a few curmudgeonly old-school literary types, I suppose.
I think there’s a valuable differentiation to make here, though. Blogs, even “anonymous” ones, are really pseudonymous, and this has real effects. A pseudonym builds up a reputation; while it may stop people knowing some details of your outside life, it won’t really help if you go on writing indefensible things and expecting anyone to listen. And with the proliferation of this type of publishing, my obscurity, incompetence, and insignificant are hardly cloaked.
Also, I know that if I ever commit true literary knavery, some impudent, possibly anonymous, commenter will come to tell me so.
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.
Last week, during my vacation, I sat down a few times with Penguin Classics’s Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer.* I liked how modern so much of them seems. Parts of the section on books and writing could practically have been published today by some curmudgeon or other. I thought it was a bit funny how Schopenhauer’s problems in that area are not just not “worked out” yet or something, but are the kind of thing still being actively lamented. I think I’ll be sharing some of my favorite bits in the coming weeks. Like this one:
A multitude of bad writers lives exclusively on the stupid desire of the public to read nothing but what has just been printed: the journalists. Well named! In English the word means ‘day-labourers’.
One of the things Schopenhauer likes to do is explain how many types of writer there are, and what the types are. It changes from aphorism to aphorism. First there are three types, then two, then three again. This passage is from a section contrasting two types: those who write for money and those who write because they have something to say. Schopenhauer is not at all fond of the “day-labourers” (but isn’t that a good jab?). “Payment and reserved copyright are at bottom the ruin of literature.” Them’s fighting words—I certainly wasn’t expecting him to go after copyright but find it very interesting that he did. Very interesting indeed, especially with the renewed contemporary interest in the question of whether intellectual property law is necessary or beneficial.
Of course, it’s no surprise to read about “the stupid desire of the public”; there are a lot of problems here with the public and its relationship with books and writing. But I wasn’t quite expecting a complaint about journalists. Of course now, the public still wants to read what’s just been printed—or, rather, published—but the day-labourers seem no longer to be the best at responding to that desire and are reduced to metajournalism to explain their importance, and why they should keep getting paid. Well, journalists, Schopenhauer says you’ll be much better writers anyhow when you work “for nothing or for very small payment,” so take heart.
In terms of books, how do we know if someone is writing only for money, rather than because he has something to say? I like the answer:
They think for the purpose of writing. You can recognize them by the fact that they spin out their ideas to the greatest possible extent, that their ideas are half-true, obscure, forced and vacillating, and that they usually prefer the twilight so as to appear what they are not, which is why their writings lack definiteness and clarity. You can soon see they are writing simply in order to cover paper: and as soon as you do see it you should throw the book down, for time is precious.