Schopenhauer and The Goldfinch [1 of 2]

Unknown.jpegA masterful, nearly 800-page novel, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch follows the disenchanted and equally pessimistic Theodore Decker, who has lived through the deaths of many of his loved ones as he descends into darkness. The book is incredibly detailed and thought-provoking, and the depicted struggles of Theo are described in enough despair as to inspire the same despondency in the reader, leaving them dejected after reading, calling for serious reflection of oneself and one’s life. As I read the book, I struggled to find a coherent philosopher/philosophy with which to compare the message of it, but as I kept looking over the connections, it clicked: Theo Decker resembles most—in my opinion—the pessimist thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, author of The World as Will and Representation. In this post, I will be exploring the topics of causality, pessimism and some derivatives thereof, character, morality, and aesthetics, which can be found in both writings.

Anyone who reads The Goldfinch will notice the importance of causation that runs through the book, namely the supremacy of either fate or chance, determinism or indeterminism. Even in the first major event of the book, we see through both the dialogue and Theo himself that, throughout history, there is no denying the uncanny resemblances which occur, from the explosion of Delft to the explosion at the museum. Theo recounts that he often thought about

the element of chance: random disasters, mine and his [Carel Fabritius], converging on the same unseen point…. You could study the connections for years and never work it out—it was all about things coming together, things falling apart, time warp…. The stray chance that might, or might not, change everything.[1]

Theo compares to the destructive explosion that destroyed Fabritius’ works and the museum in which Theo found himself, noting how mysteriously similar they were, as though there were some kind of link, some kind of bridge that brought the two together. But randomness has no cause, no reason, yet there seems to be a parallel. When it comes to probability, especially in major events, there is no way to calculate the odds to 100%; there is no direct correlation between an event and its cause, much less a single one, and Unknown-1.jpegthus, while Theo can try to examine the relation between the two events, he will ultimately find none, for even the smallest change can alter the entire course. It is “[t]he stray chance,” the minor divergence, so improbably small, that determines whether someone lives or dies. Nonetheless, “the explosion in Delft was part of a complex of events that ricocheted into the present. The multiple outcomes could make you dizzy.”[2] Schopenhauer believed in determinism. He said everything is caused by a prior action. What the cause of this determinism is—be it Will, to which we will return presently, or some natural order—he explains not. Consequently, in light of Theo’s ruminations, it would mean that there is a necessity at work; the events leading from the explosion in Delft to the museum were determined as soon as they happened; therefore, it was inevitable, a decree of fate, that the two events would match up. However, where does chance fit into this? Perhaps, in reconciling the two views, we can surmise that determinism is indeterminate, by which I mean that the necessary connection of two events happens by chance. Albeit seemingly paradoxical, this explanation says that, while the two explosions are part of a grand scheme, ordained to happen, the fact of their necessity is based on probability. It is the “stray chance” in events that caused the one explosion, leading to the other one. This two-way view of causality is expressed in The Goldfinch by Boris:

‘What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, made no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set?… Understand, by saying ‘God,’ I am merely using ‘God’ as reference to a long-term pattern we can’t decipher…. But—maybe not so random and impersonal as all that, if you get me.’[3]

Theo replies, “‘I think this goes more to the idea of ‘relentless irony’ than ‘divine providence,’’’ to which Boris says, “‘Yes—but why give it a name? Can’t they both be the same thing?’”[4] This dialogue introduces predestination, a view that holds that all our lives are already written beginning to end and are unchangeable, which Theo compares to irony, stating that this pattern is more arbitrary than Boris thinks it. Whereas Boris sees an orderly pattern, Theo sees nonrational chaos and anarchy. Boris then presents the idea that the two need not be contradictory, but rather that the two are identical, two sides to the same face. Fate and chance are intertwined, causing events necessarily based on probability, which is more or less indeterminate. Schopenhauer’s Will is said to be “blind” in that it is neither good nor bad, but indifferent. As such, it is possible that we could entertain the ideas that the Will could be responsible for causality that is neither determinate nor indeterminate.[5] Earlier in the book, Theo relates the two in another way.

An act of God: that was what the insurance companies called it, catastrophe so random or arcane that there was otherwise not taking the measure of it. Probability was one thing, but some events fell so far outside the actuarial tables that even insurance underwriters were compelled to haul in the supernatural in order to explain them—rotten luck, as my father had said mournfully… a sincere bowing of the head to Fortune, the greatest god he knew.[6]

Determinism is easy to explain, through necessity, just as randomness is, through probability. According to Theo, there are events so utterly and unbelievably out of this world, so unintelligibly arational and comprehensible to neither man nor machine, that they are unpredictable to the extent that they are divine. The only possible explanation for this deviation is “[a]n act of God.” These events are so outside of human understanding that they are fictional in a sense, deferred to a power stronger than imaginable.

The deeper one goes into the novel, the deeper one finds oneself in an abyss, a totally black void, “an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or thought of as light,”[7] reflected by the meaninglessness of life in the eyes of Theo. Part of what makes the book depressing is the fact that the book itself, its message, Unknown-2.jpegis depressing: That life is worthless. Theo sums up his belief with brevity: “It was better never to have been born—never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything.”[8] This view is called antinatalism (anti-, against, -nasci-, to be born) and says that so much suffering comes from human existence that it is better never to have born, as in doing so, one does not have to confront life or its lack of value. Before that, Theo remarks, “For humans—trapped in biology—there was no mercy: we lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died, we rotted in the ground like garbage. Time destroyed us all soon enough.”[9] In comes Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s main idea is the Will, a pantheistic energy, or entity, that pervades the world, and most importantly—most tragically, rather—us humans.[10] The Will is the thing-in-itself, meaning it is imperceptible to us but manifests itself in the world and is the essence thereof. As Schopenhauer put it,

It [the Will] is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature of what is manifested.[11]

What is the nature of this Will? The Will is described as “blind,” as we discussed, so we know it is impartial to man and nature alike. Schopenhauer characterized the Will as manifest in man as what he calls the Will-to-Live, which is described as endless striving after life. Indifferent, insatiable, and nonrational, the Will is an unconscious drive that seeks and desires incessantly. Life, Schopenhauer pointed out, consists entirely of desires, such as comfort, hunger, thirst, warmth, etc. His pessimism lies in the fact that humans cannot avoid suffering, that suffering is both inevitable and interminable, in the truest sense. When we desire, we are in a state of suffering, for we want things; we are medium_suffering-dtmsdfrl.jpgnot satisfied until we get them. However, even when we do satisfy our desires, what then? After eating and therefore subduing our hunger, we are left bored, feeling empty and unstimulated. Schopenhauer reminds us that at all times we are constantly pulled in different directions by our varying desires, which pull us this way and that, never static, always demanding more and more, like a restless baby who will not stop crying. In the success of satisfying our hunger, in contemplating the subsequent emptiness therefrom, we become aware of the nagging desire to drink, to sleep, to have sex, to readjust our sitting position to make us more comfortable, to have companionship. Our predicament has no remedy! From this, Theo concludes that life must obviously not be worth living, seeing as there can come no true contentment in life, just indomitable desires. Further, we have no choice, as the Will-to-live is inherent; it is our nature. Although the Will can only be perceived by humans through categories, thereby making it phenomenal, we humans have the most direct yet involuntary contact with the Will—the body. Through bodily actions, ranging from simple to complex, from raising a hand to running, we come in contact with the Will as pure action and movement. Our movement is synchronous with the Will, and the two are one. Reflecting on a lifeless painting, a mere phenomenon, Theo realizes,

I was different, but it wasn’t. And as the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as the street lamps flashing past.[12]

The painting is phenomenal, belonging to the corporeal world, a lifeless, reactive object. Contrast this to Theo, in whom the Will manifests itself, full of life, active, whose actions are in and of the Will. Unlike the painting, however, Theo, Will-manifest, is “patternless,” a “transient burst of energy”—Theo is dynamic energy, always changing, and has the Will-to-live, as opposed to the painting, which is composed of an orderly array of atoms, absent from it “a fizz of biological static.” Late in the book, Theo, in yet another pessimistic outburst, has this to say:

And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at my understanding of it—…. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.

… I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence… is catastrophe…. For me—and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool…. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.[13]

Unknown-3.jpegSchopenhauer famously compared human beings to porcupines: Man seeks companionship, yet every time he tries to get close, he is pricked, so he must distance himself. What are the needles? Suffering. Unfortunately for Theo, there is little truth about suffering, except that it intrinsic to life. Accordingly, there will never be a bridge between two people, for the chasm of suffering’s breadth is unsurpassable. Theo should have said, “The basic fact of existence is suffering,” considering that is one of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, who inspired Schopenhauer, as well as the fact that the only way to enjoy life is to remove suffering entirely. The only viable solution, thus, seems to be death, as either way, it will come to us all.

[B]ut does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we lose everything that matters in the end—and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy? [14]

Contrary to the hitherto pessimistic outlook shown by Theo, he shows here a bit of Absurdism. Despite the meaninglessness of the life, despite the fact that we are all destined to die, forgotten, alone, we can, like Sisyphus, take joy in the absurdity, laughing in the face of life. At one point, toward the end of the book, Theo tries to commit suicide, but that in itself would be an act of suffering, because Schopenhauer explained that killing oneself in an attempt to escape the Will-to-live is itself an act of Will, thereby defeating the whole purpose. Hence, we are trapped in a world of suffering, the option of killing ourselves not even available to us. Truly, this is an abysmal existence. Indeed, our lives are ruled by “[f]orces unknown, unchosen, unwilled.”[15]


[1] Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 305
[2] Ibid.
[3] Id., p. 746
[4] Ibid.
[5] Schopenhauer, in his texts, never makes this claim, rather it is my interpretation
[6] Tartt, op. cit., pp. 701-2
[7] Id., p. 695
[8] p. 477
[9] p. 695
[10] Schopenhauer did not think of the Will as a force 
[11] Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1, p. 110
[12] Tartt, op. cit., p. 672
[13] Id., p. 767
[14] p. 768
[15] p. 770


For further reading: 
The World as Will and Representation Vol. 1 by Arthur Schopenhauer (1995)
Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Janaway (2002)
The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt (2013)



One thought on “Schopenhauer and The Goldfinch [1 of 2]

  1. Pingback: Schopenhauer and the Goldfinch [2 of 2] | Neologikon

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