Schopenhauer and the Goldfinch [2 of 2]

Click here to read part 1 if you have not already.


As Theo comes to realize the godforsaken state of existence in which he finds himself living, he learns, too, “We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”[1] Heraclitus once said, “Character is destiny”—and Schopenhauer was in approval. To Schopenhauer, operare sequitur esse: To act follows being. Put another way, who we are determines how we act. Unknown-4.jpegContrary to Sartre’s dictum that “Existence precedes essence,” our essence precedes our existence. We are not tabula rasa, as Locke said, rather we have a nature at birth, a nature that will affect us till the grave, that will influence every action thereto. In line with his causality, Schopenhauer demonstrated our actions in terms of a motive and a subsequent action. A motive is independent of us, indifferent, whereas an action is dependent on us, subjective, relative to each of our unique dispositions. To illustrate this, put in the same circumstance, many people will act differently, precisely because their characters are different. Our character is unchanging and rigid, not like personality, which we say changes as we grow older. Character is more like a transcendental self, insofar as Schopenhauer said that, while the body dies, character does not; character, then, is like the soul, but not the same thing. Rather, character is independent of us. Theo recalls a discussion he had with Boris, an alcoholic, in which he asks why he does not quit, despite being readily able to quit.

If you can stop, why wouldn’t you?

Live by the sword, die by the sword, said Boris briskly….

And as terrible as this is, I get it. We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are.[2]

“We can’t escape who we are” because character is destiny. Boris admits he can quit whenever he wants, but because he committed to it in principle, it is better, in his eyes, to stick to it till the end, than to renounce it.


Amidst the pessimism and determinism which permeate the book is an interesting discussion of morality and ethics and how best to live one’s life, especially one which is characterized by an insatiable Will-to-live. In particular, I was captivated by an impassioned rant given by Boris, who was talking about Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot:

‘Very dark message to this book [The Idiot], ‘Why be good….’ What if maybe opposite is true as well? Because, if bad can sometimes come from good actions—? where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes—the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?’

… ‘Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other.’[3]

Here, Boris turns morality on its head, championing the bad over the good, suggesting that maybe it is good to be bad, and that from bad comes good. One may be tempted to impute to Boris some kind of Machiavellianism, a justification for the-end-justifies-the-mean. This is perhaps true, but it also states that rules are created so they may be broken. He has an interesting notion that “you can do everything wrong and it still turns Unknown.pngout to be right,” which seems to reflect some veracity. Of course, this distinction arises solely because there is a line, a thick one, drawn between the two polar opposites of morality, a line Boris says is really obfuscated and not as thick as imagined. Perhaps one is not to the other as life is to death; Boris maintains that the two must exist with each other, for each other. One can think of a number line, with zero at the middle, good going to the right like positive numbers, bad to the left like negative numbers. Boris sees it not in terms of the integers’ values but their absolute value, their distance from zero, for they remain the same! There is no difference between good and bad, then, in reality. Either way, any action, good or bad, has the same absolute value, uncolored by any contrary appraisals. In deciding how best to live, Theo contrasts two models of living:

Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? … Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm,… all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or—like Boris—is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.[4]

Unknown.jpegIn addition to Schopenhauer, we can introduce Nietzsche to help us out here. Kitsey, to whom Theo is engaged, pursues an ethical life, one lived in accordance with a higher good in mind, virtuous, controlled, just. She goes through life resisting her desires, retaining her dignity, and acting dutifully. Kitsey, it would seem, is the paragon of a good person: She avoids giving into her impulses, follows the norm, and works to perfect herself; she is a functioning human. On the other hand, Boris is reckless, spontaneous, and irrational, jumping headfirst into whatever lies below, giving into his instincts. Who is the right model? After whose lead should we follow? If we turn to Nietzsche, it is Boris, to Schopenhauer, Kitsey. In terms of Nietzschean morality, Kitsey represents the slave and Boris the master in the master-slave paradigm, respectively. Nietzsche criticized religion for enforcing this moral schema, namely that the weak are better than the strong. Borrowing from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche said we all have an inherent Will-to-Power that is constantly repressed by norms and religion. The slaves, acknowledging their weakness in comparison to the masters, over whom they had no control, but vice versa, conspired with each other to create an ethic that said asceticism and virtue made a person “good” or bad.” In this sense, the masters, who exerted force and power, were “bad,” or Unknown-1.jpegimmoral, and the slaves, who silently suffered, were “good” and moral. Nietzsche said this system is backward, complaining that we were stifling our Will-to-Power, insisting that we engage our aggressive tendencies and give into our instincts. A slave will subscribe to an ethical system, but a master will make his own system, will carve his own path. Therefore, Kitsey, who follows the norms and represses her Will, is a slave, and Boris, who aggressively faces obstacles, is a master. On the other hand, Schopenhauer said that because the Will-to-live causes suffering, and suffering ought to be avoided, we must renounce our desires completely—we must renounce our Will-to-live entirely. Only when we desire no longer can we attain tranquility and peace of mind. Howbeit, it would be incorrect to say that Schopenhauer would praise Kitsey, so far as she is still active, meaning Will is still manifest in her. Instead, said Schopenhauer, we must completely renounce our Will-to-live; we must be completely ascetic. Again, this is turning out to be highly depressing, so we shall turn to some happier ethics.

To contemplate the face-clawing worry the dope had saved me… flooded me with Vedic serenity. Worry! What a waste of time. All the holy books were right. Clearly worry was the mark of a primitive and spiritually unevolved person…. All things fall and are built again…. This was wisdom. People had been raging and weeping and destroying things for centuries and wailing about their puny individual lives, when—what was the point? All this useless sorrow? Consider the lilies of the field. Why did anyone ever worry about anything? Weren’t we, as sentient beings, put upon earth to be happy, in the brief time allotted to us? [5]

Unknown-3.jpegTheo references “Vedic serenity,” as depicted in the Hindu spiritual text the Vedas, from which Schopenhauer drew inspiration, incidentally, too. He speaks of “[a]ll the holy books,” which can be interpreted not just as the spiritual masterpieces, Eastern and Western, but also philosophy. See, in Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism, and many more ancient traditions, anxiety and worry were said to result from a restless mind that thought and worried about the future, causing dis-ease. Those who worried chronically were, as Theo put it, “primitive and spiritually unevolved.” Indeed, when it came down to things, in the big picture of life and history, our conflicts should not matter much. If we focused more on being tranquil and content, we would not have big-scale wars. We must be in the present and stop to smell the roses. “Consider the lilies of the field,” focus on the small things in life. The pessimists and absurdists may flaunt their indifference and contempt. If we are here for a short amount of time, why not at least make it enjoyable?


Unknown.jpegConsidering the name The Goldfinch is based on a painting, one would suspect there to be in the book some theory of aesthetics, if not a few words on art—and there are. Hobie, who becomes Theo’s legal guardian, says, “And isn’t it the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?”[6] The painting “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius plays a considerable role in the book, following Theo around, being traded from one place to another, avoiding and finally being returned to the authorities. Theo and the painting have an almost magical connection, and it is made apparent in their interactions, with Theo constantly worrying about its safety, checking to make sure it is okay, sneaking a peek at it and its rich simplicity. The simplicity of the painting is commented on throughout the book, painting it (pun intended) to be some kind of mundane, ordinary piece of art; yet it is the exact opposite, harboring an almost magnetic effect to any and all onlookers, attracting them with its beauty. Hobie continues,

‘—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you…. [A] really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.’[7]

Schopenhauer, incidentally, believed the opposite, claiming an artwork’s worth could be found in its universality and expression of mankind. Minor dispute aside, Schopenhauer, too, spoke of the remedial effects of art, praising it and its uses. Works are a reflection of their makers, but those with whom it creates an unbreaking bond find within it an expression of themselves. Paintings are not to be judged objectively, for the whole of us, Unknown-1.jpegbut subjectively, for each person, because art is personalized; it has an effect on people, and Hobie in this quote comments on how art “chooses” people. A good painting, he says, is not just appealing, but is transformative. What interested Schopenhauer in art is its ability to suppress the Will; art, therefore, had healing capabilities and provided an escape. The purpose of art is to distract the admirer, to direct their focus off of their desires and onto the art. Schopenhauer described the viewing of art as disinterested, distanced, in that it is non-judgmental, but wholly perceptive and open. When we are absorbed in a painting, we forget about our desires temporarily—as long as we are engrossed in it—and live in the present. There forms a relationship between viewer and object, dissolving everything else, until it is just the perceiver and the perceived, timeless, eternal. Staring at the painting, we think not, “I need this or that”—we do not think at all; we look; we feel. The Will is suppressed for a while, and during that time, we are content. Theodor presents a kind of theory of aesthetics next:

Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

And—I would argue as well—all love…. And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of colors across the sky—so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.[8]

Just as glasses use lenses in order to direct the passage of light onto the pupil, so perception of reality passes through some sort of lens before being interpreted in the Unknown-3.jpegmind. Kant, who credited us with reason and intuition, posited a third faculty of the mind: Imagination. This view was expanded upon by Coleridge, who claimed imagination was a fantastical faculty that humans possessed which allows us to create art and have a sense of beauty. Imagination is neither rational nor irrational but nonrational, meaning it does not use reason, but is transcendent, even beyond the realm of feeling. It is this intermediate zone of which Theo speaks, this “rainbow edge where beauty comes into being.” This imaginative zone is where aesthetics and beauty reside, where we get our sense of proportion, balance, and grace. Whereas reality is too ugly to be beautiful, according to Theo’s perspective, this aesthetic zone “mingle[s] and blur[s] to provide what life does not.” The categories of the mind, we can suppose, extend into the Unknown-2.jpegimagination, where “all art exists, and all magic.” It is this unconscious realm of interpretation that gives color its colorfulness, beauty its beautifulness, and the sublime its sublimity. Because the zone is empty, it is also everything, it contains everything, and so love is possible, for it is also fantastical and aesthetic, a beauty of the highest order. Theo, when he dies, wants to die in this aesthetic zone, and who wouldn’t, frankly? I think we all want to, whether we admit it or not. Without magic, love, and art, what is there? This zone is necessary for being human. Despair, once it passes through this zone, interacts with “pure otherness and create[s] something sublime.”  For, in the words of Theo, “only through stepping into the middle zone, the polychrome edge between truth and untruth, is it tolerable to be here and writing this at all.”[9] Aesthetics is necessary for a good life.


Finally, to end this post, I want to give perhaps the most optimistic and uplifting quote from the whole book—an epiphany few of us have discovered, yet a truth we all ought to discover, a truth to live by. “I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe.”[10]

 


[1] Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 761
[2] Id., p. 770
[3] p. 745
[4] p. 761
[5] pp. 692-3
[6] p. 757
[7] p. 758
[8] pp. 770-1
[9] p. 771
[10] p. 334

 

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)

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