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The will to life

In the presence of Schopenhauer
LIFE SPARK / First comes poverty and hardship, the diseases, the struggle to save lives. Then comes the sorrows of love, jealousy, envy, hatred, anxiety, greed, and greed for goods and gold.

The publisher Solum Bokvennen has just published a collection of essays by the French author Michel Houellebecq, In the presence of Schopenhauer. It came in French in 2016. The book is translated by Hanne Herrman.

This little book is a very personal book. It consists of Houellebecq's own translations of primarily excerpts from Arthur Schopenhauer's (1788–1860) masterpieces, The world as will and imagination (The world as will and performance) and a little from Aphorisms about life wisdom ("Aphorisms of the Wisdom of Life"). In addition to the translations, he gives us very personal comments about how this work has affected him.

Houellebecq's translations seem good, but we must not forget that the texts have first been translated from German into French, and now they have again been translated into Norwegian. One might fear that one has finally moved a bit away from the original German text. I have checked some of his translations from the World as will and performance and must say I am satisfied with both Houellebecq's and Hermann's translations. Schopenhauer's main work has been translated in Norway by Bokklubben Forlag (2007).

When Houellebecq was about 26 years old, he came across a French translation of Schopenhauer's "Aphorisms of the Wisdom of Life" (1851). He immediately began trying to find a French version of Schopenhauer's masterpiece The world as will and performance (1818), but had to enter the second-hand market, as it had not been published for many decades.

The logic of the supermarket and true love

The book has a preface written by Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, who specializes in Houellebecq's writing. It also has an afterword written by the Norwegian translator, Hanne Herrman. Both the preface and the afterword I think give us a good insight into why Schopenhauer has meant so much to Houellebecq.

When reading Houellebecq's novels, it is inevitable that his view of reality is perceived as rather negative and pessimistic. He believes that today we live under what he calls the logic of the supermarket, in a culture that has lost its ability to show true love and wonder. Everything has become a commodity, including interpersonal relationships. We are just looking to exploit each other for our own gain.

Everywhere the will to live eats away at itself.

Houellebecq writes that he never became the same again after meeting the German philosopher. Schopenhauer sets out to discuss what philosophers usually do not want to address. "He speaks of love, of death, of pity, of tragedy and pain; he tries to let the word encompass the universe of the song. Fearless, and as the only one among the philosophers, he moves into the realm of writers, musicians and sculptors […] he does not do this without trembling, for man's passionate universe is a terrible universe, most often unbearable, where disease "Suicide and death roam around, but he does so and opens up new areas of philosophy."

The struggle of nature

In The World as Will and Imagination, Schopenhauer seeks to provide a unified theory of reality and man's relationship to it. It can be said that he builds on Kant's insight that the reality we experience is a result of our way of acknowledging. Reality is therefore, so to speak, with Schopenhauer, our notion of it. What reality is independent of our cognition, Kant calls "the thing in itself", and it is impossible for us to recognize.

But Schopenhauer still tries to determine what gives us reality as a performance. This is what he defines as "the will to life", the life force that drives all living things to self-sufficiency. But it also prevails in the inorganic nature, according to Schopenhauer. The inorganic must constantly fight against the organic's attempt to break it down, for example when the tree root pushes soil and stone aside, or as when the rust eats up the iron.

Everywhere in nature we encounter struggle. We see this most clearly among animals that live by eating each other, or in plants that are also fighting a battle where they try to overgrow each other. Everywhere the will to live eats away at itself, but it is only in man that it gets extra bad. First comes poverty and hardship, the diseases, the struggle to save lives. When we have struggled through all this, the longing for love shows up, then comes the sorrows of love, jealousy, envy, hatred, anxiety, ambition and greed for goods and gold. But when we finally have the wealth, the deep boredom shows up.

Strangely enough, one does not get depressed by reading Schopenhauer's descriptions of the world

But if life is only suffering, pain or boredom, then why does man fear death and guard over life as if it were a precious treasure? The answer is, as Schopenhauer sees it, that everything is in reality governed by the "will to life."

Schopenhauer was strongly inspired by Hinduism, in which reality and human life consist of infinite striving and suffering. Therefore, one should seek the cessation of suffering in what is called "nirvana" – where there is a total unity and calm.

Since everything in the world is governed by the "will to life", it becomes an endless battle for life. Schopenhauer's solution to this is an attempt to let the "will" gather in itself again. This can only happen through man's ability to self-knowledge. According to him, man is the highest level of reality as it can reflect on itself and its relationship to reality and death. If the insight is that life must cease, and that the "will" must return to its unity and peace, reality will in fact cease to exist.

An infinite desire for life

Schopenhauer reminded us as an outstanding one that everything in our world is ultimately an infinite desire for life that ends in boundless suffering. The world as will and performance contains long passages about Schopenhauer's theories of art and aesthetics. The role of art is neither to show us beauty, to impress or tease us; rather, it is an attempt to urge us to reflect. It will point the way to the ultimate asceticism that will end all life and suffering – nirvana.

Strangely enough, one does not get depressed by reading Schopenhauer's descriptions of the world's suffering. Rather, one feels that one has finally found an ally who can show us the way forward. Houellebecq writes: "I have made it my goal to try to show with the help of some of my favorite passages why Schopenhauer's intellectual attitude in my eyes is still exemplary of any future philosophy, and why one – even if one ultimately disagrees with him – can not help but feel deep gratitude to him. Because of, and to quote Nietzsche, 'the simple fact that what this man wrote has eased the burden of living here on earth'. "

This little book is to be seen as one big tribute to this so-called pessimistic philosopher. And it is probably they who will call Houellebecq a great pessimist. But is he? Is he not just like Schopenhauer, one who describes what he experiences and sees, in his calm contemplation, and in his pessimism gives us hope for another future?

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Rune Fritz Nicolaysen
Freelance writer.

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