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Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Schopenhauer’

16 MARCH, 2015

In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

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Bertrand Russell, Søren Kierkegaard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Susan Sontag, Adam Phillips, Renata Adler, and more.

“I can excuse anything but boredom,” Hedy Lamarr famously quipped. It is befitting that the woman who invented the technology that laid the foundation for wifi would provide the de facto motto of the Information Age. Today, amid our cult of productivity, we’ve come to see boredom as utterly inexcusable — the secular equivalent of a mortal sin. We run from it as if to be caught in our own unproductive company were a profound personal failure. We are no longer able, let alone willing, to do nothing all alone with ourselves.

And yet boredom is not only an adaptive emotion but a vital one — with its related faculties of contemplation, solitude, and stillness, it is essential for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, for art and science in equal measure.

When Jane Goodall set out to turn her childhood dream into reality, she spent three years squatting in the dirt to patiently perform repetitive work that required an enormous capacity for boredom — something at the root of the art of observation upon which all science rests. A capacity for boredom is equally central to the arts. Without boredom, there would be no daydreaming and no room for reflection. Without “positive constructive daydreaming,” there is no creativity; without reflection, we are no longer able to respond and instead merely react.

To be bored is to be unafraid of our interior lives — a form of moral courage central to being fully human. Gathered below are some of the most enduring and insightful meditations on boredom and its paradoxical blessings I’ve encountered over the years.

BERTRAND RUSSELL

In his 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library), British philosopher Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) turned his characteristically prescient eye to the problem of boredom, why our dread of it is a self-inflicted wound, and how our quest to eliminate it from our lives also robs us of some absolutely vital faculties.

In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement,” Russell writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, attempt at running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Indeed, the cultivation of this core capacity early in life fortifies the psychological immune system of the adult. Nearly a century before the iPad, which is now swiftly shoved in the screen-hungry hands of every toddler bored to disgruntlement, Russell writes:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

Instead, he exhorts parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.” Russell writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Read more here.

SØREN KIERKEGAARD

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) was a man of such timeless insight and prescience that he was able to explain, nearly two centuries ago, such presently pertinent issues as the psychology of online trolling and bullying, the reason why we conform, and our greatest source of unhappiness.

He turned the same perceptive eye to the problem of boredom in a section of his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), framing boredom as existential emptiness defined not by an absence of stimulation but by an absence of meaning — something that explains why we can, today more than at any other point in history, feel overstimulated but bored.

Thirty-year-old Kierkegaard bemoans his “utterly meaningless” life and writes:

How dreadful boredom is — how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like… I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness. I do not even suffer pain… Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me. If I were offered all the glories of the world or all the torments of the world, one would move me no more than the other; I would not turn over to the other side either to attain or to avoid. I am dying death. And what could divert me? Well, if I managed to see a faithfulness that withstood every ordeal, an enthusiasm that endured everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I were to become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite.

He illuminates our modern cult of productivity and our compulsive busyness as a hedge against that dreaded boredom:

Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.

Such a conception explains, for instance, why all the cute-cat listicles spewed by the BuzzWorthy establishment of commodified distraction are hapless in assuaging the soul’s cry — which is, after all, the task of philosophy — in the face of such terrifying boredom springing from a lack of meaning. Alan Watts, another sage of the ages, termed such futile strategies of diversion “orgasm without release.” Noting that such “misguided diversion” is itself the source of existential boredom — which is “partly an acquired immediacy” — Kierkegaard adds:

It seems doubtful that a remedy against boredom can give rise to boredom, but it can give rise to boredom only insofar as it is used incorrectly. A mistaken, generally eccentric diversion has boredom within itself, and thus it works its way up and manifests itself as immediacy.

And yet boredom, he argues, is our basic constitution:

All human beings, then, are boring. The very word indicates the possibility of a classification. The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebeians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility. How remarkable it is that those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others.

Echoing his own admonition against our busyness as a distraction from living, he adds:

Generally, those who do not bore themselves are busy in the world in one way or another, but for that very reason they are, of all people, the most boring of all, the most unbearable… The other class of human beings, the superior ones, are those who bore themselves… They generally amuse others — at times in a certain external way the masses, in a deeper sense their co-initiates. The more thoroughly they bore themselves, the more potent the medium of diversion they offer others, also when the boredom reaches its maximum, since they either die of boredom (the passive category) or shoot themselves out of curiosity (the active category).

So what, then, are we to do to protect ourselves against the great evil of boredom? As its counterpoint, Kierkegaard offers the virtue of “idleness” — a concept he uses much like we use the notion of stillness today, a quality of being necessary for mindful presence with our own lives. Kierkegaard writes:

Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored… Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good. Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.

Read more here.

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

Long before contemporary psychologists coined the term “hedonic treadmill” to describe our compulsive consumerism and how quickly after we attain sought-after benchmarks of achievement they lose their luster, the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) contemplated the role of boredom, which he defined as “the feeling of the emptiness of life,” in our eternally unsatisfying dance with satisfaction. In The Essays of Schopenhauer (free download; public library) — the same excellent volume that gave us Schopenhauer on style and his prescient admonition about the ethics of online publishing — he writes:

In the present age, which is intellectually impotent and remarkable for its veneration of what is bad in every form … the pantheists make bold to say that life is, as they call it, “an end-in itself.” If our existence in this world were an end-in-itself, it would be the most absurd end that was ever determined; even we ourselves or any one else might have imagined it.

Life presents itself next as a task, the task, that is, of [making a living]. If this is solved, then that which has been won becomes a burden, and involves the second task of its being got rid of in order to ward off boredom, which, like a bird of prey, is ready to fall upon any life that is secure from want. So that the first task is to win something, and the second, after the something has been won, to forget about it, otherwise it becomes a burden.

With his characteristic pessimism, he argues that the satisfaction of our needs invariably leads to boredom and “boredom is immediately followed by fresh needs,” which leaves us seeped in meaninglessness:

Man is a compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy… If they are satisfied, all he is granted is a state of painlessness, in which he can only give himself up to boredom. This is a precise proof that existence in itself has no value, since boredom is merely the feeling of the emptiness of life. If, for instance, life, the longing for which constitutes our very being, had in itself any positive and real value, boredom could not exist; mere existence in itself would supply us with everything, and therefore satisfy us. But our existence would not be a joyous thing unless we were striving after something; distance and obstacles to be overcome then represent our aim as something that would satisfy us — an illusion which vanishes when our aim has been attained… Even sensual pleasure itself is nothing but a continual striving, which ceases directly its aim is attained. As soon as we are not engaged in one of these two ways, but thrown back on existence itself, we are convinced of the emptiness and worthlessness of it; and this it is we call boredom.

Schopenhauer, of course, was a masterful craftsman whose main material was pessimism. One need not subscribe to the same dismal disposition to find a glimmering kernel of wisdom under the drab flesh of his ideas. For, as Annie Dillard wrote in her luminous meditation on prioritizing presence over productivity, sensory satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are very different things — only the former is finite in its attainment and thus destined for the crucible of boredom; in the pursuit of the latter, boredom is our comrade rather than enemy, the necessary stillness-ground of contemplation reels us back from our compulsive business of doing and into a deeply present state of being.

WALTER BENJAMIN

In his indispensable Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (public library), German philosopher, cultural theorist, and literary critic Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892–September 26, 1940) explores the role of boredom in the context of his larger meditation on the role of storytelling in setting wisdom apart from information. Arguing that the rise of information has precipitated the decline of storytelling, he calls out our allergy to boredom as a particularly perilous affliction of the Information Age. Half a century before its present metastasis, Benjamin admonishes against this spiritual malady:

There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later. This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom — are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.

Read more here.

SUSAN SONTAG

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) used her diaries as a record of her reading and rereading diet, which was extensive and voracious — she read, by her own admission, eight to ten hours a day. With her formidable intellect, she took threads of thought encountered through her reading — including the ideas of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Benjamin, all of whom she noted in her journals — and wove them into the fabric of her own ideas, which is invariably the combinatorial task of the creative mind.

In a diary entry from As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Sontag’s wisdom on love, art, writing, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love — comes a meditation on the creative purpose of boredom as a form of attention:

Function of boredom. Good + bad

[Arthur] Schopenhauer the first imp[ortant] writer to talk about boredom (in his Essays) — ranks it with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life (pain for have-nots, boredom for haves— it’s a question of affluence).  

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.  

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.  

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)  

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.  

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

RENATA ADLER

Because boredom is such an elemental force of human life, its exploration need not be confined to nonfiction and epistemological discourse. In her 1976 novel Speedboat (public library), author and critic Renata Adler (b. October 19, 1938) captures paradoxical interplay of boredom and its counterpoint, attention:

It is not at all self-evident what boredom is. It implies, for example, an idea of duration. It would be crazy to say, For three seconds there, I was bored. It implies indifference but, at the same time, requires a degree of attention. One cannot properly be said to be bored by anything one has not noticed, or in a coma, or asleep. But this I know, or think I know, that idle people are often bored and bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel. It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time. They flourish in a single region of the mind.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY

Russian filmmaker and writer Andrei Tarkovsky (April 4, 1932–December 29, 1986) is one of the most influential figures in the history of cinema. Ingmar Bergman considered him the greatest director, “one who invented a new language.” His films speak to the simplest and often most difficult aspects of life with the great subtlety and elegance of that new language. In this excerpt from a vintage documentary, he explores one such aspect directly — the necessity of being alone with oneself:

Since the video subtitles convey only a selective portion of what Tarkovsky actually says — quite distractingly so — I asked my friend Julia to help with a proper transcription, which she kindly did:

What would you like to tell people?

I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.

ADAM PHILLIPS

Children have a way of asking deceptively simple yet existentially profound questions. Among them, argues the celebrated British psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips (b. September 19, 1954), is “What shall we do now?”

In a deeply satisfying essay titled “On Being Bored,” found in his altogether spectacular 1993 collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library), Phillips writes:

Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.

Phillips, of course, is writing more than two decades before the modern internet had given us the ubiquitous “social web” that envelops culture today. This lends his insights a new layer of poignancy as we consider the capacity for boredom — not only in children, though especially in children, but also in adults — amidst our present age of constant access to and unmediated influx of external stimulation. This is particularly pause-giving considering the developmental function of boredom in shaping our psychological constitution and the way we learn to pay attention to the world — or not. Phillips writes:

Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.

And yet the child’s boredom evokes in adults a reprimand, a sense of disappointment, an accusation of failure — that is, provided boredom is even agreed to or acknowledged in the first place — commonly alleviated today, twenty years later, by sticking a digital device in the child’s hands. In a certain sense, we treat boredom like we treat childishness itself — as something to be overcome and grown out of, rather than simply as a different mode of being, an essential one at that. Phillips writes:

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

Read more here.

* * *

For more on boredom’s sister faculties, see Alan Watts on how to live with presence, Wendell Berry on the grace of solitude, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone in the modern world, then test yourself on the Boredom Proneness Scale.

Photographs: Bertrand Russell by Hulton Getty; Søren Kierkegaard by Niels Christian Kierkegaard; Arthur Schopenhauer by Jacob Seib; Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar; Renata Adler by Marilyn K. Yee; Adam Phillips by Murdo Macleod

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20 MARCH, 2014

Schopenhauer on Style

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“Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.”

What does it mean to write with style? For Kurt Vonnegut, it was about keeping it simple yet interesting. For Herbert Spencer, about harnessing the economy of attention. For E.B. White, about mastering brevity without sacrificing beauty. One of the most timeless meditations on style comes from 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In “On Style,” found in The Essays of Schopenhauer (free download; public library) — the same excellent volume that gave us Schopenhauer’s prescient admonition about the ethics of online publishing — he considers why style, far from the mere ornamentation of writing, is the essential conduit of thought.

Schopenhauer writes:

Style is the physiognomy of the mind. It is a more reliable key to character than the physiognomy of the body. To imitate another person’s style is like wearing a mask. However fine the mask, it soon becomes insipid and intolerable because it is without life; so that even the ugliest living face is better.

He issues an especially eloquent admonition against intellectual posturing in writing:

There is nothing an author should guard against more than the apparent endeavor to show more intellect than he has; because this rouses the suspicion in the reader that he has very little, since a man always affects something, be its nature what it may, that he does not really possess. And this is why it is praise to an author to call him naïve, for it signifies that he may show himself as he is. In general, naïveté attracts, while anything that is unnatural everywhere repels. We also find that every true thinker endeavors to express his thoughts as purely, clearly, definitely, and concisely as ever possible. This is why simplicity has always been looked upon as a token, not only of truth, but also of genius. Style receives its beauty from the thought expressed, while with those writers who only pretend to think it is their thoughts that are said to be fine because of their style. Style is merely the silhouette of thought; and to write in a vague or bad style means a stupid or confused mind.

He adds (with the era’s characteristic gender-pronoun bias):

If a man has something to say that is worth saying, he need not envelop it in affected expressions, involved phrases, and enigmatical innuendoes; but he may rest assured that by expressing himself in a simple, clear, and naïve manner he will not fail to produce the right effect. A man who makes use of such artifices as have been alluded to betrays his poverty of ideas, mind, and knowledge.

[…]

Obscurity and vagueness of expression are at all times and everywhere a very bad sign. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they arise from vagueness of thought, which, in its turn, is almost always fundamentally discordant, inconsistent, and therefore wrong. When a right thought springs up in the mind it strives after clearness of expression, and it soon attains it, for clear thought easily finds its appropriate expression. A man who is capable of thinking can express himself at all times in clear, comprehensible, and unambiguous words. Those writers who construct difficult, obscure, involved, and ambiguous phrases most certainly do not rightly know what it is they wish to say: they have only a dull consciousness of it, which is still struggling to put itself into thought; they also often wish to conceal from themselves and other people that in reality they have nothing to say.

Affirming the notion that non-reading is as much a critical choice as reading, Schopenhauer urges authors to have compassion for the reader — a sort of self-interested compassion recognizing that a reader’s attention is a privilege, not a right:

All prolixity and all binding together of unmeaning observations that are not worth reading should be avoided. A writer must be sparing with the reader’s time, concentration, and patience; in this way he makes him believe that what he has before him is worth his careful reading, and will repay the trouble he has spent upon it. It is always better to leave out something that is good than to write down something that is not worth saying. . . .

Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes; this is partly because it gets unobstructed hold of the hearer’s mind without his being distracted by secondary thoughts, and partly because he feels that here he is not being corrupted or deceived by the arts of rhetoric, but that the whole effect is got from the thing itself.

[…]

Just as neglect of dress betrays contempt for the society in which a man moves, so does a hasty, careless, and bad style show shocking disrespect for the reader, who then rightly punishes it by not reading the book.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile.' Click image for details.

A century before Strunk and White, Schopenhauer advocates for “chastity of style,” while also admonishing, as E.B. White did, that brevity should never be accomplished at the expense of impoverished expression:

An author should guard against using all unnecessary rhetorical adornment, all useless amplification, and in general, just as in architecture he should guard against an excess of decoration, all superfluity of expression — in other words, he must aim at chastity of style. Everything that is redundant has a harmful effect. The law of simplicity and naïveté applies to all fine art, for it is compatible with what is most sublime.

[…]

True brevity of expression consists in a man only saying what is worth saying, while avoiding all diffuse explanations of things which every one can think out for himself; that is, it consists in his correctly distinguishing between what is necessary and what is superfluous. On the other hand, one should never sacrifice clearness, to say nothing of grammar, for the sake of being brief. To impoverish the expression of a thought, or to obscure or spoil the meaning of a period for the sake of using fewer words shows a lamentable want of judgment.

Above all, however, Schopenhauer argues that an author’s style should be a reflection of his or her mind and vehicle of the thought process itself, which is what sets “classics” apart from inferior writing:

A man who writes carelessly at once proves that he himself puts no great value on his own thoughts. For it is only by being convinced of the truth and importance of our thoughts that there arises in us the inspiration necessary for the inexhaustible patience to discover the clearest, finest, and most powerful expression for them; just as one puts holy relics or priceless works of art in silvern or golden receptacles. It was for this reason that the old writers — whose thoughts, expressed in their own words, have lasted for thousands of years and hence bear the honored title of classics — wrote with universal care.

The Essays of Schopenhauer is a treasure trove of wisdom. Complement it with this evolving reading list of history’s best advice on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings, and Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips.

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13 JANUARY, 2014

19th-Century German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer Presages the Economics and Ethics of the Web and Modern Publishing

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A 19th-century critique of the moral failures of linkbait, cat slideshows, and needless pagination.

With the timeless quality of his writings, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) has influenced such celebrated minds as Nietzsche, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Freud, Jung, and Tolstoy. Despite — or perhaps because of — the pessimistic nature of much of his work, Schopenhauer presages with astounding precision the troubled ethics and economics of writing today, particularly in online publishing, in an essay titled “On Authorship,” found in the altogether excellent The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature (free download; public library).

He begins with a taxonomy of writers, one that divides them based on the age-old question of what motivates writing:

There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.

Schopenhauer’s distinction and his distaste for the second kind seems particularly prescient in the Buzzfeed era of vacant “writing” that exists solely for the sake of filling (web) pages and selling pageviews. He admonishes:

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing. What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. It seems as if money lay under a curse, for every author deteriorates directly [whenever] he writes in any way for the sake of money. The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

It is curious to note contemporary versions of this affront to the reader by way of “filling up paper.” What might Schopenhauer say of online publishers who paginate their articles unnecessarily and create mindless slideshows that force us to click “next” over and over in order to get to the point or payoff, assuming there is one in the first place?

Indeed, though Schopenhauer, in his characteristic glibness, perhaps unfairly lumps all journalists into his censure, he is remarkably right about a lamentable majority of publishing today, from the entire content farming industry to various forms of Buzzwashing:

A great number of bad authors eke out their existence entirely by the foolishness of the public, which only will read what has just been printed. I refer to journalists, who have been appropriately so-called. In other words, it would be “day laborer.”

His critique of this failure of motive and its consequent failure of substance applies equally to the economics and ethics of online media as it does the state of traditional book publishing today, where the droplet of quality writing has to fight a flood of highly marketed mediocrity:

The deplorable condition of the literature of to-day … is due to the fact that books are written for the sake of earning money. Every one who is in want of money sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it.

But one of Schopenhauer’s most prescient points has to do with the presentism bias and news fetishism of our culture, something I’ve long lamented. As someone who spends an enormous amount of time and energy on excavating yesteryear’s timeless and timely ideas about issues we grapple with today — those immutable concerns of the human soul, ranging from love to education to happiness to science and spirituality to the meaning of life — I am constantly astounded by how much more thoughtfully, thoroughly, and effectively many of these issues are addressed in older writings than in what we see on the news today. Schopenhauer, in a perfect meta-example, writes:

No greater mistake can be made than to imagine that what has been written latest is always the more correct; that what is written later on is an improvement on what was written previously; and that every change means progress.

At the root of this Schopenhauer finds the same failure of motive, which prioritizes money and ego over substance and cultural value:

An old and excellent book is frequently shelved for new and bad ones; which, written for the sake of money, wear a pretentious air and are much eulogized by the authors’ friends.

Caricature of Arthur Schopenhauer by Wilhelm Busch

What’s perhaps most interesting is that Schopenhauer was writing in the 19th century, a time when the economics of knowledge — knowledge being at the heart of literature — came down to overcoming the scarcity of information, a problem diametrically opposed to our present predicament, which is concerned with ameliorating the abundance of information. And yet Schopenhauer was ahead of his time in predicting that what separates good writing from bad isn’t the information, or “matter,” presented but the “form” of its presentation, interpretation and contextualization, wherein lies the writer’s true claim to merit. He reflects on the substance of great writing:

The subjects may be of such a nature as to be accessible and well known to everybody; but the form in which they are expounded, what has been thought about them, gives the book its value, and this depends upon the author. Therefore if a book, from this point of view, is excellent and without a rival, so also is its author. From this it follows that the merit of a writer worth reading is all the greater the less he is dependent on matter — and the better known and worn out this matter, the greater will be his merit. The three great Grecian tragedians, for instance, all worked at the same subject.

[…]

It is on form that we are dependent, where the matter is accessible to every one or very well known; and it is what has been thought about the matter that will give any value to the achievement; it will only be an eminent man who will be able to write anything that is worth reading. For the others will only think what is possible for every other man to think. They give the impress of their own mind; but every one already possesses the original of this impression.

Returning to the “foolishness of the public” (after all, people do want cat slideshows, don’t they?), Schopenhauer makes an observation that, while on the surface correct, somewhat tragically belies the responsibility of the great writer:

However, the public is very much more interested in matter than in form, and it is for this very reason that it is behindhand in any high degree of culture.

[…]

This preference for matter to form is the same as a man ignoring the shape and painting of a fine Etruscan vase in order to make a chemical examination of the clay and colors of which it is made.

(To be fair, Schopenhauer might have benefitted from talking to Richard Feynman in building a better metaphor here.)

In another especially insightful admonition, Schopenhauer presages the “hater culture” of comments and anonymous trolling online, affirming the idea that publishers who host such parasites are just as culpable as the commenters themselves:

The man who publishes and edits an article written by an anonymous critic should be held as immediately responsible for it as if he had written it himself; just as one holds a manager responsible for bad work done by his workmen [who] would be treated as he deserves to be — namely, without any ceremony.

An anonymous writer is a literary fraud against whom one should immediately cry out, “Wretch, if you do not wish to admit what it is you say against other people, hold your slanderous tongue.”

The entire The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature collection is well worth the read — and regular reread — and is available as a free ebook here. Complement it with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s critique of journalism and E.B. White on the responsibility of the writer.

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