Printer Friendly

'Lane, you're a perfect pessimist': pessimism and the English Fin de siecle.


Was pessimism a significant influence on late nineteenth-century English writing? The conventional answer, suggested by R. H.Goodale's classic article of 1932, is that its effect was marginal. This essay argues that the debate between pessimism and optimism profoundly affected fin de siecle literary culture. The last of three successive waves of European pessimism, prompted by the delayed discovery of Schopenhauer, coincided with a widespread disillusionment with the optimistic claims of positivism. Plays, poems, and novels reflected the assumptions of pessimist thought, and both the cult of artifice and the paradoxical piety of the decadence make more sense in a Schopenhauerian context.


Ezra Pound's parody of A. E. Housman first appeared in his Canzoni volume in 1911:
 O woe, woe,
 People are born and die,
 We also shall be dead pretty soon
 Therefore let us act as if we were
 dead already.
 The bird sits on the hawthorn tree
 But he dies also, presently.
 Some lads get hung and some get shot.
 Woeful is this human lot.

 Woe! woe, etcetera....

The original title, 'Song in the Manner of Housman', suggested that this was a joke about style; but Pound renamed the poem to indicate a concern with matter rather than manner. In the New York edition of Lustra (1917) it became 'Housman's Message to Mankind'; in 1926, for Personae: The Collected Poems, he made a further change and called it 'Mr Housman's Message'. (1) As such, it seems a reasonable summary of what the poems in A Shropshire Lad (1896) had said. Housman's 'message' in Poem VII, for example, was the desirability of death. His vision of 'this human lot' in Poem LX was that 'In all the endless road you tread | There's nothing but the night'. (2) He is, self-evidently, a poet of pain, gloom and stoical resignation. 'Woe! woe, etcetera ...' might indeed seem an appropriate refrain for his work.

But were these views, as Pound's later titles suggest, the distinctive property of an individual writer? Housman's personal distress, though real, does not entirely explain the cosmic disillusionment articulated in these poems. Even 'the best', he insists in Poem LVI, 'is bad'. (3) There are, clearly, philosophical assumptions at work here as well as a sense of private loss. Is this, in other words, only 'Mr Housman's' message? Or is his poetry the expression of a body of contemporary thought--of an intellectual movement or mentalite?

If it is, then the body of contemporary thought in question must be pessimism--the philosophical view, in the words of James Sully's Pessimism of 1877, that 'the world is on the whole bad, or productive of misery, and so worse than nonexistence'. (4) For Sully a key source for such ideas was Arthur Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, first published in 1819, enlarged in 1844 (on both occasions without any notice being taken of it), and translated into English by R. B. Haldane and John Kemp between 1883 and 1886 as The World as Will and Idea. The 'misanthropic sage of Frankfurt' whose doctrine is 'the most disheartening, the most repulsive, the most opposed to the aspirations of the present world' had been rescued from obscurity by the English writer John Oxenford in an article published in the Westminster Review in 1853. (5) Richard Wagner, for example, made his discovery of Schopenhauer in 1854, from a German translation of Oxenford's article, and Tristan und Isolde was directly influenced by it.

Despite Schopenhauer's death in 1860, his reputation continued to grow rapidly in Germany, France, and England. Swinburne wrote to his friend George Powell in October 1869 to thank him for the gift of a recent book on modern German music:

I am very much struck by finding in Wagner a disciple in matters of thought of A. Schopenhauer. I read some extracts from his work and a condensed summary of his life and views given in a review of Fouche de Careil's book now years ago, which impressed me unforgettably with their beautiful force, clearness, and fearless depth of truth. (6)

By the 1870s the word 'pessimism', which for Coleridge and Sydney Smith had simply meant 'badness' or 'worstness', had become the antonym for optimism (first established as a philosophical term in French in the 1730s to describe Leibnitz's Theodicee of 1710), and the description of a distinctive intellectual position. (7) Christians, positivists, and Hegelians continued to insist that the world was essentially a good place, and that the pattern of history was progressive. Pessimists responded with a view of existence summed up by one of the aphorisms in Schopenhauer's Parerga und Paralipomena of 1851: 'No rose without a thorn. But many a thorn without a rose'. (8) Widely discussed in publications such as the Cornhill Magazine, the Westminster Review, and The Fortnightly, as well as in academic journals such as Mind, the contest between optimism and pessimism was a prominent feature of the intellectual life of the late nineteenth century.

But was this philosophical debate a significant context for the imaginative writing of the period? We do, to some degree, acknowledge the presence of pessimism in late nineteenth-century literary culture. We know about James Thomson's 'The City of Dreadful Night' (first printed in the National Reformer in 1874, and published in volume form in 1880). (9) We know about George Gissing's conversion from Comtean positivism to pessimism in 1882, and about the effects of that conversion on novels like The Unclassed (1884). Gissing's essay 'The Hope of Pessimism' (written in 1882 though unpublished in his lifetime) asserted that 'We shall not escape from the eternal truth that the world is synonymous with evil' and went on to declare, in Schopenhauerian terms, that:

We enter the gates of life with wailing, and anguish to the womb which brings us forth; we pass again into the outer darkness through the valley of ghastly terrors, and leave cold misery upon the lips of those that mourn us. The interval is but a feverish combat [...] Our passions rack us with the unspeakable torment of desire, and fruition is but another name for disillusion. (10)

We may, perhaps, know John Davidson's poem 'The Testament of a Vivisector' of 1901, in which the speaker vivisects a horse in order to discover the underlying principles of existence. This project is articulated in a vocabulary that combines Schopenhauer (the 'will') with his most notable disciple Eduard von Hartmann (the 'unconscious'):
 Thought achieved, the unconscious will,
 Which Matter is, empowered it and enslaved
 With endless lust of life triumphantly,
 That knowledge might endure [...]
 [...] to know [...]
 Discomfort, pain, affliction, agony. (11)

We certainly know Thomas Hardy's poem 'Hap' of 1866 ('How arrives it joy lies slain, | And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?'), (12) and the second chapter of 'Part Sixth' of Jude the Obscure (1894-95):

The failure to find another lodging, and the lack of room in this house for his father, had made a deep impression on the boy;--a brooding, undemonstrative horror seemed to have seized him. The silence was broken by his saying: 'Mother, what shall we do to-morrow!'

'I don't know!' said Sue despondently. 'I am afraid this will trouble your father.'

'I wish father was quite well, and there had been room for him! Then it wouldn't matter so much! Poor father!'

'It wouldn't!'

'Can I do anything?'

'No! All is trouble, adversity and suffering!'

'Father went away to give us children room, didn't he?'


'It would be better to be out o' the world than in it, wouldn't it?'

'It would almost, dear.'

When little Father Time discovers that Sue is pregnant ('How ever could you, mother, be so wicked and cruel as this, when you needn't have done it'), he responds by hanging his two half-siblings and himself. 'It was', says Jude, after the event,

[...] in his nature to do it. The doctor says there are such boys springing up amongst us--boys of a sort unknown in the last generation--the outcome of new views of life. They seem to see all its terrors before they are old enough to have staying power to resist them. He says it is the beginning of the coming universal wish not to live. He's an advanced man, the doctor.' (13)

We acknowledge the existence of writing like this, yet we make very little of Hardy's suggestion (made via Jude and the anonymous Oxford 'doctor') that these are 'new views of life' characteristic of 'advanced' thinkers, and still less of the claim that this event is an early expression (the action of Jude the Obscure is set in the 1860s) of a coming 'universal' attitude. Instead, we see such writing as marginal, occasional, and eccentric. Pessimism does not feature, for example, in Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst's The Fin de siecle: A Reader in Cultural History (2000)--not even in the index, let alone as one of the major section headings. Imperialism, socialism, anarchism, and scientific naturalism all receive extensive attention. Pessimism does not appear, even in passing. Critics of Housman have, similarly, tended to avoid the word, describing his views instead as 'fatalism'. (14) Is this sound scholarly judgement? Or is it neglect?

There is, of course, a great deal of fin de siecle writing that is informed by other philosophical assumptions. Symbolism has been seen (by Guy Michaud, for example) as a positive reaction against the pessimism of French decadent writing of the 1870s and 1880s. (15) Late nineteenth-century Marxist and feminist writers, with their strenuously reformist purposes, were optimistic about the possibility of social amelioration. Even the melancholy of 1890s pastoralism and Celtic Twilightism is not the same thing as the gloom of systematic pessimism.

Jean Pierrot asserts that the French decadence was shaped by 'a fundamentally pessimistic conception of life', pointing to the articles that Paul Bourget published in magazines between 1879 and 1883 and collected as Essais de psychologie contemporaine. (16) But was the English decadence similarly pessimistic? Holbrook Jackson scarcely mentioned pessimism in his survey The Eighteen Nineties (1913). His famous list of the four characteristics of the English decadence goes: '(1) Perversity, (2) Artificiality, (3) Egoism and (4) Curiosity'. (17) No pessimism there.

So is this not a minor, marginal, inessential phenomenon of the fin de siecle, peculiar to certain authors, and no more than incidental to the broader cultural history of the period? There is some strong evidence to the contrary. Comic writers clearly felt that pessimism was a sufficiently familiar phenomenon to be worth making jokes about, even in the theatre, where humour has to be understood immediately. Henry Arthur Jones's play The Crusaders (1891) has as one of its characters Mr Burge Jawle, 'the Great Pessimist Philosopher'. His views serve to discourage the schemes of social reform adopted by the 'crusading' characters of the title, and his Schopenhauerian hostility to human reproduction (an opinion shared, of course, with Hardy's little Father Time) cuts across the romantic comedy of the play's action:

JAWLE (faintly rouses himself, speaks very sententiously and authoritatively) There being an immense balance of misery and suffering in every human lot, it necessarily follows that marriage, as the chief means of increasing that misery and suffering, is a criminal and anti-social action. (Relapses into his self-absorption, takes no notice whatever of what is going on.)

(DICK and LORD BURNHAM are amused.)

CYNTHIA (puzzled) But--if nobody married--

FIGG (addresses himself to PALSAM) I'm sure you agree with us, Mr. Palsam, that the rapid increase of the human herd is a matter for the gravest alarm--

PALSAM (moodily) I've always thought that there was far too great a propensity--I can't understand it!

FIGG Jawle calculates that at the present rate the human race will infallibly exhaust every possible means of subsistence in six generations!

PALSAM Dear me! Dear me! What can be done?

Jawle's disciple provides an appropriately pessimistic answer:

FIGG (in a low, reverential tone) Jawle advocates the forcible and abrupt extinction of human life in certain cases--his own included.

CYNTHIA (alarmed) Not suicide?

FIGG (reverently) We trust he won't consider it necessary till he has completed his social philosophy.

To the horror of his hostess, Mrs Campion-Blake, who is afraid that he will drown himself, Jawle spends most of the play in a garden chair with a view of the lake. His final exit, in Act 3, is, however, rather differently motivated:

MRS. CAMPION BLAKE I trust there is no immediate danger of--of--your--

JAWLE No; (rises). I shall school myself to endure the vast spectacle of human imbecility, selfishness, and emptiness for some short time longer. The word 'emptiness' reminds me I have had no breakfast.

MRS. CAMPION BLAKE (takes his hand, and gradually gets him up stage. To WORRELL) Some breakfast for Mr. Figg and Mr. Jawle. (18)

Wilde, two years later, is making a joke about the same intellectual phenomenon--in a line that is capable of being read in two very different ways:

ALGERNON I hope tomorrow will be a fine day, Lane.

LANE It never is, sir.

ALGERNON Lane, you're a perfect pessimist.

LANE I do my best to give satisfaction, sir. (19)

The reading indicated by my italics is, I think, the usual one. But Algernon's remark can also be rendered as 'Lane, you're a perfect pessimist'. Spoken thus, the line is a philosophical joke--the perfect gentleman's gentleman, for a gentleman of advanced views, is in 1895 a pessimist. He is, in other words, philosophically up-to-date.

Earlier the same year (1895) Wilde had made the point more seriously in the first act of An Ideal Husband. Speaking to Mrs Cheveley, Sir Robert Chiltern observes: 'But may I ask, at heart, are you an optimist or a pessimist? Those seem to be the only two fashionable religions left to us nowadays.' (20) This claim corresponds with a number of statements, from other sources, about the prevalence--and serious intellectual status--of pessimism in this period. George Eliot, for example, in her poem 'A College Breakfast-Party' (based on a visit to Cambridge in 1868, written in April 1874, and published in Macmillan's Magazine in 1878), includes Schopenhauer in her list of the topics in the minds of modern intellectuals:
 The will supreme, the individual claim,
 The social Ought, the lyrist's liberty,
 Democritus, Pythagoras, in talk
 With Anselm, Darwin, Comte, and Schopenhauer [...] (21)

Henry James, in his essay on 'The Art of Fiction' in 1884, seeking to guide would-be novelists away from abstraction and towards 'the impression of life', specifically identified optimism and pessimism as the fashionable philosophies by which a writer of fiction might be beguiled:

Do not think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself. In France to-day we see a prodigious effort (that of Emile Zola [...]), [...] vitiated by a spirit of pessimism on a narrow basis [...] Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible--to make as perfect a work. Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize. (22)

This might seem to suggest something more extensive than a merely local interest, peculiar to the work of a few individual writers. Yet this apparently significant planet has disappeared from the discursive constellation (in Foucault's phrase) of the 1890s. Or, to change the metaphor, this is now the 1890s 'ism' that dare not speak its name.

Why are we so reluctant to put pessimism at the centre of our view of the English fin de siecle? There are, I think, three obvious reasons. One is the simple fact that, as a philosophy, pessimism has long been dismissed. Together with the rest of post-Kantian idealism, it was left (in the Anglo-Saxon world at least) dead in the water when Russell and Whitehead published their work on mathematical logic in 1910. Russell explained the consequences for pessimism of this turn away from metaphysics thirty-six years later in his History of Western Philosophy:

From a scientific point of view optimism and pessimism alike are objectionable: optimism assumes, or attempts to prove, that the universe exists to please us, and pessimism that it exists to displease us [...] The belief in either pessimism or optimism is a matter of temperament, not of reason [...]. (23)

Unlike realism or feminism or scientific materialism, and to an even greater extent than Marxism and Freudianism, pessimism has collapsed. It is unverifiable, metaphysical, and therefore irrelevant; and because it is not interesting to us we assume that it was not a significant body of ideas in the nineteenth century.

Russell's remark also points to the second reason why we have stopped talking about pessimism: the existence, in this as in previous centuries, of a sub-philosophical sense of the term. Pessimism can be seen as a tendency to grumble, a mere quality of temperament. Trollope, in The Warden (1855), caricatured Carlyle as 'Mr Pessimist Anticant'. (24) Carlyle was often gloomy, and had been particularly morose in his recent Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). But his philosophical views were always closer to those of Fichte and Hegel than to those of Schopenhauer, and he was never in the technical sense a pessimist. R. H. Goodale, in his celebrated article 'Schopenhauer and Pessimism in Nineteenth-Century English Literature', argued that pessimistic expression in late nineteenth-century English writing was characteristically more loose-sense, temperamental, and traditional than it was systematic, Schopenhauerian, and of its age. (25)

And there we have the third reason for the eclipse of pessimism in accounts of late nineteenth-century English literature: the existence of an authoritative article that had the unintended effect of closing down, rather than opening up, a topic. Goodale's work (originally a thesis) was wonderfully assiduous and acute. He charted the reception of Schopenhauer and von Hartmann in the English-speaking world. He trawled, with impressive thoroughness, through late nineteenth-century literature in search of examples. He found some more or less explicit Schopenhauereanism in James Thomson, in Gissing, in Hardy (who, like Gissing, actually declared himself to have been influenced by Schopenhauer, and certainly read von Hartmann), in W. E. Henley, in John Davidson, in Oliver Madox Brown, Edward Lord Lytton, and Robert Louis Stevenson. But he insisted that much 'death-of-God' and 'blind-nature' pessimism was present in English writing before the earliest possible date at which the influence of Schopenhauer could have been felt. 'It is very doubtful', Goodale concluded, 'whether his teachings influenced to any great extent the course of its development'. Even in the 1890s, he believed, 'one sees rather a continuation of the perplexities of Byron, Carlyle, Tennyson and Arnold'. Goodale's most striking evidence arose from the fact that he was conducting his research at a time when it was still possible to consult some of the writers whose work he was discussing: two authors have kindly written to me on the subject: Miss Ellen Glasgow, saying that she had read Schopenhauer when she wrote her first novels but that she does not consider herself indebted to him; and Professor A. E. Housman, saying that he has not read Schopenhauer. (26)

The customary assumption was thereby established: there are a few highly individual instances of systematic pessimism in late nineteenth-century English literature. The rest is merely emotive or temperamental--an echo of non-philosophical feelings from earlier in the century. There is no room here for Wilde's sense that we have (in 1895) 'only two fashionable religions left to us nowadays [...] are you an optimist or a pessimist?'.

But who is right--Wilde or Goodale? Much as I admire it, Goodale's work had both the virtues and the defects of a good doctoral thesis. The virtues are its thoroughness and rigour. The defects are its excessive prudence and its tendency to set its standard of proof too high. Very few English writers were, in Goodale's strict sense, Schopenhauerian. But very many more of them were significantly touched by Schopenhauerianism. And Goodale's tendency to see pessimistic literary statements in the pre-Schopenhauerian era as temperamental rather than intellectual obscures the fact that what we are looking at here is a cumulative intellectual process.

English writers in the late nineteenth century were feeling the effects of the third of three great--and increasingly powerful--waves of modern philosophical pessimism. Although there had, of course, been what we would now call pessimism in the Ancient World (the Chorus's remark in Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus that 'Not to be born at all | Is best' is often taken as its classic statement), (27) it was hard for such a philosophy to find voice in the Christian era. But from the mid-eighteenth century onwards we witness a series of pessimisms, each of them arising in circumstances that suggest a reaction against a previous optimism. The first occurs as a response to Leibnitz, with his claim (derived from the ontological argument for the existence of God) that this was 'the best of all possible worlds'. The pessimistic riposte to this was most famously delivered by Voltaire's Candide in 1759, although it was more elaborately developed in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (begun in the early 1750s but published posthumously in 1779). Hume's Philo gives a famous list of 'four Circumstances' that seem incompatible with the existence of a benign deity, before going on to describe 'a blind Nature, impregnated by a great vivifying Principle, and pouring forth from her Lap, without Discernment or parental Care, her maim'd and abortive Children'. (28)

Hume's pessimism was lost in the rising tide of Romantic optimism, with its belief that the world was capable of imaginative transformation into an ideal condition. A neo-Kantian or Platonic sense of a gap between the 'phenomenal' world of experiential perception and an ideal or 'noumenal' world of things-as-in-themselves-they-really-are was used to assert the reality, superiority, and accessibility of the latter. 'The painted veil,' Shelley declared in Prometheus Unbound (1820), 'by those who were, called life',
 Which mimicked, as with colours idly spread,
 All men believed or hoped, is torn aside;
 The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
 Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, [...] (29)

Emerson, in Nature in 1836, echoed this confident belief in the Promethean act of unbinding the human imagination:

As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen. The sordor and filths of nature, the sun shall dry up, and the wind exhale. (30)

The optimisms of Shelley's disciple Robert Browning and Emerson's disciple Walt Whitman would have their roots in assertions of this kind.

But even within the Romantic period a reaction against such views can be seen. If Leopardi was the most notable Romantic anti-optimist in Italy, and Heine in Germany, Byron struck the clearest note of pessimism in early nineteenth-century English poetry. The world, he declared in canto 4 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, is:
 This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree,
 Whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be
 The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew--
 Disease, death, bondage--all the woes we see,
 And worse, the woes we see not--which throb through
 The immedicable soul, with heart-aches ever new. (31)

Byron's business in Don Juan was, he declared, 'holding up the nothingness of life', (32) and in his early poem 'Euthanasia' he restated the views of Sophocles's Chorus:
 Count o'er the joys thine hours have seen,
 Count o'er thy days from anguish free,
 And know, whatever thou hast been,
 'Tis something better not to be. (33)

Shelley dramatized his disagreement with Byron about this issue in his poem Julian and Maddalo (written in autumn 1818 but published posthumously in 1824). Julian (the Shelley figure) insists 'we might be all | We dream of happy, high, majestical'. Maddalo, in the spirit of Byron, soberly responds:
 '[...] my judgement will not bend
 To your opinion, though I think you might
 Make such a system refutation-tight
 As far as words go. I knew one like you
 Who to this city came some months ago,
 With whom I argued in this sort, and he
 Is now gone mad' (34)

The world of things-in-themselves that supposedly lies behind the 'painted veil' of everyday experience is, in this analysis, a mere fiction.

It was an economist rather than a poet, however, who provided the most influentially pessimistic statement of the Romantic period. Thomas Robert Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1793) was an empirical study of the way in which population outstrips food supply. Yet even this scientific text was, in part, prompted by a reaction against Romantic optimism. As the son of England's leading disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Malthus conceived his Essay as a riposte to the Rousseauesque vision of perfect human societies. Without conflict, disease, and poverty to keep their numbers in check, human beings would, in the Malthusian analysis, rapidly breed themselves into starvation. Far from being, in Shelley's words, a mere 'veil' or 'loathsome mask' hiding a superior reality, the features of experience that prompted pessimism were necessary for human survival.

The pessimism of Byron and Malthus and Heine and Leopardi persisted into the Victorian era. Matthew Arnold, in his essay on Byron (1881), may have suggested that 'Leopardi's pessimism' was not 'healthful and true'. (35) But in his own best remembered poem, 'Dover Beach' (1867), Arnold had given expression to something very like it:
 [...] the world, which seems
 To lie before us like a land of dreams,
 So various, so beautiful, so new,
 Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
 Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
 And we are here as on a darkling plain
 Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
 Where ignorant armies clash by night. (36)

One particular strand of this anti-Romantic pessimism prompted that third great phase of the theory which is, strictly speaking, the pessimism of the fin de siecle. Schopenhauer actually wrote The World as Will and Idea between 1814 and 1818, the years in which Byron was writing the third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold and, in its earliest stages, Don Juan. He published it in 1819, in conscious opposition to the ideas of Hegel, and incorporated two quotations from Childe Harold into its final text. (37) The World as Will and Idea is, as this might suggest, distinctively a product of the Romantic era. Unlike the sceptical or empirical pessimists who rejected Romantic optimism because they dismissed the concept of a world of things-in-themselves, Schopenhauer was an idealist and accepted Kant's distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. The world of experience was indeed a mere 'idea', a set of perceptions conditioned by our apprehensive faculties. Reality, the Ding an sich, was something different. And, unlike Kant himself but like many Romantic neo-Kantians, Schopenhauer believed that we could discern the 'noumenal' world of reality, or things-in-themselves. Where he differed from his idealist contemporaries was in his evaluation of that other reality. They had always seen it as superior to the world of everyday experience. Schopenhauer saw it as worse.

This unlikeable noumenal reality Schopenhauer calls the 'will', and he identifies it by a process of argument that draws on both Kant and Hume. The world and everything in it, including one's own body, is, as it is apprehended in the mind, merely an 'idea' or representation ('The world is my idea' are the opening words of Schopenhauer's book). (38) But in the case of one's own body one is also, simultaneously, conscious in a different way. This is because one senses or intuits there the motivation (a word coined by Schopenhauer) for actions that one would otherwise perceive in the same, merely external manner in which one perceives the actions of other people and things. In the world as idea even the link between cause and effect, as Hume had demonstrated, cannot be established because it cannot be perceived: the motivation of or reason for an event remains mysterious. But within one's own body, Schopenhauer argues, there is no such disjunction:

His body is, for the pure knowing subject, an idea like every other idea, an object among objects. Its movements and actions are so far known to him in precisely the same way as the changes of all other perceived objects, and would be just as strange and incomprehensible to him if their meaning were not explained for him in an entirely different way [...] the answer is will. This and this alone gives him the key to his own existence, reveals to him the significance, shows him the inner mechanism of his being, of his action, of his movements [...] Every true act of his will is also at once and without exception a movement of his body. The act of will and the movement of the body are not two different things objectively known which the bond of causality unites; they do not stand in the relation of cause and effect; they are one and the same, but they are given in entirely different ways,--immediately, and again in perception of the understanding. The action of the body is nothing but the act of the will objectified, i.e., passed into perception. (1, 129-30 ([section]18))

Within one's own body, in other words, phenomenon and noumenon are united and, as a consequence, the noumenal can be apprehended. That noumenon, or reality, or thing-in-itself, is the 'will' or 'will to live' (1, 354 ([section]54)):

It is the inmost nature, the kernel, of every particular thing, and also of the whole. It appears in every blind force of nature and also in the preconsidered action of man; and the great difference between these two is merely in the degree of the manifestation, not in the nature of what manifests itself. (1, 143 ([section]21))

Though sometimes described as the 'life-force', Schopenhauer's 'will' is neither merely biological (it includes physical forces such as gravity) nor benign. 'Everywhere in nature,' he argues, 'we see strife, conflict and the fickleness of victory, and in that we shall recognize more clearly the discord which is essential to the will'. (39) It is a 'blind striving, an obscure inarticulate impulse' (1, 195 ([section]27)). 'Eternal becoming, endless flux, characterises the revelation of the inner nature of will' (1, 214 ([section]29)), which manifests itself in human life in the futile cycle of painful desire, followed by momentary satisfaction, followed by boredom, followed by a return to painful desire.

If this seems gloomy, it becomes still more so in the fourth and final book of The World as Will and Idea as Schopenhauer turns from metaphysics to ethics. How should one live in a world thus understood? 'I cannot here avoid the statement', he writes, 'that, to me, optimism [...] appears not merely an absurd, but also as a really wicked way of thinking, as a bitter mockery of the unspeakable suffering of humanity' (1, 420 ([section]59)). If we were to conduct,

the most confirmed optimist through the hospitals, infirmaries, and surgical operating-rooms, through the prisons, torture-chambers, and slave-kennels, over battle-fields and places of execution; if we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it hides itself from the glance of cold curiosity, and, finally, allow him to glance into the starving dungeon of Ugolino, he, too, would understand at last the nature of this 'best of possible worlds.' For whence did Dante take the materials for his hell but from this our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell of it. (1, 419 ([section]59))

Wittily reversing the 'veil' or 'mask' imagery used by optimistic transcendentalists such as Shelley (Schopenhauer, like Housman, often combines gloomy views with comic expression), he notes that 'human life, like all bad ware, is covered over with a false lustre' (1, 419 ([section]59)). Beneath that false lustre it is apparent that 'suffering is essential to life, and [...] does not flow in upon us from without [...] every one carries about with him its perennial source in his own heart' (1, 410-11 ([section]57)). In these circumstances the only answers are 'either the aesthetic demand for contemplation or the ethical demand for renunciation', both of which are 'independent of the service of the will' (1, 422 ([section]60)). One can escape the will, in other words, in 'the momentary cessation of all volition' (1, 469 ([section]65)) that occurs in the disinterested experience of a work of art. Or one can escape it in physical asceticism--a choice (partly suggested to Schopenhauer by his knowledge of Buddhism) (40) that has the additional advantage of thwarting the reproductive process by which the will prolongs human suffering from generation to generation.

If this is, in one sense, simply another, more philosophically elaborate branch of the reaction against Romantic optimism expressed by Byron and Leopardi, it became generally available at a convenient moment. By the 1870s Comtean positivism was well established. But this confident sense of scientific and social progress, to which so many intellectuals had turned after their loss of religious faith, was beginning to falter, in part because of developments within science itself. Darwin, with his Malthusian sense of the struggle for survival that drove the process of natural selection, was one cause of this. Physicists working in the field of thermodynamics were another. William Thomson's article 'On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy' appeared in 1853. James Clerk Maxwell published his Theory of Heat in 1870. Balfour Stewart's popularizing textbook on The Conservation of Energy appeared in 1873. It was not easy to be positivist about entropy. Schopenhauer's ideas, with their suggestion that not just empiricists but idealists as well should feel that 'the world is on the whole bad', became widely available in the English-speaking world at just this time. George Eliot began writing 'A College Breakfast Party' in 1874 in response to a request from Frederick Harrison for a Comtean poem. What she actually produced was a list of undergraduate interests that counterpoised 'Comte, and Schopenhauer'.

Like Swinburne, some English intellectuals gained their first substantial knowledge of Schopenhauer from foreign sources. Matthew Arnold's 1876 commonplace-book contains ten passages copied out from the French translations of Schopenhauer published in Challemel-Lacour's article 'Un Bouddhiste contemporain en Allemagne' in the Revue des deux mondes of 15 March 1870. These include the proposition that 'La volonte [...] est l'aveugle generatrice des choses, anterieure a toute intelligence', and the view that 'la souffrance est la loi du monde', on which Arnold commented, adversely, in the Preface to Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877). Here the author argued for Jesus's 'superiority to Schopenhauer' because he 'hits the plain natural truth that human life is a blessing and a benefit,' a view that is offered 'with due deference to the many persons for whom Schopenhauer is just now in fashion'. (41) But, as that sense of a 'fashion' suggests, it was easy to find discussions of Schopenhauer in English journals. Goodale would identify 235 essays on Schopenhauer or pessimism in British and American publications between 1871 and 1900. Helen Zimmern's biography, Arthur Schopenhauer: His Life and his Philosophy was published in 1876; James Sully's Pessimism: A History and a Criticism, in the following year.

Meanwhile, a new generation of German pessimist philosophers was beginning to establish itself, most notably Eduard von Hartmann, whose Die Philosophie des Unbewussten was published in 1868 (and translated by William Coupland as The Philosophy of the Unconscious in 1884). Hartmann's 'unconscious', a more Hegelian and evolutionary version of Schopenhauer's blind will, was criticized by Sully and attacked by Samuel Butler in his Unconscious Memory (1880). (42) But it was useful for Hardy, who is recorded in William Archer's Real Conversations (1904) as saying that it

suggested to me what seems almost like a workable theory of the great problem of the origin of evil--though this, of course, is not Hartmann's own theory--namely, that there may be a consciousness, infinitely far off, at the other end of the chain of phenomena, always striving to express itself, and always baffled and blundering. (43)

In 1902 Hardy wrote a letter to the editor of The Academy that shows very clearly how, in these years and without being a dogmatic Schopenhauerian, one might respond nonetheless to issues in a broadly pessimist way. A reviewer had praised the 'vindication of Nature's ways' in Maeterlinck's Apology for Nature, a book that argued (in Hardy's summary) that nature 'may practise a scheme of morality unknown to us, in which she is just'. Hardy had no patience with such views:

Far be it from my wish to distrust any comforting fantasy, if it can be barely tenable. But alas, no profound reflection can be needed to detect the sophistry in M. Maeterlinck's argument, and to see that the original difficulty recognized by thinkers like Schopenhauer, Hartmann, Haeckel, etc., and by most of the persons called pessimists, remains unsurmounted.

Pain has been, and pain is: no new sort of morals in Nature can remove pain from the past and make it pleasure for those who are its infallible estimators, the bearers thereof. And no injustice, however slight, can be atoned for by her future generosity, however ample, so long as we consider Nature to be, or to stand for, unlimited power. (44)

One could be on the same side as Schopenhauer, in other words, without assenting, in detail, to his metaphysics. 'Persons called pessimists' were, in these terms, very numerous in the 1880s and 1890s. When Housman wrote to Goodale to say that he had 'not read Schopenhauer', he was speaking in his professional voice as Professor of Latin. He had not 'read' Schopenhauer as he had read, say, Manilius or Juvenal--that is, minutely, comprehensively, and in the original language. But it would be a misunderstanding to conclude from that remark that he was unconscious of the growing body of pessimist thought, or wholly unaware of the ways in which Schopenhauer's influence had augmented and stimulated it.

It is true that when Housman wrote his remarkably explicit letter to Maurice Pollet in February 1933, in response to an enquiry about his views, he specifically denied that he was a pessimist:

I am not a pessimist but a pejorist (as George Eliot said she was not an optimist but a meliorist); and that is owing to my observation of the world, not to personal circumstances [...] I respect the Epicureans more than the Stoics, but I am myself a Cyrenaic. (45)

But this statement, paradoxically, reinforces our sense of the importance of the debate between optimism and pessimism in the later nineteenth century. So pervasive was the issue that minute subdivisions were required within the spectrum of possible views. At one extreme stood the optimism of Leibnitz or Browning: this was the best of all possible worlds. Then there were what one might call 'deteriorationists', for whom the world was good but in danger of degeneration (Tennyson, in the anxious mood of The Idylls of the King, or Max Nordau would be examples of this). Meliorists like George Eliot, or James Sully, or (in his own account) Hardy took the view that the world was bad but capable, in some respects, of improvement. A pejorist like Housman believed that the world was both bad and deteriorating. This is only one step away from the full pessimism of Schopenhauer, for whom this world was the worst possible. If, despite this, critics continue to see the views expressed in Housman's pejorist poems as mere 'fatalism', it may be because they allow too little for his narrative method. Housman was speaking through the persona of 'a Shropshire lad' (originally identified as 'Terence Hearsay') who must, for the purposes of this pastoral fiction, be supposed to utter an instinctual or immemorial wisdom rather than a fashionable German philosophy.

Although different authors took different views of that philosophy, it was hard not to take a view at all. Ernest Dowson, for example, without explicitly mentioning Schopenhauer, suggested, in poems like 'Dregs' and 'A Last Word', that the world was worse than non-existence. Edith Nesbit, on the other hand, published two sonnets in her Lays and Legends volume of 1886 that anticipated T. S. Eliot in their sense that spring was the cruellest season but looked back to Keats in their wish to find some paradoxical 'hope' in autumn, when 'leaden skies weep their exhaustless grief '. The sonnets were jointly entitled 'Pessimism'. (46) If not quite, in Hardy's words, a 'universal' attitude, it was nonetheless a position against which you were obliged to define yourself.

There are also some positive ways in which pessimism functions as an informing or facilitating context for more generally acknowledged fin de siecle attitudes. The first two characteristics of the English decadence on Holbrook Jackson's list, for example, are 'Perversity' and 'Artificiality'. Taking perversity in its most literal but also most immediately controversial sense--that is, as the celebration of sterile modes of sexuality--one sees at once that this was easier to assert in the context of Schopenhauer's attacks on procreative marital sex. It is 'marriage,' in Burge Jawle's words, that is the 'criminal and anti-social action'.

In a larger sense that links perversity to artificiality, pessimism intensified the aesthetic and decadent turn against nature. What might otherwise be merely a disillusionment with the Romantic enthusiasm for the natural, a weariness with Wordsworth, becomes an active dislike once nature is understood to be, in Schopenhauerian terms, the objective form of a cruel and blundering 'will to live'. There can be no doubt that artifice is preferable to that.

And, finally, Schopenhauer's answers can help us with the old paradox of the fin de siecle's curious combination of aestheticism and piety. Schopenhauer's two practical solutions to the problem of life in this worst of all possible worlds are aestheticism and asceticism: in art and in neo-Buddhist renunciation we can escape the relentless processes of the will to live. Those decadent artists who live for art but die in the odour of sanctity make much more sense if we are conscious that both attitudes, though superficially incompatible, have roots in the same intellectual soil. 'Lane,' as Wilde's fictitious decadent Algernon Moncrieff remarks in The Importance of Being Earnest, 'you're a perfect pessimist'. It is time, I think, to allow pessimism a more ample presence in our understanding of the English fin de siecle.

(1) See Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, ed. by Michael John King (London: Faber, 1977), pp. 163, 309.

(2) The Poems of A. E. Housman, ed. by Archie Burnett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 61.

(3) Poems of A. E. Housman, p. 59.

(4) James Sully, Pessimism: A History and a Criticism (London: King, 1877), p. 156.

(5) John Oxenford, 'Iconoclasm in German Philosophy', Westminster Review, n.s. 3, 1 April 1853, pp. 407, 394.

(6) The Swinburne Letters, ed. by Cecil Y. Lang, 6 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1959-62), 11: 1869.1875 (1959), p. 38. Swinburne would publish an elegy for Wagner in A Century of Roundels (1883). The review referred to in the extract is of Alexandre Foucher de Careil, Hegel et Schopenhauer: Etudes sur la philosophie allemande depuis Kant jusqu'a nos jours (Paris: Hachette, 1862).

(7) Oxenford used quotation marks to indicate an unusual usage when he said of Schopenhauer that 'In a word he is a professed "Pessimist"', but described his philosophy as 'ultra-pessimism' (pp. 394, 407). John Brown, in the 1858 Preface to his three-volume Horae subsecivae (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1861), wrote, 'I am not however a pessimist, I am I trust a rational optimist, or at least a meliorist' (1, p. xxii), though with specific reference to views on the development of medicine.

(8) Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 235.

(9) See Kenneth Hugh Byron, The Pessimism of James Thomson (B.V.) in Relation to his Times (The Hague: Mouton, 1965).

(10) George Gissing, Essays and Fiction, ed. with an introduction by Pierre Coustillas (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), pp. 91-92.

(11) The Poems of John Davidson, ed. by Andrew Turnbull, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1973), 11, 325.

(12) The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, ed. by Samuel Hynes, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 1, 10.

(13) Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1896), pp. 419-20, 421, 424. On Hardy and pessimism see the article by Mary Ann Kelly, 'Schopenhauer's Influence on Hardy's Jude the Obscure', in Schopenhauer: New Essays in Honor of his 200th Birthday, ed. by Eric von der Luft (Lewiston, NY, and Lampeter: Mellon, 1988), pp. 232-48.

(14) See, for example, John Bayley, Housman's Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 62; and Brian Reade, Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 49.

(15) See Guy Michaud, Message poetique du symbolisme (Paris: Nizet, 1961), pp. 298, 324.

(16) See Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 1880-1900, trans. by Derek Coltman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 8, 12-16.

(17) Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950), p. 62.

(18) Henry Arthur Jones, The Crusaders: An Original Comedy of Modern London Life (London: Macmillan, 1893), pp. xiii, 32, 33, 96.

(19) Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, ed. by Russell Jackson (London: Black, 1980), p. 40.

(20) Oscar Wilde, Two Society Comedies, ed. by Ian Small and Russell Jackson (London: Benn, 1983), p. 142. In 'The Decay of Lying' (collected in Intentions, 1891) Wilde remarks that 'Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought'.

(21) George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy and Other Poems (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1906), p. 642.

(22) Henry James, Selected Literary Criticism, ed. by Morris Shapira (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 67; originally pubd in Longman's Magazine, 4 (September 1884) and repr. in James's Partial Portraits (1888).

(23) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: Allen & Unwin, 1946), pp. 786-87.

(24) Anthony Trollope, The Warden (London: Bell, 1913), p. 186.

(25) R. H. Goodale, 'Schopenhauer and Pessimism in Nineteenth-Century English Literature', Publications of the Modern Languages Association, 47.1 (1932), 241-61.

(26) Goodale, pp. 260-61, 244, 260.

(27) Sophocles, ed. and trans. F. Storr, 2 vols, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1912), 1, 261.

(28) David Hume, The Natural History of Religion and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. by A. Wayne Colver and John Valdimir Price (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. 234-39, 241. Sully (p. 61) cites this passage without acknowledging that Philo's views are identified in Hume's preface as those of 'careless Scepticism'. Although they are 'more probable' than the 'Orthodoxy' of Demea, the views of Cleanthes 'approach still nearer to the truth' (see pp. 145 and 261).

(29) Shelley, Poetical Works, ed. by Thomas Hutchinson, 2nd edn (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 253.

(30) The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. by Alfred R. Ferguson, 6 vols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 1, 45.

(31) The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, ed. by Humphrey Milford (London: Oxford University Press, 1921), p. 236.

(32) Byron, Poetical Works, p. 731.

(33) Byron, Poetical Works, p. 64.

(34) Shelley, Poetical Works, pp. 193-94.

(35) The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. by R. H. Super, II vols (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960-77), IX: English Literature and Irish Politics (1973), p. 231.

(36) Matthew Arnold, Poetical Works, ed. by C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 211-12. Alan Grob, in A Longing Like Despair: Arnold's Poetry of Pessimism (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2002), suggests a similarity between Schopenhauer's thought and Arnold's verse, based 'not on any claims of direct influence but on the demonstration of a shared weltanschauung' (p. 29). Arnold's pessimistic views might, however, be better described as Byronism.

(37) Schopenhauer spoke and read English fluently and quotes lines from Childe Harold (canto 3, stanzas 72 and 75 (1816)) in The World as Will and Idea, Pt 3, [section][section]51 and 34 (see note 38 below for publication details).

(38) Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, trans. by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, 3 vols, 4th edn (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1896), 1, 3. Unless otherwise indicated, subsequent references will be to this edition and will be given in the text. Schopenhauer divided his text into numbered sections; the section ([section]) number will appear in parentheses after the page number(s).

(39) Jill Berman's translation for David Berman's abridged Everyman Library edition (London: Dent, 1995, p. 73) is used here because her 'fickleness of victory' is clearer than Haldane and Kemp's 'alternation of victory' ([section]27).

(40) Schopenhauer read the Upanishads in Anquetil-Duperron's Latin translation (1801-02), and knew Friedrich Majer whose Brahma, or the Religion of the Hindus was published in 1819.

(41) See The Note-Books of Matthew Arnold, ed. by Howard Foster Lowry, Karl Young, and Waldo Hilary Dunn (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 253-54; and Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, VIII, 160.

(42) See Sully, pp. 454-57; and Samuel Butler, Unconscious Memory, 3rd edn (London: Cape, 1920), pp. 87-145.

(43) William Archer, Real Conversations (London: Heinemann, 1904), pp. 45-46.

(44) Letter to The Academy and Literature, 17 May 1902, quoted in Florence Emily Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928 (London: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 314-15. Ernst Haeckel is the German zoologist (1834-1919) whose venture into philosophy Die Weltratsel (translated as The Riddle of the Universe) was published in 1899.

(45) The Letters of A. E. Housman, ed. by Henry Maas (London: Hart-Davis, 1971), p. 329.

(46) E. Nesbit, Lays and Legends (London: Longmans, Green, 1886), pp. 64-65.


Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
COPYRIGHT 2007 Modern Humanities Research Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:a line in Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Ernest
Author:Shrimpton, Nicholas
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Modernist homage to the fin de siecle.
Next Article:Primitive modernity: H. G. Wells and the prehistoric man of the 1890s.

Related Articles
The power of negative thinking: pessimistic by nature? Make the most of a `realistic' outlook without bringing everybody down. (Peak Performance).
Women and British Aestheticism.
Victorian demons; medicine, masculinity, and the Gothic at the fin de siecle.
`Earnest' sure is fun and witty - but it feels just a little stale.
Editor's preface.
Modernist homage to the fin de siecle.
Tinted and tainted love: the sculptural body in Olive Custance's poetry.
Sinful Cities and ecclesiastical excuses: the 'churches for art's sake' movement from the Century Guild to Eliot.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters