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Living for oblivion

Arthur Schopenhauer.

Arthur Schopenhauer.

In your drinking career I'm sure you've heard the old chestnut: there are two types of boozers: those who drink and those who drink to get drunk ... but I wonder which are you?

If you said the latter, well, hell, don't get all down on yourself; you're actually in very good company and some would argue you're simply answering humanity's ancient call to seek oblivion.

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was by most accounts a rather dismal fellow and his thoughts on women (they are "by nature meant to obey") in his 1851 essay Of Women have drawn considerable criticism over the years.

However, he was a penetrating thinker, with writer Eva Cybulska noting in a recent issue of the magazine Philosophy Now that "hardly any modern philosopher, with the possible exception of Nietzsche, can claim greater influence on literature and the arts".

One of Schopenhauer's central themes was humanity's "Will", which Cybulska describes as "the unity of the inner nature of all things" and which she suggests others have interpreted as Schopenhauer's "anticipation of the 20th-century's scientific idea of energy, as a unifying force with multifarious manifestations".

"Quite ingeniously, Freud also adapted the Will as the id - an 'unconscious and unknown' yet all-powerful part of the self," writes Cybulska.

It's a concept also rather condescendingly conveyed in the Thorton Wilder play Our Town when the "pipe-puffing, cracker-barrel philosopher" stage manager expounds: 

"Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take 'm out and look at 'm very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars ... everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings ... There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being."

Aaaaanyhow, Schopenhauer, writes Cybulska, believed there were only three ways to escape the "strife caused by the Will: aesthetic contemplation, ascetic conduct, and death".

"Dying is certainly to be regarded as the real aim of life; at the moment of death, everything is decided, which through the whole course of life was only prepared and introduced," says Schopenhauer in his best known work The World as Will and Representation.

Cybulska argues that "to Schopenhauer, death can be seen as a form of return to a timeless, unconscious eternity" and quotes Voltaire who once said "we like life, but all the same nothing also has its good points".

She then cites Philip Larkin's poem Wants:

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites
The costly aversion of the eyes from death -
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

Now, I'm sure an insurance salesman or graphic designer drinking himself into a stupor at his staff Christmas party couldn't articulate the reason that he's doing so in such lucid terms, but I wonder if the almost pandemic need for people to recede into numbness springs from the same source?

Either way, it's a good topic for those Xmas drinks tonight.

48 comments so far

  • Thanks for making my stonking great hangover seem somehow rational. Whoever invented scotch was a bloody idiot. Cheers

    pale and wan
    Date and time
    December 07, 2012, 8:35AM
    • Gad to see I am not the only dipsomaniac suffering through another Friday.

      Chin up old boy, there is light down there somewhere.

      “I feel bad for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.”
      - Frank Sinatra

      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 1:47PM
    • To counter that, I'd like to say that whoever invented schadenfreude was a genius...
      Sorry for finding mirth in your misfortune randomguy, I'm actually kind of perversely jealous

      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 2:22PM
  • less fancy talk, people drink to escape the pressures of life and regress to something simpler? Sure, sounds right.

    At the moment - and I'm a fairly heavy drinker - I just drink because it's fun, but there's no denying that relaxing back into a whiskey stupor and putting away all thoughts of tomorrow has its own appeal. I guess partly I drink not to reach oblivion, but to extend the "now", and forget tomorrow and yesterday in equal measure.

    Date and time
    December 07, 2012, 9:05AM
    • It depends. Sometimes I just drink and sometimes I drink to get drunk all depending on what has preceded the commencement of imbibing.
      Of course both are all fun and games until the cracking hangoved including churning tummy hits.
      The company I am in also inflences which kind of drinking it is. Celebratory drinking is fun and 'tis the season. Commerseration drinking requires not just booze, but also tissues and possibly cake.
      At this time of the day and at this time of the year I an daydreaming about being at home with wine and horror movies and that is keeping me going while I listen to the irritating drone of my work colleagues which never seems to end.

      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 9:53AM
      • Maybe that's why we're fascinated by the coming Mayan apocalypse; why millenial fantasies gain such strong followings.

        And perhaps Schopenhauer was anticipated by Shakespeare:

        To die: to sleep;
        No more; and by a sleep to say we end
        The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
        That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
        Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
        To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 10:20AM
        • Ah, someone is speaking my language.
          "To die, to sleep"

          I struggle. I don't drink.

          scent pod
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 12:43PM
      • "It's all ahead of you". As Christian Bale's character says in The Fighter, although he was on crack. Can't say I've had crack.

        Plus music sounds awesome. I guess part of the reason being because it often takes me back to the days when it was all ahead of me.

        Looking forward to my Christmas beer because it's ok to start at 11. Sick.

        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 10:58AM
        • "...The costly aversion of the eyes from death - Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs......"

          Dibs on this line for my suicide note.

          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 11:08AM
          • You lost me at philospher. Maybe you'd be more at home writing a regular column for Quadrant these days?

            Date and time
            December 07, 2012, 11:12AM

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