Notes on Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature (1893) | Authorship I

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Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature is a brisk, engaging consideration of many of the central questions pertaining to literary craftsmanship. The first question tackled is authorship (On Authorship serves as the title of the book’s first chapter). Schopenhauer begins his endeavour by defining two types of authors; those who write for the subject and those who write for “writing’s sake.”

“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.” (Schopenhauer, The Art of Literature, 1893, page 3)

§.00—Schopenhauer then delineates the motivations for these two authorial modes: artistic expression on the one hand, and the route desire for money on the other.

He allows no room for doubt as to where he stands on which is the higher type, writing,

“While the one [the former type] have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, the others [the latter type] want money; and so they write, for money. Their thinking is part of the business of writing. They may be recognized by the way in which they spin out their thoughts to the greatest possible lengths; then, too, by the very nature of their thoughts, which are only half-true, perverse, forced, vacillating; again, by the aversion they generally show to anything straight out, so that they may seem other than they are. Hence their writing is deficient in clearness and definiteness, and it is not long before they betray that their only object in writing is to cover paper.” (Schopenhauer, p. 3)

§.01—This is a overgeneralization (for which Schopenhauer has a decided proclivity). There are many commercially motivated writers who write clearly and definitely and many non-commercially motivated writer’s who are dense as dirt and who simply lack the proficiency to write enduring works, but one which contains a kernel of truth, in that, the dedicated writer, the man of letters, writes not chiefly to acquired money, but to communicate a message (as is the point of art, or was, before its Warholesque redefinition (“Art is what you can get away with.”); the title of the piece is, after all, The Art of Literature, not, The Mercantilism of Literature and so consideration must be given to the task of the artist, not the businessman (nor the dilettante). It should not be thought that art and mercantilism (by which I simply mean endeavouring for financial gain) are intrinsically opposed, as Schopenhauer believes, but rather that a author cannot be one if thought is given only to the other.

“As soon as the reader perceives this [that the author’s object is to ‘cover paper’], let him throw the book away; for time is precious. […] No one writes anything that is worth writing, unless he writes entirely for the sake of his subject. What an inestimable boon it would be if, in every branch of literature there were only a few books, but those excellent!” (p.3-4 )

§.02—What a boon that would be, indeed and up to this point, I am in agreement with his central assertions; however, he suddenly takes a dramatic turn (again, towards overgeneralization) when he declares,

“It seems as though the money lay under a curse; for every author degenerates as soon as he begins to put pen to paper in any way for the sake of gain. The best works of the greatest men all come from the time when they had to write for nothing or for very little. And here, too, that Spanish proverb holds good, which declares that honour and money are not to be found in the same purse — honra y provecho no caben en un saco. The reason why Literature is in such a bad plight nowadays is simply and solely that people write books to make money.” (p.4)

§.03—Ah, we’re at the bottom of it—Money, the death of art. How convenient it would be if that were true, but clearly, it is not. Whilst it certainly tracks that the author whose work is chiefly and protractedly motivated by (financial) gain is diminished, of necessity, it does not follow that the ‘The best works of the greatest men all come from the time when they had to write for nothing or for very little.’ Lovecraft wrote his greatest works at the peak of his career, at the point where his reputation and revenue stream were greatly expanded in relation to the pittance he had formerly made from his fiction writing. Whilst he certainly was not making a great deal of money it was not ‘very little’ in comparison to what he had previously been making. One could also consider the account of Huysmans whose La Cathédrale (1898) was so financially successful that it allowed the novelist’s early retirement. The novel was a commercial endeavour, to be sure, but it was also, in essence, a intensely autobiographical work and it was from this essence (as well as its painterly detail) that the work derives it power. There are plenty of other reasons for literature (as a general matter) to become mired in a ‘bad plight’—anti-art sentiment, could be one; a culture which prioritizes and promotes short time preferences, another. Financial gain alone (and recall Schopenhauer writes in no uncertain terms that a lust for money is ‘simply and solely’ to blame for the ‘bad plight’ of literature) is insufficient to explain the totality of the aesthetic degradation of an age. To assume the contrary position is to reveal the outline of the cage—one’s own idée fixe. Everyone judges from a cage, yet, the size thereof is variable.

He goes on in a similar vein to remark upon the general public’s literary receptivity,

“A man who is in want sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it. The secondary effect of this is the ruin of language.” (p.4)

§.04—Certainly, if a man wrote a book soley because he thought he could make money from it, anyone who knew this fact before purchasing the book who chose to buy the book anyways, would indeed be very stupid. It is not obvious, however, that this is even possible since all writing, of whatever variety, but especially of the artistic variety, is infused with the author’s personal qualities and charged by their experience. A book which communicates nothing would not be a book. Even a blank book, judiciously considered, can carry a message. Consider Michael Knowles’ Reasons To Vote For Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide (2017), a book containing only a table of contents, chapter titles and a bibliography, but no other words. Though the joke book is devoid of substantive content it still manages to communicate a message by the very omission of said contents through contrast with its title. Not La-bas, but mildly amusing.

§.05—His secondary claim concerning the ‘ruin of language’ is smuggled in without explanation. I do not contest that a language can be ‘ruined’—extensive and prolonged word-loss or modulation towards decreasing nuance are expressions of linguistic regression—what I do contest is that writers who are motivated in large part by monetary profit are generally to blame for the ruin of language (though they certainly can be) at any given point in time where such actions are possible (post-printing press). It should also be noted that the aesthete is apt, more so than his less linguistically sensitive fellows, to bemoan the death or ruin or otherwise regression of a given language. A cursory glance back through the historical record reveals that there does not appear to be a period in time when someone, somewhere was not complaining about new slang, emerging idioms and flippant, informal word use (a proclivity that Steven Pinker, in his The Sense of Style, terms “The graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens”). Consider that some of the earliest writing, clay tablets of ancient Sumerian, contain the complaints of a teacher bemoaning the precipitous decline of his student’s writing ability, noting, “A junior scribe is too concerned with feeding his hunger. He does not pay attention to the scribal art.”

Then there is the case of William Langdon (c. 1332–c. 1386) author of Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman (1370–90), who, in the 1300s, wrote, “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.”

A year after Langdon’s death, the benedictine monk, Ranulph Higden, in his Polychronicon (sive Historia Polycratica) ab initio mundi usque ad mortem regis Edwardi III in septem libros dispositum lamented what he perceived as linguistic perversion of English due proximity with Normans and Vikings.

“…by comyxtioun and mellynge firste wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in meny thynges þe contray longage is apayred, and som vseþ straunge wlafferynge, chiterynge, harrynge, and garrynge grisbayting.” (Higden)

Translation: “…by mixing and mingling, first with Danes and afterwards with Normans, in many cases the country’s language is impaired, and some use strange stammering, chattering, snarling, and grating gnashing of teeth.”

Here Higden commits the very linguistic commingling which he rails against through his use of comyxtioun a word which descends from the language of the Norman French.

In 1478, after the invention of the printing press, William Craxton declared, “And certaynly our langage now vsed veryeth ferre from what whiche was vsed and spoken when I was borne.”

In 1672, the poet, John Dryden wrote with exceptional melodrama on the linguistic decline as represented by those second-raters, Fletcher and Shakespeare, “It is not their plots which I meant, principally, to tax; I was speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together, which is correct in both […] [M]alice and partiality set apart, let any man who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakespeare and Fletcher; and I dare undertake that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech [an impropriety, mistake, or incongruity], or some notorious flaw in sense.”

It is remarkable how similar the expression of language anxiety has remained across time (always the words are getting too far away from the familiar, despite their ready apprehension) and attests more to certain deficiencies of psychological introspection than any palpable degradation of language. Consequently, I wax intensely skeptical of those who treat linguistic novelty as likely, or intrinsically lesser, than its antecedents.

It is upon this subject that Schopenhauer next directs his powers, writing,

“A great many bad writers make their whole living by that foolish mania of the public for reading nothing but what has just been printed,—journalists, I mean. Truly, a most appropriate name. In plain language it is journeymen, day-labourers!” (p. 4)

§.06—What value rests in journalism is to be found in the skillful dissemination of pertinent information, both good and ill (with minimal injection of opinion). When journalism eschews the informational needs of the public at-large, or some portion of the public, in favor of sensationalism and propaganda, it trends always to incite ‘foolish mania.’ The journalist often attempts to wear also the hat of the social critic, the public intellectual, moral philosopher, and so on, yet often lacks the requisite mental resources, and, being ever constrained by the nature of his industry, lacks also the time necessary to study his subject, rather, he must churn copy swiftly as he is able and, in so doing, diminishes his intellectual nimbleness. In summation, the problem is not that they are ‘day-labourers’ but that they are pretending that they are not, that they are a special type of man, who are possessed of some arcane insightfulness which escapes the lowly commoners.

After this brisk treatment of the journalist class, our errant author swiftly pivots, laying out what he perceives to be the three principal genres of authorial motivation.

“Again, it may be said that there are three kinds of authors. First come those who write without thinking. They write from a full memory, from reminiscences; it may be, even straight out of other people’s books. This class is the most numerous. Then come those who do their thinking whilst they are writing. They think in order to write; and there is no lack of them. Last of all come those authors who think before they begin to write. They are rare. Authors of the second class, who put off their thinking until they come to write, are like a sportsman who goes forth at random and is not likely to bring very much home. On the other hand, when an author of the third or rare class writes, it is like a battue [a hunt where bushes are beaten to flush out game]. Here the game has been previously captured and shut up within a very small space; from which it is afterwards let out, so many at a time, into another space, also confined. The game cannot possibly escape the sportsman; he has nothing to do but aim and fire—in other words, write down his thoughts. This is a kind of sport from which a man has some thing to show. But even though the number of those who really think seriously before they begin to write is small, extremely few of them think about the subject itself: the remainder think only about the books that have been written on the subject, and what has been said by others. In order to think at all, such writers need the more direct and powerful stimulus of having other people’s thoughts before them. These become their immediate theme; and the result is that they are always under their influence, and so never, in any real sense of the word, original. But the former are roused to thought by the subject itself, to which their thinking is thus immediately directed. This is the only class that produces writers of abiding fame.” (p.5)

§.07—It is in these psychological interrogations of authorial methodology where Schopenhauer (in my personal opinion) is strongest in his discourses on literary art. His remark on ‘having other people’s thoughts’ laid before the writer as a source of stimulus is particularly interesting to me as I have found great distraction upon heavily reading book after book by a single author while at the same time trying to write my own. The distraction assumed the form of unconscious replication of the recently-read author’s style, which would bleed through into my own in sporadic bursts that were only evident upon later consideration (as during the editing process). Borrowing terminology or particular structuring techniques from other authors is something which I highly recommend; its extremely instructive. However, that is very different from copying (consciously or unconsciously) a style wholesale, which near-invariably serves to generate nothing but a lesser facsimile of the original author’s prose and consequently, derail the flow and coherency of one’s own laboriously developed style. Whilst each of the authorial types which Schopenhauer mentions is indeed a apt description, they should not be considered wholly static and binding, but rather fluid, as I find, in attempting to place myself, falling into every single category, depending on my mood and the happenings of the day. That being said, I agree with Schopenhauer’s assessment that the latter category (the third type) is the one for which the serious author should (if possible) strive; a subject will invariably emerge (if given sufficient time whilst working by way of either the first or second modes), but it were better, at the outset, to have some conception of a given work and also to find in its development and exploration, a source of yet further inspiration and excitement.


† continued in part II


Sources

  1. Arthur Schopenhauer. (1893) The Art of Literature. Swan Sonnenschein & Co.; MacMillan & Co.
  2. Elena Martinique. (2016) Is Consumerism Depicted in Art Relevant a Relevant Critique of Contemporary Society and Culture? Widewalls.
  3. Farooq A. Kperogi. (2016) Myth of the Decline in Standard of English Usage and Grammar. Nigeria Village Square.
  4. Ranulf Higden, trans. John Travisa. (1364; eng. trans. 1865) Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Maonachi Cestrensis.
  5. R. L. S. (2015) Johnson: Language anxieties: A Long Decline. The Economist.
  6. Sabina Nedelius. (2017) The Myth of Language Decay: Do Youths Really Not Know How To Speak? The Historical Linguist Channel.
  7. Steven Pinker. (2014) The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century. Penguin.
  8. Stuart Henry. (1897) Hours With Famous Parisians. Way & Williams.
  9. Thomas Adajian. (2018) The Definition of Art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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