SCHOPENHAUER TIES THE KNOT
by Philip Bernhardt
The iconic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer never had an easy time with women, and his woes on that account all began with his mother. Johanna Schopenhauer was a self-published writer who ran an elite literary salon in Gotha, Germany in the early 1800’s. Upon reading Arthur’s first book, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Johanna commented to her son, “Your writing is incomprehensible—let alone the title you give it. No one will ever buy a copy.”
“Mother, you are an ignoramus,” young Arthur shot back. “One day university students around the world will be assigned my works, long after you—and the rubbish you write—have been long forgotten.”
As it would turn out, both were right. Arthur’s first book sold zero copies and his mother is now long forgotten, though Schopenhauer’s influence today remains pervasive. It can be seen in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, though not necessarily on the subject of women.
Schopenhauer made a career out of excoriating our fairer selves. In his view women are “childish, frivolous, and intellectually short-sighted.” They are “defective in the powers of reasoning” and “possess an instinctive capacity for cunning and deceit.” He wrote that a woman is “not worthy of any honor or veneration. She exists for the sole purpose of obeying a man. She is meant to mind the home and bear children and ought not be allowed to mix with society. Simply put, she needs a lord and master.”
These views are perplexing. Was Schopenhauer merely a crotchety old man, or congenitally and irrevocably confused? This is the same man who once wrote that “if a woman has an independent will she ceaselessly evolves to a higher level of sober judgment than any man.” With this contradiction a question begs to be asked. Had Schopenhauer at some point experienced an epiphany, or was he simply insane? If one subscribes to the latter premise there is, in fact, further evidence.
Schopenhauer found the concept of human servitude to be intolerable. In 1860, on the subject of American slavery, he wrote: “It is the devil’s clutch, belonging to the blackest pages of the criminal history of mankind.” One has to wonder what cerebral gymnastics the Great Thinker had to attempt in order to square this idea with the notion that women ought to be shackled to the crib, stove and dairy stable.
Throughout his life Schopenhauer declared himself to be an atheist, yet he wrote extensively about an a priori, singular and intelligent, unifying principle of the universe. He devoted himself to the study of Hindu Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, which provided him with “great joy and solace.”
In 1823, after losing a debate to Professor Hilga Ustertaag at Berlin University on the subject of the Pagan Roots of Teutonic Polytheism—a woman, no less—Schopenhauer declared to the audience: “I am not me, I am someone else!”
His most coherent and accessible treatise was entitled Senilia.
Arthur Schopenhauer sat in his drawing room with windows closed at the height of summer, sweating profusely and sipping on a mug of piping hot cider as he scribbled his great thoughts. He considered how his life had been plagued by soured romance and professional failure, and he considered hanging himself. “Optimism is absurd,” he scratched with his quill. “Life means suffering.”
At an early age the future “father of modern Pessimism” felt that his destiny lay in academia, and in 1811 he joined the faculty of Berlin University as the translator of English, Italian and Greek works of philosophy, but was removed from that post because he imposed his own worldview on the translations rather than portray the genuine thoughts of the author.
As a professor he was refused tenure because he regularly berated his students and graded them harshly. If he thought that a pupil lacked scholarly substance—which would be most of them—he called his charges “factory products” and “bipeds.”
He failed as a lecturer as well. When Johann Fichte, the renowned philosopher and fellow Berlin University professor, gave lectures, Schopenhauer became jealous because the auditoriums for Fichte’s discourses were packed with scores of students anxious to hear his views on matters of theology and metaphysics. Schopenhauer openly called Professor Fichte an “imbecile” and decided to offer his own lectures concurrently with Fichte’s—across the hall no less. But few students ever attended. Those who did merely considered Schopenhauer to be a curiosity and heckled his histrionic bombast, calling him “Alt Krampfenkopf” —the Old Brain Cramp.
He goaded publishers into printing his books but they wisely insisted that he help finance the endeavors. Only a handful of copies of his works were ever sold and the stocks would ultimately be pulped.
Yet it would be his failures at romance and courtship that truly tormented him. Throughout his life women were a trial, both literally and figuratively.
In 1821, while trolling about the tavern Das Kampf for convenient sex, Schopenhauer met a seamstress named Caroline Marquet. She was well into her schnapps when she stumbled into him, but could tell from his clothes and bearing that he was a man of rank and refinement. She clutched him, and he clutched her with great zeal. Soon enough Fräulein Marquet found herself in the boudoir of Herr Schopenhauer who, well into steins of lager himself, took sexual liberties. In the morning, however, randy Arthur realized that he had bedded a mere “biped,” an insignificant and lowly dressmaker, and ordered her out of his home. But Marquet persisted with her affections. For evenings on end she would stand outside his doorway and sing love carols, which drove Schopenhauer to distraction. He was convinced that she was intentionally attempting to drive him insane.
Finally, after his admonishments and threats failed, the self-proclaimed Utopian wrested her bonnet and tossed her to the ground, breaking several of her ribs. The injury resulted in chronic numbness on her left side, which prevented her from practicing her trade. Marquet sued Schopenhauer and won a judgment—a sizeable monthly stipend for the rest of her natural life.
Then there was Karoline Jageman—later known as the Countess of Heygendorff—who carried on with Schopenhauer for several years, though there was never any sexual consummation. She was intrigued by his intellect but found him to be physically repulsive. In her diary she wrote, “Arthur has an ear infection over which he wears a bandage to absorb the puss, which possibly explains why the old fool never fully listens. He only cares to harangue. The pompous old schnitzel relentlessly quotes ancient Greek philosophers—in Greek, no less!”
The love of his life was an actress and showgirl named Caroline Richter. Like Karoline Jageman, she would date Schopenhauer but never sleep with him. In 1831 she had a child by another man, which naturally ended her involvement with Arthur. The other man, Louis Medon, would eventually abandon Caroline, which made her available to Schopenhauer once again, but by then she had contracted tuberculosis. His fear of contracting her disease outweighed his love for her and he never saw her again.
In Venice he had an affair with Teresa Fuga, the simple-minded heir to an olive oil fortune. They had a child together, but the infant girl died within a year. After the tragedy she refused to sleep with Arthur any longer—supposedly because of his snoring. Teresa never truly knew the name of her paramour. After his vast despondence compelled Schopenhauer to move back to Germany her lovelorn letters to him were addressed to Artur Scharrenhans.
Finally, there was the stunning and brilliant social lioness Flora Weiss. A Jewess. Schopenhauer was a declared anti-Semite but when he saw her at a boat party on the Rhine he approached her with a cluster of grapes in order to introduce himself. Flora found him to be “a porcupine of a man” and was offended by his foul breath. After she accepted the grapes, when Schopenhauer was not looking, she tossed them overboard, concerned that he had touched them. She did not want to catch any of his afflictions.
Arthur Schopenhauer finished off the lukewarm dregs of his cider and concluded that he ought to hang himself when the weather was foul, and from a sour apple tree at that. Such exit from this cruel world would express divine symmetry.
In 1831 an epidemic of cholera broke out in Berlin and many of the scholars and creative intelligentsia there migrated to Frankfurt, which was considered cholera-proof. Once in Frankfurt Schopenhauer joined the Gymnasium—a gentleman’s club, library, and workout spa. There he made rendezvous with his Aryan supremacist, anti-Semitic, misogynist pals Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Richard Wagner. At the Gymnasium Schopenhauer and Goethe endlessly discussed the nature and significance of color. Schopenhauer advised young Wagner to give up on his genius for composing libretto operas and write poetry instead. How brilliant!
At the Frankfurt Gymnasium the hostess was named Greta Kulp, who had been quite comely in the 1790’s but was now rather old. The members of the Gymnasium decided that they wanted an attractive woman to ogle. Greta was released and replaced by a shapely redhead named Frija Zinger, whose appearance was quite younger than her forty years. And Schopenhauer was thrilled. She was a widow.
Frija had been married to a master quarryman, an émigré from Byeloruss, but he had perished in a fall when his anchor pins snapped. Frija now dearly needed employment. She had to support herself as well as her pretty, precocious ten-year-old daughter Natasha. Thus her employment at the Gymnasium.
Schopenhauer nervously approached Frija. Scratching his head, he made a request: “I would like you to retrieve The Tempest, by Shakespeare, and Oedipus Tyrannus, by Sophocles, for me please.”
Frija was incredulous. “That duty was not described to me in my employment interview,” she replied. “I am very busy cleaning up after all the great minds who spill so much wine around here. I am afraid that you will have to gather those works for yourself.”
“What?” Schopenhauer responded, taken aback. “Greta always accommodated my requests.”
“Well, I am not Greta.” She pointed. “The works you seek are in the stacks behind you.”
Schopenhauer immediately fell in love. This woman had stood up to him! He sensed that she was his equal, perhaps his superior.
“I am Arthur Schopenhauer, you know,” he offered.
“Yes, I know,” Frija replied. “The stacks are still behind you, to your left once you turn around to go.”
Schopenhauer was head over heels. He hastily looked for his own works in the stacks, which he plucked in order to hide them. He did not want Frija to read his ignoble thoughts on the subject of women. The brilliant philosopher hid his works amongst the Greek tragedies which were seldom ever perused or borrowed.
Upon returning to the library desk Schopenhauer once again engaged Frija. “May we possibly enjoy a cup of piping hot cider together?” he asked.
“Oh, I am afraid not. My late husband Illya is still with me. I will always love him and no one else.”
Yet day after day Schopenhauer made overtures to Frija. He asked her out to taverns for dinner, to waltzes and the opera and the theater. He had deluded himself into thinking that the reason she kept declining his advances was the venue. He had a vivid imagination and kept thinking of different things for them to do together. He asked her to attend concerts and fairs and flower shows, to take walks in parks and apple orchards, but Frija simply resorted to the strategy that women have employed to discourage unwanted suitors since the dawn of mankind. She gave lame excuses. She claimed that she had to attend to her ailing aunt, or set her daughter’s hair, or clean her cupboard, or make candles, or groom her horse. But Arthur never gave up. And so Frija decided to give him an excuse so absurd that he could not possibly help but get the message.
Every day after school Frija’s daughter Natasha met her at the Gymnasium. Usually she would hesitantly stroll or saunter there because she did not like the smoky men’s club. But today she was skipping with joy. Natasha was excited because her mother had let her in on the plan. It was their little secret.
That afternoon, predictably, Arthur tentatively approached the object of his desire. “Dear Frija,” he offered, “perhaps you are aware that the master balladeer Jakob Sweelink will be performing at Botanscher Garten this evening. I am wondering if you would care to attend with me.”
“No, no Herr Schopenhauer. I am afraid that I will be busy.”
“Oh? How so, Frija?”
“I must shampoo my chickens.”
Old Arthur turned purple. “Lying is both habit-forming and contagious, Frija,” he uttered before storming off. Little Natasha could barely conceal her laughter. “He is so strange, mother,” she giggled. “He always looks as if his head is going to explode.”
Mother and daughter winked at one another.
Schopenhauer had meanwhile left the Gymnasium. He finally got the message. The great Rationalist decided to go for a long walk along the River Main in order to clear his head.
“I will not participate in this world any longer,” he muttered to himself.
While meandering along the riverside he ran into an old acquaintance, Klara Freudlander, the owner of a dog kennel on the outskirts of Frankfurt. She was walking her poodle Brigitte.
“Hello Klara,” said Arthur, his eyes suggesting dyspepsia. “It has been such a long time.”
“Yes, yes it has,” she replied. “Are you well, Arthur?”
“I have had better days,” he offered as the poodle sniffed playfully about him, which seemed to brighten his spirits. “Where have you been Klara?”
“Oh, tending to the puppies,” she replied. “Brigitte had a litter this past winter. I have had trouble selling the females because they tend to get pregnant. Would you like one?”
Schopenhauer initially seemed stumped, but replied with a wink, “I do need a bitch who will possibly put up with me.”
Frau Freudlander and the reluctant Humorist laughed.
For the rest of his days Schopenhauer could be seen walking his dear poodle about old Frankfurt and along the River Main, tethered by a taut leather slip-knot leash. He would never again court a woman.
Philip Bernhardt recently completed an historical novel, “Bastards of Plimoth: Myles Standish, the Failing Colony at Wessagussett and the Indian Massacre of 1623.” Another of his stories appeared in the July 2009 issue of Gemini. He lives in Weymouth, Massachusetts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.