Schopenhauer

I was on the train, on my way back home. Sitting comfortably at my preferred corner seat, I took out a book and started reading: On the Suffering of the World 1, by Arthus Schopenhauer, a book I had just loaned from the library. Schopenhauer, in case you didn’t know, is very well known for his caustic insights into the human condition, and is known as one of, if not the most, pessimistic philosopher who ever lived.

Perhaps it is not enough for me to just say this, so I shall quote one of the passages in the book:

In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do not know what really will appear. for to him who does know, children can sometimes seem like innocent delinquents, sentenced not to death but to life, who have not yet discovered what the punishment will consist of. Nonetheless, everyone desires to achieve old age, that is to say a condition in which one can say: “Today it is bad, and day by day it will get worse — until at last the worst of all arrives.”

And if you are still not convinced,

If you imagine, in so far as it is approximately possible, the sum total of distress, pain and suffering of every kind which the sun shines upon in its course, you will have to admit it would have been much better if the sun had been able to call up the phenomenon of life as little on the earth as on the moon.

Before I had picked up this book, I was feeling horrible; this feeling having lasted a few days, ever since I had returned from Brunei, I figured it was a mild form of depression. As new mothers often suffer from post-natal blues, I seemed to be suffering from the post-Brunei blues. Sure, I was relieved that Brunei was over, but horribly disappointed that the relief wasn’t as great as I thought it would, and should, have been. 2

But in the most ironic way, it seemed reading Schopenhauer helped cheer me up. His pessimissic outlook on life, which seemed to be a downright contempt for it, made me feel strangely happy — happy that I did not feel as unhappy as him. In his own words,

The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more unfortunate than we: and everyone can do this. But what does that say for the condition of the whole?

As I read his essay On the Suffering of the World (the title of the book was named after the first essay that appears in it), I was aware of how happy it made me, causing me to break into smiles every now and then, and I couldn’t help it! It had been months, maybe years, since I last felt that way.

I so lost myself in the book that I hardly realised I was on a train until a small crowd entered, and remnants who couldn’t get a seat were left standing around me. Looking up, I saw a middle-aged woman, no where near what I would consider old, or at least old enough to warrant anyone giving up a seat, standing in front of me. She was talking to another woman beside me, who was probably in her early to mid-twenties (who, incidentally, was dressed in very peculiar clothes, which I had thought bordered on some Japanese cosplay, though it might well have been her normal get-up!)

Looking at the middle-aged woman, something inside me stirred, and made me stand up and ask if she would like a seat.

“M’am,” I said, an address I surprised myself with, perhaps too used to the military’s method of addressing women, “would you like a seat?”

“Oh, no no no,” she replied, almost as if ordering me to sit back down, “I’m getting off soon.” A pause. “Quite soon,” she added, looking at her previous conversation partner, who glanced at her then at me.

“Really?” I asked, “sure? How far?” I didn’t believe she was getting off soon, and thought she might just have been embarrassed or courteous.

“I’m getting off soon, don’t worry,” she said, sternly, almost like a mother reassuring her young son that school is fun.

I sat back down, suddenly extremely self-conscious, but realised Schopenhauer, who had brought me so much joy, was still in my hands. Suddenly the world reset itself, and I continued my reading. The middle-aged woman left the train a couple of stops after the incident, while her partner stayed with me all the way till my stop at Kovan.

Not sure why, but I felt like such a gentleman that day; reminded me of the scene in Take the Lead where the Antonio Banderas character opens the door for the ladies. I used to do that. A pity I don’t do that so much anymore.

A Real Ladies Man

Schopenhauer himself was a real ladies man, or at least he shows it in his writing. Upon reaching home, I started on his essay, On Women, and was pleasantly surprised by how many points on women he shared with me. Allow me to share with you some of the passages in that essay:

These few words of Jouy [express what is truly to be praised in women]: Sans les femmes, le commencement de notre vie serait prive de secours, le millieu de plaisirs, et la fin de consolation .(Without women, the beginning of our lives would be deprived of security, the middle of pleasure, and the end of consolation.) Byron says the same thing with more pathos in Sardanapolis:

The very first
Of human life must spring from woman’s breast,
Your first small words are taught you from her lips,
Your first tears quench’d by her, and your last sighs
Too often breathed out in a woman’s hearing,
Which men have shrunk from the ignoble care
Of watching the last hour of him who led them.

And then he goes on with some of the best writing on women I have read thus far (the numbers above the paragraphs follow the paragraph headings in the book),

– 2 –

One needs only to see the way she is built to realize that woman is not intended for great mental or for great physical labour. She expiates the guilt of life not through activity but through suffering, through the pains of child-birth, caring for the child and subjection to the man, to whom she should be a patient and cheering companion. Great suffering, joy, exertion, it not for her: her life should flow by more quietly, trivially, gently than the man’s without being essentially happier or unhappier.

– 3 –

Women are suited to being the nurses and teachers of our earliest childhood precisely because they themselves are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children, their whole lives long: a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the man, who is the actual human being, ‘man’. One has only to watch a girl playing with a child, dancing and singing with it the whole day, and then ask oneself what, with the best will in the world, a man could do in her place.

– 5 –

A completely truthful woman who does not practise dissimulation is perhaps an impossibility, which is why women see through the dissimulation of others so easily it is inadvisable to attempt it with them. — But this fundamental defect which I have said they possess, together with all that is associated with it, gives rise to falsity, unfaithfulness, treachery, ingratitude, etc. Women are guilty of perjury far more often than men. It is questionable whether they tought to be allowed to take an oath at all.

– 6 –

…fundamentally women exist solely for the propagation of the race.

– 7 –

Men are by nature merely indifferent to one another; but women are by nature enemies.

Schopenhauer seems to know a lot about women, doesn’t he?

***

1 He does not write in English. Throughout my years of reading translated books, I have learnt that oftentimes many ideas, especially that of irony or humour, gets lost in translation. This particular book had no such loss. Published by Penguin Books, in their Great Ideas series, and translated by R. J. Hollingdale, this book was surprisingly accessible.

2 There’s an interesting blog entry by laughingcow on the General Elections. This is a paraphrase of one of the passages in there, which in its original was: he looked like the way I felt when my ‘A’ level results were released — disappointed at not having done better, but mostly relieved that he didn’t do worse.

The Existential Zoo

Some days, I feel like Schrodinger’s Cat. Not quite sure if I’m dead or alive.

Then there are days I wonder who I really am. Perhaps I’m just a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?

Other times I just feel like Pavlov’s Dog: conditioned by society to desire more, which never is enough. In the end, all I get are unfulfilled desires, salivating at the possibilities, depressed with the realities.

On the Elections that Have Come and Gone

I was in Brunei for a total of two and a half weeks. During my time there, the elections were held.

When I came back, it was on the 8th of May, and election results were out for a day. My mom got me up to speed on the results and the going-ons, but she, having a strong impartiality towards one of the parties, gave me a rather one-sided account.

Anyway, I need not have bothered too much about what my mom had said, for the newspapers balanced her out. You would expect newspapers to be the objective party. But it doesn’t matter; I’m not that interested in politics anyway.

Some Singaporean will probably take offence at my last statement, that I wasn’t interested in the elections. So be it. I’m just not interested.

You might argue that the voting for a certain political party is a matter not to be taken lightly. Perhaps so. Allow me to ask, “is it as important as life and death?”

If you answered, “yes”, allow me to quote Bill Shankly, the late Liverpool manager,

Football is not just a matter of life and death: it’s much more important than that.

Some things are important to you, some things are not. But of course, voting is my duty, or at least the government says it is, and who are we to say we don’t agree?

Isn’t it horrifying how young people nowadays are not interested in politics? I’m absolutely horrified. So horrified that I’ll vote for the party that makes it mandatory to include political studies in the secondary school syllabus. Maybe then they’ll understand how important politics are.

Of course, if I were in secondary school I wouldn’t vote for that party. But then again, if I were in secondary school, I wouldn’t get to vote, would I? Nope.

***

I saw some pictures of the rallies that were held. It’s quite a pity I was in Brunei. From the looks of the faces in the photographs it looked as though they were having one hell of a good time.

My mom told me they were screaming and shouting, getting really pumped up. They were cheering and chanting, quite like a football game really. And in nearby Serangoon stadium too. Probably was fun. Wish I were there when it happened.

***

So, who’d you vote for? The People’s Action Party (PAP) or one of the opposition? What perks did they give you? Are they fighting for causes you believe in? And if they are, what causes are they? Abortion rights? Gay rights? Free education? Subsidised healthcare? Free football tickets?

I don’t like football. Or at least not as much as I appear to like it here in this essay. But what can I do? I quoted Bill Shankly for Christ’s sake.

The thing is, the opposition seems to win votes not because they have something to offer, but because people want to show the PAP (which is generally the recumbant party everywhere in Singapore) that they have a say, too. You can’t walk all over us they seem to say, seemingly oblivious to the estates on their left and right that were won by walkovers.

If I had voted, I would have voted for the opposition. But not because I believe in the opposition’s ability, or the causes they fight for, but because Hougang (where I live) generally likes the Worker’s Party. And besides, the MP’s teochew, just like me.

***

I was in my Dad’s car when he drove by Potong Pasir today. He said, “we’re entering Singapore’s pride and joy, Potong Pasir”. I looked at him and smiled. Potong Pasir was won by the opposition. Quite the place, really. A certain glow exuded from it. I could really feel the pride and joy.

As we drove on, the feeling seemed to last forever. Soon, we were at North Bridge road, and the glow still seemed to be there. That was when I realised that it was probably just a placebo effect.

Greener Grass

I am on the other side. I have travelled far to get here; the journey was tough and long; countless obstacles blocked my way.

Day and night, I fantasized about what it would be like after the suffering. How wonderful it would all be once the journey is over!

Toil I shall till the deed is done, till the place is reached; and enjoy I will when indeed the deed is done, and the place is reached.

Here I am now, on the other side!

So why does the grass look greener from whence I came?

Not Knowing the Words

I’d like to share with you a sad, beautiful poem by the late Michael Donaghy, called Not Knowing the Words:

Not Knowing the Words

Before he wearied of the task, he sang a nightly Mass
for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed
and magicked his blood to bourbon and tears
over the ring, the lock of hair, the dry pink dentures.
Was he talking to her? I never learned.
Walk in, he’d pretend to be humming softly,
like wind through a window frame.

The last I saw of him alive, he pressed me to his coat.
It stinks in a sack in my attic like a drowned Alsatian.
It’s his silence. Am I talking to him now, as I get it out
and pull its damp night down about my shoulders?
Shall I take up the task, and fill its tweedy skin?
Do I stand here not knowing the words
when someone walks in?

Serendipity and the Magic of Chance

I had purchased a book of poems, called Conjour by Michael Donaghy just before my Brunei trip during a book fair.

Conjour was an unassuming little blue book, and not in prime condition. The reason I picked it up is a little unclear; even hindsight shines no light. Man is not completely rational.

I had never heard of Michael Donaghy, and the first few poems I had read in the book did not move me as they do now. I guess it was the final poem in the book that moved me to purchase it. The final poem is called Haunts:

Haunts

Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me,
though not as I’ve appeared before,
on the battlements of your signature,
or margin of a book you can’t throw out,
or darkened shop front where your face
first shocks itself into a mask of mine,
but here, alive, one Christmas long ago
when you were three, upstairs, asleep,
and haunting me because I conjured you
the way that child you were would cry out
waking in the dark, and when you spoke
in no child’s voice but out of radio silence,
the hall clock ticking like a radar blip,
a bottle breaking faintly streets away,
you said, as I say now, Don’t be afraid.

The metaphysical reality that he transported me into gave me a sense of being part of something bigger. That I am who I am now, and soon I will be who I was going to be. And when I am in that latter state, I can look back at who I am.

The First Reading

The first reading of the book was rather uneventful. I still only liked, and understood (as far as I could) Haunt, and the other poems seemed alien to me.

I wasn’t used to this style of poetry: I always having been a fan of poems with “proper” stanzas that rhymed.

But if there was one thing about poetry that I learned, it is that twenty lines of a poem, when done properly, can tell a story that prose may take twenty pages to match.

Like the saying “a picture tells a thousand words”, the imagery and feelings that poems evoke do more to tell a story than mere words ever can.

I left for Brunei having only read the book once.

The Re-reading

I picked up the book again today. I re-read all the poems again, and it suddenly dawned on me how beautiful many of the poems in the book were.

It is strange how you can read something and not understand or appreciate it, walk away, then come back and re-read it, and suddenly start understanding and appreciating it.

Michael Donaghy passed away in September 2004.