Living for oblivion

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.