We were once dogs and we slink back to our primal dogdom. At least that is true of Schopenhauer, who recognized himself in his poodle; and his principal work, The World as Will and Idea, which he thought was dictated by the Holy Ghost, was really the product of his poodle-brain.
Nietzsche, My Sister and I
It had been a while since I’d checked in on Art Schopenhauer, my first philosophical love, the guy who lured me away from the rationality of Immanuel Kant–which wasn’t too hard–and pointed me in the direction of the irrational, towards which I’ve been groping ever since.
“You ought to go see him,” said my buddy Fred Nietzsche with a magnanimous tone. Easy for him to say; Nietzsche practically invented the whole philosopher branding kitsch thing; he’s got sweatshirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, board games. Every college sophomore with intellectual pretensions and an overweening ego gloms onto “The Neetch” as we used to call him around the pool table in the basement of my dorm. Schopenhauer? He’s lucky if anybody recognizes him when they pick his card in “Trivial Pursuit: Depressing Philosophers Edition.”
I knock lightly on the door, not wanting to upset the irascible old goat, but even the slightest of taps is enough to get “Zwergpudel”–Schopenhauer’s toy poodle–yipping. “All right, all right, pipe down” I hear the King of Pessimism say as he unbolts the lock.
“Hey, Art,” I say. “How ya doing?”
“As well as might be expected in this miserable world,” he replies. Mr. Sunshine, as always.
“I thought I’d stop by and see if you needed anything.”
“Did you learn nothing in European Intellectual History?” he snaps.
“Actually, I learned a great deal,” I say. Art always has his jab in your face, and so I’ve come prepared. “I know you think that in order to achieve a more peaceful existence we ought to reduce our desires.”
He looks at me with an upraised eyebrow. “Perhaps you did absorb some smattering of Professor McGrath’s lectures while you were eyeing that neurotic raven-haired beauty who used to sit next to you. But you asked if I needed anything, when my aim in life has been to have as few needs and wants as is humanly possible, thereby avoiding the endless cycle of desire.”
“Still, there are some things you can’t get along without,” I say. “Not so much goods as services.”
“Yeah–like I need to take a dump.” It’s Zwergpudel, butting in.
“Can you not indulge me on this point?” Schopenhauer says.
Zwerg gives him a little snort, and looks up at me. “You know what he does? He ties my leash onto the doorknob and calls that a ‘walk.’”
“I don’t get around that well anymore,” Schopenhauer says. “Would you mind?”
“Mind?” I ask incredulously. “I spent many happy hours walking a poodle in my youth.”
“Really?” Zwerg asks, his head cocked to one side like the dog in the RCA Victor ads.
“Sure. We acquired a poodle when a juvenile delinquent gave my elder sister one in high school.”
“Gymnasium is too young for a boy to give a girl a dog,” Schopenhauer says.
“That’s what my dad said,” I say. “But you know how it is with poodles–they’re so darn cute, after one night he won our hearts and we all begged dad to let us keep him.”
Zwerg is doing a little happy dance. “You want to go out?” I ask in that baby-talk tone one always lapses into when talking to a poodle.
“No, you stupid fish stick, I’m auditioning for The Rockettes. Of course I want to go out–unless you want me to take a dump on one of The Great Philosopher’s orientals.”
Schopenhauer hands me Zwerg’s leash and we’re off to the races, with the dog taking a quick leak then sniffing every bush like he’s an artisanal coffee roaster.
“What is it with the sniffing thing?” I ask finally, after Zwerg has jerked me from a japonica to a rhododendron.
“You don’t know what you’re missing out on,” he says as he inhales deeply. “I detect a trace of that zaftig dachshund who drives me wild.”
“So you’re still a slave to your desires, huh?” I ask.
“That’s all we can hope for in this dog-sniff-dog world, pal,” he says.
“And yet–as Schopenhauer’s poodle–shouldn’t you be . . . above that sort of thing?”
“We pass this way but once,” he says. “Just because my master talks a good ascetic game doesn’t mean he plays it himself. He’s a bitter guy because of it.”
“So what else is new?” I ask rhetorically. “He was bitter when I was in college back in the 70’s. That’s why I liked him so much.”
“You’re perverse,” Zwerg snaps.
“Says the dog who’s sniffing bushes on the off chance he’ll get a whiff of a bitch’s vagina.”
That makes him turn his head. “What is it your great 20th century American philsopher Sly Stone said?”
“Different strokes for different folks?”
“On the nosey,” he says, as he darts towards a holly bush that is still glistening from a sprinking a Great Dane gave it as I was walking by on my way.
“So is it true what Nietzsche says?” I ask him, now that we’ve come to an understanding that certain topics are off limits.
“That it was you and not your boss who wrote The World as Will and Idea?”
He flashes me a bitter little smile, as if he’s thinking of all the Pup-Peroni Original Bacon Recipe dog treats he could have bought over the years with his master’s royalties.
“The essence of Schopenhauer,” he says, “can be boiled down to a very simple canine truth.”
“You don’t chase a rabbit after you’ve caught it.”
For a moment, the elegant simplicity of his maxim stuns me. “You know something . . .”
“I know a lot of things.”
“If I’d heard that when I was a sophomore, I would have had a lot happier college career.”
“Nobody listens to the poodle,” he says as he eyes a squirrel across a lawn.
“So how’s the old man handling the low regard in which he’s held 150 years after the fact?”
“He’s not a happy camper,” Zwerg says as he lifts his leg. “Would you mind?”
“What? Oh, sorry.” I avert my gave and stare off into the night air, thinking of the capricious nature of philosophical fame; how if Schopenhauer had only adopted an aphoristic style, like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, he’d have undergraduates slobbering all over him, highlighting his works with yellow markers, quoting him in an offhand way in late-night bull sessions, like ‘As Schopenhauer once said.’”
“I suppose it’s inevitable,” I say as Zwerg finishes his business and we move on.
“Au contraire,” he snaps. “All you need is a little self-awareness, of which he’s not got a lot.”
“Easy for you to say. It’s not like you have a lot of competition in the animal-familiar-to-intellectual-giant category. Except maybe Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit head.”
“A parlor trick.”
“Or maybe Schrodinger’s cat.”
All of a sudden he’s a pit bull as he turns on me with a snarl. “Schrodinger’s cat? Please. That dingbat isn’t qualified to check my footnotes.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Let’s Get Philosophical.”