fiction by Nathan Knapp

Schopenhauer’s Final Encounter with Nietzsche

Thought A. Schopenhauer, sitting at his desk on a brilliant summer morning: Anger no one, speak no truth. A year later or two later, he saw Nietzsche sitting at an outdoor table at a Berlin café, which was known for the fineness of its pastry. Though the great nihilist was holding his head in his hands, A. Schopenhauer, on his way to fetch the morning newspaper, knew right off who he was. No one could miss that mustache anywhere. People in A. Schopenhauer’s circle had been talking about Nietzsche a lot lately. Less and less, they said, was his former colleague sane, nor was he even, as they said, even marginally explicable. Everyone knew this and everyone gossiped about it, except A. Schopenhauer, who felt sorry for his old friend. Nevertheless, even though he knew he ought not disturb Nietzsche when he was in such a state, he could not help stopping to greet him, who was holding his head in his hands while sitting at an outdoor table at that particular Berlin café, which was known for the fineness of its pastry. A. Schopenhauer said: Hello, old man. Nietzsche looked up—to A. Schopenhauer’s horror, he saw that Nietzsche’s mustache was gone. He had thought it was there when he first spotted him from across the street and now, with Nietzsche’s hands removed from his face, the mustache was not there. My razor had an accident with my face, said Nietzsche. A. Schopenhauer stuttered, said something—It doesn’t look that bad, he recalled having said, later, when he reported all this to me—and fled in horror. He never saw Nietzsche again.


Schopenhauer by the Sea

There was another interesting thing that happened to A. Schopenhauer that I would like now to relate. He made a great fuss in his middle years about living out his philosophy, and that necessitated the acquisition of an immense amount of solitude. Such an acquisition of course in-turn necessitated space, and space for solitude requires walls, ideally, as one German-language writer would put it a century later, required a door with a good lock it—plus, of course, a key. You have to be able to lock yourself in, that writer said. And it was with this in mind, or something very like it, that A. Schopenhauer headed north out of Frankfurt until he found a nice little farmhouse in Denmark, in the region of Jutland to be precise, perched on a low sandy hill overlooking the sea. A. Schopenhauer was so pleased by the place that he arranged on the spot to purchase it, and, though the house was furnished with nothing more than a cot, a solitary chair, a deeply scarred desk, and a wood stove, he elected to stay there that very first night. All went well at first. Though not accustomed to cooking his own food, he lit the fire and made a meager supper, which he ate while staring out his new window down to the sea. Afterward he wrapped himself in his greatcoat and scarf (for it was blowing most fiercely) and took up his stick and started off on a walk, heading westward toward the setting sun. He took in the sunset, which shone marvelously out over that Nordic sea, the waves arranging and disarranging themselves like so many motile escarpments. He congratulated himself on his new circumstances. Here, he could be alone. Here, he could work, though he’d laid out no plans for same. His only plans were for solitude, from which he’d found his work naturally arose. It was around dark, when he returned eastward along the shore, that he ran into the first trouble. The wind was still blowing in most sharply out of the north. He spotted a shortish figure in a black frock coat coming from the direction of his house. This figure also carried a stick, and was bent forward, obviously deep in thought, perhaps even troubled. When they came near each other both men stopped. The other man held his hand and waved, and gave a greeting in the Danish tongue. A. Schopenhauer knew not a word of the language, and could not bring himself even to try to return the greeting. He felt nothing other than rage: he had been alone, and now he was not alone. Even if the man passed without saying another word—which A. Schopenhauer knew he would not do—the aloneness which A. Schopenhauer had taken such pains to establish would be shattered, at least for a period of several days, perhaps even a whole week. And so, when the other man greeted him, he did not even raise his stick in acknowledgement. Right off he knew that this man was a philosopher. And that could mean nothing else except that this man was no friend. The (other) philosopher smiled impishly. He spoke again in his native tongue. A. Schopenhauer was sure that the man was saying that he, too, recognized the other. We are philosophers, the man was saying, or so A. Schopenhauer thought and later told me, shall we walk together in the dark? And A. Schopenhauer shook his head, for he was sure that if they were to walk together in the dark that he would surely be forced to kill the other philosopher. After all, he had come to Denmark, to Jutland, to this lonely meeting of sea and seashore, to be alone, and now here was this man, shattering his aloneness. He had not read the other philosopher’s work closely enough to know, he later confessed to me, that the other philosopher also prized solitude above all else. He only knew what was published in the papers. That this man, impishly smiling before him in the dark light of dusk, who had no gray hair, was foppish, unserious, and vain—and A. Schopenhauer, who was neither foppish nor unserious, though admittedly vain, could not conscience his presence—troubled him so greatly that he involuntarily felt himself withdraw the small pistol he kept in his waistcoat pocket. He withdrew the pistol and held it up, now conscious of what he was doing. Now he was conscious of what he was doing yes: brandishing a weapon. At this the other philosopher, whom we might as well here allow was none other than the Gloomy Dane himself, who laughed loudly, and removed from his own pocket a much larger pistol, a revolver, in-fact, which he (the Gloomy Dane) then aimed at his own head, laughing still more loudly. At this point A. Schopenhauer, no great proponent of action, nor bravery, despite his small act of brandishing, held up both hands, or so he later told me, and the other philosopher, that so-called Gloomy Dane, was laughing most un-gloomily, even to the point of being doubled over with mirth. He no longer held his larger pistol to his head, which was a relief to A. Schopenhauer, until the Gloomy Dane pointed at A. Schopenhauer and began to howl with laughter again, saying, in clearest German: And now you, who submit to no maker, wish God to bring you forth a ram, don’t you? He continued: I am Abraham in this instance but you—you are no Isaac. What now? A. Schopenhauer’s sense of self returned: he harrumphed. Rudeness, after all, he knew, was a great weapon, and the only one he now felt he could wield with any sense of surety. I did not come here to be made fun of, he said. I came here, to your country, to be alone. Now, if you do not mind, I will be going. With that he replaced his small pistol inside his waistcoat and turned to go. Ah! said the other philosopher. Mit land. Mein land! And then he, the Gloomy Dane, placed the barrel of his own pistol once again against his own temple, and fired the weapon. Thereupon, he fell. His hand lay stretched out, empty of the pistol, in the advancing surf. A. Schopenhauer failed for some time to move, staring at the body of the man whom he now felt obliged to admit, at the very least, was a colleague. When at last he brought himself to move he went directly back to his cottage and composed a few pages of a new work, which it occurred to him to call The Wisdom of Life, wherein he wrote that The present alone is true and actual; it is the only time which possesses full reality, and our existence lies in it exclusively. Therefore we should always be glad of it, he wrote, possessed, suddenly, of an optimism that had not visited itself upon him in some years. The next morning, with a mild hangover, surely derived from having availed himself of the local akvavit, he wrote: almost all our sufferings spring from having to do with other people. That afternoon the Copenhagen papers were delivered. In one of them, which he immediately realized he liked very little, a feuilleton, written by a writer obviously making use of nom de plume, detailed the encounter of two philosophers on a barren stretch of beach at dusk. One philosopher pulled a small pistol in order to deliver himself from evil, so its pseudonymous author said, and the other philosopher pulled a larger gun and, in order to deliver himself from an even greater evil, shot himself in the head. Prudently, however, he had loaded his own weapon with blank cartridges. This was a trick, the author wrote, which the philosopher who’d shot himself in the head enjoyed playing upon those whom he considered to possess nearly, but not-quite equal, powers of intellect. Upon reading this the venerable A. Schopenhauer let fall the word Fuck, pulled out his own small pistol, and with a live round, directly shot himself in the foot, which he thereupon spent the rest of the day trying to stick into his own mouth. Alas, he was no longer a young man. Only the young, he thought, and later told me, are flexible, but when one is old one can of course withstand more pain. It was less than a week—once his foot was well enough; fortunately, the bullet had gone clean through—before he returned to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, once he finally arrived home he recognized an unmistakably foul odor rising from his boot, which did not merely arise from the boot, he quickly realized, but from the wound, which had failed to heal. He sent for the doctor; the doctor, satchel in-hand, quickly arrived. The old physician grimly declared gangrene. The foot would have to be removed immediately. A. Schopenhauer called for brandy and, in due course, brandy was delivered. The doctor readied his saw. He said he would like a drink, too. I could easily relate more of this episode, but it belongs to an altogether different story, and, besides, is not of a nature that would produce much in the way of edification.

Nathan Knapp‘s writing is forthcoming from Harvard ReviewLiterary ReviewMusic & Literature, and elsewhere. Past work has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement.