Introduction to Melville's Marginalia in Arthur Schopenhauer's Studies in Pessimism

Christopher M. Ohge
Boston University

"Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim" is the proposition that opens Arthur Schopenhauer's collection of essays titled Studies in Pessimism, one of five books by the German philosopher Herman Melville is known to have read and marked primarily during his final illness in 1891. The essays constitute a selection of Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena, which follows the tradition of his German predecessor Immanuel Kant, who wrote long intricate philosophical treatises for the academy, and then separately, wrote short and lucid essays intended for a more general readership. Given Melville's documented interest in such writers as Thomas Carlyle and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, his lifelong preoccupation with German metaphysics, and his conversations with George Adler on German philosophy, it is no wonder that he took interest in the pointed essays intended by Schopenhauer for the larger of these two audiences (see Leyda 1.319). Given, moreover, the opening proposition of Studies in Pessimism, it is no wonder that the man composing Billy Budd, Sailor would become absorbed with a thinker and writer akin to those admired by Melville's Captain Vere, "who, free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities" (62).

Schopenhauer's influence on Melville has received sporadic attention from scholars, but without focused investigation of Melville's marginalia and its compatibility with themes and rhetoric in Melville's late compositions, John Marr, Timoleon, Weeds and Wildings, the "Burgundy Club" sketches, and Billy Budd.[1] Totaling seven volumes of more than 1,000 pages, Melville's marked copies of Counsels and Maxims (1890), Religion: A Dialogue (1891), Studies in Pessimism (1891), The Wisdom of Life (1891), and The World as Will and Idea (1888) warrant fuller treatment than they have received, for they suggest a level of engagement comparable to Melville's interest in other major writers whose works he is known to have acquired in deliberate fashion, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Matthew Arnold, and Honoré de Balzac.[2] Melville's knowledge of Schopenhauer can be traced to no earlier than 1867, the publication date of William Alger's The Solitudes of Nature and of Man; or, The Loneliness of Human Life (Sealts No. 11), in which he marked passages from Alger's chapter discussing Schopenhauer's attention to the solitary individual and the virtues of eccentricity (Leyda 2.720-721). British and American editions of Schopenhauer's works did not become common until the 1880s and early 90s, when translations by T. Bailey Saunders appeared in the London Sonnenschein editions owned by Melville. Melville did not autograph and date his copies, but the ledger of the New York Society Library lists Counsels and Maxims as borrowed by Melville from 5 to 10 February 1891, and it is presumably around this date that he acquired the 1891 edition of Studies in Pessimism (Leyda 2.831). In his introductory remarks to the 1892 United States Book Company edition of Typee, Arthur Stedman wrote that Melville's passion for philosophy lasted into his final days, "a set of Schopenhauer's works receiving his attention when able to study" (Sealts, Early Lives 163).

A short book of 142 pages, Studies in Pessimism succinctly identifies Schopenhauer's uniquely post-Kantian philosophy, which combines systematic skepticism and Kantian idealism to formulate his notion of the thing-in-itself, which he calls the will. As Brian Magee suggests, Schopenhauer's formulation of the will "need not be accompanied by consciousness, and is not so accompanied for most of the time even in material objects which are nevertheless conscious" (137). Rather, the will constitutes a phenomenal manifestation of "a single underlying drive which ultimately is undifferentiated" (139).[3] The will—the underlying substratum of metaphysical reality—must be overcome, according to Schopenhauer, if we are to transcend the conditions of conflict entailed by the will. Melville's marginalia in his copy of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea reveal that he followed closely Schopenhauer's phenomenological treatment of the will in that work. With a solitary disposition and still-vital penchant for iconoclastic views expressed in his early works, Melville read Schopenhauer in these last months with a degree of empathy that was intellectually sustaining. Melville's marginalia in Studies in Pessimism show a complicated harmony between Schopenhauer's philosophy and his own views, and indicate that Melville found some confirmation in Schopenhauer's philosophy during his final months of life.

Melville's marginalia in Studies in Pessimism was first edited by Walker Cowen for Melville's Marginalia (1965; reprinted 1987), but with some significant errors. In his introduction Cowen claimed that a portion of erased marginalia in books from Melville's library reveal misogynist tendencies, and he specifically cites a passage "evidently marked and then erased" in Melville's copy of Studies in Pessimism (xix-xx). In his transcription of the marginalia Cowen revealed the passage in question appears on page 122 of Melville's copy, where he described it as "apparently marked, then ERASED." Another misogynistic passage on page 117 received identical editorial treatment by Cowen, along with two passages (one quoting Shakespeare's Hamlet and the other referencing David Hume's Essay on Suicide) on page 47. But in fact these passages were not marked by Melville, let alone erased. Unlike Melville's veritably erased score alongside Schopenhauer's rebuke of optimism on page 15 of Studies in Pessimism, the markings identified by Cowen on pages 47, 117, and 122 never existed. Close investigation of these pages in Melville's copy suggests that Cowen mistook creases in the paper and other material characteristics for erased scores. The creases might be attributed to Melville's grand-daughter Frances Osborne, who in a 1965 recollection of her childhood visits to the Melville home recalled that she "piled books into houses on the floor. A set of Schopenhauer pleased me most—they were not too heavy to handle and of a nice palish blue color. I was not concerned with the contents" (Sealts, Early Lives 184). Anyone familiar with Melville's verified markings in Studies in Pessimism will find it irresistible to speculate about the ailing author's thoughts when he witnessed this scene on the floor of his study. Readers who compare Cowen's transcription with the electronic edition linked to this essay will find additional, less consequential, differences in the positioning of marginalia, the majority of which could be said to indicate a philosophy of resignation Melville shared with Schopenhauer.

Melville's Marginalia and the Philosophy of Resignation

Melville is not known to have ever delineated his own philosophical views, but in a 22 January 1885 letter to James Billson, from whom he had received a copy of James Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night (Sealts No. 517), Melville expressed qualified approval of the poet's "pessimism":

altho' neither pessimist nor optomist myself, nevertheless I relish it in the verse if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a bluster in these days—at least, in some quarters. (Correspondence 485)

Melville's statement reflects his tendency to avoid definitive classificatory worldviews. As a committed individualist, he would not identify himself with the school of pessimism to which Thomson belonged. But he shared many views with the pessimists, and as a freethinking proto-pragmatist he was nevertheless attracted to the unconventional views of writers like Thomson and Schopenhauer.[4] Of the nineteen markings Melville applied to the pages of Studies in Pessimism, eight were applied in the section titled "On the Sufferings of the World," nine in "Further Psychological Observations," and two in "A Few Parables." The markings fall into four inter-related categories:

(1) The Doctrine of the Fall and the problem of innate depravity
(2) The imprisoned character of solitary genius
(3) The problems of evil and human suffering, and the denial of the will-to-live as a possible solution
(4) The problems of consciousness and memory, and the role of intuition in epistemology

In "Sufferings of the World," Melville marked Schopenhauer's assertion that "the story of the Fall . . . is the only metaphysical truth" in the Old Testament (24.29-32), displaying an attraction to the myth of the Fall that had characterized Melville's thought and work for decades. Melville's fascination with the Fall also figures in his marginalia to Milton and Hawthorne, among other writers whose works he owned. In Moby-Dick (1851), Melville had likened the character of Ahab to "Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise" (544), and the image of Adam would seem to inform the "prisoner cluster" of motifs identified by Harrison Hayford as prototypically arranged in Chapter 41 of that work (5).[5] By the time he acquired Studies in Pessimism in 1891 Melville had already written in the manuscript of Billy Budd that the title-character "in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall"—thereby initiating in that work a familiar romantic theme of the fall into knowledge or the damning qualities of human limitations in a fallen world.

The connection between the doctrine of the Fall—or the view of innate depravity in man—and metaphysical imprisonment finds itself in most doctrines of Western metaphysics, almost always as a result of the corruption of the soul-body dualism and the essential dissoluteness of the soul. The theme occupies a central role in many of Melville's works and also appears in Studies in Pessimism. In "Sufferings of the World" Melville scored a passage equating the man of genius in contemporary society with a "noble prisoner of state, condemned to work in the galleys with common criminals" (28.20-27), and in "A Few Parables" he scored Schopenhauer's assertion that "Every hero is a Samson":

The strong man succumbs to the intrigues of the weak and the many; and if in the end he loses all patience he crushes both them and himself. Or he is like Gulliver at Lilliput, overwhelmed by an enormous number of little men. (141.18-22)

As Hayford points out, prisoner imagery in Billy Budd is most developed in Chapter 24, where the title character awaits his execution manacled on the gun deck (23-25). But its connection to isolated genius seems particularly to be symbolized by the intellectual strain in Captain Vere's character that estranges him from his officers and crew—a distinguishing trait resembling "the King's yarn in a coil of navy rope" (63). Schopenhauer famously observed that persons of genius "may exhibit certain weaknesses which are actually akin to madness," a judgment scored by Melville in his copy of The World as Will and Idea (1.246; Cowen 2.332). Melville himself had captured this theory in Ishmael's observation that "man's insanity is heaven's sense . . . which to reason, is absurd and frantic" (Moby-Dick 414). The narrator's question about Vere's mental state in Chapter 20, "Was he unhinged?" (102), has commonly been seized by critics seeking to discredit the captain's handling of Billy's crime in subsequent chapters. But when considered in light of Schopenhauer's connection between insanity and genius, and indeed Melville's own equation of madness with inspired wisdom, this development in Vere's character seems less incriminating, and Billy's fate less a result of Vere's failings than of tragic circumstances ingrained within human experience itself.

Two of Melville's markings in Studies in Pessimism explicitly address the untenable nature of an optimistic philosophy. Melville scored a passage where Schopenhauer asserts that a person who has lived for more than one generation has really lived in a "conjurer's booth," suggesting that human events are merely repetitive and vain (14.25-30). Furthermore, Melville placed a checkmark where Schopenhauer concludes that as a result of the futility of human activity "there are countless numbers whose fate is to be deplored" (14.31-32). The marginalia parallel Melville's own questioning of optimistic philosophy in Chapter 21 of The Confidence-Man, where the herb-doctor and the skeptical Missourian discuss the legitimacy of "confidence in nature," and the herb-doctor attributes a benevolence to nature in contrast to the views of the Missourian, who believes nature has "embezzled" from him and refuses to trust in nature's goodness (108). The herb-doctor's line of thought would have bothered Schopenhauer, who, like the Missourian, saw nature's cruelty as evidence for refuting philosophical claims based on a Leibnitzean first premise that this is "the best of all possible worlds," a premise which glosses over the problem of evil and the reality of suffering, and leads to unfruitful exercises in theodicy. Dillingham asserts that Melville read into Schopenhauer, and other pessimists alike, "with a sense of personal involvement," as if a thinker like Schopenhauer spoke "directly to his concerns in a way that uplifted and justified him" (74). Melville's absorption with Schopenhauer in the last year of his life indicates his opposition to optimistic philosophy had solidified. His interest in the above passages, and in similar expressions of pessimism he marked in other works by Schopenhauer, corresponds with the question of nature's indifference to human suffering in the John Marr poems "The Haglets," The Berg," and "Pebbles." 

Schopenhauer's refutation of optimism follows from his observation of "positive evil" in the world, a force he finds present in the abundance of human suffering (15.28-29). As he asserts in "Sufferings of the World":

There are two things which make it impossible to believe that this world is the successful work of an all-wise, all-good, and, at the same time, all-powerful Being; firstly, the misery which abounds in it everywhere; and secondly, the obvious imperfection of its highest product, man, who is a burlesque of what he should be. These things cannot be reconciled with any such belief. (24.1-8)

As a careful reader with similar preoccupations, Melville seems to have been attracted to Schopenhauer's direct, detached, and ostensibly cold philosophizing about the nature of the world. He scored a passage reflecting the need to reveal unwelcome truths about the nature of life: "I shall be told, I suppose, that my philosophy is comfortless—because I speak the truth; and people prefer to be assured that everything the Lord has made is good. Go to the priests, then, and leave philosophers in peace!" (15.10-14). On this same page where Schopenhauer dismisses the authority of priests, Melville placed a checkmark where Schopenhauer similarly observes that "University professors are bound to preach optimism; and it is an easy and agreeable task to upset their theories" (15.18-21). The problem of suffering occupies a central role in the writings of both Schopenhauer and Melville, for whom the sheer abundance of evil undermines the New Testament view of a benevolent and omnipotent deity (see Studies in Pessimism 26-27).

The most significant parallel between Schopenhauer and Melville's attention to suffering and evil occurs in Chapter 11 of Billy Budd, where the narrator concludes the chapter by musing on the innately evil Claggart, who is a living representative of a degenerate world:

Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short "a depravity according to nature." Dark sayings are these, some will say. But why? Is it because they somewhat savor of Holy Writ in its phrase "mystery of iniquity"? If they do, such savor was far enough from being intended, for little will it commend these pages to many a reader of to-day. (76)

As with Schopenhauer's dismissal of the priests and professors, Melville anticipates a charge of pessimism but parries with the insinuation that his readers are willfully oblivious to the truth. He utilizes both Platonic and Christian conceptions of natural depravity as evidence of the world's abiding evil, but omits the redemptive elements of both traditions. Melville presents the embodiment of evil in Claggart as both essential and unexplainable, which is a problem for both the Platonist and the Christian. When the narrator compares Claggart to a scorpion ("for which the Creator alone is responsible") in Chapter 13, Melville further insinuates that the undeniable presence of evil in the world contradicts traditional and contemporary notions of God's goodness.[6] The existence of Claggart represents a counter-example to optimistic accounts of human nature and a benevolent deity. Claggart's evil is a "wantonness of malignity," and as such, represents a formidable obstacle to any philosophical or religious program of individual redemption. This world is not the best world possible, our suffering is real, and salvation is an uncertain proposition, hazardously asserted.

Schopenhauer's solution to the problem of evil hails from the Eastern Philosophical method of attaining austerity by means of ego-annihilation, or what he terms the "denial of the will to live" (26.5-6). Recognizing Schopenhauer's solution to suffering, Melville marked a passage arguing that "The spirit of the New Testament is undoubtedly asceticism" (26.22-24). According to Schopenhauer, the will manifests itself in human beings' experience only to produce suffering, and a lasting transcendence of human suffering can only be achieved through an ascetic denial of the will-to-live. Melville probably found the idea of resignation poignantly applicable in his final months. In fact there are numerous examples of asceticism and self-abnegation in Melville's late poetry and prose. Most obviously, Melville's poem "Buddha" invokes the Buddhist and Brahmanist belief that the self is illusory ("For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away") and the only way out of suffering is enlightenment through self-renunciation:

Swooning swim to less and less,
Aspirant to nothingness!
Sobs of the worlds, and dole of kinds
That dumb endurers be—
Nirvana! absorb us in your skies,
Annul us into thee. (Poems 322)

The choice to aspire to nothingness parallels Schopenhauer's view that the solution to suffering is the denial of the will-to-live. It is clear that both Schopenhauer and Melville were open to the wisdom of Eastern philosophy. However, subject-annihilation is not an easy task, and in "Further Psychological Observations," Schopenhauer identifies the various elements that hinder the project of denying the will-to-live.

Obstacles to Asceticism

Melville's remaining markings in "Further Psychological Observations" reflect his attentiveness to Schopenhauer's well-known talent for pithy aphorisms that convey powerful philosophical ideas. The majority of Melville's markings in this section seem to address obstacles to an ascetic existence, which according to Schopenhauer's conservative position is available only to a small minority of individuals. Melville's score at 70.21-22 ("Only that which is innate is genuine and will hold water") applies to the dilemmas of conditioning and inherited values. Melville saw that conditioning also factors into the training of good habits when he scored Schopenhauer's proto-pragmatic view that "training is successful only when you begin in early youth" (78.21-23). This view even figures humorously where Melville scored the passage condemning the "prudery" of the English (87.14-22), a passage that also reflects the arbitrary nature of what Schopenhauer calls the "silly prejudice" of normative behavior-rules. In recognizing that the problems of sensualism, conditioning, and the disregard of intuition hinder an individual's understanding of the self, Melville scored Schopenhauer's claim that to "Know thyself" is a difficult enterprise (72.1-3). He also scored and checkmarked another passage lamenting that the majority of human beings' "plans and projects are merged in the desire of physical enjoyment, physical well-being" (71.2-4).

Beyond the problems of conditioning and base pleasure-seeking, Schopenhauer found cognition to be necessarily flawed. Melville's absorption with this problem appears in his scoring of Schopenhauer's argument that the tasks of overcoming obstacles to self-realization are muddled by cognition and its product, memory:

The scenes and events of long ago, and the persons who took part in them, wear a charming aspect to the eye of memory, which sees only the outlines and takes no note of disagreeable details. The present enjoys no such advantage, and so it always seems defective. (80.25-30)

If cognition produces memory, and if the will obfuscates cognition, it follows that memory will be just as imperfect as any other cognitive process. Melville did not wholly criticize memory like Schopenhauer, as evident by his nostalgia for the "charming aspect" of memory in poems like "Bridegroom Dick" and "John Marr," and by Jack Gentian in the "Burgundy Club" sketches. It is clear, however, that Melville recognized the deceptive and sometimes heartbreaking qualities of memory. The will creates these failures of self-realization, and Schopenhauer indicates that only a select few can overcome the difficulties. Melville's hierarchical epistemology in his own works indicates he agreed that only a committed minority can attain wisdom, a view he followed closely in Schopenhauer's comments on genius in The World as Will and Idea.

As indicated throughout this introduction, the pessimistic ideas in Melville's works establish a sound accord between the elderly Melville and Schopenhauer's philosophy: both reveal an intellectual interest in the subjects of the Doctrine of the Fall and innate depravity, prisoner imagery, the solitary genius, the problems of evil and suffering, and the denial of the will-to-live as a solution to suffering. Melville exhibited a detached, world-weary, and resigned temperament during his later life, and those dispassionate tendencies are more prominent in his later works. Schopenhauer's ostensibly ruthless and cold philosophizing accorded well with Melville's affinity for stoicism, and for ascetic conceptions of artistic genius. Melville's marginalia in Studies in Pessimism illuminates his own solitary determination in the last months of his life. When most people would have resigned themselves to a peaceful death, Melville devoted himself to life's problems by learning from and identifying with Schopenhauer's ideas. What he read furnished support for much of what he had already come to believe, providing intellectual sustenance and a sense of confirmation in his final days.

[1] In The Early Lives of Melville Sealts refers to Melville's marking of Schopenhauer's reference to Tacitus, comparing it to Melville's "The American Aloe on Exhibition" prose headnote from Weeds and Wildings (80). Sealts also cites Melville's score in Schopenhauer's The Wisdom of Life dealing with the artist's relation to his own contemporaries and the value of asceticism (81). Sutton and Ledbetter argued for Schopenhauer's influence on Melville's mind in his final months, but neither explores the Schopenhauerian ideas in the characters in Billy Budd (see Fite 336-337). Fite and Gupta both attempt to establish significant parallels between the writings of Schopenhauer and the characters in Billy Budd. Arguably the most effective study to date is in Chapter 2 of Dillingham. All of these writers utilize the marginalia to substantiate their claims, but the variety of markings and annotations do not receive the critical attention they deserve, especially in connection to the composition of Billy Budd.

[2] See the "Online Catalog," Sealts Nos. 444-48, 244-58, 203-06a, 16-21, and 22-37; "Online Catalog" entries are hereafter cited by Sealts number. The Balzac volumes in particular represent an example of a late sequence of steady purchases, as each title of Balzac was read and heavily marked by Melville as soon as (or shortly after) he acquired them.

[3] Writing about flawed views of idealism in general, Magee argues it is "a radical error" to believe Schopenhauer's will signifies a human drive equal to mind or cognition: "the abiding reality from which we are screened off by the ever-changing surface of our contingent and ephemeral experiences exists in itself, independent of minds and their perceptions or experiences. If reality had consisted of only perception, or only of experience, then it would presumably have been possible for us to encompass it exhaustively in perception or experience … But this is not so" (73).

[4] Giordano discusses the passage in Melville's letter to Billson as well as Melville's reading of Thomson.

[5] For an explicit association of the "captive king" with the figure of Adam in Chapter 41 of Moby-Dick, see Olsen-Smith, 35-36.

[6] The image of the scorpion can be compared to Revelation 9.10: "And they [locusts] had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men." Elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Revelation 9.3-4, 1 Kings 12.13-14, Deuteronomy 8.15, and Luke 10.19), scorpions are associated with serpents and other forms of evil. Melville reference to God's culpability for the scorpion's presence would seem to subvert the use of scorpion images in the Bible.


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