When I was 22, I moved into my parent’s basement and read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I started with The World as Will and Representation, a 400 page exposition of the cruel, senseless nature of existence. Every phenomenon is a manifestations of one blind, striving, indestructible will raging forever without purpose. It would be better if there were nothing. We find redemption from the relentless torment of desire by looking at pretty pictures or listening to beautiful pieces of music.
Schopenhauer figured it out by the time he was 25 and spent the rest of his life repeating himself. History was useless. Nothing can ever improve and your individual form is an illusion trapping you in a world of suffering. There is no heaven but hell is real. People hate each other but cooperate out of mutual need. Fear, distrust, boredom, greed and envy push us along a course of disaster ending in a painful and pointless death.
Then I read the second volume of The World as Will and Representation. Schopenhauer wrote another 400 pages towards the end of his life reconfirming his fundamental idea. I consumed over 800 pages of spiritually disemboweling philosophy written by a rotting, bitter trust fund crank in the early years of my young adulthood when I needed guidance and reassurance.
It wasn’t anyone else’s fault. Friends and family tried to help. I could’ve gone to therapy and I could’ve spent more time with other people. But I thought I knew better. Everyone else was a cretin, Schopenhauer and I were geniuses. In my early twenties I binged on german philosophy and psychedelics. I’d eat mushrooms and lay on wet grass, mud and cow shit in a field under the night sky and look up in childlike wonder at stars on dangling strings of light and bleed all my guilt and regret into the breathing, shuddering earth and laugh until my whole body was trembling gelatin.
A psychedelic trip will kill your ego, but your ego always comes back from the dead. You can’t get rid of yourself that easily. Drugs offers instant, effortless exoneration, an illusion of metamorphosis. Rather than a pilgrimage towards the promised land, drugs seem to give you a shuttle ride into the arms of God. It took me many years to realize that my life would never improve through sudden, exhilarating insight and pharmacological tampering. You rewire your brain and cleanse your soul by engaging with the world, by building relationships and institutions, by honoring history and carrying it forward, not by locking yourself in a room, licking a sheet of chemicals and pissing your pants in delirium.
Reading Nietzsche also made me feel better for a few moments. He was life affirming, joyful and funny, at least on the surface. Underneath the fruity gushing about loving your fate and laughing and skipping around alpine towns and drinking from mountain wells, Nietzsche’s philosophy espoused chaos and cruelty. He too glimpsed the vanity of existence, but rather than bemoan this metaphysical truth, he wanted to celebrate it and I wanted to be worthy of his thought.
So I tried to be happy about a purposeless life as a tiny packet of power in an endless force field of electrical surges without design or aim. It was a recipe for a bipolar disorder. One moment you feel like a god, your fingertips pulsing with the power of a self sustaining creator, and the next you feel worthless, abandoned, lost and alone, forever unloved, a clump of dirt cursed with sentience for no reason.
Nietzsche’s body of work is dismembered, it gives every ideologue a different organ or limb to consume. Each person takes what they like and forgets the rest. Feminists float over his misogyny, Nazis ignored his critique of anti-Semites and Marxists downplay his hatred of egalitarianism. I could never shake the idea that his philosophy would drive many people to suicide. Nietzsche believed his thought would crush the spiritually weak and cull the human herd. He wanted to increase the distance between the upper and lower ranks of humanity and eviscerate the middle classes.
I came from a middle class people, but I fancied myself a spiritual aristocrat. One moment I’d believe I was destined for a higher station and then the next I’d feel unworthy of it. Maybe I wasn’t meant to join the highest ranks of aristocratic warrior poet philosophers, and if so I should kill myself rather than settle for a mediocre life as a middle class bore.
Better to be nothing than a decent, respectable something. Despite these turbulent, dramatic feelings, I held on to life until literary german philosophy released me from its morbid grip. Yesterday I picked up an old collection of Schopenhauer’s aphorisms and I couldn’t read more than three or four sentences without laughing and putting the book away.
Someday I’ll tell you of my love for E.M. Cioran, a caustic, lyrical thinker from Romania. He influenced my most anguished, absurdist writings and I see him now as a grim humorist.