Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hardy's Tree of Life

My brother Henry recently sent me (and my two sisters) a link to some information about Thomas Hardy. In his early years, Hardy worked as a trainee architect in London, and part of his job involved the movement of a graveyard. The bodies had to be carefully exhumed and moved to make way for a railway station. Even in their new location, the bodies were not left in peace. The photograph shows a tree forcing its way upwards through the headstones and brushing them aside.

Hardy would have appreciated the image because of its depiction of blind impersonal forces at work, entirely unknowing and careless. One has only to read Tess to see how Hardy viewed mankind's relationship with the rest of the natural world. As humans, we dance around on the surface of a tiny, unimportant planet, entirely at the mercy of forces we don't even know about. It's enough to make you open that bottle of Chateau Palmer before it's too late.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer influenced Hardy, as well as Proust and other writers of Hardy's era, but their names remain far better known than that of Schopenhauer. It's true that the only photograph we have of the man shows a rather grim figure (he had all his teeth removed) and his philosophy can be depressing if you're not prepared to take risks. A major theme with Schopenhauer is that it would have been better not to have been born in the first place but, being here, we should make the best of it. At first reading this is not terribly uplifting, and it's a long way from religious ecstasy or incense sticks and humming. But Schopenhauer does ring true, particularly for older readers such as myself. In some ways, Schopenhauer was an early existentialist, and it is not surprising that his work was largely ignored until the horrors of the Second World War became known. The existential movement---Sartre, Camus and the rest---could (and should) trace its intellectual underpinning back to Schopenhauer.

In his book The Confessions of a Philosopher, Bryan Magee has described how he had never heard of Schopenhauer until he chanced on The World as Will and Idea in a second-hand bookshop. Magee recounts that he was so strongly taken by its originality that he spent several years studying Schopenhauer, producing his masterly The Philosophy of Schopenhauer in 1983. In his book, Magee notes the references to Schopenhauer in the work of creative writers such as Hardy (p408), and the depiction of scenes which reflect the philosopher's ideas. For example, 'the plight of being alive' is a recurrent theme with Hardy. Schopenhauer strongly believed in our 'propensity to give unconscious expression to our true feelings', and so Hardy describes Angel sleep-walking and revealing his true feelings for Tess while doing so.

This is not to say that Hardy just copied down Schopenhauer's ideas. Instead, I think that Hardy had some intuitive ideas of his own, but lacked the formal structure. When he read Schopenhauer, he found a framework that he agreed with, and so he clothed it with his imagination. The combination results in fiction that resonates with readers of no religious faith, and which must surely challenge others to think through their faith.

I don't like to end with such a downer. I remember as a teenager being totally captivated --- and for life --- watching Julie Christie in the film version of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. Now, would life be such a 'plight' if one could snuggle up with JC and the afore-mentioned Chateau Palmer?

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