Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse

It has been suggested that Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse” might be a disrespectful attack on Schopenhauer and his philosophy. But I feel like the joke is more pointed at the idealism he fought so much against thus making the it more a tale of  Schopenhauer’s ironic revenge on a romanticized misreading of his philosophy.

There is an overall sense in this story of death and decay. The German reader has consumption. Schopenhauer’s body smells and decays. Death is not glamorous or heroic, it is rot and decay. This to me, sounds like a view that could be embraced by Schopenhauer, and Maupassant. The narrator, however is reading Musset, who provides a romantic/gothic/supernatural mocking of the dead atheist, Voltaire and regrets “the greatest shatterer of dreams.” Romantic supernaturalism also appears as the doctrinaire Republican who thinks Schopenhauer to be the devil. A viewpoint perhaps inadvertently shared the consumptive follower of Schopenhauer. “The bodies of these men disappear, but they themselves remain.”

Despite the clear evidence of their senses that Schopenhauer is dead and decaying, the followers, in the best romantic gothic tradition, continue to look for something to happen. “It seems to me that he is going to speak.” Their ludicrous supernaturalism, “one would have said that his immaterial essence, liberated, free, all-powerful and dominating, was flitting around us,” is directly juxtaposed with Schopenhauer’s gruesome realism, “the dreadful odor of the decomposed body came toward us and penetrated us, sickening and indefinable.”

Schopenhauer, though dead, gets the last laugh at the expense of his romantic, hero-worshipping followers. The wry smile and teeth “open as if to bite” being quite familiar to those who read him.

Could this story have been written with someone other than Schopenhauer? From a philosophical perspective Voltaire, Darwin or Spencer might all have been acceptable choices. Darwin is too earnest and Spencer is too direct. Voltaire has the required sense of humor but is too old to fit the chronology of the frame tale. Only Schopenhauer can match an influential materialist worldview with the self-mocking ironic wit that makes this story work.


~ by severalfourmany on March 26, 2013.

3 Responses to “Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse”

  1. There is also the European tradition of saints’ corpses smelling like violets or roses or something else as they lie in state, and I think de Maupassant may have had this opposite quality in mind symbolically as he wrote his ironic short story.

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