Coping: My brother’s wedding makes me doubt Schopenhauer’s ‘porcupine dilemma’

On my way to my brother’s nuptials, the twisted trees and harsh landscape bring the pessimistic philosopher to mind

Schopenhauer lived with a succession of poodles, which neighbouring children rather unkindly referred to as “Mrs Schopenhauer”. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Schopenhauer lived with a succession of poodles, which neighbouring children rather unkindly referred to as “Mrs Schopenhauer”. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Since I am not an optimist by disposition, the very thought of weddings stresses me out. Not mine – that isn’t happening any time soon, if at all. No. Other people’s. They are an obstacle course of etiquette and family tensions.

In theory, the happy couple gather everyone they love in a fairy light-filled room together, and the guests collectively bask in the positivity. In reality, what tends to occur is an atmosphere loaded with resentments and irritations, which squirm under the surface, thrashing like angry, muscular eels. Aunts who have loathed one another since 1987 sitting with pursed lips, feuding bridesmaids throwing one another the stink-eye during the ceremony, drunken uncles dancing mostly from the pelvis.

My brother got married last week. Luckily the reception was resentment-free, but the ceremony was thought-provoking. We trekked down to the wilds of the Burren, a landscape that he and I had spent many of our childhood holidays navigating. As the trees, twisted and huddled against the cruel wind, whizzed past the windows, I took in the harsh and barren beauty of the landscape, and was reminded of Arthur Schopenhauer. Not because his face had all the unrelenting cragginess of the Burren (though it did), but because love and marriage were on my mind.

Wary of romance

Schopenhauer died in his Frankfurt apartment in 1860 at the age of 72 after a long philosophical career. In his later years he started to know the acclaim he had always craved, but he had never been successful in love. He lived with a succession of poodles, which neighbouring children apparently, and rather unkindly, referred to as “Mrs Schopenhauer”. He never married and had a cautious relationship with love. Like many of us, he seemed to both idolise and resent it.

According to Schopenhauer, we are all motivated by the Wille zum Leben, or will to live, an endless forward force that spurs us to persist as human beings. Perhaps the most fundamental part of this will is our (often unconscious) desire to procreate. This, Schopenhauer says, is our primary motivation for love and marriage. So much so that this need surpasses our intellect. Schopenhauer is horrified by the idea of having children. The monotony, commitment and expense of it, he thinks, shows it to be an act of insanity. Yet we do it all the time. He even says that we unconsciously choose partners on the basis of potential “balanced” offspring, rather than on who will make the best company for the rest of our lives. In this way, we ensure our own misery in marriage.

So he wasn’t an optimist. As I adjusted the buttonhole on my brother’s lapel before the ceremony and looked up into his smiling face, I contemplated fondly what madness marriage is. To bet so dangerously that your future self will love your spouse’s future self, and that you will develop in unison, is a formidable risk. A harsh landscape could twist one away from the other, like the wind twists the Burren trees, both leaning westward, one in constant yearning pursuit of the other, each hunched protectively over itself.

Schopenhauer was undoubtedly a genius, but he wasn’t at ease with his fellow man. He described the “porcupine dilemma”, in which all people are like porcupines. We want to take comfort in one another, but we can’t get close without jabbing each other with our quills and doing harm. Heartwarming, I know.

Beaming with radiance

Schopenhauer thinks that my brother, like everyone who marries, must have chosen the best partner to create good offspring with rather than the best companion for his future life, and that his wife has done the same.

However, as she reaches the top of the aisle, and they beam at one another with a radiance that shines out from their very bones, without a porcupine quill in sight, I am doubtful. They have as much chance of success in marriage as anyone else who enters into it in a considered way.

Outside the venue, the Burren wind howls. Hopefully, as time passes, rough winds will entwine them around one another rather than twist them in separate directions. If it doesn’t work out, at least they will have Schopenhauer to comfort them.

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