Literature / Richard Wagner

It’s All in the Presentation: A New Look at Schopenhauer

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Arnold Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Presentation—trans. Richard E. Aquila in collaboration with David Carus (New York: Longman, 2008).

Schopenhauer’s saying that “a man can do as he will, but not will as he will” has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others.

—Albert Einstein, The World as I See It (1940)

Having immersed myself in Wagner studies for a decade, I found it imperative to have some depth of acquaintance with Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. This man’s writings were the focus of Wagner’s readings from 1854 until his death in 1883. The case can easily be made that the late operas (the latter half of the Ring, Meistersinger, Tristan, and Parsifal) deliberately reflect Schopenhauerian ideas. His philosophy was central, as well, to two of my literary passions: Thomas Hardy and Leo Tolstoy. So, my having to confront Schopenhauer’s massive central work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, seemed inevitable. Coming to terms with the very title of this work compelled me to seek a new English-language source. “The World as Will and Idea” was the title English readers first saw in 1886. “The World as Will and Representation” became the next incarnation in 1958. Richard Equila, in his new translation for Longman Press (with collaboration by David Carus), believes that we will not understand Schopenhauer properly unless we at the very least recognize the work by a new title: “The World as Will and Presentation.” “Idea,” “Representation,” and “Presentation” are all acceptable renderings of “Vorstellung.”  However, it’s the notion of a performance or a theatrical presentation that is key here. The world that we perceive is a “presentation” of objects in the theatre of our own mind; we, the “subject,” craft the show with our own stage managers, stagehands, sets, lighting, code of dress, pay scale, etc. The other part of the world, the Will, or “thing in itself,” not perceivable as a presentation, exists outside time, space, and causality. Aquila tries to make these distinctions as linguistically precise as possible; he also attempts to replicate Schopenhauer’s compelling prose style by diverging from the literalness of other translations—a rather risky and brave move. But, Aquila hopes, that by making this tome as lively as possible, and by dazzling us with his “presentation,” Schopenhauer might get to be as good a read as he was from 1860 to 1950.

Ordering this book from my local bookseller, a wonderful French lady, proved to be an unexpectedly humorous exercise in linguistic ambiguity. Having made sure my order was for World as Will and Presentation, she ordered, mistakenly, the classic Dover World as Will and Representation of 1958. “But Monique,” I said, “these are different translations easily discerned by the different titles.”  Her French-accented response was, “But they have the same title really—what’s the difference?” I explained that “Representation” was not “Presentation,” and that the former book was a much earlier translation than the latter, the one that I wanted. “That’s strange,” she said with complete seriousness, “why should the earlier book use ‘Re-presentation’ and the latter be ‘Presentation’— that’s backwards!”

Why would anyone today seek inspiration from, let alone read, that curmudgeonly prophet of pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer? I would suggest a look at this new translation for a surprise.

9 thoughts on “It’s All in the Presentation: A New Look at Schopenhauer

  1. It would be nice to mention the following influences on Wagner:

    (1) Schopenhauer’s emphasis on music, instead of libretto, in an opera (cf. Wagner’s later works);
    (2) Schopenhauer’s touting of self-denial and resignation (cf. Parsifal).

    These are key issues.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Yes, it is certain that Wagner was held in Schopenhauer’s thrall for much of the composer’s adult life. Richard and Cosima would spend evenings reading from Schopenhauer, as well as Kant.

      The exact time when Wagner was introduced to WWV and the influence it had on the completing of the Ring is a fascinating story. The influence continued, obviously on all late Wagner: Tristan, Parsifal and Meistersinger (Sachs being a model of Schopenhauerian abdegnation).

      For a good informative discussion, I’d recommend Bryan Magee’s book “The Tristan Chord” Please note that the hardback edition contains interesting plates, while the paperback curiously omits them (but, refers to them).


  2. Thanks for the reference to Magee’s book. I wasn’t aware ot it.

    It may be possible that you misspelled “abnegation.” That sounds like a Freudian term. Schopenhauer spoke of “denial of the will to live” and of “resignation.” When Wagner read about this, in the fourth book of Schopenhauer’s main work, it had an enormous influence on him. The same happened to Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Huysmans, Beckett, Hardy, and Wittgenstein, among many others.

    Schopenhauer claimed that music directly represented will, which he said was an immediate example of the basis of the world. He thought that music was a direct expression of the world as will. The libretto of an opera was a mere conceptual representation of surface phenomena. When Wagner sent Schopenhauer the libretto of the Ring Cycle, The philosopher said that Wagner should have been a poet instead of a composer. This reflects Schopenhauer’s contention that opera should emphasize music rather than story. Wagner agreed and duly complied in his later operas, making music the main interest.

  3. Thanks – I’m fairly “resigned” that I am a hasty and inaccurate speller – “abnegation” is, of course, what I intended. But, it’s not really a Freudian term (as repression).
    Schopenhauer’s “Verzicht” can be variously translated as “resignation,” “abnegation,” or even “renunciation.”

  4. “Why would anyone today seek inspiration from, let alone read, that curmudgeonly prophet of pessimism”? Volume One’s fourth book, on ethics, alone is worth it. Those pages had an enormous effect on Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and many other profound writers. The other books, on epistemology, ontology, and aesthetics, are also extremely valuable.

  5. If one were to buy either Volume 1 or Volume 2 of Schopenhauer’s book, which would it be? Isn’t Volume 2 essentially the same as Volume 1, but with more examples? Thanks. And I too heartily recommend “The Tristan Chord.” I learned a heck of a lot about Kant and S. reading that one. I also bought Magee’s book on Schopenhauer.

  6. My first reading of Schopenhauer is just his the World as Will and Idea translated into Chinese,but it has just volume one,even no the criticism of Kant’s philosophy.

    I think it is interesting and worthy thinking that the difference between “Representation” and “Presentation”.

    According to Chinese,The World as Will and Representation means “作為意志與表象的世界.And l think Schopenhauer’s”Vorstellung” means Chinese’s”表象” or Buddha’s ” 相".

    Thank you for your article.


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