Parerga and Paralipomena is Greek for “Appendices” and “Omissions”. Arthur Schopenhauer, an influential 19th century German philosopher, published a book by that title. Given the title, you’d expect a staggeringly obtuse, unreadable scholastic tome…which it’s not. It’s actually a fascinating book, containing Schopenhauer’s thoughts on any number of things, from his mommy-issues and professional jealousies to the ultimate nature of reality ( which for him is “Will,” that striving urge we all have and which he claims every living and even inanimate thing has). In any event, the work is mostly a series of short thoughts – philosophical odds and ends – thrown together without much connection between subjects.
I always wanted to title a blog post “Parerga and Paralipomena” since it sounds cool and intellectual but really means nothing more than “odds and ends.” So bear with me as I process a few thoughts that have come to me recently, thoughts that arise out of philosophical concerns that have obvious implications for us as photographers. I expect I’ll have a number of chapters – this on Schopenhauer being merely the first of a series – so I’ll label them all the same thing – Parerga and Paralipomena – and you can ignore them if they aren’t of interest to you. Suffice it to say that you’re not going to find this on Ken Rockwell’s site. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you.
If you’ve never read Schopenhauer I recommend him highly. In addition to being a fascinating guy with all sorts of human foibles, some of them quite entertaining, [e.g he and his mother engaged in a vicious lifetime battle about who was smarter, his mother being an early 19th century German novelist; he taught at the same university as GW Hegel, who at the time was considered the most profound intellectual on the continent – Schopenhauer considered Hegel a complete moron – while everyone considered Schopenhauer a nobody] he has much to teach artists and people with creative aspirations, given he is generally considered to have articulated a pretty impressive theory of Art and the origin and meaning behind the creative impulse.
For Schopenhauer, the reason people paint or sculpt or photograph is because it helps us distance ourselves from desiring – “willing” – which invariably causes pain and dissatisfaction. This is something that Leicaphiles, if they’re honest with themselves, should recognize. Think of how bad you wanted that Leica M9 or MM, and think about how inevitably disappointed you are once you’d gotten it used it for a bit and then started dreaming of trading up to the M11. That’s the nature of human reality, always willing things, striving for more in an endless search for something we can never reach. For Schopenhauer, it’s that striving that powers reality and the ceaseless change that defines it. Everything from humans down to one-celled organisms exhibit it. It’s also what keeps Nikon and Leica in business, because we are constitutionally incapable of being satisfied with the status quo. Gotta have more, better. That AF on the top of the line camera from 2 years ago is now hopelessly outdated, not sufficient for rank amateurs. The 12 mpx Ricoh you bought ten years ago, junk; your photographic purposes require the 50 mpx full-frame Canon. And so it goes. We’ve all been there whether we admit it to ourselves or not. We’ve all been there because Schopenhauer says that’s the nature of human reality, we can’t avoid it.
Or maybe we can, at least temporarily. For Schopenhauer, a temporary way to escape the pain brought about by our ceaseless striving is through aesthetic contemplation. Planning and envisioning that photograph, or acting pursuant to that envisioning, or engaging with the finished product hanging on a wall – stops you perceiving the world as separated from you, something we are constantly grasping for; rather in the simple aesthetic act, every time you find yourself lost in the willlessness of the beauty around you “one can thus no longer separate the perceiver from the perception” i.e. you stop being an unhappy, willing being and just are. From this immersion with the world you aren’t an individual who suffers in the world due to one’s individual will but, rather, you’re a “subject of cognition” to a perception that is “pure, will-less, timeless” where the essence of the world is found. You’ve just found the closest thing to nirvana human reality allows.
Think about the consequences of this and what it means for the issues we’ve been discussing on this blog for years – the simple miraculousness of photography, the joy in its doing, in contrast to the stupid and blinkered idea that the pleasure and validation you can find in photography will be found in owning and using certain equipment, or that the artistic impulse is about your tools in any significant sense. For me, my lifetime interest in photography has been about that will-less, timeless enjoyment. It’s my argument that, at base, to be a photographer has no real connection to being a camera fondler, although the enjoyment of fine photographic tools has it own aesthetic character and is legitimate in itself. Just don’t confuse it with photography, and don’t consider yourself a photographer because you’re using a Leica. That’s for shallow meatballs like Mr. Overgaard, lost souls and con men who’ve conflated the worth of the camera they use – or the bag they throw it in – with their worth as photographers. If you learn anything from a great mind like Schopenhauer, it’s don’t fall for the con.
NEXT UP: Chapter Two – What Martin Heidegger, the Nazi Rector of the University of Freiburg, can teach you about photography
ADDENDUM: Yes I know the site is screwed up. Yes, I know the links are broken. Yes, I know the comments section doesn’t work. Yes, I’m going to fix it. And yes, I’ve really enjoyed all the supportive emails I’ve received since my last post. Keep em coming to email@example.com, because its nice to know people actually read this.