Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Much Regrafted Pain": Schopenhauerian Love and the Fecundity of Pain in Atalanta in Calydon

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Much Regrafted Pain": Schopenhauerian Love and the Fecundity of Pain in Atalanta in Calydon

Article excerpt

Love and pain are rooted deeply in Algernon Charles Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon (1865), and the two share such an intimate, delicate bond that they are inextricably linked. Much of the criticism dealing with the play, though, has looked primarily at such issues as its classical roots, its nineteenth-century antitheism, and its prosody, as Richard Mathews notes. (1) The resonance of emotion in the play also captures critical attention, and, in fact, few can write about Atalanta in Calydon without at least cursory mention of love in its various incarnations--whether romantic, sexual, or maternal Many critics regard love in the play as an attempt to reassemble the pieces of a sundered soul, and, in its failure, love is viewed as the progenitor of pain, as divisive, and ultimately as a destructive force. (2) I argue, however, that love is not the cause of human misery (existence is) because the "love" Swinburne presents in the play is influenced strongly by Schopenhauer's conception of love; moreover, it is presented within the context of Schopenhauerian pessimism--an understanding of humanity and the nature of the world wherein we are driven by a blind will to live and duped into maintaining the species, which in turn continues the inevitable suffering and torment that defines human life. For Schopenhauer, the love and sexual desire that appear to be individually motivated are actually part of an instinctual mechanism serving the species as a whole) I use the word "love" throughout this paper because it is the term Schopenhauer and Swinburne use. My exploration of love in Swinburne's play is not to be taken as saccharine or sentimental (nor is my use of the word intended to convey a narrowly defined small "r" romantic love). Rather, "love" will connote Schopenhauer's idea of "sexual impulse" and the "soap-bubble delusion" that motivates reproduction and thus the continuation of the species. Schopenhauer himself addresses the potential confusion of the nature of the "love" being discussed. Of love, he writes:

   It is no trifle that is in question here.... The ultimate end of
   all love affairs ... is really more important than all other ends
   of human life, and is therefore quite worthy of the profound
   seriousness with which every one pursues it. That which is decided
   by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation.
   (p. 340)

In The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Bryan Magee explains Schopenhauer's defense of love as a worthy topic of investigation:

   For the fact is that any given individual can be the offspring of
   two given parents only, and not of any other couple. So the
   couplings of parents determine not just that the world shall be
   peopled but specifically by whom it shall be peopled. (4)

This idea of procreation as a process of selection along with Schopenhauer's discussion in other chapters of biological impulses, heredity, and the life of the species, is, of course, a precursor to Darwin's theory of evolution. (5) Thus, while some of Schopenhauer's ideas seem curmudgeonly and simplistic--or worse, at times utterly ridiculous and scientifically unsound--it is because as twenty-first-century readers we cannot appreciate the contemporary newness of his ideas (Magee, p. 287). His influence is considerable; he paves the way for revolutions in thought. In addition to anticipating Darwinian evolutionary biology, Schopenhauer's work describing the sexual impulse and love as the undetected motivators underlying human behaviour predates Freud's work on the libido and the unconscious mind. (6) Magee articulates Schopenhauer's contribution as follows:

   Schopenhauer was the first great philosopher to see the mind in
   biological terms, to see it first and foremost as a physical organ
   at work, a survival mechanism whose operations are to be understood
   only in terms of the functions for which it has been evolved; and
   to see in this light that man is not a rational animal, since mind
   is not a spectator but an instrument, constructed not for the
   detached observation of the world or the impersonal acquisition of
   knowledge but to light the field for action, and is therefore not
   sovereign but subordinate to the purposes of the will. … 
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