Louise Brooks wasn’t just brainy, she was Schopenhauer-brainy

October 26, 2018 12 mins to read
Michael Garcia Mujica
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The Unlikely Orbits of Louise Brooks and Arthur Schopenhauer Collide in Time and Space

For Every Action… There is an Equal and Opposite Reaction

Imagine a silent film actress. Imagine a wildly beautiful silent film actress. Imagine a wildly beautiful silent film star on the set of G.W. Pabst‘s lurid, cult classic Pandora’s Box. Between takes, she picks up her worn copy of Schopenhauer’s essays. It is a dense, heady, German Idealist philosophy from the mid-19th century.

How does his powerful prose color her experience of the film set? What refractions does she find through that lens?

This was Louise Brooks. She possessed a singular drive along with an abundance of spirit and intellect. Both qualities were well demonstrated as she guided herself along an uncanny and powerful path, from her Midwestern upbringing, dancing through New York City in the 1920s, and on to Hollywood.

She exerted influence in tinsel town, despite her detachment from its bylaws and her refusal to fall victim to its compromising economy. She blazed an artist’s trail.

Where Did She Come From, Where Did She Go?

She left home at 14, joining a modern dance company, the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, which took her to first New York City, then all over the country, coast to coast.

Devoted to her craft, she deftly navigated interpersonal tensions and spring-boarded her way to Broadway, quickly leaving behind her distant and legal-career-minded father and self-absorbed artist mother.

She left behind the sexual abuse she endured at age 9 at the hands of a neighborhood man, who she referred to as “Mr. Flowers” in later journals, although this experience will figure into every relationship she cultivated for the rest of her life.

Her rapid rise caught the attention of Hollywood studio heads. By the end of the summer of 1925, at 18, she will have enjoyed a brief love affair with Charlie Chaplin and signed a 5-year contract with Paramount Pictures.

She was shining.

She catapulted to further success in the next three years, taking leading roles in successful films, enjoying relationships with powerful Hollywood figures, and partying at Hearst Castle in San Simeon. She had made the right friends. She was emulated, adored, and desired.

But she wasn’t wooed. She steadily lost interest and respect for the industry and soon took her aura and abilities to Germany, where her performance as Lulu in Pandora’s Box by G.W. Pabst sealed her place in the annals of film and art history. Hollywood missed out – her best work was recorded abroad.

She was just 25 years old. She didn’t know it yet, but she would live on in the imagination of the world, she will forever be Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box.

Affluence, Pessimism, and the Universal Will

Now imagine a young German student, Arthur, a prodigy of science, philosophy, and classic languages. It is 1813, he is 25 years old. He has enjoyed an affluent upbringing filled with travel, fetes, the theater, and extensive education.

His mother, despite his father’s unconfirmed suicide 8 years prior, sits at the helm of a well-known salon frequented by Goethe, with whom he has just begun an inspiring correspondence. In a remarkable show of self-assurance, Arthur sent him his dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, impressing him with his depth.

This was Arthur Schopenhauer. He would go on to write and publish a rigorous body of work, serious scholarship that did not balk at critiquing giants of German thought: Kant, Hegel, and even his familiar Goethe. His mother described him as combative and mercurial; he viewed her own literary work as frivolous. They did not enjoy an easy relationship together.

He won’t attain the recognition he felt he merited until late in his career. Over time, he will come to be known as a philosopher of pessimism.

This moniker only tells a fraction of his philosophy, which itself describes a system of thought in which man may do and act according to his own desire. However, man is ultimately subject to a universal Will that controls all systems, from the movement of gravity to the hunger of the housecat.

His hierarchical systems place man atop this schema, with the artist and the deep empath further elevated as the highest expressions of aesthetics and ethics, respectively.

It’s All in the Timing

What unexpected consequences that existence itself choreographs, to bring about the scenario described at the outset of this writing. But it was a real occurrence, misinterpreted though it may have been by Brooks’ contemporaries as a publicity stunt.

Louise Brooks read Schopenhauer and Proust on set. Louise Brooks had true intelligence.

Schopenhauer’s views on women as inferior are well known. He would never have believed that an actress would study his writings, let alone internalize his philosophy and come to embody his structures. Yet her quick aptitude was real.

On Mysticism and Will in Post-Kantian Weimar

The concept of will, as formulated by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, delineates a world of intense competition, even one where the competitors are not always aware of their motivations in action.

It is competition born of no ultimate goal, unending, and present in every aspect of everything. Note well: competition with no goal can never be satisfied and thereby guarantees suffering to those competing.

The parallels between the Buddhist philosophies – of Samsara and the cycle of suffering are clear. For Schopenhauer, life was a competition of Will, without end, replete with suffering.

The echoes of eastern mysticism and theories of detachment were not born in a vacuum. Schopenhauer read and studied the Upanishads and early Buddhism during his time in Weimar and he is noted as among the first Germans to bring Eastern thinking into their philosophical system.

East Meets West and then Goes Even Further West

In studying Schopenhauer, Louise witnessed a concrete example of the man’s philosophies during her time in the ruthless film business.

She studied the competitive ecosystem of the film set.

It was a predatory space, a clash of artistic expression and the simple greed of unchecked appetites. She had, so far, navigated this terrain with success, keeping her self-worth intact, refusing to advance by submitting to the casting couch, or to the advances of lecherous executives.

She was witness to competition and suffering.

As an art maker, in spite of the Idealist thinker’s undervaluing of her gender at large, she sat atop the realm of perception as he outlined its boundaries. She was an artist. A genius in his system.

For Schopenhauer, artists are those rare creatures able to perceive the beauty of nature, the essence of things. Through their art and creations, more common thinkers are able to witness nature apart from themselves, apart from the universal will that informs their every action.

Artists illuminate reality.

Louise was a living illustration of his system of thought, functioning at its highest level.

In this system, the artist is endowed with an abundance of intellect, so much so that the intellect, normally existing in the service of Will, gains independence. The artistic output gifts common thinkers with a rare experience of nature as an idea.

There, on set, aware of the pointless competition of all things, and aware that her strengths wrought an alchemical change on her fellow humans, what desires did she cultivate?

Did she join the melee and manipulate toward her desires? Did she give in and participate in the senseless economy of will and suffering?

She chose neither. She chose to release desire.

Know When to Fold ‘Em

By 1940, after returning to Hollywood and enduring a period of blacklisting, she abandoned her film career entirely. Studios claimed her voice did not record well for talking pictures.

What more perfect embodiment of detachment than to leave behind success and renown, failure and scandal?

She returned to her early skill, dance, and begin a period of drifting. As she wandered, she gravitated toward seclusion, abandoning or being abandoned by her friends, first in her home state, then in New York.

Before it was the site of so much success and acceptance, but she was no longer part of the NYC socialite circles. Her choices and occupations defied not only their expectations but also undermined their worldview and devalued their lifestyle.

Since she refused to pursue the same goals. She was cast out.

In phases, step by step, she retraced her path of growth, now as a path of renunciation and asceticism. In New York, suffering herself, she fell further in synch with the hierarchies of Schopenhauer. She recognized, ever the truth-seeker, shattering her ego, that her motivations were utterly like all others in the world.

The majority do not see this.

This very thought only found after poverty and rejection became her freedom.

You Can’t Ever Get What You Want

For Schopenhauer, faced with the ultimate acknowledgment of this struggle of universal will, the only possible resolution is renunciation.

To live is to be subject to this universal will. Yet this will is impossible to satisfy. Therefore, to live is to pursue an unattainable goal. This is suffering.

Living is then to be subject to suffering. If living is suffering, the only logical response to life is abandoning desire, minimizing the suffering.

This worldview resonates clearly with ancient texts from his early studies. The Buddhist tenet that all life is suffering and that the only liberation from that suffering is freedom from desire can be applied as a method for living in the face of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic construction, the suffering of the world.

In the freedom from desire, the suffering beneath the universal will can be minimized. But who can free themselves from desire? And how?

The Cleansing Powers of Truth, Flames, and Anonymity

Doesn’t the post-Hollywood journey that Louise Brooks undertook resonate as just such a journey? One toward freedom from desire?

Alone in New York, abandoned by her society friends, working as a call girl and shop girl. How did her days pass?

No more parties, no more film sets. No dancing in a nightclub. Her retreat progressed further and further away from the limelight, away from familiarity. What motivated this continual departure, this shedding of layers of her public self, as she retraced her youthful trajectory?

In her own words, a hard process of self-discovery was at work. She invited the flames of brutal honesty to purify and distill her own self-image.

Her work had undergone a handful of revivals at the hands of Italian and French intellectuals and film historians, most notably Henri Langlois, at the Cinemateque Francaise’s 60-year anniversary of film. She was featured next to Joan of Arc, in place of any of the more famous film stars of her day. Her work again became known and recognized.

Now, though, the recognition was headier, not obsessed so much with Louise Brooks bob, as it was with honoring her craft and respecting her contributions to film.

An Unexpected Patron in Rochester Hands Louise the Pen

Louise’s third act is a beautiful one. She wrote. She was published. She was heard.

She was invited to move to Rochester, NY, by James Card, who was a film curator of the George Eastman House, the oldest photography museum in the world. The museum bears the name of its benefactor, the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company.

Louise was drawn out of her reclusive New York City existence with the lure of developing a nascent skill. Card encouraged her to write, to commit her experiences to record, to move into film criticism. She did so with gusto, and her work was published, late in life, in prestigious journals: Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema, and others.

And so she wrote, from the little-known corner of Rochester, New York. She wrote her memoirs in relentless pursuit of truth that bashed her own ego to pieces. She hard-boiled her Hollywood memories and laid bare her sexuality, her failures, her motivations, ever the exemplar of that genius Intellect, casting its influence over Will.

Her resulting body of work, nearly 30 journals varying in length from 20 to 120 pages, is intensely personal. The collection remained sealed, at Brooks’ request, for 25 years following her death. Her memoirs, entitled Lulu in Hollywood, were published in 1982.

Schopenhauer’s work too was discovered late in his life, by thinkers from foreign lands.

An Open-Ended Finale and the Triumph of Words for Louise Brooks

As she sat between takes, reading about universal will, did she consciously shape her life through that lens? Did she recognize herself as an artist, elevated in that worldview, as a seeker of truth and iconoclast?

Perhaps she recognized a kindred spirit in Schopenhauer, and as the dead-end economy of will and desire was laid bare before her, freedom from desire became the only clear path.

Or perhaps Schopenhauer’s own genius glimpsed into the future, to art forms that did not yet exist, societies that were still forming, and described an arc that Louise Brooks was only too ready to bring to life.

Her passions would carry her from the extreme of small-town America to scandal in the public eye, to isolation. Yet she emerged cleansed, signaling through the flames that her voice indeed recorded well.

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