The Mystery of Naked on My Goat: Schopenhauer, Proust, Goethe, and Louise Brooks

The legendary, yet tragically overlooked silver screen actress, Louise Brooks was mostly admired for her hauntingly graceful beauty. For those looking to find a deeper appreciation for this woman of remarkable talents, there is certainly more than meets the eye. Louise Brooks was much greater than her mere physical appearance alone. It is her intellectual talents that are the most underappreciated. Here, we take a look into her impressive intellect.

 

The Actress who Read Proust and Schopenhauer

When growing up, Louise Brooks’ father was such an avid collector of books that he was literally sinking the family home with the weight of his cavernous private library. Her father would often retreat to his library and into the comfort of his extensive literary collection.

Her mother was also clearly quite educated. One of Louise’s early memories was of breaking a piece of her mothers’ china. The only reaction her accident elicited was not to interrupt while she was reading Bach. Such was the early life of the girl who would become one of the most revered actresses of the silent film era.

Keep in mind that for a woman, let alone a film actress, to be reading the like of Proust, Goethe, or Schopenhauer was considered nothing less than a marvel at the time. Remember, other greatly talented actresses like Hedy Lamarr, also had an impressive intellectual range. One that at the time was largely dismissed as her physical beauty took center-stage, leaving her other talents in the distant foreground. At the time, the world, the world of men more specifically, had no interest in the astounding intellect of such actresses.

 

The Girl Who Quoted Proust

As a young actress, Louise Brooks stood out to men in the film industry as the girl who read Proust. Her readings of Proust was one of her most pronounced characteristics intellectually. It brought her respect, although it was considered something of a novelty. Already expelled from the world of the living by 1922, Marcel Proust was considered one of the most authoritative writers on love. He left a profound intellectual legacy in his literary work which was not lost on bright young women like Louise Brooks.

 

Schopenhauer, One of Louise Brooks’ Strongest Influences

It is her readings of Schopenhauer in particular that come through as we can see how strong his influence was in her. In the novel ‘The Chaperone’ by Laura Moriarty, the author depicted Brooks already voraciously consuming the wisdom of Schopenhauer’s famed essays at the young age of 15. One can scarcely imagine nearly any actress today reading such deep and thought-provoking material at that age. While Moriarty’s depiction belongs in the realm of conjecture, Brooks was clearly well-versed in literature at an early age regardless.

Her copy of the essays included a personal bookplate and was well-worn from use. When on the set of ‘Pandora’s Box’ in 1928, a young Louise Brooks was spotted reading Schopenhauer’s, ‘Aphorisms’. When seen reading such an intellectually stimulating book, she was met at first with disbelief. No one surmised that she could be reading such a work out of genuine interest and it was once proposed that it was a publicity stunt. Doubters were proved most incorrect as her commanding knowledge of Schopenhauer was made known throughout her life.

Schopenhauer is noted as one of the first German philosophers to take eastern thought into consideration. As such readers like Louise Brooks were exposed to broadened horizons.

Under these broadened horizons, Louise Brooks would have been exposed to Buddhist thought through Schopenhauer’s references to it in his philosophical writings. His outlook was one of a competition of the Will in which was essentially endless and full of suffering.

When Kenneth Tynan wrote his beautifully crafted essay, ‘The Girl in the Black Helmet,’ he noted a towering pile of books on a stool in her home. Among the authors gracing her stool was Schopenhauer.

 

Esoteric Meanings, Literary Influences, and Goethe, ‘Naked on My Goat,’ the Autobiography That Never Was

At one time Louise Brooks set out to write an autobiography to encompass the breadth of her most intriguing and undeniably extraordinary life. We will never be fortunate enough to get a glimpse at it however as she burned the manuscript in horror. Overwhelmed by pudeur, she shut it down.

In an article she penned in 1977, ‘Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs,’ Brooks indicated the inhibiting influences of the complex cocktail of Midwestern morality. Plagued by a preoccupation with guilt and sin it was this Midwestern thinking that was to prevent her from divulging the sort of passionate details that would be necessary for a proper autobiography. Brooks believed that to craft a truly engaging autobiography, one has to shed light on one’s loves and hates, desires and so forth. Brooks summarized her predicament in saying, ‘I cannot unbuckle the Bible belt.’

However, she did leave us some precious insights which can be found in ‘Who is the Exotic Black Orchid?’ an unpublished account for her autobiography. We can also find some rare excerpts from, ‘Naked on My Goat’ in Barry Paris’ biography on Louise.

In the excerpts that remain, readers hoping for more references to the likes of Proust and her beloved Schopenhauer may be found wanting. Those looking for the influence of Goethe, however, will be most pleased. Regardless, what remains of her autobiography offers us an even deeper impression of her mind.

It should be noted that in writing ‘Naked on My Goat,’ Brooks weaved in traces of Goethe whose writings she knew well. The title itself refers to a passage from Goethe’s masterpiece, ‘Faust’ that dark and mesmerizing tale of the man who sold his soul to Mephistopheles.

The passage is from one of the Walpurgisnacht scenes featuring the Young Witch’s speech. In her speech, she sat naked upon a goat bragging of her glistening youth to an older witch. The latter reminded the former that youth and beauty fade with time and emphasized the inevitable progression of rot.

 

From Explosive Popularity in the Roaring Twenties to Obscurity and Then Rediscovery, the Journey of Louise Brooks

The life of this extraordinary soul experienced some dramatic ups and downs. Being launched into success and the fulfillment of her wildest dreams throughout her youth in the 1920s, Louise Brooks was the toast of the silent film world. Later on her acting career, in part due to her refusal to lessen herself by romancing the film producers as many other actresses have done, came to a halt.

Other important achievements in her life include when she launched her own dance school. She also published one of the most treasured and authoritative texts on dance in 1940 when she wrote, ‘The Fundamentals of Good Ballroom Dancing’.

In 1955, her work was brought into the light again when Henri Langlois featured a period-poster of Louise Brooks by the entrance to a French film exhibition. Triumphantly, he declared, “There is no Garbo. There is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks!” Even today, the statement has a certain appeal and is hard to argue with.

Also in 1955, she was truly rediscovered by James Card, film curator of the George Eastman House, the oldest photography museum on the planet. Mr. Card invited her to Rochester, New York and brought back into the light before her passing in 1985. In the late 1970s, famed film critic Kenneth Tynan, a long-time admirer of the actress, visited her in person. The result was one of the most revealing and captivating publications on Louise Brooks’ life when he wrote, ‘The Girl in the Black Helmet’. The essay was featured in The New Yorker and was well received.

Before her passing, she published, ‘Lulu in Hollywood,’ a marvelous collection of autobiographical essays in 1982.

In 1985, we lost one of the brightest stars to shine through the silver screen. Her talents, as an actress, writer, and dancer were among some of the most pronounced of her generation. In knowing the extent of her intellect, we can greater appreciate her work when visiting the lost worlds of silent film. It is within these lost worlds bound by celluloid that Louise Brooks still reigns. From the distant confines of these films, she remains as young, beautiful, and sharp-witted as ever. The films of Louise Brooks will live on for as long as there are devotees to preserve them.

 

Louise Brooks and Naked on My Goat

“It should be noted that in writing ‘Naked on My Goat,’ Brooks weaved in traces of Goethe whose writings she knew well. The title itself refers to a passage from Goethe’s masterpiece, ‘Faust’ that dark and mesmerizing tale of the man who sold his soul to Mephistopheles.”

 

 

 

 

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 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, partying at Hearst Castle in San Simeon. She had made the right friends. She was emulated, adored, 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 baulk 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 places 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 to 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 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 an 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 acknowledgement 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, 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, 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 tomes 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.

 

Lulu and Schopenhauer

“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.”