:: Article

Schopenhauer Smokes

By Nathan Knapp.

The next person who wags his finger at me is going to get it bitten off, A. Schopenhauer thought, and later told me, while crossing the park to the coffee house, a lit cigar clutched between the ring and middle fingers of his right hand, his other hand fondling his Zippo lighter in the left pocket of his trousers, what hair he still possessed on his head poking out at all angles, his frock-coat covered in burn-holes and ash stains, his brain keenly aware of a slight but persistent pain on the left side of his chest and another, even more persistent—and therefore more vexing—pain on the right side of his abdomen, generally below his ribcage, both pains, as he well knew through many years of more or less continual experience of both, being the products of a much-enflamed anxiety, most recently stoked, this morning, by his neighbor across the hall, who had poked his head out of his doorway as A. Schopenhauer attempted to persuade both his poodle dogs to come up the stairs after having let them out for their morning relief—he (A. Schopenhauer) was, he now thought, still fuming, no more rude than the next person, after all, everyone alive existed with a certain quantity of rudeness ready-to-hand, only some people, such as, he freely admitted, himself, displayed their universal rudeness more visibly than others; it only made sense to A. Schopenhauer that it was the writer, the philosopher, and artist, who would most flagrantly, openly, and regularly engage in statements, questions, interrogations, examinations, et cetera, which would be viewed by the general public—that unthinking mass of people, in his mind, better suited to a massive conflagration than any honest attempt at intellectual thought or appreciation of art; he had to admit that he often fantasized about sticking this mass of people, those idiots, simpletons, and utter blockheads, into (yes) a great conflagration, but generally backed out of the fantasy when he realized, quite rightly, he told himself, that death by fire was too good for most people, most people deserved a death far less dramatic, like, for example, suffocation; indeed, really, in the last analysis, the whole human race, including, if he was honest, himself, even A. Schopenhauer (yes: he had to include himself, there could be no exceptions in his hoped-for holocaust, otherwise what he was hoping for would simply form a reenactment of the Holocaust), along with everyone else, deserved to be thrown into a large fire and left there until burnt to a crisp—as rude, uncouth, et cetera; on this particular morning his neighbor had confronted him as he was coming up the stairs, poking his head, as stated above, out his door with a scowl: Herr Schopenhauer, he said, you must stop being abusive toward your dogs, to which A. Schopenhauer had replied that it was his dogs that were being abusive toward him, being that they refused to come up the stairs which were the only way to get back into the apartment, both dogs remaining in seated position at the foot of the stairway, both dogs having been bread in such a way (which is to say so purely) that they had, as A. Schopenhauer put it to me, no brains, which had led A. Schopenhauer to make recourse to a considerable stream of obscenity and other forms of verbal abuse, to which the dogs had, of course, being of French origin, made no response, as they were still quite new to the German tongue. I am not rude, A. Schopenhauer thought, now almost to the edge of the park, where some demonstrators had gathered, clutching signs. He took several quick inhalations of his cigar and expelled a long stream of smoke. Excuse me, one of the demonstrators said, there is no smoking in this part of the protest. I am not taking part in the protest, A. Schopenhauer said, pointing with his index finger, I am merely trying to make my way to that coffee shop on the other side of the park. What you do to your lungs is your business, the demonstrator said, but what you do to my lungs is mine. A. Schopenhauer observed that he was standing close to two whole meters away from the demonstrator—a more than adequate distance, in his opinion—and said so. The demonstrator said that he did not consider it an adequate distance. Recent studies, the demonstrator said, from the best universities, had shown that certain particles of toxins inherent in tobacco smoke traveled, and indeed still caused harm, at such a distance, et cetera. You, A. Schopenhauer said, are here to demonstrate against police brutality, correct? And the demonstrator said that he was. You have all the looks of an undercover cop, A. Schopenhauer said. That’s offensive, the demonstrator said. And then A. Schopenhauer noted that the demonstrator was, in fact, packing, and gestured at the weapon, rather conspicuously holstered beneath the demonstrator’s T-shirt. I’m not packing, the demonstrator said. And then A. Schopenhauer noted that self-professed demonstrator was also in possession of a large backpack, which was obviously, he said to the demonstrator, filled with bricks. It doesn’t have any bricks in it, the demonstrator said. Let’s see the inside of it then, A. Schopenhauer said. Put out your cigar and I’ll show you, said the demonstrator. And so A. Schopenhauer discarded his cigar and extinguished it with the heel of his boot. The demonstrator set down his backpack, unzipped it, and gestured for A. Schopenhauer to approach. The latter approached. When he was standing near the backpack, the demonstrator unzipped it the rest of the way. Go ahead, he said, and A. Schopenhauer went ahead, and knelt down, and looked, but the inside of the backpack was so dark that he couldn’t see anything, and so he knelt down a little closer, at which point he felt a rough hand grab the back of his coat, and he tried to stand back up, but couldn’t, because the rough hand, which must, A. Schopenhauer thought, and later told me, have belonged to the demonstrator, and suddenly his whole head was being pressed into the backpack, and it was completely dark inside, and then, as if he were being swallowed by some large beast, such as a crocodile or a gigantic snake of prehistoric or even Biblical proportions, he felt his shoulders enter the backpack, and then, despite his flailing, his arms, and waist, and then his knees and ankles and then his feet were all forthwith pressed inside the backpack—and then, immediately afterwards, A. Schopenhauer felt himself in freefall. He was falling in the dark. He fell and fell and hoped that soon he would reach some sort of more agreeable arrangement with this experience of falling. Eventually he had to reach the ground, or some sort of floor, after all, he reasoned, he was inside a backpack—that was strange enough—and yet, because he did not feel himself reaching, at least in a reasonable amount of time, some sort of basement, bottom, et cetera, he realized, then, that what he was doing was not falling, exactly, but rather a kind of rising or even flying. When one went down one always reached something; it followed the laws of logic, which is to say of gravity, to say that one cannot fail to reach some kind of destination unless one is, in fact, going up. After all, if one goes down, one is bound to meet resistence sooner or later—not so with going up. So, A. Schopenhauer concluded, perhaps he was going up. That was the line of reasoning which he then entertained, he said to me later, during the experience which he first thought of as falling. Anyway, he said, even though he did remind himself of the laws of logic, which are the laws of gravity, he said, at the time, he also concluded, after these due considerations, that he could not be fully certain of what was happening to him. The experience was too new, too novel, he said, for certainty of any kind. And so he continued to fall. And he continued to fall. Or rise, or whatever was happening to him. And that continuance of falling (or rising) continued to take place in utter darkness. The darkness kept on and so did the experience of what he felt must be, but which he intuited could not be, falling. The darkness, unchanging, was zipping past him at an incredible rate of speed, and at the same time, nothing whatsoever was zipping past him—this last, which only occurred to him suddenly—was the most shocking intuition of all. That he was in fact perhaps not moving in the slightest. And so, intuiting the aforementioned, he felt around in the dark and found that he was indeed no longer in motion, which was so strange, and so bizarre, he later told me . . . shortly, he felt his feet were indeed resting against something, he knew not what, and so he kept feeling around until his fingers grasped a long, smooth object which he felt to be a broom handle, and then, after more grasping and groping, he apprehended a doorknob, which he turned, and as he turned it, he felt himself falling again—but this time it was a much briefer experience, for he fell out of a doorway smack (my word, not A. Schopenhauer’s) onto the cold tile floor of what immediately appeared to be a police station. There were police milling about everywhere. As he later said to me. The police in question were done up (or down, Schopenhauer thought, and later told me) in riot gear. Bulletproof vests, shields, helmets, et cetera. Several of them, in the corner of the room, seemed to be participating in some kind of rite or ritual, he said, as they were dancing wildly in circles around a woman, whom A. Schopenhauer immediately realized was naked. She seemed to him either to be either egging them on or imploring them to stop—which, A. Schopenhauer could not tell, and therefore did not dare to hazard a guess. The woman looked familiar to him; it was, he further realized, the woman A. Schopenhauer had, in a fit of righteous pique, a few years prior to the story now being told, pushed down the same flight of stairs which he had just that morning failed to persuade his dogs to ascend. I did not recognize her at first, he later told me, because at the moment when I pushed her, she was not in-fact naked, but rather was clothed most modestly. She had suffered no great injury from the fall, he said, though A. Schopenhauer had felt some damage incurred, as a result of this action, that is to say his having shoved her down a flight of stairs, to his reputation in the community—which had not been considerable, he allowed, to start with. He had felt sorry for the act, after the fact, but not, it was said, he told me, sorry enough for most people, which was fine to him, since most people were such thorough idiots. I was going about the work of philosophy, he said, and that woman was singing, very loudly, very badly, entirely off-key. What was I supposed to do—continue to attempt to do the work which requires that utmost of quiet, thinking? I was trying to think, you understand, A. Schopenhauer said, and that woman, though I asked her very gently at first, would not stop singing. If she at least could sing well—but she could not, and everyone who lived in our building, A. Schopenhauer said, knew this, in fact everyone who lived in the building was glad that I finally took it upon myself, he later told me, to push her down that admittedly short flight of stairs; they would have all—every one of them, he told me—taken it upon themselves to push that woman down the stairs themselves, but none of them ever got up the courage; it is not even a very long stairway, he said again, and I did not push her very hard, he said, even though I freely admit that I did push her. It was a shove yes, but only a light shove, and she broke no bones, and I was able, as a result, to get back to work, for which I was—and posterity will be—eternally grateful. This was what he told me, later, after the strange experience which I am here taking pains to relate. Now he was standing in the police department which was, as far as A. Schopenhauer knew, inside the demonstrator’s backpack, and the woman he’d shoved down the stairs was at the center of the policemen’s rite or ritual, in, so-to-speak, the buff. He wondered if he ought to intervene. I wronged that woman, before, he now thought. Perhaps, he now thought, and later told me, I should help her. And so he mustered up his courage and walked right up the dancing police officers and demanded that they allow the poor woman to clothe herself. The policemen immediately ceased their dancing. They turned to look at A. Schopenhauer, and then looked back at the naked woman, whom A. Schopenhauer had formerly pushed down a (small, he said) flight of stairs, and whom, he now saw, was not entirely unattractive in a physical sense. She, too, looked at A. Schopenhauer. You again, she said. She fondled her left breast; A. Schopenhauer felt himself fondling his Zippo lighter—and then he felt himself fondle what was beneath his Zippo lighter (and not in his pocket at all). The woman fondled her other breast, and then said: Boys, that bastard pushed me down a flight of stairs last year. And the policemen said, Whaddaya want us to do with him, René? And she said: Shoot the bastard. And so, the policemen directly shot A. Schopenhauer many, many times. He fell into a deep unconsciousness which he thought was death, and eventually woke in a private room in the hospital. The sound of heavy traffic was coming in through the open window. Luckily, unluckily—he could not decide which—he survived, but was covered in bandages. He, lying in his private room in the hospital, asked to see the chief physician who had operated on him. As he waited he realized, with some relief, that he must no longer be inside the demonstrator’s backpack—though he could not be entirely sure. Still: the fact that he could see the sky (cloudless) through the window, meant that he must be outside of it, and he was, at least for now, satisfied with this line of reasoning. When the chief physician appeared, A. Schopenhauer said: I was shot by the police, was I not? Yes, the chief physician said, it appeared that that was precisely what had happened. Weirdly, the chief physician continued, the Zippo lighter A. Schopenhauer always carried with him (he did not remark upon the philosopher’s consistent, nay even compulsive, fondling of said object, and the occasional simultaneous fondling of the organ which generally presided beneath the pocket in which said object was located) had stopped every single bullet that had come in contact with his body. Astounded, A. Schopenhauer asked if the lighter remained functional. Let’s see, the chief physician said. He pulled out a silver cigarette case and removed for each of them a cigarette. He placed his own in his mouth and inserted A. Schopenhauer’s into his. The chief physician then pulled from out of a small plastic baggie the Zippo which Schopenhauer recognized as his own. It was a bit dinted, but not much the worse for wear. The chief physician lit his own cigarette and then lit A. Schopenhauer’s. I guess it still works, the chief physician said, and A. Schopenhauer remarked that this was a sensible assessment. He took an appreciative drag. There was no place better to smoke, the two men agreed, enjoying their mutual agreeability, than in a hospital room. Makes one glad to be alive, the chief physician said. A. Schopenhauer concurred. The two men laughed heartily. First the chief physician laughed, and then A. Schopenhauer laughed, following which they both laughed at the same time. The chief physician blew a smoke ring; A. Schopenhauer, despite his injured condition, managed to blow two. A moment later a young, bearded orderly, sporting a haircut in the style which proved so popular during the Third Reich and is now at our present moment once again in favor with young men seeking to add an aura of danger to their looks—long on top and buzzed on the sides—stepped into the doorway and told both the doctor and the philosopher to put out their cigarettes. The orderly held out a small metal tray. Obediently (if reluctantly) the two men obliged him. Immediately after the orderly left the room the chief physician removed two more cigarettes from his case, clapped it shut, lit them, and handed A. Schopenhauer one. The philosopher said: You don’t think we’re going to get in trouble? I’m the chief physician, the chief physician said. What are they going to do, fire me? This is a hospital, he continued. The main thing—indeed, the main attraction of this entire building—is death. The greatest single effort being continually undergone in any hospital, and this one is no exception, he said, is the act of dying. The least they can do is let us have a smoke. A. Schopenhauer concurred. Though the mood in the room, A. Schopenhauer later told me, had become pensive rather than jubilant, he was happy to have found a man with whom he felt sure would become a friend. Together, they smoked. Once finished, the two men shook hands, and the chief physician returned to the philosopher his lighter. Unfortunately, A. Schopenhauer later told me, the very next morning, the chief physician was found hanged in a broom closet. The police who appeared on the scene immediately ruled out any possibility of foul play, and the coroner, arriving shortly after them, signed the death certificate; exactly one week later A. Schopenhauer was discharged from the hospital with a clean bill of health. On the way home he purchased a box of cigars and a bottle of white rum.

Nathan Knapp
‘s writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Music & Literature, The Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. He was born in Talihina, Oklahoma, and now lives in the Battlemont neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 27th, 2021.