Rerun Week: I Second That Emotion
I’m still in rerun week although I will actually be posting a real entry not too long from now (probably). And depending how my weekend goes I may have a few more reruns next week. Happy April Fool’s Day!
BEST EMOTION OF THE MILLENNIUM
Angst. And I’m pretty bummed out about that.
Let us stipulate that “angst” is one of those words that people use a lot but which they don’t really understand; in today’s nomenclature, it is a trendy synonym for fear or even annoyance (e.g., “I went to Starbucks and my latte was mostly foam. I was filled with angst.” Aw, poor baby). This dreadful misuse of the word is problematic, but in one way it’s indicative of the fundamental nature of the concept of “angst,” which is, like diet-related obesity or supermodels, a leisure society’s affliction. Poor, ill-educated serfs didn’t know from angst. They didn’t have the time, or the inclination.
Which is not to say that didn’t have fears, of course. To a poor, ill-educated serf, the world is full of fear: Fear of one’s feudal lord. Fear of the Plague. Fear of the that witch down the lane, you know, the one with all the cats. Above all, a fear of God, He who could squash you in this life and the life everlasting, thank you very much. The point here is: Fear had direction. It was like a sentence; there was an subject (you) and an object (the thing that was gonna get you), and the verb “fear” was adequate to describe what your typical serf had going on in his brain, such as it was.
Angst is something else entirely. If fear is hard working and has a goal, angst is like fear’s directionless cousin, the one that has a trust fund and no freakin’ clue what he wants to do. Angst by definition has no definite object; it is formless and ubiquitous, and it just sits on your head and freaks you out. Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote the book on angst (“The Concept of Dread,” 1844), believed that dread was a desire for that which you fear. This led to sin; sin leads to guilt, and guilt leads to redemption, preferably (at least from Kierkegaard’s point of view) through the good graces of Christianity. God always gets you, sooner or later.
Martin Heidegger took angst even further, suggesting that dread is fundamental for a human being to discover freedom, as dread can lead to a man to “choose himself” and thus discover his true potential. When you’re full of angst, you see, you tend to concentrate on yourself and not to sweat the little stuff — say, everything else in the entire universe (to say this is a massive simplification of Heidegger’s work is to say you can get a cup of water out of the Hoover Dam). Embracing oneself brings one closer to embracing nothingness, and thus full potentiality of authentic being.
Confused? Join the club. Heidegger’s writings are so famously impenetrable they could be used by SWAT teams in place of Kevlar; to the uninitiated, he sounds a little like the self-help counselor from the third circle of Hell (“Love your Dread! Embrace the Nothingness!”). Left unsaid is what happens after one has in fact embraced the nothingness; one has the unsettling feeling that it’s difficult to get cable TV. Also, there’s the question of what happens when one has reached a state of authentic being, only to discover one is authentically an ass. Heidegger is unhelpfully silent on these matters; he himself embraced the nothingness in 1976 and will have nothing more to do with us inauthentic beings.
Angst is probably best described not through words but through pictures, and fortunately we have a fine illustrator of angst in Edvard Munch. Munch knew all about dread; first off, he was Norwegian. Second, he was a sickly boy whose family had an unfortunate tendency of dying on him: His mother when he was five, his sister when he was 14, then his father and brother while he was still young. His other sister? Mentally ill. Munch would write, quite accurately, “Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” They weren’t no bluebirds of happiness, that’s for sure.
Munch’s art vividly showed the nameless anxiety that Munch felt all around him. The most famous example of this, of course, is “The Scream,” in which a fetal-looking person of indiscriminate sex clutches its head and emits a wordless cry. The weird little dude is Munch himself:
“I was walking along the road with two friends,” he wrote, “Watching the sunset – the sky suddenly turned red as blood – I stopped, leant against the fence, deadly tired – above the blue-black fjord and the town lay blood and tongues of fire – my friends walked on and I was left, trembling with fire – and I could feel an infinite scream passing through the landscape.”
Perhaps the infinite scream was the knowledge that one day his painting of the event would become such a smarmily iconic shorthand for angst that it would lose its power; its hard to feel dread when the screaming dude is on some VP of Advertising’s tie. More’s the pity.
Fortunately, there is other, less exploited, Munch work which still packs a punch. “The Scream” is just one element in Munch’s epic “Frieze of Life,” a collection of 20-odd canvases jam-packed with angst: One of the four major themes of the work, in fact, is “Anxiety.” But even the more supposedly cheerful theme of “Love,” features paintings swaddled in depression and dread: check out “Ashes” or “Separation,” and angst leaps up and hits you like a jagged rock. Don’t even view the “Death” pictures if you’ve skipped your Xanax for the day. Viewing any of the pictures, you immediately grasp the concept of angst; it sits on your chest like a weight, pressing the air out of you. Edvard Munch himself suffered a nervous breakdown, a fact which anyone who has spent any time with his work would find entirely unsurprising.
The irony about naming angst as the emotion of the Millennium is that at the moment, most everyone who can read this is living in almost entirely angst-free world. The economy is booming, people are well-fed and cheerful, most of us are safe and content. This is surely a switch from most of the 20th Century, the Century of Angst, which opened up with the perhaps the most dreadful war of all time, World War I, and then hunkered down under two decades of global depression, followed by a genocidal holocaust, a cold war, the cultural malaise of the 70s and the unvarnished capitalist ugliness of the 80s. Ask anyone then what the 90s would be like, they would have suggested more of the same, but without trash service.
Instead we have Britney Spears, SUVs and 28-year-old stock millionaires; our most difficult decision is whether to buy a DVD, or just stick with the VCR until we go and get an HDTV. Oh, sure, we think we feel angst on occasion, but closer examination reveals it to be irritation, pique or annoyance. I wouldn’t suggest that this is a bad thing — nameless dread can really crap on your whole day — but I might suggest that the absence left by angst ought to be filled by something more than the luxurious malaise of sated comfort. What that something might be, I’ll leave to you. Hint: It’s not a “Scream” coffee mug.