Melancholy Musing#5: Some more essential concepts

In the last post in this particular series, I was talking about melancholy and a heavy tome dealing with it. However, this was is just the beginning. Anyone who considers himself to be melancholy must not remain content with it only but be well acquainted with all the concepts I outline below……

I must start with that most-misunderstood word – Angst.

The German, Danish, Norwegian and Dutch word for fear or anxiety (like its Latin cousin anguish), it is usually used in English to describe an intense feeling of strife. However, German makes a distinction, using furcht for fear due to a threat while angst is more non-specific as to cause.

However, it is the connotation used by the existentialist philosophers that I am interested. The use of the term was first attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855). In The Concept of Anxiety (also known as The Concept of Dread, depending on the translation), Kierkegaard used the word Angest to describe a profound and deep-seated spiritual condition of insecurity and fear in the free human being.

Where the animal is a slave to its instincts but always conscious in its own actions, Kierkegaard believed that the freedom given to people leaves the human in a constant fear of failing his/her responsibilities to God.

His concept of angst is considered to be an important stepping stone for 20th-century existentialism. While Kierkegaard’s feeling of angst is fear of actual responsibility to God, in modern use, it was broadened by the later existentialists to include general frustration associated with the conflict between actual responsibilities to self, one’s principles, and others (possibly including God).

Another word – again from the trusty German – is Weltschmerz (and a literal translation would be world-pain or world-weariness). Coined by the German author Jean Paul, it denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind.

This kind of pessimistic world view was widespread among several romantic authors such as Lord Byron, Giacomo Leopardi, François-René de Chateaubriand, Alfred de Musset, Nikolaus Lenau, Herman Hesse, and Heinrich Heine and is also used to denote the feeling of sadness when thinking about the evils of the world.

In modern German, Weltschmerz is taken to mean the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone’s own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances.

It is from German only that we are indebted to another key word/concept –torschlusspanik. This word is literally translated as “door-shutting panic” or better still the “panic of shutting doors” – the feeling that time is running out on you and your age is increasingly against you.

For the next word, we must move slightly deeper into Mitteleuropa – Czechoslovakia (or the Czech Republic  as it is now) to get litost. This is an untranslatable emotion that only a Czech person would suffer from, defined by Milan Kundera as “a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.”….. Well you can’t certainly beat that.

Lets move westwards to France, where we get another champion concept –métro-boulot-dodo.

A star among phrases for an untranslatable succinctness that sums up a pointless existence (subway, work, sleep), it is from a poem titled Couleurs d’usine by Pierre Béarn. The full line is even more eloquent:

“Métro boulet bistrots mégots dodo zero (Subway work bars fags sleep nothing)”.

Lets continue our westward trip, albeit slightly too so we come to Portugal where we find the last (for this time) of our concepts.

Saudade (singular) or saudades (plural) is a Portuguese and Galician denoting a feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. It often carries a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return.

In Katherine Vaz’s definition, which she uses to explain the title of her novel Saudade, it is “yearning so intense for those who are missing, or for vanished times or places, that absence is the most profound presence in one’s life. A state of being, rather than merely a sentiment.”

Saudade was also once described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone. It is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can very well be described as an emptiness of someone or something that should be there in a particular moment but is missing and my never be attained, and the absence is felt very strongly by the individual.

In his 1912 book on Portugal, A.F.G. Bell writes: “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning toward the past or toward the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”

And on this note, I must end….


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