Angst Week: A Defence of Angst?

We should have begun last week with an exploration of this term “Angst”  itself, in theory.

Instead, we left you in the dark, fumbling around trying to figure out what the weepy, melodramatic, floweriness spewing across the page meant.

But now you have enough example to use inductive reasoning and grasp the basic idea of for yourself; it is weepy, emotional, overplayed misery, and a vague atmosphere of failure and depression that questions the questions about the question of the universe. Also, it tends to be melodramatic. And it is rather fun to write.

This basic principle of the enjoyment of writing to release miserable feelings is probably one of the reasons why Angst tends to be favored by teenagers seeking an outlet, and so giving Angst a bad name. (Also the abundance of the Vampire-and-Werewolf-Romance tales, which practically screams “I am marketed as Angst and deep questioning of the human soul, but because I don’t really have an objective view of evil or humanity I will just weep a lot and then have a sappy happy ending”. Gah, silly ‘supernatural’ books.)

Ahem. This was not necessarily the original understanding of Angst as a genre.

The dictionary defines angst as a nonspecific feeling of dreadful anxiety, or as part of the Existentialist Philosophy about the worry over the choices and unpredictability of the future. In other words, “angst” is an uneasy questioning of purpose and life with an undirected and uncomfortable conclusionlessness. (On a side note, the plural of angst is apparently ‘angste’, pronounced “eng-stuh”. This amuses me. It just sounds to silly to be appropriately . . . . angsty.)

As the first English usage of the word was in the translation of Freud, it makes sense that the culture that was exploring many different views of human nature and the reasons for life and society would reflect these rather grim searches in art. As a literary form, this usually does take the appearance of melodramatic and depressive stories upholding unhappiness as the only really interesting and real thing in reality. Look at Tolstoy, Kafka, and Evelyn Waugh.

Waugh is my ideal of angst. Despite having a sad, rather dramatic life, he himself states in a letter that he did not think that he had Angst.  Yet he does seem to understand angst to be the Existential Questioning of All Things, and his early novels in particular – Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust –  never really having a fully completed, nice, romantically pleasing conclusion. In fact, the guy never gets the girl, love fails as a way to live life, lots of people die, or are committed to insane asylums, or are stranded in the jungle and forced to read Dickens aloud for the rest of a humid, mosquito-bitten existence. That sounds interesting and angsty to me. Also, bitingly, riotously, painfully funny. Later, Waugh’s books do take a Christian purpose and reason for life into consideration, but the earthly comfort of his characters remains . . . prickly.

So, as a literary genre, Angst does have a place in the cannon.

And reason for existence. By way of prompting questions about the reasons for existence. Tricky, isn’t it?

It is not merely a means of self-expression for emotionally undirected teens. It is a questioning of life, and is it is an active questioning then it as a searching. It is dominated by an atmosphere of futility and tends to lack a neat, immediately gratifying end. But it can be amusing. It can inspire questions in the reader. And it is a genuine articulation of the problems of humanity, and particularly modern humanity that has to live in a world where Philosophy can mean a certain world view that casts doubt on all purpose and possible happiness.

It is also – as I stated above – fun to write. Very cathartic.

And a good way of practicing conveying emotion through prose and poetry.

Actually, it was rather apropos that we hesitated until now to try to define angst. First you had question it and wonder about it until it created a deep, underlying anxiety in your soul. But now you have an idea of it, have wallowed in the sticky and desperate feelings, and can move forward into a sunnier and more definate approach to life and literature.


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