Whatchacallit? Angst, Ennui, Weltschmerz, or Something Else?

Lewis chamberlain

Lewis Chamberlain

I admire those people in this period of suspended animation who have their chins up and memes cued-up. After all, there’s little else a non-billionaire can substantially do as the economy itself is rolled into ICU, except to try to make the best of a bad situation.[1]

It’s not bad to channel ol’ Norman Vincent and to tell yourself positive thinking is, well, positive. Look at all the time you have on your hands to start that herb garden, learn French or German or Sanskrit, read those classics you claimed you’d tackle after retirement.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns.

berryman

John Berryman

Me, on the other hand, I’m spending this gorgeous spring morning trying to pinpoint the perfect word to describe my present misery.

Let’s go alphabetically.

Angst. This word, of course, German, a language especially suited to embody dread in sound, and in, fact, can make pleasant situations sound somewhat dreadful with its “harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.”

For example, “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!” is usually translated as “Sleep in heavenly peace.”

 

 

But I digress. Angst means fear in German, but in English that fear is more generalized.  It’s not as if you’re afraid of that night shriek outside your pup tent but fear that life is merely a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Angst is stronger than anxiety, which for most people is a temporary discomfort rather than an entrenched world view.

So, no, it’s not angst I suffer from, nor anxiety either, now that my son Ned has almost fully recovered from his bout with the novel coronavirus or the Covid-19 virus or the Coriolanus virus or whatever you call it.

weltschmerz

Rockwell Kent

Ennui.  When I taught English, “ennui” appeared in three of the four high school editions of our Wordly Wise workbook. The editors defined it as “boredom,” but once again, it’s more generalized than mere tedium. It connotes a world weariness rather than a momentary I-wish-I-were-somewhere-else, expressed so well by soon-to-be suicide John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14”:

Peoples (sic) bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

So, no, I’m not suffering from ennui.

Ennui c.1914 by Walter Richard Sickert 1860-1942

Walter Richard Sickert

 

Weltschmerz.  This German world means “world pain” and so correlates with ennui but connotes more pain and sadness.  So, no, that’s not it.

Well, what is it then?  Coopedinsocialestrangement.  That’s what I’m suffering from. Coopedinsocialestrangement.

I’m enjoying my bike rides with Caroline and Brooks, the uncrowded beach a quarter of a mile away, the movies we’ve seen, but I also miss my drinking buddies, Ellis and Bob, my beloved bartenders Jen and Rochelle and Solly and Sydney, my man Jeremy down at Lowlife Bar.

So instead I’ve been hanging out with Elmore Leonard and his crowd of criminals, cops, and cool black dudes. Still, it’s not the same.  I guess the good news is that unlike angst, ennui, or weltschmerz, you can eventually get over Coopedinsocialestrangement without undergoing a religious conversion.

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[1] Pro writing tip: avoid rhyming prose.

The Sky Flashes, the Great Sea Yearns

 

I can remember as a boy lying on a pile of leaves I had raked the day before, bored, staring up at the clouds. For whatever reason, years later, I recalled this incident (if you can call it that) and told my mother, “Some of my best memories are of being bored.” For whatever reason, this nonsense delighted her, and over the decades she would sometimes remind me that I had uttered those syllables, as if they embodied some great truth about the human condition.

Balderdash. Poppycock.

Truth be told, my best memories do not include that time our broken-down train sat motionless for four hours somewhere between Edinburg and Inverness nor those hours spent sitting through seemingly interminable high school productions nor glancing up every three minutes at the slow clock ticking in Mrs. Waltrip’s Algebra class (even if she did occasionally enliven things by pointing at integers on the chalk board with her middle finger).

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between mere boredom (languishing in a waiting room) and ennui, which might be best embodied by John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 14.”

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

Ennui is malaise, enduring, beyond the cure of looking up the etymology of “balderdash” (originally a weird mixture of liquids like beer, milk, Nu-Grape soda, etc.) or “poppycock” [which comes from the Dutch pap (soft) and kak (dung), so poppycock = soft-poop].

No for ennui, we need something stronger, maybe a serotonin enhancer, a love affair with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, something more substantial than watching PW Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl (my morning’s entertainment).

The fact is I wasn’t really bored when I was lying in that pile of leaves looking at the clouds. I was using my imagination. I was happy.