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Angst: Scattered illustrations

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This piece is dedicated to the task of illustrating what Angst is. It will conclude with one of the most concise, direct and telling accounts of the mood I know of: the one from Heidegger’s What is Metaphysics?. But before it gets there, I would like to make some prior remarks, point to some other sources, quote from others first.

Admittedly, many of those writing on Angst have been, one way or the other, related to philosophy. But today my own interest is not philosophical: there will be as little of it here as possible. Which is to say, that in this text I am not interested in explaining or analysing Angst. My aim is a humble one: to illustrate this unusual mood with examples scattered around different texts. Angst is unique, why should not approach to it be? Hence, I want to point to places, not describe them: I shall let others speak. If I would like to add some remarks, they are mostly of a clarificatory nature, since there is plenty of misconceptions surrounding the term. But let us begin with two passages I would like to quote at length, two most elaborate and telling prosaic descriptions of Angst known to me.


In A hot flash and chilled walls, i.e. in Chapter 34 of his famous unfinished novel, Musil describes the following experience of the novel’s protagonist, Ulrich:

“He looked around, contemplating his environment. All these circular lines, intersecting lines, straight lines, curves and wreaths of which a domestic interior is composed and that had piled up around him were neither nature nor inner necessity but bristled, to the last detail, with baroque overabundance. The current and heartbeat that constantly flows through all the things in our surroundings had stopped for a moment. “I’m only fortuitous,” Necessity leered. “Observed without prejudice, my face doesn’t look much different from a leper’s,” Beauty confessed. Actually, it did not take much to produce this effect: a varnish had come off, a power of suggestion had lost its hold, a chain of habit, expectation, and tension had snapped; a fluid, mysterious equilibrium between feeling and world was upset for the space of a second. Everything we feel and do is somehow oriented “lifeward,” and the least deviation away from this direction toward something beyond is difficult and alarming.” (R. Musil The Man Without Qualities: 134)

In Nausea, Sartre makes Roquentin note the following lines:

“I was in the municipal park just now. The root of the chestnut tree plunged into the ground just underneath my bench. I no longer remembered that it was a root. Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things, the methods of using them, the feeble landmarks which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, slightly bent, my head bowed, alone in the front of that black, knotty mass, which was utterly crude and frightened me. And then I had this revelation.

It took my breath away. Never, until these last few days, had I suspected what it meant to ‘exist’. I was like the others, like those who walk along the sea-shore in their spring clothes. I used to say like them: ‘The sea is green; that white speck up there is a seagull’, but I didn’t feel that it existed, that the seagull was an ‘existing seagull’; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say a couple of words without speaking of it, but finally you can’t touch it. [...] And then, all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It has lost its harmless appearance as an abstract category: it was the very stuff of things, that root was steeped in existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass on the lawn, all that had vanished; the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, in disorder - naked, with a frightening, obscene nakedness.’ (J.-P. Sartre Nausea: 182-183)


Though they differ from each other in terms of the focus, and though none of the authors explicitly uses the name, both fragments describe the same mood: Angst. It is a very rare mood, sometimes also known under the names of dread, anguish or anxiety. It is especially this last name, which causes many misunderstandings, which is why I insist here on calling the mood with it’s German (and via Kierkegaard, also Danish) name. To avoid the confusion caused by the terminology one should first and foremost note that in the sense Heidegger (and this text) uses it, Angst should be understood as clearly distinct from what we in everyday speech label anxiety. Angst is neither “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome”, nor what psychiatry knows as ‘a nervous disorder marked by excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behaviour or panic attacks’ (both Oxford Dictionary of English definitions of anxiety). Which is why if one would look for Angst in S. Zweig’s short story under this very title, one shall not find it: it is the anxiety, which Zweig describes. So much of the negative characteristics, of what Angst is not.

Kierkegaard was the first philosopher to describe Angst in his The Concept of Dread. This text, as Heidegger admits in Being and Time, influenced his own analysis. Both Kierkegaard and Heidegger, in turn, inspire Sartre, who spends a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what do they mean by Angst already in his Notebooks from a Phony War, 1939-1940 only to eventually misunderstand it later in Being and Nothingness. Which is why it is his description of the Nausea attack I quoted, and not his analyses of anguish of BaN, which is Sartre best, though unintended, description of Angst.


If my hitherto own remarks on Angst have been expressed mainly through various negations (what it is not), it’s because Angst is not easy to present in a positive manner. Angst fundamentally disrupts what we are used to, it detracts, it suspends. A special point in case is the impact which Angst has on the language itself. As Wittgenstein writes in one his private notes:

‘I can readily think what Heidegger means by Being and Dread. Man has the impulse to run up against the limits of language. Think for example of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, there is also no answer to it. Everything we feel like saying can, a priori, only be nonsense. Nevertheless, we do run up against the limits of language. This running up against Kierkegaard also recognised and even designated it in a quite similar way (as running-up-against-Paradox).’ (L. Wittgenstein in Murray On Heidegger on Being and Dread: 80) 


Roland Barthes also notes the relation between the unreal, the disreal (Angst) and the language. The paradoxical limits of language are revealed when Angst disempowers language as a whole:

“Sometimes the world is unreal (I utter it differently), sometimes it is disreal (I utter it with only the greatest difficulty, if at all). 

This is not (it is said) the same withdrawal from reality. In the first case, my rejection of reality is pronounced through a fantasy: everything around me changes value in relation to a function, which is the Image-repertoire [...] In the second case, I also lose reality, but no imaginary substitution will compensate me for this loss: sitting in front of the Coluche poster, I am not “dreaming” (even of the other); I am not even in the Image-repertoire any longer. Everything is frozen, petrified, immutable, i.e., unsubstitutable: the Image-repertoire is (temporarily) foreclosed. In the first moment I am neurotic, I unrealise; in the second, I am psychotic, crazy, I disrealise. [...] 

The unreal is uttered, abundantly (a thousand novels, a thousand poems). But the disreal cannot be uttered [...]” (R. Barthes A Lover’s Discourse. Fragments: 90-91) 

To which quote I wish to juxtapose this passage from Infinite Jest, not describing Angst, but helpful in further illuminating its impact on the language:

‘Terms the undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy - happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love - are stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas. They have, as it were, denotation but not connotation. [...] Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world.’ (D. F. Wallace Infinite Jest: 693) 

In the mood of Angst, Wallace’s remarks would apply not to just those words, but to all words, because Angst disempowers language in toto (‘disreal (Angst) cannot be uttered’). It’s not easy to talk about Angst. Hence comparisons. Metaphors. Hence, also, my idea to borrow the words of others. Because there seems to be hardly any direct way of speaking of what makes speaking impossible (which is why what Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Musil and Sartre achieve is so remarkable).


I am not sure H. Müller means precisely Angst when she says:

‘Es gab für die meisten Leuten keine Lücken, durch die man zwischen Wort und Gegenstand hindurch schauen und ins Nichts starren mußte, als rutsche man aus seiner Haut in Leere.’ (H. Müller In jeder Sprache sitzen andere Augen: 7)

Yet, her words are illustrative: I can sense how they point towards the region from which Angst speaks. As a girl, she knew the gaps between words and things. Hannah Arendt in Rachel Varnhagen uses a comparison strikingly close to the description of Angst with no pretence, however, to talk about it:

'If you playfully force yourself to forget for a moment that the glass in front of you is there for drinking' she says, you 'will also see the contours of the glass more sharply. It will seem menacing; the very fact that glassy things exist in the world will appear frightening.' (H. Arendt Rachel Varnhagen: 83-84)


We live in the world which, for the most part, has no gaps Müller speaks about. In the world where the very existence of things is not menacing. But the gaps open, though very, very rarely; and then the bare fact of existence does take our breath (and words) away. And when it happens we find ourselves forced (no choice there) to face what is underneath the varnish: we experience Angst. In What is Metaphysics? (but also in §40 of Being and Time) Heidegger describes it as the attunement (i.e. mood) which places us before the nothing.

If all the previous scattered illustrations seem divergent, my hope is they will converge in the following passage:

“Does such an attunement, in which man is brought before the nothing itself, occur in human existence?

It can and does occur, although rarely enough and only for a moment, in the fundamental mood of Angst. By such Angst we do not mean the quite common anxiousness, ultimately reducible to fearfulness, which all too readily comes over us. Anxiety is fundamentally different from fear. We become afraid always in the face of this or that particular being that threatens us in this or that particular respect. [...] Striving to rescue himself from this particular thing, he [who fears] becomes unsure of everything else and completely “loses his head.”

Angst does not let such confusion arise. Much to the contrary, a peculiar calm pervades it. Angst is indeed Angst in the face of …. but not in the face of this or that thing. Angst in the face of …. is always Angst concerning …. but not concerning this or that. The indeterminateness of that in the face of which and concerning which we become anxious is no mere lack of determination but rather the essential impossibility of determining it. In the following familiar phrase this indeterminateness comes to the fore.

In Angst, we say, “one feels uncanny.” What is “it” that makes “one” feel uncanny? We cannot say what it is before one feel uncanny. As a whole it is so for one. All thing and we ourselves sink into indifference. This, however, not in the sense of mere disappearance Rather, in their very receding, things turn toward us. The receding of being as a whole, closing on us in Angst, oppresses us. We can get no hold on things. In the slipping away of beings only this “no hold on things” comes over us and remains.

Angst makes manifest the nothing.

We “hover” in Angst. More precisely, Angst leaves us hanging, because it induces the slipping away of being as a whole. This implies that we ourselves - we humans who are in being - in the midst of beings slip away from ourselves. At bottom therefore it is not as though “you” or “I” feel uncanny; rather, it is this way for some “one”. In the altogether unsettling experience of this hovering where there is nothing to hold on to, pure Da-sein is all there is still there. 

Angst robs us of speech. Because beings as a whole slip away, so that precisely nothing crowds around, all utterance of the “is” falls silent in the face of nothing. That in the uncanniness of Angst we often try to shatter the vacant stillness with compulsive talk only proves the presence of nothing. That Angst unveils nothing is immediately demonstrated by human beings themselves when Angst has dissolved. In the lucid vision sustained by fresh remembrance we must say that that in the face of which and concerning which we were anxious was “properly” - nothing. Indeed, the nothing itself - as such - was there.” (M. Heidegger What is Metaphysics?: 88-89)



Jaspers, upon hearing What is Metaphysics? for the very first time, left a note on Heidegger’s nightstand (during his visit in Heidelberg, Heidegger was staying with Jaspers). The note said:

'Lieber Heidegger! Seit undenklichen Zeiten habe ich niemandem so wie heute Ihnen zugehört. Wie in der reinen Luft war mir frei zumute in diesem unablässigen Transzendieren. Das uns gemeinsam so ganz Selbstverständliche hörte ich in Ihren Worten, zum Teil mir fremd, doch als das Identische. Es wird noch philosophiert!' (K. Jaspers in: Heidegger and Jaspers Briefwechsel 1925-1693: 129)

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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