Whenever I think about the issue of Angst, or anxiety, I always recall a scene from an Australian movie I once saw called Walkabout. Walkabout is about two Australian children lost in the Outback who are found, befriended, and cared for by a young Aboriginal boy who is on walkabout. In one hunting scene, the Aboriginal boy tracks down and corners a kangaroo which, having been backed into a corner, begins whimpering, knowing it is about to die. It is a very piteous scene. It is a very important scene in the film, though, because in time the hunter becomes the hunted, and at the film’s end it’s the young Aboriginal boy who becomes cornered by death. His response to his own end, in contrast to the kangaroo’s, is very different. He performs his death dance.

The kangaroo’s anxiety at being cornered is heart-wrenching. It’s one of the most poignant portrayals of anxiety that I’ve seen in art. But we all end up like that kangaroo — cornered. Death is the hunter, and we can go out whimpering like the poor kangaroo, or singing like William Blake or dancing like Castaneda’s don Juan.

Angst, or anxiety and anxiousness, as Jean Gebser pointed out in his book The Ever-Present Origin is related to the word “angle” — a narrowing. Angst is usually defined as “free-floating dread” or just “dread” — fear without a specific object of fear. Gebser gives it, however, a more precise meaning by relating it to the meaning of “angle” as the sense of being backed into a corner or a narrowing of options. This narrowing, he saw, was the inevitable fate of reified perspective perception or the “point-of-view” ego consciousness, and it corresponds to what Nietzsche dismissively referred to as “nook-and-cranny” perspectivism. Isolation (and atomisation) in this “point=of-view” is the fate of egoism and is the sense of being backed into a corner, and this narrowing of consciousness into a mere “point before the eyes” (as Castaneda’s don Juan put it once) is the cause of anxiety or Angst.

So, in that sense it is largely self-inflicted, and it very much has to do with Blake’s remark that “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”. Often when Blake speaks of “natural reason” or the fallen “natural” he means this reified perspectivisation that ends in a “point-of-view” which is also “the Selfhood”. This is the more important meaning of “egoism”, as Nietzsche’s “nook-and-corner perspectivism”.

Gebser was concerned enough about Angst or anxiety to devote a whole book to it entitled Keine Angst vor der Angst. It hasn’t been translated into English as yet, and the title is difficult to render into English but it means something akin to “you have nothing to fear but fear itself”. For Gebser, “narrowing” or anxiety had a double meaning like almost everything else — another coincidence of opposites — for it described not only the death process but also the birth process, since the passage through the birth canal or “narrowing” is also a major cause and experience of anxiety and fear.  In fact, Seth insists that our notions of “Hell” really come from a residual memory of the trauma and anxiety of birth.

In those terms, then, Gebser saw an essential ambiguity in the problem of contemporary Angst, which is also connected with what I’ve referred to as “chaotic emotions” or “affective disorders”. Anxiety had the potential to be symptomatic of either the death throes of an old consciousness structure that had run out of options, or the birth pangs of a new consciousness structure that had not yet become fully articulate or conscious about itself. We could just as well speak more of “Universal Angst” rather than “Universal Reason”.

The ego consciousness of Late Modern Man is a real mess — (call it what you will, “consciousness structure”, or “personality structure” or “character”). “Chaotic emotions” and the attendent Angst is the chief symptom of the fragmentation or disintegration of the psychic structure of Modern Man or “the new normal”. And one of the aspects of the new normal is the Double-Bind (or “predicament”) that the ego-consciousness finds itself in — on the one hand, fear of death and dissolution, and on the other fear of rebirth and resurrection because rebirth implies a prior death and dissolution. Last night, for example, I went to see the movie The Revenant with a few friends in which the rebirthing or resurrect scenes were repeated almost ad nauseam — once from the grave, another from the sweat lodge, and then again from the corpse of an eviscerated horse (“OK, I got the message. How many times does this guy have to die and be resurrected?”). None of the rebirthing or resurrection scenes were particularly pleasant.

As you may know from Gregory Bateson’s and R.D. Laing’s research, double-bind and schizophrenia are very closely related. And this situation is quite connected with Gramsci’s assessment of the current crisis: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Actually, “morbid symptoms” is probably just as well expressed as “schizophrenic symptoms”.

The sense of being “squeezed” by this or that or between this-and-that is a common enough expression. The pressure is the pressure of the double-bind, which is again an ambiguous situation. I once compared it to being stuck “between the anvil of the Earth and the hammer of God”, whether you think of this as “punishing” or as jewel-making is a matter of your predilection. The longer the metal resists, the more and more fierce hammer blows it receives.

If you know Castaneda’s works, you’ll also know that fear or anxiety is the “first enemy” of the man or woman of knowledge.

“A man goes to knowledge as he goes to war, wide awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it will live to regret his steps.
When a man has fulfilled those four requisites there are no mistakes for which he will have to account; under such conditions his acts lose the blundering quality of a fool’s acts. If such a man fails, or suffers a defeat, he will have lost only a battle, and there will be no pitiful regrets over that.”

“Absolute assurance” is just another term for “faith”, and don Juan gets the issue of faith quite right. It’s the power that you summon within yourself to overcome fear and anxiety, not by avoiding them, but by passing through them. Fear or Angst is always the first obstacle to enlightenment. So, you could say that Nietzsche and Gebser, amongst others, are simply the teachers of a new faith, a faith strong enough to help us endure the present levels of Angst without running away or losing our marbles in the process.

All this talk of erecting walls and fences is the expression of anxiety — walls mental, walls physical, walls spiritual. There’s a certain irony in the fact that almost immediately after the Berlin Wall came down as itself a symbol of fear and division (and this was declared a “triumph” of open societies over closed societies) new walls began to be constructed by the very societies that had boasted of their “openness”. The biggest irony of all, and the biggest wall of all, was Fukuyama’s “end of history” that celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall itself.  Fukuyama and his champions were (and still are) the same Pharisees and scribes of the New Testament that Jesus denounced as “hypocrites” who shut the gates to paradise and then threw away the key.

What we call “magical thinking” usually accompanies high anxiety and chaotic emotion, and it’s the one thing Gebser himself feared, having watched it emerge in Europe during the thirties. “Magical thinking” is ritualistic and formulaic thought bordering on the obsessive compulsive, an attempt to impose order on chaotic emotions and dispell anxiety by giving the illusion of control. What we call “magical thinking” is what Gebser described as the “deficient” mode of the magical consciousness structure.

It’s in this sense, too, that one needs to understand Iain McGilchrist’s complaint that the second attention of the left-hemisphere of the brain is busy making sure all the exits (or entrances) beyond itself are shut down and closed off, and that’s the real import of the “end of history” and the mind’s self-enclosure within something that looks like the foetal position, also a common response to high anxiety or the sense of vulnerability…. or, perhaps, also to a sense of rebirth.  The caterpillar also closes itself up in foetal position when it feels threatened and vulnerable.

The social atmosphere today is thick with both chaotic emotion and anxiety, which will only tend to produce the very outcomes that only reinforce the sense of chaos and Angst in a positive feedback loop. As we know from current research, subjective states and emotions are very much an integral part of ecosystem dynamics and equilibrium. It’s all one energy, and chaotic ones will produce chaotic effects until such time as a new relative equilibrium is achieved. And in contemporary terms, this new relative equilibrium is what Gebser calls “integral consciousness”.



8 responses to “Angst”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    As usual, too many gems to mention and too beautifully described.

    I’ve seen that movie: “Walkabout.” It was on “hulu”. Very good movie.

    I did see “Revenant”, too, and I thought the movie was too long. And yes, that scene when he put himself inside the belly of the horse to survive the cold reminded me of Castaneda at 10 years old, when he was put in the belly of a dead (mule?), because some people wanted him to grab the beak of a buzzard and hold it until they came and grabbed the bird and slaughtered it.

    Apparently, those men were looking for buzzard body parts, which would then be used in making some magical potion or something. Quite an extraordinary event in Castaneda’s life. If you ask me, he was a very courageous person.

    “The ego consciousness of Late Modern Man is a real mess…..”

    Yes. That’s because Late Modern Man spends a lot of time at the workplace, and he/she is continuously faced with the choice between losing his/her soul in the process of earning a livelihood or blowing the whistle on all the unethical things that nowadays are going on in the workplace and get into bruising battles where one finds himself/herself alone and isolated.

    I can say, from first hand experience, that Seth is 100% correct, and that leading an ego-less life is the way to go and is the salvation from this “Angst.”

    But to lead an ego-less life one needs every ounce of tact and thought and intelligence one can muster in oneself. Because one constantly has to watch oneself (what I mean is to check one’s thoughts, emotions, and deeds) every step of the way to ensure that what one is about to do or say in the workplace is devoid of boosting the ego.

    I love don Juan Matus’ gesture to Castaneda when he put his hand on Castaneda’s chest and said (and I paraphrase): “All your battles must be fought here.”

  2. abdulmonem says :

    I always think and wonder why all this insistence by all prophets and sages on the recognizing of the divine in oneself,if it is not to avoid the human fall in the abyss of anxiety, to connect to the overall vision and leave the ego vision. All wise messages are calls to connect to the absolute assurance, the faith as a starting first step in the journey toward him, He is inside me and I am inside him, that is why it is a battle, its field is the human self. It is one energy but so many different ways to expend it. I remember Beverly Harrison saying how the energy of anger can be transferred be used for love. It is a journey from disorder to order, from choatic emotion to compassionate emotion. I remember her also insisting on the sensual doors as the only doors to spiritual development, if only we learn how to use their inner significations. It is really an enigma to be in his presence and not to be aware of his operative presence. It is a mutual presence that needs mutual acknowledgement and the human remains as the initiator in this interactive play.

    • abdulmonem says :

      I like to add what I mean by his operative presence, I mean his operative presence through his water we drink,through his food we eat,through his air we breath, his fire we use and through his dust we utilize, after all we were out of dust, have been made and to dust we shall return. Above all our consciousness through which we conduct our affairs and which is, his grant to humanity to enjoy the different processes of understanding, ourselves, our cosmos and finally Him who can not be understood divested of matter, as Ibn Arabi emphasized in his message to humanity, repeating that his witnessing can not take place except in matter and that any model that blocks the flow of life, acts as pollutant.

  3. dadaharm says :


    I basically agree with your analysis of the situation. It does describe the current situation, but……

    This is not how mr. and mrs. Average esperience the situation. They do feel insecure and experience anxiety. I doubt they think the problems are caused by their mental-rational consciousness structure. Mostly they are worried about their own (economic) situation, some might even worry about the environment.

    They want the problems they worry about to be solved. That means they want a political solution. They will choose what they consider to be the easiest and simplest solution to the problems. That might well be the Great Wall of Trump.

    The time that mr. and mrs. Average start to worry about philosophical problems like their consciousness structure has not yet arrived. (The old must die somewhat more fully and completely before there is room for the new to appear.)

    • Scott Preston says :

      I think it goes without saying that people don’t know. That’s why they’re anxious. If they knew what was happening to them, they wouldn’t be anxious or engage in scapegoating others (“You’re the reason I’m anxious all the time! If we just get rid of you, I’ll feel better!”). It’s just like those medical patients who get all anxious until they get a firm diagnosis (“I’ve got cancer? Phew, what a relief!”) Insight and understanding freezes action.

      So, of course most people don’t know that they are living the “post-Enlightenment” or in the post-modern condition. They don’t even know what “Enlightenment” or “modernity” even refers to, apart from novelty, science, and technology — labour-saving devices, modern conveniences, etc, etc and certainly not as a particular mode of being or structure of attention or consciousness. As far as most people are concerned, most people have always been pretty much the same and never think at all in McGilchrist’s terms that the “mode of attention” determines the “mode of being” and that deficiencies or problems of attention might be the real cause of their anxieties, and not something in the social miliieu.

      Times of great change are also times of high anxiety, even though people can’t really put their finger on the source of the anxiety — but, of course, the source of the anxiety is themselves. Nobody or nothing else. Ultimately the root of anxiety is the fear of death or of anything that passes away. This is a world of imperanence, and that impermanence of things is a source of anxiety about existence.

      Change represents a challenge. And those who do not feel adequate to the challenge, who do not have confidence in their own resources to meet the challenges, will always feel Angst.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Insightfully put!

        And I wager the “Angst” part is because deep down we know in order to be able to keep up or handle “change”, we will need to dispense with vast reserves of energy.

        And the question is “Do I got it, or not?” 🙂

        The answer is most certainly “Yes, you got it! But you’ve got to know where to tap that energy.”

        As don Juan Matus pointed out, (and please correct me if my memory betrays me) the universe is a hostile place because entities on various planes of existence are on the look out to steal energy.

        And with every passage through we gain more power, and the more power our awareness has the less likely other entities will be able to steal energy from it.

        In return, we project into the universe the energy of our thoughts and emotions that will be used by other entities to mold events and what not.

        I know one thing, if anything at all……

        Doing good now, saying good now, and thinking good now will take the edge off that impending “Angst”; that is, to say the least of what it can do. More likely, I would think, it will ward it off altogether.

        In many of your past essays you have hit on some of the paths that allow one to do all those things: 1) having empathy, 2) having compassion, 3) being creative, etc. These paths are remarkable in the sense that they seem to give one more energy than one puts in such acts; methinks.

        Of course, time and place have a lot to do with the outcomes, too. I don’t mean to bring back bad memories, but just think of those who were in Syria on a compassionate mission and instead got their heads removed.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          “And with every passage through we gain more power,…..”

          Sorry, in my previous comment, I meant to say, “And with every passage through death we gain more power,…..”

        • davidm58 says :

          John Dewey (as quoted by H.N. Wieman) put it quite beautifully:

          “But a mind that has opened itself to experience and that has ripened through its discipline, knows that its own littleness and impotencies…But it also knows that its juvenile assumption of power and achievement is not a dream to be wholly forgotten. It implies a unity with the universe that is to be preserved. The belief, and the effort of thought and struggle which it inspires, are also the doing of the universe, and they in some way, however slight, carry the universe forward…consistent with the belief that we and our endeavors are significant not only for themselves but in the whole.

          “…When we have used our thought to the utmost and have thrown into the moving unbalanced balance of things our puny strength we know that though the universe slay us still we may trust, for our lot is one with whatever is good in existence. We know that such thought and effort is one condition of the coming into existence of the better. As far as we are concerned it is the only condition, for it alone is in our power. To ask more than this is childish; but to ask less is recreance no less egotistic, involving no less a cutting of ourselves from the universe than does the expectation that it meet and satisfy our every wish.To ask in good faith as much as this from ourselves is to stir into motion every capacity of imagination, and to exact from action every skill and bravery…”

          – John Dewey, “Experience and Nature”

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