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”.