On my old blog, I kept a category called “Angst” that I banned from this blog. Yet angst remains one of the chief motives behind my writing.
If I’m absolutely honest, I’d much rather read work that—at least sometimes—promises mild weather instead of future storms, earthquakes, and suffering. The writer who relies on angst takes considerable risks—people will say he or she is whiny, over-earnest, or self-absorbed. But I do rely on it.
In German, I understand, the term is a mixture of fear, anxiety, guilt, remorse…a host of emotions that are bad enough singly, worse in combination. What I can find online suggests the word shares an Old Norse root with “anger,” but anger seems only a part of angst, which extends beyond your own psyche to a grave concern for the world and your power to operate meaningfully in it. People use the word “angst” to describe anxiety you can’t trace, a motiveless world-wariness and weariness, a nearly unbearable sense of futility.
And, if you describe your feelings as angst, you are almost automatically making some grander claim for your emotions. The philosophical associations are part of what makes angst suspect—it’s German, for chrissake, not American—and, by the way, why won’t “depressed” do?
Some of us always look for the right word, search menus for perfect choices then ask to alter them in some minor way. We look fussy and “Yes, but” until the last moment. Some accuse of us of believing what’s good enough for others is never, ever good enough for us.
Yet, to me angst seems real. If I were depressed, I might be inert, but angst is active, a desperate desire to taketh arms against a sea of troubles or, at least, a sea of unaccountable crap.
Which is why it motivates writing. Feeling uncertain there is any answer doesn’t stop anyone from searching. They call madness doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. At times, that describes reality as well. The problem isn’t just you but a bigger sort of hell where desire is the one thing that won’t expire.
Unfortunately, angst can also be inarticulate and lead to a sort of flailing. I know it’s hard to listen to. What feels to me like trouble with the world may sound to you like trouble with me.
In my classes, the students sometime study Edward Albee, a singularly angsty writer. In an interview, someone asked him how he answers the charge that he is a nihilistic, pessimistic writer. His answer:
If I were a pessimist I wouldn’t bother to write. Writing itself, taking the trouble, communicating with your fellow human being is valuable, that’s an act of optimism. There’s a positive force within the struggle. Serious plays are unpleasant in one way or another, and my plays examine people who are not living their lives fully, dangerously, properly.
Oddly, reading his answer makes my angst abate, makes me hope for milder weather. In his statement I find a defense for all the grim posts and poems I have written and will write. Angsty writers often have more confidence in themselves than their readers do, so those writers have a hard time winning audiences. Yet I choose to believe I’m responding positively to my struggles, living fully by occasionally being full of angst.