Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pondering Weltschmerz

I have been going through some old notebooks and came across this passage I copied out from the novel, The Last Romantic (St. Martins, 1979) by Dorothea Buske:

Old Trude steeped them in music, giving them what Julia called "a background for the heart". No girl who sat in that room can ever hear Chopin or Liszt, Bach of Handel, without seeing again those square hands rising and falling, that massive head deeply nodding; and feeling, again, as they almost unwillingly felt it then, the response to a deeper, more significant emotion than was customary for them -- a poignancy alien to their station and their years, later identified as Weltschmerz.

Although it is perhaps a downbeat subject to pick for a blog post at the beginning of a new year, when actually I feel upbeat and renewed, "Weltschmerz" (pronounced velt-shmerts) is a word I haven't heard or seen much lately and thought it might bear closer examination. Wikipedia does a good job of defining the Germanic word as: world weariness or a sadness experienced when thinking about the evils of the world. Examples of its usage can be found on

The tv series M.A.S.H. seems, at least to me, to be saturated in weltschmerz. In the midst of the Korean war, although there is a strong esprit de corps, the M.A.S.H. gang display an unmistakable world weariness. They deal with the evils of war on a daily basis. Their antidotes: a sense of gallows humor and the frequent use of alcoholic libations.

Another example that comes to mind is the cult film Koyaanisqatsi, an unforgettable tone poem of a film which vividly portrays our modern world as a place very much out of balance. The word "koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word meaning a crazy way of life that needs to be changed. Using a collage-like juxtaposition of beautiful natural scenes against modern horrors, combined with the haunting music of Philip Glass, for my vote, this film has to be one of the most thought-provoking, creative pieces of artwork in any genre.

Authors associated with weltschmerz include Herman Hesse, Lord Byron and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Road by Cormac McCarthy certainly delivered plenty of weltschmerz, and thus works well as a cautionary post-apocalyptic tale. I think of Joyce Carol Oates as a writer with plenty of melancholy discontent. If the thought of weltschmerz makes you blue with it overly pessimistic implications, at least take heart in that if we didn't feel down about some of the world's evil ways, we would be heartless. Where there is weltschmerz, does not empathy and compassion follow?

collage by KAO: Broken Labyrinth # 1, 2009

1 comment:

Don Wentworth said...

Great post, KAO, and love the collage.

Right now, Pittsburgh is covered in a thick white blanket of weltschmerz and if it doesn't stop soon, we are going to up to our eyeballs in weltschmerz -

A colleague today was lamenting the serious lack of sunshine here over the last couple of weeks ... with more weltschmerz in the forecast.

Winter is weltschmerz, hence perfect timing for your post.