The Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe is little-known to most Anglophone readers. He was greatly inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer and has been called one of the “bleakest thinkers of all times and places.” Zapffe was also an avid mountaineer and a friend of fellow Norwegian philosopher — and originator of deep ecology — Arne Næss. His only major work is his doctoral dissertation On the Tragic (1941), which has still never been translated into any other language, although an English translation is currently in the works. Justin Weinberg, writing for Daily Nous, says that On the Tragic is “an achievement that alone ranks him as one of the most original and incisive thinkers of the past century.” Fortunately, though, we can familiarize ourselves with some of the themes and ideas expressed in this work through a short essay that Zapffe wrote, one of his few works to ever be translated into English.
"The Last Messiah" is a 1933 essay that encapsulates Zapffe’s view on the human condition and stands out as an important work in the sphere of philosophical pessimism. The views expressed can be classed as a kind of evolutionary existentialism, in that Zapffe propounds a view on the nature of human existence that incorporates an evolutionary perspective. "The Last Messiah" summarizes the thoughts that Zapffe would later express in On the Tragic. The horror writer Thomas Ligotti also frequently references Zapffe’s essay in his pessimistic nonfiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (2010).
Zapffe’s Analysis of the Human Condition in "The Last Messiah"
For Zapffe, existential angst, despair, and depression are due to our overly evolved intellect. He believed — as he argues in "The Last Messiah" — that we have an overabundance of consciousness, we essentially think too much for our own good. He refers to the human being as “a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature.” Rust Cohle, a nihilistic character in the series True Detective, expresses the same view: "I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution."
In his essay, Zapffe goes on to say that we are a species that “had been armed too heavily” — for after all, what animal needs to be aware of its own mortality, or needs to be so prone to anxiety? For Zapffe, our becoming mentally over-equipped has resulted in us becoming “fearful of life itself,” of our “very being." The degree to which we are conscious of reality, which is unlike any other species, also means that we have become acutely aware of the suffering of billions of people and sentient life on the planet. Aldous Huxley, in his novel Chrome Yellow (1921), wrote:
If one had an imagination vivid enough and a sympathy sufficiently sensitive really to comprehend and to feel the sufferings of other people, one would never have a moment’s peace of mind.
Zapffe's point is that our imagination is this naturally vivid; we can't help but let "the suffering of human billions" enter into our awareness through the "gateway of compassion." And such a clear-eyed view of reality is overwhelming. In a rather evocative passage, Zapffe writes:
The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by over-evolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment. In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendor pinning its bearer to the ground.
The species of deer that Zapffe has in mind is the Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus), which thrived throughout Eurasia during the ecological epoch known as the Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). The Irish elk had the largest antlers of any known deer, with a maximum span of 3.65 meters. Historically, the explanation given for the extinction of the Irish elk was that its antlers grew too large: the animals could no longer hold up their heads or feed properly — their antlers, according to this explanation, would also get entangled in trees, such as when trying to flee human hunters through forests. However, according to some researchers, the large antlers of the Irish elk may have had little to do with the extinction of the species. Yet regardless of whether the Irish elk's antlers did, indeed, weigh these creatures down, Zapffe's analogy is still illuminating in its own right.
A surplus of consciousness and intellect is the default state of affairs for the human species, although unlike the case of the deer that Zapffe alludes to, we have been able to save ourselves from going extinct. Zapffe posits that humans have come to cope and survive by repressing this surplus of consciousness. Without restricting our consciousness, Zapffe believed the human being will fall into “a state of relentless panic” or a ‘feeling of cosmic panic’, as he puts it. This follows a person’s realisation that “[h]e is the universe’s helpless captive”; it comes from truly understanding the human predicament. In the 1990 documentary To Be a Human Being, he stated:
Man is a tragic animal. Not because of his smallness, but because he is too well endowed. Man has longings and spiritual demands that reality cannot fulfill. We have expectations of a just and moral world. Man requires meaning in a meaningless world.
In "The Last Messiah," Zapffe postulates four main methods humans have used for limiting the contents of their consciousness, including:
- Isolation, which involves “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.” It is an avoidance of thinking about the human condition and the terrible truths that Zapffe believes this entails. He also describes the technique of isolation by quoting a certain "Engstrom," whose identity remains uncertain: “One should not think, it is just confusing.”
- Anchoring, which involves the “fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness.” This requires that we consistently focus our attention on a value or ideal (the examples Zapffe gives include "God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future”).
- Distraction, which is when “one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions” — this prevents the mind from examining itself and becoming aware of the tragedy of human existence. It is easy to think of how we, in modern times, incessantly distract ourselves with external stimulation; some examples Zapffe gives include entertainment, sport, and radio.
- Sublimation, which Zapffe calls “a matter of transformation rather than repression.” It involves turning “the very pain of living” into “valuable experiences.” He continues: “Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends, fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects.” He also notes that the essay "The Last Messiah" itself is an attempt at such sublimation. For Zapffe, sublimation is “the rarest of protective mechanisms." Most people can limit the contents of their consciousness using the previous three mechanisms, staving off existential angst and world-weariness. But when these forms of repression fail and the tragic cannot be ignored, sublimation offers a remedy, a way of turning the unignorable “pain of living” into creative, positive, aesthetically valuable works.
Is There No Room for Joy?
Comparisons have been made between Zapffe’s views on the human condition and sublimation to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche writes: “Higher human beings distinguish themselves from the lower by seeing and hearing, and thoughtfully seeing and hearing, immeasurably more”. But this higher degree of sensitivity, of looking deeply into life, results in suffering. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche, like Zapffe, defends the remedial effects of art: “The truly serious task of art…[is] to save the eye from gazing into the horrors of night and to deliver the subject by the healing balm of illusion from the spasms of the agitations of the will.”
When the first three repression techniques outline by Zapffe fail, which they do for a minority of people, then creative expression may be the only available means of coping with the “horrors of night," as Nietzsche put it. Arguably, the rarity of sublimation helps to explain why geniuses are also rare, as creative work is often the only saving grace for those people deeply attuned to the fullness of the human predicament. In the words of Aristotle: “No great genius has ever existed without a touch of madness.” Elsewhere Aristotle stated: “Those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.” Many studies have indeed found links between psychopathology and creativity, with many such studies discussed in Dean Keith Simonton’s book Origins of Genius (1999).
To save oneself from becoming overwhelmed, panicked, and despondent, creative work acts as a protective mechanism, as Zapffe argues, although such creative expression may be regarded as more valuable than simply protection against consciousness; it can be thought of as providing the very meaning that people yearn for, which Zapffe believes is unobtainable. Nietzsche, for instance, maintained that “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl also echoed the view that meaning can be found in our relationship to suffering. It is possible to transcend the sense of meaningless and hopelessness we have by creating something genuinely valuable and meaningful.
Here we can make a distinction between cosmic nihilism, which paints the universe as inherently meaningless and terrestrial nihilism, which treats all of human life and activity as meaningless. Even pessimistic philosophers such as David Benatar concede that human life can be meaningful. We don’t have to fall into terrestrial nihilism, as well as cosmic nihilism. By advancing meaning in terrestrial, human affairs, the panic that Zapffe alludes to may only hold true when we take the cosmic perspective. Furthermore, if meaning can be found in transforming one’s own suffering or that of others, then this could entail actions that go beyond sublimation. There seems to be discoverable meaning for people — such as being of service to others or serving something bigger than oneself — that could be defined as an intrinsic part of the human condition, rather than a way of escaping the human condition.
On Zapffe’s point that our surplus of consciousness is to blame for the unique experience of existential angst and depression, I think it could be equally claimed that this surplus also enables converse feelings of existential joy. Of course, it can be disputed as to whether the existential angst is what comes more easily, but at least in cases of rarefied genius, so those people who cannot repress consciousness like the majority do, there is often a great capacity for joy, as well as sorrow. This seems to hinge on these people’s sensitivity to the totality of one’s individual consciousness, the human condition in general, and the world at large. Thus, just as despair can accompany any ordinary day, in solitude with one’s mind, so can ecstasy. One becomes open to the wide range of human experience and emotion, and privy to its depths and intensities.
As a case in point, Nietzsche experienced extreme states of suffering, both physical and psychological in nature, and focused much of his work on the problem of human suffering; but Nietzsche nonetheless seemed open to intense joys as well. He writes:
The intensities of my feeling make me shudder and laugh; several times I could not leave the room for the ridiculous reason that my eyes were inflamed — from what? Each time, I had wept too much on my previous day’s walk, not sentimental tears but tears of joy; I sang and talked nonsense, filled with a glimpse of things which put me in advance of all other men.
In the preface to The Gay Science, he also spoke of the elation and hopefulness that can follow a confrontation with suffering:
This book might need more than one preface; and in the end there would still be room for doubting whether someone who has not experienced something similar could, by means of prefaces, be brought closer to the experience of this book. It seems to be written in the language of the wind that brings a thaw: it contains high spirits, unrest, contradiction, and April weather, so that one is constantly reminded of winter’s nearness as well as of the triumph over winter that is coming, must come, perhaps has already come. . . Gratitude flows forth incessantly, as if that which was most unexpected had just happened — the gratitude of a convalescent — for recovery was what was most unexpected. "Gay Science": this signifies saturnalia of a mind that has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure — patiently, severely, coldly, without yielding, but also without hope — and is now all of a sudden attacked by hope, by hope for health, by the intoxication of recovery. Is it any wonder that in the process much that is unreasonable and foolish comes to light, much wanton tenderness, lavished even on problems that have a prickly hide, not made to be fondled and lured? This entire book is really nothing but an amusement after long privation and powerlessness, the jubilation of returning strength, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and a day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of reopened seas, of goals that are permitted and believed in again.
On Zapffe’s Evolutionary Existentialism
While the argument could be made that Zapffe is perhaps unduly pessimistic in his outlook, I do think he delivers a keen insight into the human condition by focusing on the evolutionary perspective. It seems clear that our biological, evolutionary imperatives do not always closely align with human well-being and, at least on some accounts, such imperatives seem diametrically opposed to our happiness. For example, in Buddhism, craving is cast as the root of human suffering, yet craving serves a crucial biological and evolutionary function; it makes us constantly feel unsatisfied with what is, projecting satisfaction on what could be, causing us to constantly strive, but never gaining lasting satisfaction, only temporary satisfaction. But this treadmill of desire is what keeps us motivated to survive and reproduce.
Zapffe refers to the human organism as a “biological paradox,” but actually, I think while his analysis of the human condition may hold true, it is not so hard to see why the human intellect is as it is, even if it leads to the unique human experience of existential angst. Evolutionary trade-offs are commonplace. There are countless examples of where an advantageous change in one trait leads to a disadvantageous change in another trait. In the case of humans, we can easily see that our degree of intellect as advantageous in a strictly biological context, but at the same time we can say that we have too much intellect and awareness, that it makes us prone to a wide spectrum of negative states, from rumination to horrific despair.
However, in evolutionary terms, we might posit that the benefits of our highly (or overly) evolved intellect outweigh the downsides, even if experientially, for the individual, those downsides entail existential panic and an indefatigable kind of discomfort. Zapffe notes, however, that most people avoid the real horrors of seeing the human predicament clearly, with “[p]ure example of life-panic [being] presumably rare.” This is because “the protective mechanisms are refined and automatic and to some extent unremitting.” Evolution is not a perfect system of design, so even if the protective mechanisms don’t successfully work for all individuals or don’t work all the time, with life-panic sometimes rising to the surface, our overly evolved intellect is nevertheless beneficial overall, within a strictly evolutionary framework. So long as we have the four repressional techniques in place, working for most people most of the time, it seems the human species can avoid extinction.
Thus, the human situation is unique, undoubtedly, but I would not necessarily view it as paradoxical from an evolutionary perspective, although it is paradoxical in the sense that, as a consequence of biological evolution, we have the intellectual capacity to question life itself and even reject it, a capacity absent from members of any other species, who we presume are merely directed by biological impulses, without protest or question.
Zapffe’s other characterization of the species as an “absurdity” is probably quite apt. It certainly fits in with Albert Camus’ description of the human condition in The Myth of Sisyphus, in which Camus analogizes human life with that of the king Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology was said to have been punished by Zeus for his self-aggrandizement and forced to eternally roll a giant boulder up a hill, watch it roll down, and then have to roll it up again. For Camus, human life is comparable to this absurd activity, in that our condition and the world do not meet our desires: we want meaning, a fundamental reason for our existence, but we are unable to find such a meaning or purpose. This is a point that Zapffe also underscores. The boulder is the meaning we try to construct (be it scientific, metaphysical, or religious), but they inevitably fail to meet our need for meaning (according to Camus, anyway), and this causes us to construct another meaning, with the process repeating itself, like in the case of Sisyphus.
One potential criticism I would level against Zapffe’s "The Last Messiah" essay is that the mind may already — naturally — repress consciousness, without any artificial methods of repression in place. This is known as the "reducing valve theory" of the mind, expounded by philosophers such as Henri Bergson and C.D. Broad, and then later popularized by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception (1954). This theory also appears to be with more modern research on human consciousness. For example, research has demonstrated that the human brain has evolved a large-scale network — called the default mode network (DMN) — that represses consciousness, to limit the amount of information reaching conscious awareness. Thus, the repression of consciousness seems to be biological and inbuilt, and not just artificial, as Zapffe argues.
More importantly, however, if you disable this repressional capacity of the brain, which occurs under the influence of psychedelics, this results in even more information becoming available to our awareness, an even greater abundance of consciousness. Under Zapffe’s assumptions, this would nail us down to the ground even more powerfully. Yet increased depression is not what is seen when this happens. Instead, the opposite often occurs. Such antidepressant effects can also be maintained in the long-term.
This might not be a knock-down argument against Zapffe’s main point, of course, since you might want to counter and say that the psychedelic state is but another way of fighting the default, unpleasant state of human consciousness, along with the four repressional techniques that Zapffe outlines. However, I think this research does seem to point to the fact that human consciousness is not always imprisoning and that there is the possibility of having a surplus of consciousness without falling into existential panic, even in the absence of repressional techniques.
Antinatalism in "The Last Messiah"
Based on his rather bleak diagnosis of the human species, Zapffe puts forward his notion of "the last messiah": “[a] man who has fathomed life and its cosmic ground, and whose pain is the Earth’s collective pain.” Such a messiah would, in Zapffe’s mind, cause outrage among the general public, with passionate calls made for his death, just as in the case of other messiahs. But the vital message of this last messiah is starkly different from those messiahs preceding him; in fact, whereas most messiahs have life-affirming messages, this last messiah has a life-denying one: “Know yourselves — be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye.” This is the best solution available to us, according to Zapffe.
Such a view is a proclamation of antinatalism, a philosophy that recommends we desist from procreation, also professed by philosophers such as Emil Cioran. It is certainly antithetical to the more pronatalist values found in the Bible, such as when God declared to humanity: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Zapffe’s antinatalist philosophy is also succinctly summed up in his statement: “To bear children into this world is like carrying wood to a burning house.” Zapffe took antinatalism seriously and remained childless throughout his life. Elsewhere, he said:
In accordance with my conception of life, I have chosen not to bring children into the world. A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation.
Zapffe, as we can see, takes an extremely beak and pessimistic view on the human condition. It may, in many people’s eyes, be too pessimistic to be considered realistic, which is what most philosophical pessimists aim for in their thought. Zapffe’s evolutionary existentialism could also be accurate, yet still narrow in excluding the joyous mode of being available to us, which can remain even after we reject all of the repressional techniques that Zapffe describes. Perhaps existential panic comes easily, but this does not mean existential joy is always out of reach. After all, our abundance of consciousness — our level of self-awareness — also gives us the unique capacity to rejoice about our existence.
Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include existentialism, psychology, and mental health. You can follow him on Twitter and find more of his work at www.samwoolfe.com. An earlier version of this post appears at www.samwoolfe.com/2020/06/the-last-messiah-peter-wessel-zapffe.html.