I stumbled upon a bleak work of Philosophy by the Norwegian Peter Wessel Zapffe: “The Last Messiah.” A deeply pessimistic, anti-humanist and antinatalist work, described by one reviewer as “The human condition stripped naked, truthfully and painfully,” (Sven-are Bjerke) it is a fascinating read.
A strange book indeed, but I am attracted to the philosopher’s brooding Nordic thoughts. I found a helpful navigator through these pessimistic straits in a review by a 24-year old Norwegian, “Jakob” (also at Good Reads: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1403348401) who rescued me from complete dejection with his observation that “Camus… grappled with many of these themes and questions during the same period and came to a slightly different conclusion: yes, the universe is without any inherent meaning, and it isn’t capable of answering some of our most pressing questions. But perhaps the best we can do is to rebel, scoff at the fates and—like Sisyphus—keep rolling that stone.”
Jakob’s review in full:
In 1933, Peter Wessel Zapffe shook the philosophical circles up in his native country when he published this essay, Den sidste messias. In this essay he gives his account of the nature of the human life and how we typically deal with it, and he outlines the main themes that he would later develop more thoroughly in his phd thesis Om det tragiske (which I believe hasn’t been translated to English, somewhat surprisingly).
Safe to say, Zapffe’s account of humanity is a bleak one. The main tenet that runs through much of his philosophy is this belief: while most all other animals have developed biological tools that stand in proportion to their essential tasks in life, it is not so with modern man. We been vastly over-endowed with an advanced consciousness that allows us to reflect upon our selves, our transient nature, and pose questions about grander meaning in the universe. In fact, paradoxically, nature has given us a consciousness that writes checks (in form of metaphysical questions) that nature can’t cash (through answers to these questions).
Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily – by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being.
This is what Zapffe views as the tragic element of human existence—the discrepancy between our potential and what nature allows for us.
Zapffe illustrates this point by asking us to picture a Paleolithic hunter. While hunting for prey, he suddenly becomes aware of his place in the universe, and ponders about the shared fate of all living creatures. His loss of practical focus ends fatally. Our consciousness has evolved so far that Zapffe imagines that it can become calamitous to our survival. Zapffe points out that this isn’t the first time that a species suffers from over-evolution of one’s ability. He references the giant Irish Elk, who through the games of evolution developed antlers of such size that it contributed to their own extinction. He powerfully suggests: in depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.
So why, then, do we go on living seemingly undisrupted, generation upon generation?
Zapffe claims it is mostly due to conscious and unconscious efforts to limit our own consciousness and keep the darkest impulses hidden away. In this sense, he echoes much of the Freudian thinking of his time. We use defense mechanisms such as isolation, which is simply to ignore and suppress such thoughts.
We may use anchoring, which is to invent our own arbitrary goals and overarching meaning (typically God, Church, State, or various idealistic ideas).
We also often use distraction (probably more relevant than ever in these ever more accelerating technological times—just give the children some iPads, and they won’t get the time to face themselves).
The last tactic he describes is the use of sublimation , which is a more conscious strategy which attempts to turn the dark and tragic realizations into art and other productive activities.
In his forecast of our species future, he proposes that we will eventually face a collective breakdown as we get more and more time to reflect upon such existential matters, and that new methods of anchoring at one point won’t convince us anymore as we continue to overthrow our old ones (demise of God etc). He famously consummates his text with the short parable of the “Last Messiah” who will come and cry out: Know yourselves – be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye
What to say about this philosophy? Well, it probably comes as a surprise to no one to hear that Zapffe was a deeply unhappy and troubled man for large parts of his life. He had a dreadful childhood, and on several occasion he openly spoke about being abused as a child. It’s hard not to think that this provides a relevant backdrop for the terribly grim philosophy he would develop. That said, perhaps he would argue that this corroborates his point: our staunch tendency to ascribe deeply pessimistic philosophies merely as results of horrible childhoods and troubled psyches could be yet another sign about our wish to deny and hide these impulses away, an attempt to disarm them in a way.
In the end, while Zapffe’s philosophy is certainly thought-provoking and remarkable in that it dares to voice the questions that are disturbingly taboo to this day, it’s still hard to join completely in his grim outlook. A universe without us would in a way be wasted. Humans are seemingly a once-in-history occurrence in the sense that we are the only ones who can truly and fully perceive the richness of the universe (albeit still within certain limits of our own). If what he deems defense-mechanisms are in fact things that can be perceived as making life subjectively meaningful for others, is that really so bad? I am somewhat sympathetic to the viewpoint of Camus, who grappled with many of these themes and questions during the same period and came to a slightly different conclusion: yes, the universe is without any inherent meaning, and it isn’t capable of answering some of our most pressing questions. But perhaps the best we can do is to rebel, scoff at the fates and—like Sisyphus—keep rolling that stone