Main Entry: welt·schmerz
Pronunciation: ˈvelt-ˌshmerts
Function: noun
Usage: often capitalized
Etymology: German, from Welt world + Schmerz pain
Date: 1864

1 : mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state
2 : a mood of sentimental sadness

Weltschmerz (from the German, meaning world-pain or world-weariness) is a term coined by the German author Jean Paul and denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind.

The modern meaning of Weltschmerz in the German language is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone’s own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances. Weltschmerz in this meaning can cause depression, resignation and escapism,

the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom—a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism

Weltschmerz was characterized by a nihilistic loathing for the world and a view that was skeptically blasé.

Main Entry: bla·sé
Pronunciation: blä-ˈzā
Variant(s): also bla·se
Function: adjective
Etymology: French
Date: 1819

1 : apathetic to pleasure or excitement as a result of excessive indulgence or enjoyment : world-weary
2 : sophisticated, worldly-wise
3 : unconcerned
synonyms see sophisticated

28 thoughts on “Weltschmerz”

  1. But diagnosing the illness is half the cure, isn’t it? Maybe it’s enough? It’s always comforting to know what’s wrong, even if you can’t fix it.

  2. That tends to happen a lot when people are diagnosed terminal diseases. From the moment the doctor says the merry words you have three months to live, at best, it’s all happiness and fulfillment from then on.

    But we kid with the sadder aspects of life and that won’t do.

  3. Maybe we all have a secret death wish. Or maybe the knowledge of a certain near death frees one of the responsibilities of life. Which I can imagine can lead to a sort of euphoric state.

    Weltschmerz, on the other hand, is caused by the curse of life, not the bliss of death.

    But maybe being diagnosed with a disease that modernity hasn’t been able to cure is something to be proud of! It’s almost like a form of resistance. An insult to all the efforts of those noble idiots that run the place: that they cannot please us, that our imagination is beyond anything they can achieve. That they will never know beauty like we have.

  4. I know the feeling of weltschmerz well (in its original meaning), though I’d never be apathetic about enjoying things. If I can’t get the world I want, maybe I can distract myself from it briefly by indulging in what this world has to offer.

    I think weltshmerz is just the first step of a long journey. You start out realizing that reality is not the reality there ought to be, and that it never can be. But no one ever said reality couldn’t be more like the reality there ought to be. If the actions we make in our lives push reality a tiny bit in that direction, then maybe our lives are worthwhile.

  5. Worthwhile for whom? For other people who think like us? For God?

    I don’t think one excludes the other. On the contrary. I don’t think one can experience Weltschmerz if one hasn’t tried to change their environment in some small way. I think we’re perfectly capable of simultaneously “making the world a better place” and realizing the futility of that very activity. I would even argue that thinking too much of one’s own small contributions is vain and naive. And not sexy. 😉

    And whether we like it our not, humankind is largely a waste. If I believed in evil, I would consider the human race as a perfect expression of it. If only because we are capable of so much and so bluntly refuse to achieve it.

  6. Weltschmerz as the anticlimactic aftermath of some enterprise – now that’s something I can identify with. It is surely an acquired state of mind rather than a stage of life or something intrinsic to our very existence. Perhaps it’s the factors that cause such state that are intrinsic to our existence – or to our destiny, if you prefer.

    As for the value of actions, impatience and grief stand proportional. Recognition might emerge later than expected, years later, even centuries. When the aim is to amend that which is seemingly inexorable, then we must prepared for a lifetime of waiting; either that or we risk to perish in the meantime.

    There’s also a current of thought that suggest that ambition and will are mathematically proportional to continuous disillusionment.

  7. Hello again. You may not remember me, but I’ve previously commented on your weblog.

    This post seems to indicate that you are depressed. I can empathize and understand this as I was depressed for ten years. It took a lot of time, effort, and communication with others, but I eventually got over it. It was rough, but I feel that the rewards (my current feelings of happiness and peace) were worth the effort. (As a mentor of mine put it: “The juice is worth the squeeze.”)

    This may be a bit of self promotion, but I recommend reading this: http://rj815.blogspot.com/2010/02/simple-message.html. The presented idea, of course, may depend on your views on the afterlife. I personally don’t believe in an conscious afterlife, so I am attempting to live what I consider to be a fulfilling present life. (Please note that I am not trying to advocate hedonism. My precise views are too lengthy to mention here.) If you don’t enjoy your life, what is the point of living it?

    “Weltschmerz…is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone’s own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world.”

    To be frank, I consider that above quote bullshit in this situation. I shall give you three pieces of advice:

    1. Strongly consider revising your dietary habits. For me, eating significantly less red meat and dessert (alongside eating more beans, fruits, and vegetables) has partially contributed to my feelings of well-being.

    2. Strongly consider revising your exercise habits. If you are consistent in your exercise habits, you should feel stronger, more able, and more energetic.

    3. Strongly consider trying to focus on the victories that you do have. Are you alive? Yes, and that means you can still change your behavior for the better. Do you have sustenance, clothing, and shelter? If yes, then you are doing much better than many people in less developed countries. When you have a “failure”, look at it as though you succeeded in finding what NOT to do. It sounds silly, but this “look at the silver lining” thing has worked wonders for me whenever I put it into practice.

    One final example:
    I think you should be extremely happy with the success of “The Path”. From my point of view, you seemed to have had only limited success with previous releases. I feel that you have made a dent in the landscape of software, and I feel that you should be happy for that. Is “The Path” a good game? I’m ambivalent on that. Is “The Path” a good piece of interactive art? (In my opinion) Absolutely yes. For me, it is rare to find something interactive that evokes emotion and thought amidst a surreal atmosphere.

    Did you change the world? Not significantly, but you I’m certain that you influenced and/or pleased at least a few people while you earned a little money. Be happy for that. Be proud of that. To carve a niche, no matter how small, while doing something that you love is an amazing thing. I can not think of a more enjoyable form of work.

    If my above advice does no good when put into practice, then I can understand how you could feel depressed. Until then though, perhaps you are not putting enough effort into making yourself healthy and happy.

  8. Thank you for the advice, Ramunas, but as expressed above, the diagnosis itself was good enough. Anyway, any depression I might go through now is nothing compared to what happened years ago. I feel indestructible like a cancer survivor might.

    Also, why should sadness be a disease to cure when happiness is not? All feelings are part of life. We should enjoy all of them!

    Do you have sustenance, clothing, and shelter? If yes, then you are doing much better than many people in less developed countries.

    This only confirms the absolute horror that this world is. I cannot enjoy what I have if others don’t have access to the same. Especially not in a situation where I only have these things because the others do not. Frankly, I consider being happy in the West an insult to the people in the South and the East.

    It’s cute that you try to cheer me up, though. Thank you.
    But I’m actually quite happy. It’s perverse.

    I’m not the one with the problem. The world is.

  9. Where does melancholy sit, relative to this notion?
    Though I never knew it to have a name, I am all too familiar to weltschmerz. Its the moment you step outside of your emotions, to see the world by the unsheathed facts of life.
    Its misery.
    Then you have to reach out to the unquantifiable, and relearn one’s own emotional state to have a personal epiphany. In this sense, I find it a very fleeting state- like the moment in which you step out of a hot shower in Winter, but have yet to wrap a towel around you.

  10. I refuse to see Weltschmerz as an emotion. I consider it to be a factual observation. I also refuse to see sadness as a disease. Definitely if there are so many reasons to be sad.

  11. “Weltschmerz” as a factual observation is a useful first step. It, to me, seems equivalent to problem identification. Now that you have identified a problem, how will you go about solving it?

    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

    You are not merely an observer in your environment; you are an active participant. If you truly cared, you would do something about the problems you perceive to exist. If you never try to change things, you automatically lose. You may try and fail, but at least you can take solace in knowing that you did your best even if the circumstances weren’t in your favor. That is the best you can do and hope for, and you should take something over nothing.

  12. I think it’s much more admirable to realize that everything is useless and still be productive. Just doing what is right. Without reasons. Without rewards.

    Weltschmerz is a most agreeable expression of exquisite arrogance: it’s saying to the entire world that it is wrong.

  13. Ah, but your words are confusing. If everything is useless, how can you do what is “right”? How can you know what “right” is? Is “right” useless or not? If “right” is useless, then it seems as if you are tending towards defeatism and/or nihilism. If “right” is useful, then you contradict your previous statement.

  14. Words are so strong sometimes. And german language is very efficient here to define this sad state.
    It reminds me “heim wéé”, in alsacian ( an half french and german language) it means the sad sad way you feel as an expatriate.

  15. “Heimwee” is a Dutch word as well. It’s usually translated as home-sick in English. But literally it means home-pain, which is much stronger, as it expresses unfulfilled desire. Sickness is just a condition. Pain is a sensation. Sickness can be cured. Pain maybe not. Maybe pain is something that you live with.

  16. As for the depression as a medical problem, I heard there were some serious studies made (but I am not familiar with the subject and it would probably take me too much time and effort to find original data now) which showed in a convincing way that:

    1) patients suffering a mild form of the disease usually performed tasks which involved reality assessment better than a control group consisting of people without depression (this is no longer true about people with full-scale depression, which is very devastating also for the reality assessment skills),

    2) there are relatively few patients with low IQ among those with diagnosed depression (which, unfortunately, may mean many things, including the fact that their depression symptoms may be less likely to be diagnosed, just because they are non-standard or because these patients are more often neglected, or simply less likely to look for help).

    So, it seems that at the roots there is some causal connection between depression and ability to soberly perceive the world’s real state (although it is not obvious which is a cause and which is a consequence).

    Weltschmerz is not the same as depression in medical sense, but if one recalls prophets and seers (of Judeo-Christian and pagan traditions alike) they do not actually seem *happy* in the usual sense of the word… I think that it is simply a due price for the gift/curse of becoming human and conscient – like in the Biblical tale of Adam & Eve. And perhaps the best way in which one can deal with Weltschmerz (or depression, once medical aid is looked for) is sharing and solidarity: “It is not good for the man to be alone”. Somehow, contrary to the orthodox exegesis and centuries of anti-feminist preaching, I tend to believe that at the core of the tale it was Eve’s generous gesture that eventually brought some hope for the mankind, and condemnation for the serpent.

  17. OK, I made some quick Internet search and found a variety statements relating IQ with depression; but they do not seem to agree with each other and I am not in position to judge which of them are to be trusted. Is there a medical doctor around? :)

  18. On the internet, information is political. Since every ideology has a web presence, you will find data to defend just about anything.

    But it seems logical that any sort of extreme emotional response would happen more in intelligent people simply because being intelligent allows you to perceive more. And the more you perceive, the more can affect you.

    Somehow, contrary to the orthodox exegesis and centuries of anti-feminist preaching, I tend to believe that at the core of the tale it was Eve’s generous gesture that eventually brought some hope for the mankind, and condemnation for the serpent.

    That’s interesting. Eve as a female Prometheus, perhaps?

  19. “But it seems logical […] And the more you perceive, the more can affect you.”

    “I prefer to be confusing. Or even confused. I don’t believe in logic.”

    That’s logically inconsistent! :). But going back to the depression-IQ relation, some sources argue that being intelligent means also that you can better deal with your problems (and thus it should actually decrease, not increase, the risk of depression). I think this would be a reasonable argument, if intelligence were defined in a way that would include self-integration skills (and then, perhaps, suffering depression by definition would mean low intelligence, leaving the whole question vague). But I think that IQ tests do not really measure people’s capability of dealing with their mental or – more generally – life problems. Instead, they concentrate on specific analytic skills which may, indeed, provide you with many more problems than solutions.

    “Eve as a female Prometheus, perhaps?”

    You rather mean Lucifer, Carrying the Light of freedom to poor mankind oppressed by the cruel Theocratic Regime? :) But seriously speaking: no, and for many reasons: no. It is more complicated (or perhaps simpler). I will write about it below but it will be a long digression, so that I wanted to wait with it to avoid spoiling your interesting Weltschmerz thread. Now it seems inactive, anyway.

  20. OK, so let us start with Prometheus in the Bible. I do not think there is any clear Biblical counterpart to him, in the way Noah is the Biblical equivalent Deucalion (just to give the simplest example). Of course, there are some Promethean qualities that are shared by many Biblical characters. Jacob/Israel is a trickster type and I guess that the serpent from the Adam&Eve’s tale might have been another one (at least until later editions equipped it with more devilish, universal evil), just to stay within Genesis. Now, Prometheus also has some trickster features, although clearly he is a benevolent one (towards humans), while serpent is malevolent and Jacob – ambivalent and quite egoistic (again, probably seriously transformed in countless later editions which finally made him one founding fathers of God’s Chosen Nation), as usual with tricksters. If, instead, we refer to Prometheus’ relation to humans clearly it will be just God of the Bible Himself who plays a similar role (protector and benefactor of the mankind, and its creator – as was Prometheus in the late phase of the ancient Greek mythology). If we care more about sacrifice for the mankind’s sake, then obviously Jesus is a Promethean figure (or, say, the Servant of Jahwe in Isaiah if we want to keep to the Hebrew Bible). But altogether there is some incompatibility, simply because God of the Old Testament is not Greek Zeus, even if sometimes He shares some features and behaviours with Indo-European lightning-wielding gods of sky, as in the tale of the Great Flood. Anyway, Eve does not fit this category for one basic reason: Prometheus was one of Titans and she was a human being (one would like to say: well, Jesus was also human; yes, but much more than *human only*, and His Promethean features are related to His Divine nature).

  21. Back to Eve and Adam (and I will stop shortly and postpone the further comments because I am too sleepy and thus make too many typos; to say nothing about the sense of my writing):

    What Eve did evidently was a trangression, a sin (in the sense of opposing God’s will). And she knew it before the sentence was announced to her, as can be seen from Adam&Eve’s shame and hiding episode. The Bible, especially Genesis, is very subtle in such indirect, implicit messages that can be read from simple gestures (think about Cain’s reaction to God’s question). But what does the traditional exegesis say? Well, weak and therefore easy to be corrupted female brought sin and death to this world, and to the unknowing Adam, who could possibly resist the temptation were he approached by the serpent directly. And what is the principal part of this sin: it is yielding to the serpent’s tempation: “You will be like Gods” and thus placing oneself into God’s position. What is meant by that? Egotic, soliptic and hence exclusive, obsessive power-drive. That is what Satan, prince of this world, has on his mind and that is possibly what the serpent wanted to tease first humans with. But this type of thing cannot be shared or willingly offered to anyone (unless, as in the case of the serpent’s offer, it is simply cheating). Eve’s gesture is an evidence that yes, she did break God’s order but no, she did not aspire to become a single ruler of the world. Human fall is different from the fall of Satan (a fallen archangel, I regret to remind :). And the tale suggests that it was the very possibility of sharing that saved Eve and Adam (“It is not good for the man to be alone”). Would a lone Adam be resistant to the soliptic power-drive temptation? What would his fall be like?

    Disclaimer: Whatever I wrote here and before about the Bible is not meant to offend anyone’s feelings or religious convictions. In fact, I refer to the tales and motives that are present in the nowadays Bible in their “local context” but not to their God’s inspired religious meaning (for those of the potential readers who believe the Bible was written under Divine inspiration). I lack knowledge and experience, and any competence, to explain what the Bible as a whole really means – it is just an amateur’s loud and probably quite stupid thinking about some parts of it.

  22. Finally, back to Weltschmerz. In the Western tradition the world is perceived both as extremely good and extremely bad, which in religious context reads as God’s creation and Satan’s princedom (although for obvious reasons usually these ideas are not called upon at the same time, except for the Adam&Eve’s tale, with the fall of mankind as an explanation). Anyway, we are in a strange situation, attaching to the same important object strong feelings that contradict each other. In the old days when people payed more attention to religious issues this gave birth to various doctrines, Gnostic, Manichaean and so on, in the mainstream Christianity leading sometimes to a strange, twisted theology in which a cruel blood-thirsty god-creator was opposed to and appeased by meek Jesus. Nowadays most people prefer to push this uncomfortable mixed emotion aside, just avoid thinking about it, which is simpler when its religious roots are hidden. But repressed, unsolved conflicts unevitably come back in disguise and we wake up one day with a fully developed love-hate relation to our very existence, which may easily take form of Weltschmerz in the case of people sensitive enough, and Pursuit of Happiness (that one must fight for, claws and teeth, against all those bad guys around) in the less empathic part of population. It would be very interesting to compare
    Western Weltschmerz with the Eastern, especially Buddhist, compassionate attitude towards all beings. How much does it have to do with thinking about reality as a great trap (or at least illusion) which goes back to ancient India? Can one escape Weltschmerz and Pursuit of Happiness by giving up the binary, polarized good/bad differentiation which is close to compulsive in our Western thinking, or would it just result in a slightly different version of Weltschmerz by default? Also, if possible is it worth it? Wouldn’t it be a moral equivalent of lobotomy? Unfortunately, I know too little about religious and philosophical traditions of the East to speculate on this subject.

    By writing “It’s just a fairy tale…” about “The Path” you diminish your own achievement. In my post in “The Path – discussion” forum I wrote about Le Guin’s essay “The Child and the Shadow” from her “The Language of the Night” collection. As it happens, she advocates in it fairy tales – and fantasy in general – as means of providing children with the truth while at the same time protecting them from unethical, devastating presentation of evil as an insoluble problem. (I would like to cite a passage from her but I guess that would infringe some copyrights…) But in fact all of us are to some extent like children when facing evil of this world. While we may be less ignorant than the little ones, if we had time and conditions to grow up and yet did not escape into secondary ignorance of cynicism, we none the less may need protection offered by the language of symbols. Especially, when the unbearable evil that we need to acknowledge (to be able to deal with it at all) is caused by us.

    [The last passage was written before I read your post in the birthday section. I am glad you were just kidding there; somehow I got this incorrect impression that you were not capable of being ironic about your work (well, perhaps this is just too close to a parent/child relation; one does not make fun of one’s children in public) – obviously, this provokes teasing ;). But I believe that the problem of storytelling being underestimated as an artistic and cognitive device is much more serious than that of simplistic reading – a battle on this subject started already several centuries ago or maybe even earlier – when the oral culture was suppressed by writing – and it is still unsettled.]

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