The Human Malaise





The Human Malaise



There is widespread agreement that something deserving to be called a human malaise exists, but there is little consensus about its origin and nature. It is accepted that human beings suffer from some sort of angst or distress or depression or sickness or uneasiness—some negative emotional state that is inherent to the human condition—but there are many different theories about the form of their perpetual disquiet. Here we must immediately distinguish between episodes of ordinary unhappiness and the unhappiness that is supposed to be inherent in our psychological make-up. There are obviously many things that make people unhappy and anxious, but these are apt to be contingent and fleeting; over and above these things there is also supposed to lurk some more general debility of spirit, a deeper disquiet that afflicts the human soul. The question is what this is exactly: what causes it and what is its precise content?

            Here is a list of would-be answers to the question: the conditions under late capitalism; sexual repression and early childhood conflicts; fear of death; anxiety stemming from the possession of free will; the nuclear threat; feelings of cosmic insignificance; ineradicable solitude; self-disgust springing from our bodily nature; deep aesthetic dissatisfaction; consciousness of our essential nothingness; evolutionary deracination. Some of these theories propose historical contingencies as the cause of the malaise, which are in principle remediable, as with Marx, Freud, and nuclear weapons. Others point to deep structural facts about the human condition, as beings who are mortal, fragile, embodied, self-conscious, reflective, free, contingent, evolved—and these are not remediable. The former are historical theories; the latter are existential theories. What is surprising is that the generally accepted malaise should be so difficult to diagnose: if all humans feel it at all times everywhere, why is it so hard to pin down what its nature is? Shouldn’t we all know quite well what troubles us? Why is the cause so elusive?

            It is natural to invoke the unconscious: what troubles is not conscious, and hence not available to casual inspection. In Freudian vein, it may be supposed that we repress what troubles us—we purposely keep it out of our consciousness. All we have is a vaguely defined conscious unease, whose true cause is concealed from us. But not all the theories postulate an unconscious basis for the malaise: some suppose it to be perfectly transparent to us—as that we all must die, or that we are tiny specks in a vast universe, or that our lives are filled with ugliness. The theories are not necessarily incompatible with each other: we may be suffering from a multitude of ailments—many separate malaises not just one. Some may be unconscious and some conscious.

            The general assumption is that the malaise is distinctively human: other animals don’t suffer from it. It is true that they too are mortal, fragile, insignificant, and so on; but they are not sufficiently conscious of themselves and their place in the world to suffer the existential pangs that humans suffer. They may have their fears and failures, their bad days and untimely ends, but they are not haunted by a nameless dread, an unease smoldering at the core of their being. They are not constitutionally unhappy, as humans are. They do not fret at their own freedom, nor struggle with the aftermath of an Oedipus complex, nor compare their own brief duration with the eternity of the universe. No sense of inherent tragedy or absurdity haunts their daily lives. Presumably, other species could share the human type of malaise—maybe the other hominid species that are now extinct: they would just need to share our advanced mode of reflective consciousness. Thus it may be thought that a malaise of the human kind belongs to any self-reflective conscious being (except the gods), as a necessary upshot of enjoying that status. But what is it exactly?

            One possibility is that there is really no such constitutional malaise—we are confusing ordinary sources of unhappiness with some more general structural disquiet. That is why it is so difficult to pinpoint. But this is hard to accept, given how prevalent the assumption of malaise is—are we just being melodramatic and pointlessly pessimistic? And it is better to acknowledge the malaise, if it exists, than to deny it, especially if there is any prospect of mitigation or cure (e.g., socialism, psychoanalysis, philosophy, brain surgery).

            Still, uncertainty persists: we need a convincing diagnosis. I suspect that it does lie deep in our essential nature—as part of our species identity. What about the idea that we are ontologically of a different order from the rest of nature? We are self-conscious, morally aware, intelligent beings, while nature is unselfconscious, amoral, and devoid of intelligence. Yet we are caught up in nature, in its grip—we are immanent not transcendent. We exist at the juncture of a split—we are from nature but not of nature. We feel our difference from nature and its difference from us, as well as our immersion in nature. It is hard to articulate what this feeling amounts to exactly, but there are reverberations of it throughout culture: the sense of schism, of alienation, of separateness. It is the feeling of being out of place—not belonging. We feel like strangers in a strange land—the actually existing universe.

The feeling is well captured in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: that place of routine wonders and non-stop wondering. For Alice, everything is both familiar and alien—the alien in the familiar. She dramatizes the human predicament as a conscious feeling intelligence living in a world that constantly acts in ways that make no sense—to which she is subject but in which she is an outsider. She is not happy in that world; unease is her natural lot. She suffers from an existential malaise. Sartre talked about the for-itself (consciousness) and the in-itself (material things), contrasting their essential nature: the for-itself is ontologically quite different from the in-itself (nothingness versus plenitude). The for-itself is aware of itself as not an in-itself—yet it is inextricably bound up with the in-itself. There is something uncanny about the way human consciousness is situated in the world—as there is something uncanny about Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. We feel, like Alice, that we ought not to be here, as if we are not cut out for the world around us; and yet there is no other world, and we are unavoidably caught up in it.  

            This is a highly abstract concern—more abstract than anxiety about death or even freedom. It involves our awareness of the contrast between our nature and the nature of what exists around us (within the body too). The bubbling stream of consciousness is like no other stream in nature, and we are troubled by the disparity; yet we cannot escape nature. Alice’s body grows and shrinks unpredictably, powered by incomprehensible forces, while her mind remains the same—just as biology foists organic growth on us whether our mind wants it to or not. Nature is an alien agency that acts of its own accord, indifferent to us, marching to its own rhythm. The human malaise, in its most abstract form, stems from the recognition that we live in a world made of very different stuff from what we are made of, with its own internal imperatives. Just gaze at a rock or a tree and think about how very different its mode of being is from yours: that is the world in which you live and from which you arose. There is nothing mind-like going on in there, less than a blank, just a harsh obstinacy of being. Even to describe nature as indifferent is to understate the case; the question of indifference does not even arise. Nature simply is, without regard to us; it doesn’t even ignore us. We find ourselves (like Alice) thrown into a world in which we had no say, and whose activities determine our wellbeing; but that world has no awareness of us, no interest in us, no stake in us. Our existence doesn’t matter to nature, but it is everything to us. Our malaise stems from the fact that we are subject to a world that proceeds as if we are not even in it. We can never be comfortable in such a world. Like Alice, we long to return to another more hospitable world; but unlike Alice, there is no such world for us.  [1]


  [1] The idea (fantasy) of heaven is precisely the idea of a world geared to our existence and wishes. In heaven we experience no existential malaise, since there is no human alienation from heaven. Everything is as it should be—we don’t even feel alienation from our own bodies. There are no blank mindless objects going about their own preordained business, capable of thwarting or hurting us. But this idea is dubiously coherent: how could there be a reality—any reality—that had human psychology written into it? Doesn’t reality need a nature of its own, with its own laws and make-up? Maybe we would feel alienated from any possible world. This might make it easier to accept the malaise we feel living in the actual world.

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