Better to be afraid of something than of nothing …

Further musings on Edmund de Waal’s exhibition During the Night at Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Edmund de Waal,  Albrecht Dürer, Samuel Beckett & the concept of Angst

A man (Albrecht Dürer) awakes from a nightmare in the depths of the night. He writes down his fears and illustrates them with a painting.

500 years later, another man (Edmund de Waal) is inspired by the painting to gather together a collection of historical objects, images and treasures from one of the finest collections in the world to “explore themes of anxiety, the fear of the unknown and what terrors can be found after dark”.


The text, written by Dürer, reads:

‘In 1525, during the night between Wednesday and Thursday after Whitsuntide, I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. When I awake my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time. When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it. May the Lord turn all things to the best.’

de Waal says:

I follow Dürer, his line of thinking, his moment of exposure. It is his aloneness that talks to me. He cannot control what is happening, only record what he remembers, what he sees, what he feels. This exactitude is not protection. It is a way of approaching what is happening when the world is unstable. During the night we are alone and vulnerable, the certainties disappear. Dürer paints and writes to see what will happen, to feel the edges of his control.


During the Night, installation view, 2016

One of the things this marvelous jewel of an exhibition has made me contemplate, is the intricate relation – or difference – between fear and anxiety.

And it has made me go back to my old friend Beckett–because hasn’t he been pondering similar things?

On 11 August 1936, Samuel Beckett wrote the following passage – in German – in his notebook:

How translucent this mechanism seems to me now, the principle of which is: better to be afraid of something than of nothing. In the first case only a part, in the second the whole is threatened, not to mention the monstrous quality which inseparably belongs to the incomprehensible, one could even say the boundless (…)

When such an anxiety (Angst) begins to grow, a reason (Grund) must quickly be found, as no one has the ability to live with it in its utter absence of reason (Grundloskeit).

Thus the neurotic, i.e. everyman, may declare with great seriousness and in all awe that there is merely a minimal difference between God in heaven and a pain in the stomach. Since both emanate from one source and serve one purpose: to transform anxiety into fear.


Better to be afraid of something than of nothing

–to be continued–

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Anxiety is so prevalent among my students, who are U. S. A. people in their late teens and early 20s, that it actually impedes their ability to achieve well in university. I have wondered about it often and deeply–I have experienced depression quite frequently, but not this pervasive anxiety so much. Then as I mention my students’ vague fears to my friends & colleagues, I discover that the sense of anxiety–this pending fear of nothing particularly known–is more common than I thought, even among people in my age group.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Might it be that the feeling of anxiety – when not full blown as in a panic attack – is difficult to grasp, analytical speaking (even when it affect oneself?)

      1. Existentialists did a good job of capturing some of the feeling of anxiety, I think. But there’s a slightly different tenor to the recent undercurrent of anxiety. I can analyze it but haven’t really been able to explain it.

  2. Rio says:

    Anxiety can only arise in the body and our thoughts can either be influenced by these sensations or further fuel these sensations. Even the word “anxiety” is explosive and of course doesn’t really explain/I> anything, only amplifying the previously wordless sensations.
    When I was receiving several courses of chemotherapy, my logical mind recognized that I would have sensations resulting from the therapy that would be unsettling and painful, I would get very clinical too, thinking about destroying cells in my body with poisons. As often as I thought of this another sensation would arise, in a sort of feedback loop,
    anxiousness but recognizing that this sensation too could only arise in my body I could settle into the discomfort, just be in it. And then some aspect of my attention actually grew bored! I was sick, very sick but I wasn’t anxious. I was mostly bored.
    Youth and many others don’t know how to be bored, they are even afraid of it. It is rather ridiculous, or would be if it weren’t so sad. “Be bored, be elegantly bored!” –Shikai Sensei

  3. Rio says:

    Also, given the cost an education and the problem of finding an income to pay off the debt might be a reason for a student’s anxiety.

    When we are compelled by emotions only, as in we care for what we love and repell what we hate we don’t learn the practice of practice, we expect the outside world to respond as quickly as our emotions and when it doesn’t we think it is proof of something that is not true.

    Things can be difficult but not impossible. It is valuable information that is rarely shared. Rarely are we encouraged to unravel the belief that things are impossible. We are distracted by what we feel to the point of helpless. We don’t learn and we don’t examine the value of our actions. We only justify our inability and ocassionally celebrate good luck.

    At one time the church used superstition to control the masses. Who is benefiting by encouraging the belief that as individuals we are helpless, fragile and impotent worms made to suffer while waiting for our next fix or relief or distraction?

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