Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind
William Heinemann 2014
When it was first published in 1947, The Age of Anxiety, W. H. Auden's last, longest, and most ambitious book-length poem immediately struck a powerful chord, capturing the imagination of the cultural moment that it diagnosed and named. Beginning as a conversation among four strangers in a barroom in New York, Auden's analysis of Western culture during the Second World War won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired a symphony by Leonard Bernstein as well as a ballet by Jerome Robbins. As one of his editors, Alan Jacobs, put it, the work is “extraordinarily famous for a book so little read; or, extraordinarily little read for a book so famous”. The themes and ideas in Auden's "The Age of Anxiety" reflect his belief that
man's quest for self-actualization is in vain. Perhaps his message was that when people cease to contend with the real problems in the real world, they become disengaged from the world around them. When I went through it, these lines caught my attention as they outline the world to come with such prescience; "Odourless ages, an ordered world / Of planned pleasures and passport-control, / Sentry-go sedatives, soft drinks and / Managed money, a moral planet / Tamed by terror . . ."
Many tomes have been written on anxiety since then. My personal favourite is Rollo May’s Meaning Of Anxiety which was based on his doctoral dissertation. He perceives that anxiety to be “the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value which the individual holds essential to his existence as a self”. Of course there have been scores of other definitions which have drawn attention to various facets and determinants of anxiety’
From a sufferer’s perspective, anxiety is always and absolutely personal. It is an experience: coloration in the way one thinks, feels and acts. When a person who is afflicted with anxiety writes about it there is a deep resonance in the narrative, which sadly is missing from professional and academic tomes.
It is in this light that I found the recent book My Age Of Anxiety by Scott Stossel, an interesting read. Scott the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, provides a fascinating insight into the condition. Drawing on his own long-standing battle with anxiety, he presents an astonishing history, at once intimate and authoritative, of the efforts to understand the condition from medical, cultural, philosophical, and experiential perspectives. His account ranges from the earliest medical reports of Galen and Hippocrates, through later observations by Robert Burton and Søren Kierkegaard, to the investigations by great nineteenth-century scientists, such as Charles Darwin, William James, and Sigmund Freud, as they began to explore its sources and causes, to the latest research by neuroscientists and geneticists.
Scott also reports on famous individuals who struggled with anxiety, as well as on the afflicted generations of his own family. His portrait of anxiety reveals not only the emotion's myriad manifestations and the anguish anxiety produces but also the countless psychotherapies, medications, and other (often outlandish) treatments that have been developed to counteract it. He evocatively depicts anxiety's human toll - its crippling impact, it’s devastating power to paralyze - while at the same time exploring how those who suffer from it find ways to manage and control it.
My Age of Anxiety is learned and empathetic, humorous and inspirational, offering the reader great insight into the biological, cultural, and environmental factors that contribute to the affliction. Scott’s ability to unabashedly share his experiences creates a strong sense of humanity in his book, and his first-person narrative is very effective in de-stigmatizing neurotic fear. He gracefully guides us across the terrain of an affliction that is pervasive yet too often misunderstood.
My Age Of Anxiety does for anxiety what Andrew Solomon did for depression in the Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression, by weaving personal memoir together with a flotilla of fact and historical research.
After reading it, I am tempted to gather together poems on anxiety in Indian languages. For example Bharathiyar in a poem called Velvi Pattu, talks about fears and worries as demons which bring suffering to humanity. They enter into the mind, exert control and destroy lives. They immerse human beings in darkness and prevent them from attaining the light of wisdom.
If you come across any literary works, especially poems which deal with anxiety, do pass them on if you have come across some!
And I am also curious to know whether fear and anxiety are distinguished as being separate in Indian languages…