This Strange Case of Nerves: On Anxiety and Meaning

Tityus devoured by vultures in Acheron. An Image of Anxious Anguish (anxius angit). Titiain. Museo del Prado

Tityus devoured by vultures in Acheron. An Image of Anxious Anguish (anxius angit).
Titiain. Museo del Prado

“Nerves are a mystery. Some people seem to have none. We admire these people for their pluck, but, really, they are just born lucky.” — Louis Menand

“When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools” — King Lear

Our first act upon exiting the watery womb is a great cry. Our mothers, if we are truly born lucky, hold us and comfort us in our first open air stress and distress. And our greatest endowment is a very sensitive set of nerves. Such sensitive nerves are the source of our first ecstatic-painful cry and of our first experiences of comfort and joy at the breast of mother. Without nerves: no life, no joy, no sorrow, no fear, no sense of safety, no worry, no comfort, no life. Those adults who seem to have no nerves are either ones you don’t know well enough to know what vexes and troubles them, or they are dead. Those people who seem to have no nerves are either skilled performers or their persons are not visible to you beyond your idealizations of them. Every King Lear, even at his most supercilious and vain, hides a trembling and naked man. Would that Lear should not have had to suffer so; however, his suffering leads him from mere vanity to wisdom. At the end of his story he recovers the eyes of a sensitive soul, he recovers a set of mortal and fragile nerves, and he begins to receive a signal, message, even meaning from his nerves.

I’m afraid that many of our most learned and aged fools will never get to even a shred of such wisdom. I’m worried that their tremendous suffering may never be given enough respect to allow for some growth in their persons. And I’m not only afraid for them, but for the culture that they lead and indoctrinate into a vain foolishness. Vanity and self satisfaction are cold comfort. And it is a high crime for those blessed with sufficient leisure time and privileged habitus to hold out only palliatives, medicated anesthesia, and facile explanation as the desired end of the universal struggle to live and thrive. Those expedients are not any desirable end, only a dead one.

Palliatives are necessary for those who suffer and cannot wait, for those who have to perform or immediately work, for those so debilitated that they cannot at all function. Palliatives, however, only relieve and are focused on symptoms. Palliatives may be a necessary and compassionate part of care and concern for the mind and body, but they are only a part. Just as valium is listed on the WHO list of essential drugs and opiates are essential for pain care, so is palliative care essential. But palliative care is not for the healthy, nor for those who want the use and sense of their nerves, nor for those who want their fingers to touch upon the naked wire of nervous life. Palliative care, in fact, finds a perfect fit in the care of the dying and in the care of those suffering from extreme traumatic injury, the care of those who need dampened signals or no signals at all.

What of the living and those who want to thrive? What of those who have nerves, and who want to attend to the signals that are transmitted along those nerves? What of those who are curious and desirous of experiencing and understanding those very signals traveling along those very nerves? For many of us curious enough to inquire into and to try to make sense of what it might mean to be a person, our sensitive, pleasurable, and painful nerves are vital. For those who do inquire into living and thriving as persons and in their own personal experience, their symptoms and their sufferings are as vital as their pleasures.

Anxiety has assumed a special privilege as some symptom of the age, but it is ancient. ‘ Anxiety’ is an both an odd and old word. It is a case of troubled nerves, and what we do with or see in troubled nerves defines us. Show me how a person treats nerves, anxiety and the symptoms of anxiety and you will show me the degree to which they can afford to have their nerves transmit signals. If one cannot afford a signal, one cannot afford a message. If one cannot afford a message, then perhaps anesthesia is warranted. But let us not call that life or science. The only rigor in a human science without significant signal or message is rigor mortis. And it is mere envy for a person or culture without meaningful message to look back on history and to declare our forebears obsolete because they still had nerves, because they still saw a signal pass, because they dared to inquire into and interpret a message. There is many an ungainly document on the strange phenomena of anxiety. As Kierkegaard points out, anxiety’s potential messages offer us a choice. We can either struggle with the message and the meaning of our experience or we can narrow ourselves and turn away from the unknown in ourselves and seek to dampen signals that might disturbs us.

A renowned intellectual historian, Louis Menand, has recently written an essay whose subtitle is “What does Anxiety mean?” His answer seems to be that anxiety means nothing, and that it is best treated or hidden away. Louis Menand, is, to my mind in the latter camp of those who would rather keep calm and go to sleep. It may be worthwhile to read his New Yorker piece in full: either he is right and kind to offer reassurance, or he is an example of how not to treat anxiety or emotional life in general. The choice is each individual’s. I choose to attempt to find meaning in my anxiety, and Menand appears misguided to me.

At one point in his meditation, Menand baldly states that Science no longer need inquire into the personal meaning of anxiety. He is wrong, of course. He comes off as yet another of the many metaphysical hall monitors who always seem to be saying what or where Science is without knowing much about it. I detect more than a little anxiety in his attempt to divide and conquer the subject of anxiety by killing off the signal, thereby killing off any chance for life or meaning. He is not alone in his efforts. There is a trend in society and in many of us that seeks only the treatment of symptoms, only palliatives, and only facile explanation.  And he is to my mind a ready example of the wrong way to inquire into the meaning of anxiety. For Menand, anxiety appears only an inconvenience or an unlucky fate. For him there is no ‘wakeful anguish’, as Keats called it, that might offer something, signal or message. There is no signal in it, except one that needs to be dampened, allayed, palliated. He is no Freud for whom a “signal anxiety” was a call to listen, a call to an open-ended inquiry into the difficulties of making sense of psychic life, of personal life. Open-ended is the still lasting legacy of Freud and open-endedness is synonymous with scientific inquiry. And open-ended inquiry into ‘wakeful anguish’ continues despite any counter trends that would have us only go back to sleep, etherize us, or anesthetize us.

So of what of anxiety? How to make headway in understanding it at the level of message and meaning?

I’ll take my lead from one of my forebears, from Wilfred Bion, a philosopher and practicing analyst whose science was resolutely focused on the personality and on personal meaning.

“This word ‘anxiety’ is a praiseworthy attempt to give a name to a feeling. Most of us think that we know what people mean when they say ‘anxiety’, although a child would not.” — Bion, Brazilian Lectures [1]

‘Anxiety’ is overwhelming. Not only the experience of it, but the literature on it and the research and thought on ‘anxiety’ is overwhelming. The subject is so broad that to attempt to talk or write about it is enough to give one ‘anxiety.’ What I can do with this overwhelming subject is take a hint from Wilfred Bion and focus first on the word ‘anxiety’ and the fact that this word is an abstraction of a certain history and heritage. A little excursus into some Latin references can reveal some of the particular qualities of this word as it was developed and used by the Romans, qualities which persist in current usage. Readers may note that I am following a long standing practice in the face of ‘anxiety.’ I will choose to narrow my focus. However, I will narrow my focus not to turn away from a struggle with what is unknown and strange, but to better turn toward the difficult and the unknown, and to struggle with meaning making.

The word ‘anxiety’ derives from the Latin anxietas: of which the Lewis and Short Latin Lexicon says that anxietas is “The quality or state of anxius, anxiety (as a permanent condition, while angor, anguish, is only momentary).” Anxiety, then, is a generalized abstraction from the momentary condition of anguish. Anguish or ‘angor’ connotes being vexed, tormented, or even literally strangled. States of anguish are often described as feelings of being torn or stabbed in the stomach or heart, of being rended or wrenched.

Cicero distinguished anxiety from anguish:

anxiety differs from anguish: for all are not anxious who are sometimes anguished, nor are they who are anxious always in anguish: as there is a difference between being drunk and being a drunk.[2]

Not even a drunk is always in a state of drunkenness, but some drunks at their nadir of self-destructiveness may nearly achieve a state of constant drunkenness. And so it may be with the anxious and states of anguish: they may feel themselves to be constantly anxious and to always have a vague sense of foreboding, to always be in an unspecified state of anguish.

‘Anxiety’ has a long history of use as the name for an unspecified, generalized and persisting state of anguish or vexation. As a generalized abstraction from anguish, its lack of specificity was also a good fit for describing experiences of vexation around expectation or anticipation of possibility or the unknown. The unboundedness and vagueness of the word and the concept of ‘anxiety’ seems a fit for and also seems to be the child of vexation concerning the unbounded, the unknown. Anxiety and the unbounded seem to go hand in hand.

Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius

Calamitous is the soul that is anxious about the future. ~ Seneca

In the above quote from Seneca, we see an example of a common use for ‘anxius’ as an experience of anguish in regards to the unboundedness and possibility that constitutes a sense of the ‘future.’ The future is unknown and unbounded, and so a sense of anxiety can cohabit with a sense or thought of the future. The unboundedness of anxiety can also lead to an extremity of feeling that may result from its lack of measure or context. Anxiety can seem to be without measure and so be experienced as extreme, and the word in turn can be and has been used in expressions of an extremity of feeling.

nunc sollicitam timor anxius angit.

Now a profound fear throttles me with anxious anguish.[3]

“Anxius” here in Virgil’s Aeneid seems to serve as a kind of alliterative expansion or exaggeration of feeling, and so captures and expresses an extremity of feeling.

sed Tityos nobis hic est, in amore iacentem
quem volucres lacerant atque exest anxius angor
aut alia quavis scindunt cuppedine curae.

But for us a Tityus is he whom vultures rend
Prostrate in love, whom anxious anguish eats,
Whom troubles of any unappeased desires asunder rip.[4]

Above in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura an anxious anguish in the extreme eats away at the heart and liver of the worried lover, just as the Giant Tityus is repeatedly ravaged and heart-ripped by vultures.

Negative emotional states in general are hard to experience and difficult to talk about and understand, in no small part because painful states are undesirable. Anxiety, as a generalized abstraction from a momentary negative state, is not only undesirable but also difficult to locate and survey. Anxiety has so many varied manifestations that to attempt to contemplate them in full is enough to promote a feeling of dizziness or vertigo both of which are themselves considered as symptoms of anxiety. If the sum of anxiety resists contemplation, its specific manifestations are also hard to distinguish from fear and anguish. Angst, that introduced word for anxiety from Kierkegaard and Freud is, for example, used colloquially in Dutch and German for simple fear.

The words that often are prepended to ‘anxiety’ in contemporary usage are of a family of vagueness: generalized, unfocused, vague, unspecified, free-floating. It is as if anxiety could best be defined in the negative, as not locatable except in the vaguest sense, as without cause, as not specified. ‘Anxiety’, the truth behind the word seems to hide from direct view or understanding. If the concept of anxiety is so vague and difficult to get a handle on, it’s reification and developed abstraction can serve only the most general uses. And here at this most general level, we can see that almost all of the attempts to think about anxiety, pace Menand, share many of the same qualities. Menand appears to try allay the anxiety of his readers and maybe his own anxiety by saying that the struggle with anxiety that, for example, Kierkegaard was thinking about was somehow completely different than the anxiety that Freud was working with. Their writings and their theories are different, but the experience of anxiety shares many of the same qualities across the ages.  Respect for anxiety and an attempt to listen to the signals of anxiety marks the work of both thinkers. They both struggled with the meaning of anxiety, and they both privileged anxiety as a naked and unadorned signal of new life and possible new growth in the soul.

I think here we have to be very careful to distinguish between facts and words about facts. Bion, for example, said that anxiety used in only a generic way may not be helpful if it is imposed from outside as a diagnosis. When imposed as a catchall upon an individual’s experience,  a word such as ‘anxiety’ can serve as a premature foreclosure before personal inquiry into meaning has even begun. What Bion did with himself and with others was work with the fact of anxiety in all its ungainliness and strangeness.  Freud and Kierkegaard also wrestled with the psychic reality of anxiety. Not only is the work of Freud or Kierkegaard not obsolete, as Menand suggests, but Freud and Kierkegaard are still relevant to us. Their work is still relevant because they worked with anxiety and because they struggled with the personal meaning of anxiety. In fact, the poetic writing of Kierkegaard shows a self introspective individual getting close to some of the nuances of their own experience of anxiety. And for many readers, Kierkegaard’s writings are an aid to personally approaching the fact and the truth of their own experience of anxiety. In a humanist timeline, Kierkegaard comes after and not before the doctors of anesthesia. A personal struggle with the meaning of anxiety lies in the present or the future for those who want to live and thrive.

If we are to understand anxiety as a personal experience, which I think is the most important point, then I take Bion very seriously. The “word anxiety is a praiseworthy attempt to give a name to a feeling” that fails to the degree that it is only generalized and not also personally investigated and struggled with. Here is another place where I choose to narrow my focus, not to close myself off but to open to what I do not know and struggle with the meaning of it.

The more of us who have not only heard of, but felt anxiety, the greater the possibility that someone will be able to say more about it than, ‘You are anxious’. —Bion, Brazilian Lectures

I follow Bion above in taking the opposite tack from those who would prefer to only alleviate the symptoms of anxiety in themselves or others. Bion chose to begin to feel and experience anxiety himself so that he might be better able to communicate with others and himself. He, in his person over time, developed a familiarity with and a knowledge of fine differences and nuances in his own and other’s experience of anxiety. And he developed a specific and studied ignorance in the face of understanding what another person might mean by anxiety. He even developed a practiced ignorance in regards to his own particular feeling or sensing in a given moment. His goal and his purpose were both to develop a repertoire of understandings of anxiety and to help another person understand the particularity of their own experience and feeling.

We may start with as vague a sense of our experience of anxiety as the general use of the word. “Then, bit by bit, shapes stand out from” what was previously opaque as we explore and begin to give name to our specific feelings and experiences. We cannot make any progress in understanding anxiety as a personal experience without careful, patient work with ourselves and others. The general uses of ‘anxiety’ as a word are of no avail except perhaps as hints or guides to exploration. “Mental pain takes great care,” says Bion

In fact, analysts after Bion have been less interested in imposing a story on a person about what has caused anxiety than they have become interested in helping that person make sense of  their own anxiety. And the first order of business for each and every person who wants to investigate their own experience is respect for anxiety in the broadest terms. We should, then, not admire people who appear to have no nerves but rather pity them and wonder.

The highest level of human flourishing includes the ability to feel and at the same time contain enough fear and anxiety to enliven us. If we grant the signal of anxiety sufficient respect, it may become a tool and a guide as much as a debility or a deficit. The struggle for meaning is difficult and meaning may elude us, but anesthesia is not life. However difficult our nerves may be, they are ours, and they are life. Given sufficient respect, anxiety can become signal to us that we are venturing into dangerous and/or meaningful psychic territory.

We may then begin to use anxiety as a guide and navigate encounters with ourselves and with others by listening to the strange and sometimes subtle signals of anxiety: free-floating, vague, unfocused. For an artist, an analyst, or a sensitive reader, the as yet undetermined is as much an opportunity for growth and discovery as it may be frightful.

Is it any wonder that many poets, thinkers, and analysts have privileged anxiety not as a symptom of the age that needs palliative care or anesthetic deadening, but as an open-ended call to inquiry? It is in fact a privileged and perfect example of what Bion and others call the “psychical” or “psychic life.”

“Consciousness is an organ for the perception of psychical quality,” said Freud. And it may be that or may become that for us if we allow it to be, if we hold sufficient “care for truth and life”(Bion). So much depends upon us.

Anxiety “has no shape, no smell, no taste” (Bion); it has no form. I take the fact of anxiety not as a call to sleep, nor a call to a dampening of signal, nor a call to premature death, but a call to inquiry, a call to more nervous, psychic life.

1.Wilfred R. Bion, Brazilian Lectures, p. 7.

2. differt anxietas ab angore: neque enim omnes anxii, qui anguntur aliquando, nec, qui anxii, semper anguntur, ut inter ebrietatem et ebriositatem interest, aliudque est amatorem esse, aliud amantem.— Ciceronis Tusculan Disputat 4.24. translation by faustroll, 2014

Vergil, Aeneid 9, 89. translation, faustroll 2014

Lucr. 3.993 translation, William Ellery Leonard, Ed.


About Ed Phillips

Rigor in whimsy
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4 Responses to This Strange Case of Nerves: On Anxiety and Meaning

  1. I enjoyed reading your excellent piece. Anxiety is an interesting subject and provides a lot of food for thought considering the role it plays in our lives, its rich intellectual history and the fact that anxiety disorders are among today’s most common mental illnesses.

    I agree with you without a doubt that Louis Menand is misguided in his reduction of anxiety to genes. As by doing so an inherent contradiction occurs. If the feelings and thoughts that anxiety pours into the mind of a person were meaningless there would be no reason for this concept of anxiety that we perceive to exist, let alone for a person to be consciously aware of it psychologically.

    It’s striking how Menand throughout his essay utilizes the struggle of Stossel with anxiety to paint the tumultuous history of anxiety and our incomplete understanding of it. And to than nevertheless, without any justification, in the concluding paragraph triumphantly come clean with his Scientism or perhaps even Transhumanism; lets get rid of anxiety by genetic engineering. We can’t understand it, it must therefor be a meaningless blip arising from genetic deficits! Perhaps this irrationality projected on the collective is caused by existential anxiety.

    There have been some big changes in perception of anxiety. With the rise of science anxiety was marked as a physical rather than a mental aliment. Freud put it back into the realm of the psyche. Than Big Pharma came by for a profit and has put the causes of anxiety in the last decades back in the physical realm.

    When it comes to the biological causes and functions of anxiety, I’m inclined to agree that anxiety is a protective mechanism for preventing organisms from engaging in potentially harmful behaviors. This means that anxiety indeed explicitly gives signals that are meaningful. To completely and satisfactory reduce the varied phenomenology of anxiety to biological origins one must also at the same time reduce all externally conflated relations that account for anxiety to the same biological origins. This reductionist agenda has so far been an epistemic impossibility and I think that it will stay that way.

    I do think that there is a relation between variations of anxiety and quality of our social constructions. There are categories of anxieties which are perhaps in a sense universal, like existential or spiritual anxiety which are related to big questions with unknown answers that we all are concerned with at a given moment during our lives. But most of variations arise from ordinary affairs of our daily lives and are strongly related to some main concepts that play a role in the social constructs like e.g. morality, egalitarianism, politics and almost any value question in general. Your mention of “unbounded” is in this regard interesting. Here I don’t mean the relation of the unknown future and its role in anxiety, but the unbounded in terms of incomplete knowledge and understanding of, and the ideals we pursue in, existing social constructs and of which we know that they are incomplete and far from ideal. This unboundedness gives space to all kind of anxieties that arise within agents that live in these constructs and not so much a future construct which is unknown to the agents. Maybe this is the meaning that today’s medicalization of anxiety into an epidemic is signaling. I would certainly like to investigate this further in the future.

    • Faustroll says:


      Thank you for such an insightful and thoughtful comment. I agree with your comments about the attempts to “explain away” anxiety by persons such as Menand; they seem to be aligned in their efforts to avoid the personal and psychical aspects of anxiety. The irony is that the experience of anxiety is always personal, and the experience of anxiety is a result of nervous activity and sensitivity. That irony was most clearly evident in his admiration of the person with “no nerves”: a lie or an impossibility. To admire an impossibility is a part of delusion and to admire a lie is bad faith at best.

      I’m also interested the biological aspects of anxiety. And I’m also interested in the pharmaceutical treatment of symptoms. Explanations and drugs are both useful as expedients and/or starting points for inquiry; however, they are not ends if we are interested in more life and possible growth. Most mental health care practioners now discuss and there are many studies that show that both pharmaceutical treatment and therapy or inquiry into meaning are helpful (when combined).

      Something really odd is going on when a self appointed hall monitor comes along and ignores not only the thoughts of Kierkegaard or Freud but of contemporary health practice and study. It seems to me that Menand is saying “Please go back to sleep or take some benzos.”
      The lack of curiosity is either criminal or an attempt to avoid a severe case of anxiety. And then when a desire to sleep or avoid personal experience dresses itself up as authority or thoughtfulness, we are in a ‘truth’ starved environment of evasions and lies.

      I’m firmly on the side of both science and on the further development of pharmaceutical interventions. But, I’m not foolish enough to think that either absolve me of the effort to understand my own experience as a person. I’m curious about my own experience and I respect the signals. I seek to accommodate myself to the fact that I do have emotional experiences that I want to listen to. I can’t accept anything other than hints from other people about what my experience is, of what I am wrestling with. I have to give my experience, as it is, sufficient respect even if whole swaths of other people do not give themselves or me that respect. In that regard, I find Kierkegaard and Freud moving, interesting, and relevant. They share in both that respect and that struggle, as do many others.

      Thank you also for mentioning the “unbounded” and how various unknowns, incompletenesses, or tensions can both be productive of anxiety and become environments in which “free floating” anxiety circulates. It is not just the future but the incomplete and discordant present that is hotbed of anxious anguish. And when that discordant present is comprised of competing moral and social demands, of compelled participation and forced exclusion?

      My reading of some of the old Latin uses of the word ‘anxiety’ revealed to me a kind of kinship between anxiety and the “unbounded” that extends across the ages. This relation between unspecified, generalized anxiety and incompleteness (the unbounded) is also in Kierkegaard and Freud and was explored by them in different ways at different times. Freud seems to have evolved his understanding of anxiety throughout his career, first starting with a focus on the neurology and instinctive bases of anxiety and then moving on to a more psychical focus. The person, “the ego is the actual seat of anxiety,” he said at the mature phase of his thinking. The person, that rich, difficult, and precarious, open-ended development is what is most interesting in us and about us. The fact that the person and the personal are so often and so easily denied is another fact; but the denial of the personal is no progress and to misuse the artifacts of science to deny or avoid the struggle with personal experience and meaning is a travesty, an impoverishment of the person and of science both.

      I see you in the last paragraph making mention of a moral or value anxiety. Both Freud and Kierkegaard focused on this kind of anxiety (in different ways), and it represents a high level of development and even could be described as the signal or the sign of a personal ethical development or struggle that is welcome or should be. Would that more people could describe and struggle with moral anxiety, with guilt and shame and personal responsibility. Freud, in his later development, delineated three regions or types of anxiety: real, neurotic, and moral anxiety. The last, moral anxiety, could be said to be a privileged aspect of personal development. The concern of moral anxiety is not with “the future” as you say or with external circumstance (either real or neurotic concern) but with personal responsibility and choice, with what I as a person assume and value. Moral anxiety strikes me as a perfect laboratory in which we can grow something real and new in ourselves. Moral anxiety depends on no physical circumstances and we carry it with us everywhere we go. It is a signal and an opportunity both. It is a threat and a charge both. If we only seek to alleviate the symptoms of real or neurotic anxiety, we may never arrive at a struggle with moral anxiety. Moral anxiety is not even on the map for a Menand. No wonder he can’t make sense of anxiety, or see any possibility in it other than something that needs to be palliated or waived away.

      Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more of what you are thinking.

  2. jetude says:

    Reblogged this on jetude and commented:
    Wonderful essay ..

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