Sometimes a German perspective hits us out of left field. Sitting in my easy chair, watching some mindless TV, I learned the word weltschmerz. Now, I expect to hear German language when watching a WWII flick or a when a German character is cast in a drama (like a proverbial Freudian shrink) or Ludwig von Drake (Donald Duck’s eccentric scientist, psychiatrist, and self-proclaimed genius uncle) but I was not watching for this one.
It does come as a surprise when German words or phrases that we have not necessarily adopted as our own are dropped into American conversions like the excerpt in this episode of Young Sheldon the other night.
Young Sheldon; I’m experiencing what the Germans call weltschmerz.
Mom: Uh-huh. And what do Americans call it?
Young Sheldon: The pain of the world. Sounds more fun in German. Most things do.
Mom: Hmm. Sit. Tell me why you have… What is it?
Young Sheldon: Weltschmerz.
Mom: Weltschmerz. https://tvshowtranscripts.ourboard.org/viewtopic.php?f=858&t=48573
A CBS TV series that began in 2017 as a Big Bang Theory spin-off.
My curiosity prompted me to look into this new word. “Weltschmerz,” which was formed by combining the German words for “world” (“Welt”) and “pain” (“Schmerz”), aptly captures the melancholy and pessimism that often characterized the artistic expressions of the era. Weltschmerz Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster. The translation can differ depending on context, in reference to the self it can mean “world weariness”, in reference to the world it can mean “the pain of the world”.
In this article I found from Kate Lucy, she laments about our state as we exist in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic. “Yep, weltschmerz. A German word (aren’t all the best one?) weltschmerz is ‘a mood of sentimental sadness at the state of inadequacy or imperfection of the world, compared to its ideal state’.” Weltschmerz is the word that perfectly sums up how you’re feeling right now | Metro News She feels that weltschmerz is the perfect word for the world as we find it today.
The origin of the word is attributed to the German author Jean Paul in his 1827 novel Selina. Many romantic writers of his day such as Lord Byron, Oscar Wild, William Blake, Herman Hesse and Heinrich Heine also ascribed to this lamentable state of being.
Frederick C Beiser broadened the definition to “a mood of weariness of sadness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering’ in his 2016 book by the same name, subtitled Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900. He also notes that by the 1860s, the word was ironically used in Germany to refer to the oversensitiby to those sad concerns. Beiser, Frederick C. (2016). Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900. Oxford University Press. p. 1. ISBN9780191081347.
The concept has floated into more contemporary literature like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden or Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man where he writes “ beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco.” Kurt Vonnegut references the felling in his novel, Piano Player. In John D MacDonald’s novel, Free Fall in Crimson, Travis McGee describes weltschmerz as “homesickness for a place you have never seen.”
I am not sure if anyone would want to use this for their New Year’s reading list since it does not provide the most uplifting assortment of themes but if you want to attack some classics, here are a few.