The Age of Anxiety

The phrase “Age of Anxiety” has been around for a while.  The title of Auden’s 1947 poem is much better known than the poem itself, and even Jamie Cullum’s song was written before the advent of the pandemic.  But we are now in a new age of widespread distress.

Many writers have tried to describe the feeling of general anxiety about one’s being-in-the-world.  Emile Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe the loss of common norms and values that accompany social dislocation.  John Bowlby argued that disturbed children lack a sense of a secure base. A sense of ontological insecurity must underlie the anxiety of those who devote themselves to “strong” leaders who they believe will help and protect them.  George Orwell’s Big Brother was a satirical yet foreboding invention.   Hannah Arendt wrote about Nazi totalitarianism: “In an ever changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.” But this is not true only of the “masses”. The spectacle of Rudy Giuliani sweating with anxiety in his devotion to Trump is a sad contrast to the man who gained appreciation for his leadership of New York after 9/11.

Meanwhile, the actual pandemic, and attempts to manage it, have severely disrupted and curtailed social life.   Defending ourselves against an invisible viral enemy that can strike at any time, we isolate from each other.  Everyday companionship can be gained, if at all, only through a phone or computer screen.  Household income falls, or even ceases.  The lives of millions of people without secure accommodation, heating or food become even more precarious. 

The pandemic, like the fear of totalitarianism, is destructive of all living together. Fortunately, the discovery of a vaccine, and the election of Biden, signal a respite in anxiety.  But recent events in the US and UK have shown that authoritarianism was not buried in the history of the 1930s but is immanent in an apparent democracy.  This plague, wrote Albert Camus, never dies.  “It waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers for the day when it will once again rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

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