2. Peter Wessel Zapffe

Portrait of Zapffe, by Stein-C. 

The movie Planet Zapffe is largely based on Zapffe’s thoughts and ideas, as well as the ideas of other antinatalists. Who was Peter Wessel Zapffe? How was his life? What was he talking about?


Peter Wessel Zapffe was born in Tromsø, northern Norway in 1899, and died in his home in Asker in 1991. His father Fritz Zapffe was known for being a close friend of polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who helped him with rations and other kinds of materials for his expeditions up to the polar areas.

Peter Wessel first studied law, and infamously wrote his exam on rhyme. He later studied literature, but ended up taking a philosophical master instead. He had a very diverse range of talents, and did everything from philosophy, comedy, theatre to drawings, photography and moutainclimbing. He was also known to be kind of a reserved person in periods of his life.

His arguably biggest work is the book On The Tragic in 1941, which was evolved from his earlier essay The Last Messiah in 1933. Its considered quite a masterpiece of a work, but sadly has never been translated, despite a lot of interest even to this day.

Many people have suggested Zapffe would have been just as reknown as people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and other existensialist philosophers if only his work would have been more available. His essay The Last Messiah was translated for PsychologyNow by Gisle R. Tangenes and a lot of new born interest in Zapffe occured. Especially because of the growing antinatalism community the last ten years, a community of people has a lot of similiar views to those Zapffe aspoused.

Noteworthy or not, Zapffe was also a life long friend of Arne Næss, another famous norwegian philosopher, which he met through their common interest for philosophy and mountainclimbing. Another philosopher Zapffe was affiliated with was Herman Tønnessen, another norwegian who was a professor in philosophy in America. Tønnesen and Zapffe had similar views on existence on life, although with small disagreements. The very fascinating book “Jeg Velger Sannheten”(“I Choose The Truth”) is a book just with a dialogue between them.

What was Zapffe’s philosophy about?

Some would call his philosophy pessimistic. Some would call it realistic. His main point was what he defined as “The Tragic”, but what did he mean by this?

Zapffe was interested in what he considered the objective tragedy. What does the the word tragic mean, he asked? We may all have different ways of defining it, but we all have some kind of common association of what it means and its not just a result of our language.

Zapffe’s essensial point is that since humans have, contrary to other mammals a very evolved consciousness, it has given us something that is broadly considered to be a good thing. We have evolved to see meanings and analyze everything around us. This has given human beings the abiluty in many ways of standing over nature, and control nature. In some kind of evolutionary way it has been a success. Humans basically owns the planet we live on. Any other species are either food, extinct or basically touristattractions to us now.

The backside of consciousness

There is a backside to our ability to reason and analyze the world around us too however, according to Zapffe. It has given us the ability to understand what are ourselves, and our own role in the cosmos. Which seems to be meaningless in the larger spectre of things.

With this ability we can also see the cruelty of life around us and the indifference of the universe as wel. We can see how crude and brutal the force of natural selection is, the force that got us here in the first place. Its also Zapffe’s point that this is not a pretty sight for the human mind, and our ability to see it the way we do, is tragical.
This obviously adds up to the conclusion that life should be discontinued, which would be the best thing according to Zapffe.

But why does so many people consider life not to be tragical? 

Why don’t we consider life as horrible as Zapffe and the antinatalists would consider it? Yes, indeed. Why aren’t everybody antinatalists? Thats a common question of critics and its obviously much discussed by antinatalists and detractors. Is it just opinions and values, or is there something else going on? Its a good question.

According to Zapffe explains that this has to do with humans evolved a defensemechanism to defend them from seeing life for what it really is.  Zapffe describes four ways humans defends themselves from seeing reality and to avoid the existential anxiety they’d else would have. How they like Thomas Ligotti calls it, zombiefy our mind into a way that makes it possible to cope with. Lets look at these four mechanisms Zapffe describes.

1. Isolation

There’s at least two ways of isolating oneself from the harshness of existence. The physical one where you just hide yourself in the places where you find the most comfort, and try to avoid every place that causes discomfort. The other one is the mental one. By repressing any kind of discomforting memory or idea you can isolate yourself and makethe world seem like a happy, just and good place. Thomas Ligotti describes this. “The repressed ideas are like the lunatic family in your attic, that you try to hide.”

2. Anchoring

Anchoring is our way of trying to find some kind of valuesystem or group that we can rest our identity on. Like a religion, your country, traditions, family and so on. There’s too much for an individual to comprehend a constant chaos of the universe, so anchorpoints to come back to seems to be of the essence. Comfort zones don’t last forever, but in our mind we forget this. They help us to isolate ourselves from any discomforting stuff.

3. Distraction

Our ability to distract our mind is a very powerful defensemechanism, Zapffe acclaims. If you wonder why you sometimes feel the unplanned need to sit for hours every day doing something that distracts you from thinking about the real stuff, then this is it. The pressure and stress of life often makes us just want to distract ourselves from it as much as we can.

Drugs, alcohol, television, eating, computergames and all this stuff can help to distract you from reality and keep everything at a comforting distance. If you wonder where your strange addictions and OCD’s actually come from, this might be the roots.

4. Sublimination

Sublimination is the fourth and rarest of the mechanisms according to Zapffe, but also the most rewarding and beautiful one.

Instead of repressing any of the troubles and sorrows of your life, confront them! By describing them, discussing them, write about them, reflect upon we can shrink it. Another way is make something creative out of your stuff. Sublimination of your real life is a way to makes it able to cope with them. This might be the roots of any artistic work. (Although obviously a lot of art is made to distract us as well.)

Zapffe seemed to think sublimination was the preferable way if there ever was one, although he still thought life was as a despair in the grander schemes of things.

What about religion and God? 

Zapffe was not a religious man, but a selfproclaimed atheist. He dismissed religion as a distraction and an anchor, and a way for people to substitute a meaning to their existence and distract themselves from the real reality as a comforting lie.

He was accused of blasphemy a few times, but there was an interesting part about Zapffe when it came to Jesus, the christian prophet. Zapffe seemed to be very inspired by the person Jesus, whom he considered a biographical person. There was a small Jesus relics hanging over his desk, which would tend to get a lot of people to think he was christian. He even wrote a biography about Jesus.

In some cases it seems like he had a lot admiration for the character Jesus, but in others he seemed to have some kind of contempt. Even refering to Jesus as a psychopath in one of his latter days interviews.  So its a very weird relationship. Surely worth its own topic.


Zapffe like other philosophers, e.g the arguably more famous Arne Næss, was a mountaineer as well. He climbed a lot of mountains in the northern parts of Norway, and in post-life had a mountain top named tributed to him. A mountain called Zapffetoppen, which could be translated into Zapffe Peak.

Zapffetoppen in Tromsø Kommune. 

Zapffe’s book “Barske Glæder” was awarded in a magazine recently as the best mountainclimbing-book. Its full of personal, funny and poetic essays about nature and mountainclimbing.

One essay he wrote was about Stetinden, a mountain. A mountain he felt had a certain power over him, and the goal of climbing it could be seens as a poetic paralell of the struggle for meaning.

Stetinden – drawn by Zapffe himself.

Inspired norwegian humour / Comedian

Some people would think Zapffe was a grave serious moody guy, but it might be surprising to some that he’s probably more famous as a humorist/comedian in Norway than as a philosopher.

Vett og Uvett (1942) a comedic book he wrote with Einar K. Aas is been a very famous book and is still played in theatre for years. Its considered very influential in the northern norwegian humor.

How one of the most pessimistic thinkers in philosophy can be just as much of an arguable comedic genius, might strike some as a contradiction or even some kind of schizophrenic feature, but perhaps  its just our way of reasoning what humor is about thats wrong.
One perspective is through Arthur Arntzen, very inspired by Zapffe’s humour. Arntzen is often celebrated as one of Norways funniest comedians, how his harsh and poor upbrining and how humour was a defensemechanism when he was brought up. He wrote a book called the “The Latterlige Alvor“, which translated could be something like “The ridiculous grave seriousity”.

Putting it into Zapffe’s philosophy humor is a sort of distraction, as it helps us avoid the problems of reality we are faced with. Although humor can be used as a sublimination as well, as it confronts reality, and by helping us seeing the absurdity in it all, it helps us cope with it in this way as well. According to both Zapffe and Arntzen this is the function of humor.

Reading Peter Wessel Zapffe is recommended, and one of the goals of the movie is to shed a public light on what he was talking about, among other antinatalists.

Other Resources on Zapffe

* Here’s a guide to his books.
* Here’s a picture collection of Zapffe
* Here’s some of Zapffe’s drawings.

* This is a very good text that goes to the heart of Zapffe.
* Biologist Dag O. Hessens essay on Zapffe (pdf). Dag O. Hessen is a reknown biologist in Norway and I find myself coming back to this text a lot. (Norwegian)
* Norwegian intellectual Thomas Hylland Eriksen wrote a short text about Zapffe. (English)
* Norwegian Wikipedia, Store Norske Leksikon, English Wikipedia.

* There is also a very good documentary by Trond Brede Andersen from 1990 with the name “Hva det betyr å være menneske” (What it means to be human). 30 minutes. Portrait of Peter Wessel Zapffe. Which is highly recommended if you can get your hands on it. Its a masterpiece.

* There is also another documantary/portrait made the same year (1990) called Det var en lydløs oktobermorgen, by Knut Erik Jensen. Its uncertain if its the same movie or not, as Knut Erik Jensen also was cameraman on the other one. If anybody knows anything about this please let us know.

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