Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990) was a Norwegian author and philosopher. He was born in Tromsø and was well known for his somewhat pessimistic view of human existence. His basic thoughts about the error of human existence are presented in the essay, The Last Messiah (original: Den sidste Messias 1933). This essay is a shorter version of his best-known work, the philosophical treatise, On the Tragic (original: Om det tragiske 1941).

Zapffe's theory, is that humans are born with an overdeveloped skill (understanding, self-knowledge) which does not fit into nature's design. The human craving for justification on matters such as life and death cannot be satisfied, hence humanity has a need that nature cannot provide satisfaction for. The tragedy, following this theory, is that humans spend all their time trying not to be human. The human being, therefore, is a paradox.

Zapffe described four principal defense mechanisms that humankind uses to avoid facing this paradox:

  • Isolation. One hides from the truth. The individual simply does not talk or think about it.
  • The fixing mechanism. This mechanism is based on all things humans take for granted.
  • Distraction. The most popular defense mechanism; the individual simply focusses their attention on external impressions.
  • Sublimation. The least popular defense mechanism; the individual outdistances him / herself and looks at their existence from an esthetic point of view (eg, writers, poets, painters.) Zapffe pointed out the fact that he himself used this method combined with a sense of humor concerning the nature of life.

Greater works

See also