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.
- Om det tragiske (en. On the tragic), Oslo 1941 og 1983.
- Den fortapte sønn, En dramatisk gjenfortælling (en. The lost son, a dramatic renarration), Oslo 1951.
- Indføring i litterær dramaturgi (en. Introduction to literary dramaturgy), Oslo 1961.
- Den logiske sandkasse (en. The logical sandpit), Oslo 1965.
- Vett og uvett. Stubber fra Troms og Nordland (en. Wits and witless) by Einar K. Aas and P.W Zapffe, Trondheim 1942.
- Lyksalig pinsefest (en. Blissful Pentecost), Oslo 1972.
- Hos doktor Wangel (en. With dr. Wangel), by Ib Henriksen (pseudonym.), Oslo 1974.
- Rikets hemmelighet (en. The secret of the kingdom), Oslo 1985.