What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

— Ecclesiastes

A fellow artist expressed to me yesterday her disappointment that realist painters—even of the caliber of Monet and Van Gogh—never add anything original to our culture.

Photographers have a word for that wistful feeling: vemödalen.

Vemödalen—the feeling everything has already been done—was coined by the Swiss blogger John Koening, whose Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines “emotions we feel, but don’t have words to express.”

According to Koening, vemödalen is “the frustration of photographing something amazing, when thousands of identical photos already exist.”

Those thousands of precedent photos turn mine into “something hollow, pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.”

By this definition, vemödalen (a word doubtless derived from the Swedish vemod, meaning “melancholy”) is a kind of weltschmerz that mistakes every work of art as another flat-pack item from Ikea.

It’s easy to understand where vemödalen comes from.

Unoriginality is baked into human existence, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger proved in Being and Time.

Heidegger calls the self of our everyday being the “they-self” (Man-selbst).

The they-self is a conformist and unoriginal way of engaging with the world.

Heidegger claims that I am not myself as I go about the tasks that preoccupy me every day.

I am, instead, the they-self, a worker among workers, a productive citizen, a member of the crowd.

The they-self, he says, represents “concerned absorption in the world we encounter.

“The ‘they’ prescribes our way of interpreting the world.”

In other words, I don’t encounter the world: they do.

“It is not ‘I’, in the sense of my own self, that ‘am,’ but others, whose way is that of the ‘they,'” Heidegger says.

While being a they-self feels comfortable, Heidegger insists, remaining one is a choice: a choice to surrender your soul to the “dictatorship of the they;” to surrender, sheepishly, to conformity, mediocrity, practicality, and ingenuousness.

In a real sense, Heidegger says, we wear a disguise our whole lives: the disguise of the they. And that disguise—that inauthentic self—tricks us into believing “there’s nothing new under the sun” when, in fact, everything under the sun is new every moment of every day, if only we open our eyes to it.

“It’s tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die,” Oscar Wilde once wrote.

“Most people are other people. Their life is a mimicry.”

Above: Orange. Oil on fiberboard. 8 x 10 inches.