From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Emptiness as a human condition is described as an elusive and disturbing feeling of numbness, inability to feel anything emotionally, or not having any purpose. It can be better described as a situation where a certain lack or lacks in one's life overtake the emotional and mental focus in an obsessive, sometimes subconscious manner. Feelings of emptiness often accompany chronic discontent, dysthymia, depression, loneliness, despair, or other mental/emotional disorders such as borderline personality disorder. It may seek expression through different types of self-harming behaviors, and in more extreme cases, suicide.
Emptiness often involves alienation, be it temporary or acquired, and sometimes self-hatred. Persons tending to feel emptiness often come from problematic familial backgrounds. If at all there was a family nucleus, their needs were ignored, they were considered second class, they experienced many separations, or there was outright abuse (see also the role of childhood abuse in BPD individuals).
Granted, a sense of emptiness is not always associated as such, and may be part of a natural process of grief, as resulting of separation, death of a loved one, or other significant changes to one's life.
Fiction, film and design
A number of novelists and filmmakers have depicted emptiness. The concept of "emptiness" was important to a "good deal of 19th–20th century Western imaginative literature". Novelist Franz Kafka depicted a meaningless bizarre world in The Trial and the existentialist French authors sketched a world cut off from purpose or reason in Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausée and Albert Camus' L'étranger. Existentialism influenced 20th century poet T.S. Eliot, whose poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” describes an "anti-hero or alienated soul, running away from or confronting the emptiness of his or her existence". Professor Gordon Bigelow argues that the existentialist theme of "spiritual barrenness is commonplace in literature of the 20th century", which in addition to Eliot includes Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Anderson.
Film adaptations of a number of existentialist novels capture the bleak sense of emptiness espoused by Sartre and Camus. This theme of emptiness has also been used in modern screenplays. Mark Romanek's 1985 film Static tells the surreal story of a struggling inventor and crucifix factory worker named Ernie who feels spiritually empty because he is saddened by his parents' death in an accident. Screenwriter Michael Tolkin's 1994 film The New Age examines "cultural hipness and spiritual emptiness", creating a "dark, ambitious, unsettling" film that depicts a fashionable LA couple who "are miserable in the midst of their sterile plenty", and whose souls are stunted by their lives of empty sex, consumption, and distractions. The 1999 film American Beauty examines the spiritual emptiness of life in the US suburbs. In Wes Anderson's 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited, three brothers who "... suffer from spiritual emptiness" and then "self-medicate themselves through sex, social withdrawal", and drugs.
Contemporary architecture critic Herbert Muschamp argues that "horror vacui" (which is Latin for "fear of emptiness") is a key principle of design. He claims that it has become an obsessive quality that is the "driving force in contemporary American taste". Muschamp states that "along with the commercial interests that exploit this interest, it is the major factor now shaping attitudes toward public spaces, urban spaces, and even suburban sprawl."
Films that depict nothingness, shadows and vagueness, either in a visual sense or a moral sense are appreciated in genres such as film noir. As well, travellers and artists are often intrigued by and attracted to vast empty spaces, such as open deserts, barren wastelands or salt flats, and the open sea.