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‘Introduction’ to The Angel of Luxury and Sadness: the Emergence of the Normative Ennui Cycle
Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 1998-2013 all rights reserved. [NB: An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Angel of Luxury and Sadness: the Emergence of the Normative Ennui Cycle, as the introductory chapter (Booksurge, 2001, currently available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers). A version also appeared in the author’s PhD research thesis La Trobe University, Australia, 1998]. All short extracts from texts on ennui used under fair usage related to ‘review’ and theoretical ‘critique’ under international copyright law.
Image (which are in the ‘public domain’): Jean Baptiste Greuze, Ennui, 1725-1805. [Note: Image does not appear in The Angel of Luxury and Sadness]. Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013. NB: This article is published at Scribd as part of a series of articles on Chronic Ennui, and other similar maladies of the subject, in historical and contemporary settings.
The senses sometimes reel in the presence of dark and sinister objects. A precious stone worn as a talisman by some ancient king or queen, an ebony statue sacred to some long banished chthonic divinity: the effect is similar, one is fascinated, hypnotised, overcome by the impulse to touch, to observe at close hand. Something analogous happens to the intellect, the imagination and the soul after an encounter with the long tradition of writings concerned with the problem of chronic ennui. The more one studies the strange mood of the soul that is chronic ennui the more mysterious it seems to become; the more too, one feels unnerved, superstitious, awed, before the shade-haunted realms of being it opens up for exploration. There is no doubt that as a theme it lacks the colour, the simplicity, the vivacity, the obvious life-affirming qualities, implicit to many of the other great ideas that have seized the hearts and minds of individuals and civilisations. The spirit is not immediately 'uplifted' by a casual encounter with this buzzard of the psyche. However, when one approaches it with an open mind, perhaps through one of Baudelaire's evil little 'flowers,' or through a note by Pascal entitled simply 'Diversion', one becomes immediately aware of its powers of revelation, its imperative toward alchemical transformation, its terrible saturnine magnetism. There is no escaping the fact: chronic ennui is a baleful, accursed condition. Serious engagement with the literature on the topic is bound to disorient even the most hardy of social analysts. It seems that the more one explores the 'vaporous realms' of ennui, the more one discovers its presence in the secret and archaic depths of one's own soul. Whatever its ultimate secrets we know with an instant certainty that we are in the presence of the other, that we stand like explorers at the very frontier of the human soul. Study of this strange mood of the soul does not offer immediate enlightenment, part time transformation, quick fix happiness: that is to say, temporary transcendence of pain and suffering. Quite the opposite, to study ennui is to experience an increased sensitivity to pain and sorrow. Likewise, it is to be reminded that madness is relative, and that 'there but by the grace of God go I.' Given these features of chronic ennui it is not surprising that many who have fallen under its spell have been overcome by its powers of dissolution. To others, however, the mysterious, apparently destructive side to the malaise has given rise to new states of psycho-spiritual authenticity. In this sense the 'diversions' associated with normative ennui may give way to the catharsis and wisdom associated with creative ennui. The concept is important for other reasons. For example, it has always posed questions about the nature of the relationship between societies and individuals. In particular questions arise about the ways in which the normative laws, codes and customs of social groups impinge upon people's inner self. Likewise, problems specific to the past two hundred years and related to the secularisation of the human psyche are highlighted. The problem of chronic ennui compels thinkers to compare the relative values of the various spiritual and psychological approaches that have been used to treat this and similar maladies by primitive, pre-modern and modern societies. Thus the writings on chronic ennui demand
that researchers think critically about prevalent sociocultural norms for emotional and spiritual health/sickness. Many writers on ennui have suggested that 'normative' descriptions of emotional health often conceal the gnawing worm of chronic ennui. Issues related to the relationship between the artist and the society in which he or she lives and as an offshoot, the contrasting approaches of artists and physicians to psycho-spiritual problems are also central. From a broader philosophical perspective ennui also poses questions about the nature of good and evil, the nature of consciousness (similarly, arising out of psychoanalytic insights, the possible nature of the unconscious), and the nature of happiness. The term chronic ennui is particularly useful to anybody attempting to find new perspectives on certain modern/postmodern maladies of the psyche. Unlike many recent theoretical terms for these maladies (anomie, angst, alienation, reification, being for others, etc.) the concept of chronic ennui does not arise from any single theorist, thinker or system but is rather an accumulation of the thoughts (and feelings) of hundreds, if not thousands, of thinkers, artists, poets, writers, psychologists, philosophers, doctors, priests and sociologists, not to mention many more lay people. It is the closest one comes to a folk term for the state of being described. Unlike many of the modern terms discussed above no clear 'signified,' no clear cause, in the ordinary sense of the word, is implied by the term chronic ennui: many causes have been canvassed, and likewise many cures.1 Nevertheless, as I will show in this book, the core symptoms seem to have held across time and it is these that are at the centre of the discourses on ennui. The terms associated with chronic ennui always point to something hidden or concealed, something which may either transform a subject's consciousness thoroughly or leave him/her stranded in the desert of an endless, apparently meaningless search for meaning, peace of mind, mental health. Although chronic ennui imposes upon the researcher the necessity of finding a cure, no particular cure can be assumed from its signifying processes. In a work of limited length, there is no room to attempt a thorough summary of the whole tradition of ennui such as Madeleine Bouchez and Reinhard Kuhn have undertaken. The focus of this book will be on the forms of 'chronic ennui' or 'hyperboredom' which began to attack the citizens of France, England and other European countries in the eighteenth century and which have since spread to almost all Westernised societies.2 Luckily, ancient, medieval and Early Modern
This is evidenced by the remarkable number of approaches to, and terms, causes, cures for, the particular states of consciousness here described. The average article or book on 'chronic ennui' uses many related terms interchangeably even as the typical author tries to speak of a common malady. Healy (1984, p.46) comments that the French writers who have attempted to define the various forms of chronic ennui 'have tended to confuse the whole issue by endlessly dividing and subdividing.' Bouchez (1973, p.7) suggests that there are so many varieties of chronic ennui that it defies diagnosis 'un mal qui se refuse au diagnostique.' My own opinion, as expressed throughout this book, is that a balance must be sought between over-simplistic and over-complex classifications; likewise, even if a malady is complex it does not mean that we are relieved of the responsibility of making sense of it. 2 Many researchers and theorists on chronic forms of ennui argue that it is more prevalent in modern societies. Klapp (1986, p.32) believes that chronic forms of ennui 'go with the terrain of modernity'. He admits, however, the difficulty of proving such a proposal scientifically. In speaking of 'cosmological boredom,' Clive (1965, p.362) says the following: 'Historically, it is not without irony that the Enlightenment should have harboured within itself a wave of
forms of the complaint have attracted a significant critical literature in the twentieth century. The quality of this literature has made the task of reinterpreting pre-modern understandings of ennui in the light of later developments a less onerous one. (I) Chronic Ennui and the Ennui Cycle: Modern Distinctions and Definitions. Although medical professionals have long studied the various forms of ‘chronic ennui/boredom’, the malaise as defined by both medical and non -medical writers is not currently listed in international manuals for the diagnosis of mental illnesses.3 However, the symptoms traditionally associated with 'chronic ennui' in disabling form have been related to a large number of ailments as described in such manuals.4 The current omission of the concept is probably related to two issues: (a) eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century writings on the problem were dominated by artists, philosophers, sociologists, culture critics and theologians. These people often used the term in ways not particularly appropriate to the therapeutic situation faced by medical practitioners. More importantly, many non-medical nineteenth century writers on ennui did not describe a disease at all so much as a state of 'being' suffered by all kinds of people, sick as well as healthy; (b) Non-medical writings on the topic have often been openly or implicitly critical of psychiatric classifications of mental illness. Such writings (coming out of Romantic, Modernist and postmodernist critiques of modernity) have often used the term, or depicted the mood, in ways that subvert the scientific and Enlightenment-based philosophical paradigms that are the foundations of much modern psychiatry and psychology. A Primary Distinction: Temporary Boredom and Chronic Boredom It is appropriate to ask exactly what is meant when artists and theorists use the term 'chronic ennui'. Most modern (and many ancient) researchers and commentators on the malaise begin by distinguishing states of chronic ennui from all forms of temporary boredom.5 They do this by suggesting that 'chronic ennui' is usually both long lasting in nature and apparently independent of immediate (though not necessarily past) external circumstances. Temporary boredom, on the other hand, is usually related to specific external circumstances
ennui so formidable that it remains unspent to the present time.' Kuhn (1976, p.331) commenting on ennui in modern Western literature says: "In the twentieth century ennui is not one theme among others; it is the dominant theme ... it intrudes upon the works of most contemporary authors." Bernstein (1975, pp.512 537) and Healy (1984, p.15) also suggest that chronic forms of ennui have reached epidemic proportions in the West during the last two hundred or so years. Spacks (1995, p.6) proposes we understand boredom as 'a social construction, and a fairly recent construction at that, dating from the mid-eighteenth century.' 3 For example the DSM-III-R (1987) and more recently the DSM-IV (1994) put out by The American Psychiatric Association, the ICD-9 put out by the World Health Organisation, (1977), and also the ICD-9-CM a modification of the ICD-9 put out by the American Commission on Professional and Hospital Activities (1978). 4 See Appendix Two (Section B) of this book.
For a reasonably detailed history of the etymological origins of words like ennui, boredom and spleen the reader is directed to Appendix One of this book.
and its effects disappear with their removal.6 Such a distinction is valid enough if indeed the feeling of being bored ceases after the removal of external causes. I would only note, however, that it does not follow from the above distinction, that the effects of boredom related to tedious work routines, domestic life, school or other oppressive experiences are necessarily only temporary in nature and therefore unrelated to the problem of chronic ennui.7 Such a formulation would prematurely underplay the role of long-term oppression in the production of later forms of debilitating ennui (not to mention other psychological illnesses). It is likely that certain apparently mundane situations may well activate the psychic mechanisms of repression and defence construction, which are arguably central to the problem of chronic ennui.8 Primary Symptoms of Chronic Ennui9 The ennui described and analysed in this book is not the ennui of 'temporary boredom', which can be rectified by the removal of specific external stresses. The morbid forms of ennui here discussed assume in the sufferer the existence of a long-term cycle of consciousness in which his or her emotional life swings back and forth between (a) feelings of bored anxiety/agitation ( taedium vitae), (b) unfulfilling activity (designed to lessen the feelings of anxiety and agitation) and (c) numbness, self-effacement and the relative absence of frantic activity or anxiety. One of the defining subjective characteristics of the whole cycle is a state of disenchantment, joylessness or numbness, which is only worsened by
This distinction between boredom which has a specific cause (and which is cured by the removal of the cause) and chronic ennui has been made by virtually every major writer on ennui, e.g. Healy (1984, pp.43-44), Kuhn (1976, pp.610), Bernstein (1975, p.514.), Clive (1965, pp.360-361), Christin (1923, p.238), Dupuis (1922, p.417) and Le Savoureux (1914). All analyse the differences between 'temporary' or 'responsive' boredom and chronic ennui. They also analyse some of the problems one may encounter in making such distinctions. I have no wish to dispute the general findings except to say that the more active forms of chronic ennui often make people ascribe sensations of boredom to environmental factors which can supposedly be rectified by 'novel' activity. Such activity often manages to remove the immediate feeling of boredom; however, the person may still be suffering from the chronic ennui associated by Pascal with 'Diversion.' 7 Kuhn (1976, p.8) and Clive (1965, p.360) tend to define the difference between temporary and chronic ennui by resorting to such examples. Socially related forms of boredom are thus given less emphasis than 'aesthetic' or 'spiritual' forms, and discussion of the possible relationship between modes of social oppression and states of chronic ennui suffers as a consequence. The experiences of people who are less able to put words to their work, school or domestically generated ennui are prematurely dismissed as unrelated to the problem of 'spiritual boredom'. I would argue that the suffering of such people may be every bit as excruciating (and spiritual) as that of the bored aesthete or artist and just as difficult to fix once the temporary oppressive circumstances are removed. Our definition of 'temporary boredom' will be limited to describing situations where the condition is cured by the removal of external causes. We leave open the possibility that some of the above social situations may lead to (perhaps by certain psychological defence mechanisms) states of chronic ennui. 8 Klapp (1986, Chapt. 2) argues that many forms of chronic ennui have traditionally been underemphasised, for example, youth ennui, worker ennui, housewife ennui. The traditional emphasis has been on the ennui suffered by the upper classes and by men in particular - this form of ennui alone has been given the status of 'spiritual' or 'metaphysical'. He argues that all forms of chronic ennui may in fact be related. Spacks (1995, pp.179-180) emphasises the intensity of domestically generated forms of female ennui. 9 The term 'chronic ennui' is an adaption of Bernstein's general term 'chronic boredom' (1975, p.513), and also of Christin's (1923), Dupuis' (1922), and Le Savoureux's (1914) term 'L'ennui morbide.' Fenichel's (1953, p.301) use of the term 'pathological boredom' is also relevant. Only their definitions of the primary characteristics of 'chronic' forms of ennui are drawn on at this stage.
indulgence in unfulfilling addictive activities. Indulgence in such activities, even to the point of satiation, only serves to increase the person's sense of existential disenchantment; it breeds desensitisation, and jading which may cause a person to indulge in even more addictive activities in the future under the illusion that such extreme activities may dispel numbness and disenchantment. 10 It should also be noted that people suffering from chronic ennui experience time as a pathological phenomenon. It is described as a nefarious burden, a demonic force impelling its victims onwards through the perpetual self-defeating loops typical of the various stages of the cycle. Sufferers of chronic ennui may even perceive existence itself to be a hateful burden, something to endure or rebel against. They may become either hostile or indifferent to the world and everything in it, to their own existence, and, often, to the needs of other people. 11 These are the primary characteristics of what I term the 'ennui cycle' and it is this state of being, in mild or chronic form, that is central to the discussions of the various forms of chronic ennui that follow. Secondary Symptoms of Chronic Ennui As stated above, many of the disorders treated by modern psychiatry and psychology can be related to various stages of this cycle. Such disorders, however, are only relevant to this study when they manifest at the same time as the fundamental characteristics of the cycle as defined above. In this sense, they may be termed 'secondary symptoms'. In the literature the following secondary symptoms (to various degrees of severity) are discussed frequently: loss of self (depersonalisation or self-estrangement); self-revulsion; the sense that one is sometimes possessed by potentially destructive impulses over which one has no control; alienation from the material world and the objects in it; loss of vision and imaginative insight (deanimation, desacralisation, disenchantment); loss of connection to other people and a tendency to treat them as 'things'; an inability to find emotional and spiritual fulfilment in one's sexual life; periodic bouts of depression, lethargy or crippling self doubt; a sense of alienation from one's own history (and memories); and, finally, addiction to particular objects, activities or habitual behaviours which though indulged to the full give no genuine emotional
Here I adapt Klapp's classification of the various forms of ennui. He links chronic boredom to the following concepts: 'satiation,' 'desensitisation,' 'jading' and 'habituation' (1986, pp.37-38). Such linkages are also evident in many earlier medical and philosophic writings on ennui, for example, Dupuis (1922, p.422). Klapp develops the terms with specific reference to his theory of how information entropy can cause chronic forms of ennui. For the purposes of this study satiety, 'loss of appetite signalling having reached a limit of intake', can be either natural or pathological. In its pathological form, as connected to stages two and three of the ennui cycle, the person gets no enjoyment out of the activities which lead to satiety. Indeed, the person may feel guilty, dirty, out of control. Habituation, as described by Klapp, is 'loss of responsiveness as novelty wears off.' I see it as a general feature of the workings of the whole ennui cycle. In chronic form it leads to the ennui symptoms of horror loci and love of empty spectacle and novelty. It symbolises a general dissatisfaction with life for nothing ever pleases for long. I would also argue that chronic forms of desensitisation (or jading) - described by Klapp as 'a loss of sensitivity to increasingly strong stimulus' - are general aspects of the entire ennui cycle. They can be related to the inner deadness suffered by many ennuyés. The repetition of life activities which give no true fulfilment may engender feelings of existential desperation in people. In order to feel anything (to feel alive and defeat the feeling of existential numbness) the person may seek out ever stronger forms of stimulus. 11 See Bouchez (1973) and Kuhn (1976). Their primary definitions of chronic ennui are derived from the whole tradition of writings on the topic.
fulfilment. This list catalogues most of the secondary symptoms modern researchers have attached to the various subjective forms of chronic ennui. A summary follows of modern views concerning the mechanisms by which this cycle comes to dominate a person's psychic life. According to the literature, sufferers of certain forms of morbid ennui often exhibit signs of defensive denial of their problem. Other mechanisms (in milder or more chronic form) come into play to produce and sustain this state of denial. In psychiatric terminology, the defences of Acting Out, Displacement, Idealisation, Intellectualisation, Projection, Rationalisation, Repression, Splitting and Suppression may accompany various aspects of the ennui cycle. 12 These terms are undoubtedly modern developments of terms employed by classical and premodern writers on the ennui cycle. Lucretius, Seneca and Pascal, for example, used concepts like 'diversion' and 'flight from self'. Such defences are easily confused with the phenomenon of ennui itself and it is often difficult to tell the difference between a symptom and a defence mechanism. In the end the cycle is sustained by a certain atrophy of the will which is in turn coloured by either a lack of awareness or a general impotence of the awareness faculty which might look to change things for the better. Whether external oppression or inner choice causes this condition is a question to which a good deal of attention will be given in this study. (II) The Modern Ennui Cycle: Some Examples Before I summarise my own proposed contribution to the long literature on chronic ennui/boredom, it is useful to illustrate, by way of example, the phenomenon of the 'ennui cycle' as written about by post-WWII thinkers. The following passage from Robert MacIver's essay 'The Great Emptiness' details many of the basic components of chronic ennui and the ennui cycle as understood in our own age. Later chapters of this work will confirm the fact that elements of his description go back a very long way in history. ... The new leisure has brought its seeming opposite, restlessness. And because these cannot be reconciled, the great emptiness comes. Faced with the great emptiness, unprepared to meet it, most people resort to one or another way of escape, according to their kind. Those who are less conscious of their need succeed in concealing it from themselves. They find their satisfaction in the great new world of means without ends. Those who are more conscious of it cannot conceal it; they only distract themselves from the thought of it. Their common recourse is excitation, and they seek it in diverse ways. The first type are go-getters. ... They are practical men and women. They keep right on being practical until their unlived lives are at an end. If they stopped being practical the great emptiness would engulf them. ...
Standard international definitions of these defensive mechanisms (as applicable to a variety of mental and emotional states besides chronic ennui) are here assumed and have been taken directly from 'Appendix C' of the DSM-III-R (pp.393-395). I will refrain from making a critique of the Freudian and psychiatric models of the psyche out of which these concepts have been lifted until Chapter 10. For the moment only their descriptive value is being made use of.
The second kind have it worse. They are the more sensitive kind, often the more gifted. They want their lives to have some meaning, some fulfilment. ... However, often there is something wrong with the seeking. They too suffer from the intrusive ego. Their seeking lacks sincerity. ... [Sooner or later] they become disillusioned. They are thrust back on their unsatisfied egos, and the great emptiness lies before them. They try to escape, but they run from themselves. They try to forget, but their only recourse is an excitation of the senses. This stimulant needs to be incessantly repeated. The little spell of liberation, the false glow, the hour of oblivion, leaves them the more desolate and adds new tensions to the returning emptiness. Then there is leisure no more, no relaxedness, no return to the things they once loved, no lingering ease of quiet discourse with friends, no natural savour of living, no perception of the unfolding wonder of things. Instead, they pass from excitation to a hollow release, from release to tension, from tension to new excitation. Nothing is itself any more. And no more at the end of the day do they sink peacefully into the marvellous process of slowly gathering sleep. ... Not only the more cultivated and sophisticated feel the great emptiness. In other ways it besets large numbers who, finding little satisfaction in their daily work, seek compensation in the leisure they now possess ... They would cover the emptiness they cannot fill. They make a goal of what is a diversion ... [and] ... the diversion becomes the way of life and diverts no more. For them, the filled glass is not the cheerful accompaniment of pleasant reunions but a deceitful medicine for the ennui of living. ... However, these people do not escape the great emptiness. What they get is a sequence of brief delusions of escape. In time, the only thing they can escape to is what they themselves know for a delusion. The resort is only a drug to make them forget the disease. As with all such drugs the dose must be continually renewed, and it becomes harder and harder to return to the pre-addict stage. They come to look upon the great emptiness as something innate in the very nature of things. That is all life is.13 MacIver captures well the various ways in which the ennui cycle may affect different types of people. He makes a useful distinction between the more or less totally unconscious forms of the ennui cycle (the go-getter forms), defined in this book by the term 'normative ennui,' and what may be termed the 'creative' forms of ennui. There is an implicit though undeveloped distinction between both 'gogetter' (normative) and creative forms of chronic ennui and their dysfunctional forms. The ennui of each need not necessarily be the affliction suffered by those who are mentally ill. To MacIver, go-getter and sensitive forms of chronic ennui can be distinguished according to the degree of awareness exhibited by the person afflicted. The go-getter type may go through life unconscious of the fact that he or she is suffering in any way at all. He or she indulges in activities and
MacIver (1975, p.144).
lives for certain goals that result in the lifelong avoidance of a confrontation with what MacIver calls 'the Great Emptiness'. Go-getters believe they are living life to the full. On MacIver's theorising they are often totally unaware of the vacuity of all their enterprises, even to the point of ignoring the tremendous costs their lifestyles exact from their loved ones, friends and colleagues.14 The sensitive types, on the other hand, avoid the worst excesses of the great Emptiness by deliberate conscious activity; they gain relief at the same time as they understand that their activities are merely temporary 'diversions'. Such people are often conscious that something is wrong even though they may not have the means to correct it. The end result, according to MacIver is similar: a cycle of consciousness that leads only to desensitisation, jading, numbness in short, a crisis of subjective consciousness related to the sociocultural institutions of modernity. Another social critic, Ernest Van Den Haag, argues that the objects and activities people indulge in to overcome the sensations associated with the 'anxiety' stage of the boredom cycle are actually presented to people by society itself. Den Haag links such palliatives, in particular popular culture, to what he terms 'the repression of original impulses.'15 The analysis produces a useful modern description of the ennui cycle: Repression bars impulses from awareness without satisfying them. This damming up always generates a feeling of futility and apathy, or, in defence against it, an agitated need for action. The former may be called listlessness, the latter restless boredom. They may alternate and they may enter consciousness only through anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness, fatigue and non-fulfilment. Sometimes there is such a general numbing of the eagerness too often turned aside that only a dull feeling of dreariness and emptiness remains. More often, there is an insatiable longing for things to happen. The external world is to supply these events to fill the emptiness. Yet, the bored person cannot designate a craving that is as ceaseless as it is vague. It is not satisfied by any event supplied.16 To Van Den Haag, the modern world supplies 'events' to subjects in need of tranquillisation. A person may participate in (and become addicted to) any number of 'diversionary' activities, described by Van Den Haag as 'mechanised assaults on the centres of sensation.' The result is a certain 'releasing of tension' and moments of 'meaningless excitement'. According to Van Den Haag, the whole process is a downward spiral; the self is actually being systematically
See Zuckerman (Feb. 1978, pp.39-43 and p.99) for a particularly insightful description of this personality type.
Klapp (1986) also relates chronic ennui as it functions in the subject's consciousness to what he calls 'opiate institutions', that is, institutions which act to blunt our awareness of existential crisis. The theme of addiction to activities and things which dull the pain associated with chronic ennui has been implicit to much of the literature on chronic ennui since Lucretius. 16 Van Den Haag 'Of happiness and despair we have no measure' (in Josephson ed., 1975, p.196).
debased. 'We are diverted temporarily and in the end perhaps drained but not gratified.'17 The result is the state of acute ennui: Once fundamental impulses are thwarted beyond retrieving, once they are so deeply repressed that no awareness is left of their aims, once the desire for a meaningful life has been lost as well as the capacity to create it, only a void remains. Life fades into tedium when the barrier between impulses and aims is so high that neither penetrates into consciousness and no sublimation whatever can take place. Diversion, however frantic, can overcome temporarily but not ultimately relieve the boredom which oozes from non-fulfilment.18 It is as though the act of consuming 'diversionary' activities and objects renders them alien to the true needs of the self, indeed, renders the self alien to itself. The diversions are described as focal points for addiction, self-deception and various malign emotions that I see as central to the normative ennui cycle. Objects and activities used for the purpose of tranquillisation seem to dull not only pain and unease, but also life itself in the present. Often such objects and activities are eventually discarded, only to be replaced by others with similar tranquillising properties. Such activities eventually lead to negative feelings like emptiness and frustration, jading and desensitisation brought on (paradoxically) by the successful annihilation of anxiety and awareness through successful diversion. These feelings too are fled from and so the person may find him/herself trapped in an endless search for 'new things,' 'new diversions', 'new sensations' in order to keep the self away from the misery that proceeds from not being itself.19 The origins of this peculiarly modern state of subjective consciousness will be traced throughout this work. In the process the possible social and cultural changes that have made Western civilisation act as a kind of parent to the malady will be analysed. (III) Methodological Questions: Two Major Axes. The study of chronic ennui demands a highly sophisticated methodology. In this work, I have tried to merge approaches implicit in much of the critical literature with artistic descriptions of the mood of ennui. Such an approach will affirm the fact that the primary symptoms of the malaise have held across many centuries, even as it takes into consideration the many reported variations. This last point has led me to make use of two axes which will better allow for the classification of different kinds of chronic ennui. The insights of many post-WWII writers who have dealt with the topic, as well the contributions made by sociologists, feminists, Western Marxists and postmodern theorists, necessitates the introduction of a second axis of classification capable of relating ennui to class,
17 18 19
Ibid (1975, p.197). Ibid (1975, p.197). Klapp (1986, Chapt. 10, pp.131-154).
gender, age and cultural positionings. Many post-WWII writings on ennui have criticised the gender, class and age-based biases of much of the historic literature on the topic.20 Axis 1: Normative, Creative and Dysfunctional forms of Chronic Ennui In surveying the literature concerning the various terms associated with chronic ennui it is clear that three major forms of the malaise are discussed frequently: roughly speaking dysfunctional ennui, creative ennui, and normative ennui. Dysfunctional Ennui21 The term 'dysfunctional ennui' may be seen as the ennui of mental illness proper, that is, a form of chronic ennui with few redeeming features. It is usually experienced by the subject as a debilitating, sometimes life threatening, illness. 22 Many of its symptoms can be tentatively related to a number of psychiatric categories and disorders,23 in particular various Mood Disorders,24 Anxiety Disorders,25 Psychosexual Disorders,26 Depersonalisation Disorders27 and
These criticisms of the tradition of writings on chronic ennui are implicit to Klapp's (1986) argument concerning Information Age boredom and Spacks' (1995) material on female ennui in literature. 21 The term 'dysfunctional ennui' as here used is derived from Bergler's use of the term 'pathological boredom' or alyosis (1945, pp.38-51). Bergler's definition of alyosis is a little too narrow however. My own definition is derived from a variety of writings on ennui, melancholy and spleen and thus tries to avoid a narrowly psychiatric or psychoanalytic definition. 22 In tentatively using the term 'dysfunctional ennui' I distance myself from normative uses of the term (as frequently found in psychiatric and psychological textbooks for example) which often fail to problematise the processes by which norms for mental and emotional health and sickness are socially constructed. Such approaches run the risk of reading subjective sickness from the perspective of falsely universalised norms of sociocultural health and sickness. Despite this problem there is little doubt that people do suffer from debilitating forms of chronic ennui (as in the forms that lead to suicide for example) and that some working criteria must be laid down for the humane assessment and treatment of such people. A compromise has to be found between potentially dangerous universal norms for the malady and a complete absence of any definition at all. The term 'dysfunctional ennui', as here used, implies (a) the possibility of, and even the necessity of, a universal diagnostic criteria for assessing debilitating forms of chronic ennui, but, also the problematisation of any such criteria, and all historical manifestations of such criteria as have been developed to date and certainly all forms of treatment. It also implies (b) suspicion of most post-Enlightenment Westernised normative descriptions of dysfunctional ennui. This is required because many researchers into modern subjective maladies like chronic ennui, suggest that it is no longer legitimate to see Western sociocultural institutions as unproblematically nurturant of the emotional and spiritual lives of individuals the 'normative narratives' of post-traditional societies may themselves be nurturant of psychospiritual suffering. Dysfunctional ennui also implies (c) an emphasis on the suffering subject. In this respect, I am highly suspicious of psychiatric and psychological descriptions of maladies close to dysfunctional ennui, which seem to me to be constrained by interpretations of the malaise drawn from Enlightenment epistemologies. Dysfunctional ennui, as here described, is the result of a variety of narrative perspectives (philosophic, religious, modern, artistic, psychiatric, sociological and psychoanalytical), none of which are privileged as having the cure for the malaise, all of which are suspect to any claims they make for privileged status. 23 The following connections between the dysfunctional ennui cycle and various psychiatric maladies, as understood generally in the post-WWII period, are based upon the writings of a number of psychiatrists, psychologists and social researchers, notably, Abramson and Stinson's work (1977) on boredom and eating disorders; Kraus's work (1977) on boredom and delinquency; Campbell's writings (1976) on boredom and gambling addictions; Zuckerman's work (1978) on boredom and drug and sexual addictions; Rohrbaugh (1981) on boredom and female experiences of 'depression', 'anorexia nervosa' and various 'phobias'). Likewise, this section is informed by the major clinical and theoretical psychoanalytic papers on chronic ennui as a psychiatric illness, notably Bergler (1945), Bieber (1951), Greenson (1953) and Wangh (1975). 24 DSM-IV (1994, pp.317-391).
Ibid (pp. 393-444).
Impulse Control Disorders28 as listed in international diagnostic texts like the DSM-IV.29 None of these categories on their own, however, describe the malady of dysfunctional ennui as it appears in non-psychiatric and non-psychological texts on the topic. One can suffer from any of the above illnesses and still not be suffering from 'dysfunctional ennui.' For example, an Anxiety Disorder, say a Panic Disorder, may come with no symptoms of long-term joylessness or manic activity. Likewise, depression, the disorder historically most often confused with dysfunctional ennui because of its joylessness, is not necessarily associated with dysfunctional ennui. This is because a depressive episode may not exhibit active (manic) components such as are evident in even the earliest philosophical and literary descriptions of chronic ennui. It is nevertheless true that some of these disorders (as defined by psychiatry and psychology) can often be connected to the ennui cycle. Likewise, some are more likely than others to manifest during specific stages of the dysfunctional ennui cycle. 30 When such symptoms accompany primary manifestations of the ennui cycle, they may be referred to as secondary symptoms. Creative Ennui31 The second major form of chronic ennui discussed in the literature is what will be termed 'creative ennui.' It is the ennui endured by many creative people such as artists, poets, philosophers and writers. It is also the ennui suffered by ordinary people who in some way become conscious of their suffering and begin a search for personal authenticity. Although a person suffering from creative ennui often experiences symptoms (secondary or primary) similar to those associated with dysfunctional ennui such symptoms are usually milder and sometimes deliberately induced. There are other differences also: (a) dysfunctional ennui rarely produces art of any stature; (b) creative ennui often has a cathartic even healing function (often set in motion by creative or aesthetic immersion in art) that is absent in both of the other forms of the malaise; (c) states of consciousness in which creative ennui manifest are often seen (even by ordinary people) to be superior to normal everyday states of consciousness; (d) people
Ibid (pp. 522-532)
Ibid (pp. 488-490). Ibid (pp. 612-618).
27 28 29
For a full list of the similarities between psychiatric diagnostic categories and dysfunctional forms of ennui see Appendix II: Section B at the rear of this book. 30 For comment on the particular disturbances (as described in the DSM-IV) which can be related to the various stages of the ennui cycle see Appendix Two, Section B, at the rear of this book. 31 The term 'creative ennui' (or 'creative boredom') has often been used to signify the particular forms of ennui experienced by many artists over the centuries. Peyre uses the term creative boredom in a way close to the way it will be used in this book (1974, pp.24-32). However, I use the term beyond a specifically 'artistic' setting ; 'creative ennui' in this book means merely the kind of ennui that leads to a measure of personal authenticity and happiness. Sometimes the term 'spiritual ennui' is used to describe this kind of chronic ennui, and certainly many artists and laypeople often feel their experience of ennui leads to spiritual growth. However, to avoid confusion the term 'spiritual ennui' has here been reserved for the particular form of creative ennui commentators have associated with the medieval vice of 'acedia' which was understood in a specifically spiritual context. O'Conner's use of the term 'The Boredom of the Spiritual Man' (1965-66, pp.392-396) is limited to this specifically historical context.
who experience creative ennui often produce insights, embedded in art or writing, of value to the greater society. In general, then, there is the sense that people experiencing creative ennui are somehow more creatively aware than those suffering from either of the other two maladies and even of people who are normatively healthy. Nevertheless, even among the most gifted artists and thinkers the line between dysfunctional and creative forms of chronic ennui has often been a hazy one. Normative Ennui The other major form of chronic ennui, as described by many artists, poets, philosophers, psychologists and sociologists, is normative ennui. Since the early nineteenth century, it was often associated with the concept of the 'mass' or the 'public'. It is sometimes described as bourgeois ennui32 thus relating it to the whole political, economic, administrative and social agenda of eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism, that is, of modernity itself. I prefer the term normative ennui and emphasise that the term need not be confined to any particular class, gender, age group or race. It is the ennui of people who are chronically bored with their lives, but who manage to cover over the feeling by resorting to a host of socially sanctioned though self-limiting mind-sets.33 Normative ennui presupposes a certain adjustment to, and denial of, an unhappiness never truly felt to its extreme. Normative ennui is functional, conformist ennui. Its sufferers usually blame themselves or specific external factors for their state of unhappiness. They have little capacity to question the sociocultural norms that dominate their lives. Normative ennui may thus be viewed as a milder or more dispersed form of dysfunctional ennui, and, as such, various of the secondary symptoms associated with dysfunctional ennui may be present in a person suffering from normative ennui, though usually in less spectacular form. It should be noted that in the literature primary ennui symptoms might afflict otherwise mentally healthy individuals just as severely as they afflict people suffering from dysfunctional ennui. The sense that one's life has become joyless and disenchanted is not confined to those suffering from clinical Depression or even Dysthymia. Likewise, otherwise healthy people routinely resort to meaningless (mildly manic) activities in order to either 'chase life' or gain relief from an often unacknowledged sense of
This form of ennui has also been labelled 'go-getter' ennui and 'active ennui.' See Clive's comments (1965, pp.36566): [We are describing] the familiar syndrome of bourgeois boredom: lack of imagination, compulsive thrift, and uncritical optimism regarding the established order. ... The archetypal bourgeois expresses his boredom by making money and good impressions, talking cant and doing his utmost to prevent his neighbours from enjoying being alive any more than he does himself. In the name of respectability, he aims to divest human experience of all unruly elements. His attachment to routine is classically described ... He has never been tormented by the demands of personal judgement. In contrast to the 'superfluous' aristocrat who is too bored to do anything, the bored bourgeois feels himself menaced by prospects of genuine leisure. Thus, his happiness becomes contingent on not having any time left over to do things he professes to like. ... The bored bourgeois does not crack a smile in the middle of his frantic absorption with trivia. 33 Bieber (1951, pp.224-25) describes some of the ritualistic activities people engage in to ward off states of chronic ennui. He seems to be describing elements of what I have labelled the 'active' or 'normative' ennui cycle.
existential distress. Typically, however, those suffering from normative ennui resort to a variety of socially condoned, though ultimately unfulfilling, activities in order to flee from such states of distress. Those suffering from dysfunctional ennui, on the other hand, usually suffer from both the primary symptoms of the ennui cycle and one or two of the secondary disorders listed above (i.e. as defined by psychiatry), and in disabling form. The three categories of chronic ennui described above, though clearly articulated in much of the recent literature on the topic are acknowledged to be provisional and are guidelines only. They will be used to evaluate the various manifestations of chronic ennui to be discussed. It is well to emphasise at this point that the third form of the malaise (normative ennui) is the main focus of this study. The goal is to compare and contrast its symptoms and causes with those of the other major manifestations of chronic ennui and with other terms for similar states of subjective suffering. Axis 2: The effects of Class, Gender, Age and Cultural upbringing on forms of Chronic Ennui Throughout the literature on chronic ennui, there are many references to forms of the malady as experienced by particular people in specific social circumstances. Researchers routinely write about the peculiar kinds of chronic ennui suffered by women, by aristocrats, by factory workers, by young people and so on. It can be argued that each of the three forms of subjective ennui discussed above are also influenced by factors associated with gender, class, age and cultural positionings. A Female Form of Chronic Ennui? I will argue throughout this work that a distinctly female malady has grown up beside the classic models of chronic ennui (which have been largely maledefined to date). The female ennui malady is related to male experiences of the malaise but it also has many differences. Although the primary characteristics of the ennui cycle (ie. anxiety primary symptoms, seem to be similar for men and women, the secondary symptoms experienced by women afflicted with the ailment (normative, creative or dysfunctional) are often different from those experienced by men. Likewise, the sociocultural milieus in which the various forms of the female malady manifest seem to be different and have been for the entirety of the focus period of this study.34 Working Class, Middle Class and Upper Class Ennui? Although it can be argued that the primary symptoms of chronic ennui may be found in people from any class, in reality there is a subtle difference between the ways in which secondary symptoms manifest for people from different class
Spacks' work on boredom (1995) is a powerful corrective to past discussions of chronic ennui which failed to take into account the seriousness and pervasiveness of female experiences of the malady.
positionings.35 The classic sociological distinction between middle class and working class ennui centres on the different approaches to subjective alienation taken by Weber and Marx. Weber tended to emphasise the desolate ennui of the administrator caught in an iron cage of meaningless routine. Marx on the other hand emphasised the weary boredom of the factory worker, physically and mentally enslaved to the objects he produced as well as to the capitalist and the capitalist system. Since classical times, artists and thinkers have described upper class ennui in terms of over-indulgence in the trappings of wealth, luxury and power. I would argue that all of the above social situations might contribute to subjective states of chronic ennui. * Secondary ennui symptoms also manifest differently in people from different age groups. The alienation felt by young people living in the Western world is similar but certainly not identical to the ennui felt by their elders. The above examples illustrate a general point: it is necessary, useful and legitimate to define the various similarities and differences (in regard to specific manifestations of chronic ennui) by resorting to terms drawn from the two axes introduced above. It is useful to speak of 'female normative ennui'; 'female bourgeois creative ennui'; 'male working class dysfunctional ennui'; 'male aristocratic creative ennui', etc. provided the provisional nature of such classifications is emphasised. Methodological Difficulties. As with almost any diagnostic criteria that attempt to match theory and reality, certain problems inevitably arise. For example, it is often difficult to discern whether a person is suffering from dysfunctional, creative or normative ennui at any given moment in time. There has been constant confusion down the centuries between the creative and dysfunctional forms of chronic boredom.36 Aristotle began the confusion when he suggested that excessive amounts of 'black gall' could lead to either genius or madness. In the Renaissance period this lead to many debates about the sanity of various artists and intellectuals; at that time the debates were centred on that almost infinitely malleable diagnostic term 'melancholy.'37 Even today many ordinary people view artists and intellectuals as mentally unstable and, according to Kay Jamison and Lois A. Sass, there is perhaps some basis for such views. 38 The same debates carried
See Klapp's comments (1986, p.26): 'The ennui of the common person has received less attention than that of the aristocrat; but common people too, have their share. In views like those of Pascal, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, and Beckett, it is a universal human predicament.' 36 The problem of the difference between artistic angst and genuine mental illness is a constant theme in Kuhn's book (1976). Wilson (1982) also deals with the issue sympathetically. 37 Rudolf and Margot Wittkower (1969) detail the history of many such debates. Chapt. 5, entitled 'Genius, Madness and Melancholy', is of particular relevance. 38 Jamison (1993) catalogues the various emotional maladies experienced by dozens of famous writers, poets and thinkers. She suggests that such people have a higher than average rate of mental and emotional disorders. Many of the best have been diagnosed as mentally ill, or at least excessively neurotic, for long periods of their lives. Sass (1992) also deals with the fine line between madness and creativity. Both authors continue a long fascination with the issue of the mental health of artists.
over into Early Modern and Modern debates on art's relationship to chronic ennui. Arising out of the previous point, it should be emphasised that artists and radical thinkers were instrumental in defining the third form of chronic ennui, normative ennui. For example, Romantic artists and intellectuals tended to begin with an acknowledgment of ennui's hold over their own hearts and souls. In examining the possible causes of their suffering they often turned to critiques of the normative value systems of their day.39 The greater society tended to respond to such critiques by rejecting what the artists had to say and, in turn, by charging artists and intellectuals with the crimes of moral degeneracy, naivety, socio-political ignorance and, predictably, madness.40 A stand-off thus developed between certain sections of the artistic and intellectual communities and the greater society.41 The problem has not been resolved. Creative ennui continues to be confused with various forms of mental illness (and thus with dysfunctional ennui) and 'normative ennui' continues to be a threatening and controversial idea to people enmeshed in high modern beliefs about the supposed psychosocial "progress" of the advanced Western societies. In general, most people prefer to see themselves as relatively free of the symptoms of chronic ennui. Thus to the modern Western mind, as to international diagnostic texts such as the DSM-IV, the term normative ennui in particular is a misnomer. However, such an attitude has not stopped the flood of literature on the topic. The difficult issue of exactly how to view and interpret the long tradition of writings on acute forms of ennui must also be mentioned. The problem of ennui offers the historian of cultural moods none of the quantitative certainties apparently available to the historian of stock movements or population figures. There can be no carefully accumulated and statistically verifiable numbers (at least none that contribute meaningfully to an understanding of the phenomenon) which can be advanced as evidence for a certain thesis. This is because the work will be dealing with an aspect of the history of subjectivity. What is attempted here is the archaeology of a sentiment, the sentiment of boredom, and
Artists and poets often look forward to genuinely creative and cathartic stages to their sufferings. To them their chronic ennui is not a mental illness (as socially defined) but a medium for inspiration, revelation and spiritual, or at least psychological, catharsis. They also see a significant difference between their experiences and the chronic ennui of 'normative man.' 40 Nordau's treatment of artists, intellectuals and bohemians in his book Degeneration (first published 1891) is illustrative of this phenomenon. See especially Chapts. 2 and 3 where he argues that such people were a major cause of the sociocultural degeneration he observed in his time. 41 During the Romantic and Modernist phases this stand-off seemed to contribute to the creation of that most remarkable of modern cultural figures the alienated artist or intellectual constantly at war with the codes, morals and institutions of his/her society. C.P. Snow's book The Two Cultures (1993, Part One first published 1959) restates the general public's argument against modern artists and intellectuals. See in particular the point (p.7) where a scientist 'of some distinction' asks Snow the following question: Why do most writers take on social opinions which would have been thought distinctly uncivilised and demode at the time of the Plantagenets? Wasn't that true of most of the great twentieth century writers? Yeats, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, nine out of ten of those who have dominated literary sensibility in our time weren't they not only politically silly but politically wicked? Didn't the influence of all they represented bring Auschwitz that much nearer?
the standard methodological tools are simply inadequate.42 The cultural historian must use different methods to assess the prevalence and sociocultural importance of the phenomenon for any given period. For better or worse the researcher must turn to highly subjective reports artistic and intellectual works, diaries and personal letters, medical treatises and so on. In short, in order to make a useful assessment of the phenomenon that holds across time a researcher must engage with the descriptions of the malaise that have come down to us from people of particular periods in time. He or she must compare their assessments to others made prior to and after the period in question. This process is not scientific in the usual sense of the word; it is, rather, discursive. One enters into a discourse with the people of the past. The task is to bring these ancestral voices to life in the present in order to learn from them, and in order to place them in relation to each other The question of how one should put to use the writings on chronic ennui is a difficult one. My goals are commensurate with those of others who have written on the topic. Two particular uses seem to stand out. One can study the historic manifestations of the affliction purely for what can be learnt about the phenomenon itself. In this sense, one may resort to textual and artistic descriptions of it as described in different periods of Western history. The goal here would be to list and catalogue the various symptoms associated with the malaise and to discuss: (a) how different periods viewed afflicted individuals, (b) what people from those periods believed caused chronic ennui, and (c) what remedies were proposed. The idea here would be to trace the history of the malady much as one would trace the history of the Black Death as it swept across Europe in the 14th century. The concept of chronic ennui can be used as a lens through which various cultures and periods can be observed. What does its prevalence at any particular time reveal to us about the society or culture of the period? Is it legitimate to speak of Roman ennui, the ennui of the cloisters, Early Modern ennui, Romantic ennui, modernist ennui and so on, as some writers have done? The concept is amenable to such readings since from the Roman period on, under its various titles and in a variety of languages, it caught the imaginations of some of the Western world's greatest artists, thinkers and theologians. Many used the prevalence or otherwise of the phenomenon to assess the psychospiritual health of groups of individuals, of particular institutions and customs, and, often of the whole of Western civilisation. In this work, I have tried to strike a balance between these two approaches. (IV) Issues Arising from the Historical Discourse on Chronic Ennui This study (Volume One) will focus on certain crucial cultural artefacts, which depict the various symptoms, causes, developmental mutations and possible cures associated with the emergence of the normative ennui cycle. The material for this investigation has been drawn largely from creative literature and from the
Spacks (1995, p.24-26) makes a similar point when she links her project on boredom to the difficulties associated with what she sees as a parallel project, 'a history of interpretation.'
critical literature dealing with the earlier terms for certain states of subjective suffering out of which the ennui cycle emerged i.e acedia, tristitia, spleen, melancholy, hypp, nerves, ennui (in the nineteenth century sense of the word) and 'hyper' or 'chronic' boredom.43 There will be many references to medical, philosophic, artistic and sociological texts44 and at times to various artefacts drawn from popular culture. A thorough study of dysfunctional forms of ennui (the domain of psychiatry and psychology) is not attempted in this work. Nor have I tried to provide an exhaustive summary of every medical, literary, philosophical or sociological text that has dealt with the topic since Aristotle.45 The main goal is to formulate a new perspective on the various manifestations of hyperboredom as it affects/infects the sociocultural structures of late twentieth century Westernised societies. To that end, I have chosen texts which best illustrate the most important developments in the historical discourse on the topic. The specific issues and developments on which this study focuses may be summarised as follows: * The problem of definition. There is the need to clear up some of the confusion evident in the critical literature surrounding the major forms in which chronic ennui has manifested in post-Enlightenment cultural artefacts. As stated earlier, there has been much confusion between normative and artistic/creative forms of chronic ennui. I argue that the ennui of the Romantic, Modernist or postmodernist artist or intellectual what I term creative ennui must be distinguished from normative forms of the malaise. I argue that normative ennui has reached crisis proportions in this postmodern period. Indeed, I believe it is no exaggeration to state that it may be the single greatest threat to the survival of the human species on this planet. The problem of the difference between normative, creative and dysfunctional ennui is, I argue, a central aspect of the general crisis of culture which marks the late twentieth century. *The destructiveness of normative ennui. This work emphasises a fundamentally aggressive and destructive (though often unconscious) component observable in normative manifestations of the ennui cycle. George Steiner has alerted people
Many cultural historians, sociologists and artists have suggested that these terms are merely different names for the same subjective malady, the malady of 'chronic ennui' as defined in this book. See Kuhn (1976); Klapp (1986); Healy (1984); Clive (1965, pp.359-370.) Wangh (1975, pp.538-550); Bellow (1975, p.22); O'Connor (1967, pp.381-399); Wenzel (1961, pp.36-48); Doughty (1926, p.257) and Babb (1939, pp.167-176). 44 Many of the discussions of chronic ennui covered in this work focus on various cultural artefacts commonly classified as part of 'high culture', that is, the canon. I make no apologies for the particular selection of works I have chosen. The phenomenon under investigation seems to me to necessitate serious engagement with the tradition of texts that have had such a profound influence on modern perceptions of society, culture and self. I do not, however, want to suggest that it is only in 'high culture' that chronic forms of ennui have been discussed or portrayed seriously; this is simply not the case. The same symptoms associated with the ennui cycle are daily discussed or depicted to varying degrees of depth and insight in what is somewhat problematically referred to as 'low culture' or 'pop-culture.' Chronic ennui is also discussed in certain minority cultural streams within and/or exterior to current mainstream purveyors of 'culture.' Many of the 'lamenters' among this last group in particular are worthy of serious consideration. Where appropriate I have tried to thread their insights into the body of the text. 45 The most exhaustive discussion of the whole history of ennui in the Western tradition is to be found in Kuhn (1976). However, even Kuhn's text only finds space to deal with certain aspects of modernist and postmodernist ennui, and he has little to say about the connection between chronic ennui and other words and concepts developed in Existentialist philosophy, sociology, Western Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism and postmodern theory.
to this aspect of the malaise in his disturbing work In Bluebeard's Castle. Steiner argues that in the twentieth century chronic ennui has contributed to the 'civilised barbarity' of two world wars, the Nazi death camps, and the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. He also suggests that the study of ennui and like maladies must be a priority to anybody attempting to make sense of the darker aspects of modern Western civilisation. In relating the malady to cultural issues he says: I am not sure whether anyone, however scrupulous, who spends time and imaginative resources on the dark places, can, or indeed, ought to leave them personally intact. Yet the dark places are at the centre. Pass them by and there can be no serious discussion of human potential.46 This component is often overlooked when the creative forms of ennui are confused with normative forms. I argue that in the postmodern phase a 'projective' or 'scapegoating' dimension to the malaise still prevails (and exhibits ever more schizoid, narcissistic and psychopathic tendencies), and that these tendencies warrant a significant reappraisal of the importance of 'chronic ennui' or 'hyperboredom' to our understanding of Western social and cultural history and to our attitudes toward modernity itself a reappraisal also called for by writers such as George Steiner, S.D. Healy, Orrin Klapp, Reinhard Kuhn and Patricia Spacks.47 This aspect of normative ennui also invites a significant reappraisal of the various cultural debates that have characterised the postmodern period. *Postmodern ennui. There is a need to bring the various past writings on chronic ennui into closer accord so as to better define the current sociocultural manifestations of the illness, the illness I would label 'postmodern ennui.' 48 I argue that the postmodern stage has seen a shift in certain of the secondary symptoms associated with normative ennui. New and severe imbalances have appeared and revolve around what the medievals called phlegmatic and choleric forms of melancholy. In modern terminology, 'psychopathic' and 'schizophrenic' symptoms have become a feature of normative ennui. At the same time, there has been a heightening of depressive and narcissistic tendencies. Many of these normative tendencies have been encoded into postmodern sociocultural
Steiner (1967, pp.31-2). Klapp (1986, pp.27-28) also writes about the connection between chronic forms of ennui and high social incidences of violence and delinquency he also suggests that there may be a connection between chronic forms of ennui and various fanatical social movements, for example, fascism. 47 Healy (1984, pp.9-11) points to the importance of understanding the problem of chronic ennui if we are to understand Western sociocultural history. He suggests that not nearly enough has been written on the subject from historical and cross-cultural perspectives. Kuhn (1976, pp.3-4.) says 'we look in vain for [a major work] on an idea that is crucial in the formation of Western man: the idea of boredom or ennui. ... with only a few exceptions neither the philosopher nor the theologian, the historian nor the critic, the psychologist nor the sociologist has attempted a comprehensive study of this problem. Not even the anthropologist has come to terms with it.' 48 In using this term I develop insights implicit in the work of Klapp, Steiner, Clive and Bouchez. Klapp (1986) suggests that the forms of boredom that go with societies which encourage information 'overload' are different to the forms of boredom encouraged by earlier social formations. Likewise, Clive (1965, pp.359-370) relates the active ennui typical of mid-to-late twentieth century Westerners with post-WWII social and cultural formations. Both seem to be pointing towards the concept of postmodern ennui.
formations where they spill over into an ever-increasing interest in cultural texts which reflect a mass fascination with states of subjective fragmentation.49 There is also an increasing association between chronic forms of ennui and what Ulrich Beck calls the 'High Risk Society',50 that is, between chronic ennui and the helplessness people increasingly feel in the face of post war, information/computer age social and economic formations. These tendencies, I will argue, express a new stage of sociocultural ennui, which is yet continuous with earlier post-Enlightenment phases (and, at the subject level, with more ancient descriptions of ennui, melancholy, etc.). * Ennui and like concepts. It is necessary to go further than the critical literature has done to date in relating forms of chronic ennui or spleen, to various related psychoanalytic, existential, Marxist, feminist, theological and sociological concepts. I argue, along with other theorists,51 that there are many points of accord between the literature on chronic ennui and the literature on terms like 'neurosis', 'ressentiment', 'the death instinct', 'DOR', 'reification', 'alienation', 'bad faith', 'anomie', 'the absurd', 'disenchantment' and 'false consciousness'. Often the symptoms associated with some of these terms are identical to the primary and secondary symptoms of various forms of chronic ennui. Disagreements only arise in regard to the interpretation of causes and cures for the malady. By comparing and contrasting the concept of chronic ennui with these other approaches this study hopes to (a) avoid the errors of some earlier studies which disregarded or underplayed the depth of suffering involved with female and working class experiences of boredom, and (b) overcome some of the limitations of the above approaches by questioning their Enlightenment-based presumptions. The idea is to lift the concept of chronic ennui out of its Romantic and modernist literary limitations (often aristocratic and overly masculine in character) and to give it a more general currency.52 Despite this the sections dealing with such like-terms should not be seen as general discussions of the theoretical systems themselves. Space demands that only texts where all or most of the symptoms associated with the historic discourse of chronic ennui have been transposed into the terminology of a given theoretical system, will be discussed. * Sociocultural Ennui. The problematic link between sociocultural codes and institutions, and chronic forms of subjective ennui is central to this work. To this end, the work attempts to develop approaches to what might be termed the
In particular, the fragmentary states of consciousness associated with drug addiction, suicide, madness, impulses toward extreme violence (symbolised by random killers, serial killers, terrorists and psychopathic figures of all descriptions), and bizarre objectified or alienated forms of sexuality begin to dominate. 50 Beck (1989, pp.86-103) describes some of the new economic and social situations out of which late twentieth century subjective maladies are generated. 51 For a summary of the many terms which writers have related to chronic ennui, see Appendix 2 Section A at the rear of this book. For detailed comment on the similarities and differences between chronic ennui and other terms drawn from Marxism, psychoanalysis and feminism, see later parts of this work and Appendices 3a, b and c. 52 In this sense I follow researchers like Klapp (1986), Healy (1984) and Spacks (1995). All of these writers emphasise the complexity associated with forms of chronic ennui traditionally ignored, underplayed or simplified by other researchers.
concept of 'sociocultural ennui.'53 The concept will be investigated primarily from the perspective of the 'subject' and in the light of the whole sociocultural history of chronic ennui and like terms. The point at which society became an issue to individuals suffering from various forms of ennui, spleen and melancholy is of particular interest.54 I argue, along with others, that it may be possible to diagnose society and/or its various institutions as being afflicted with the ennui malady.55 My own provisional view of sociocultural ennui will be articulated in the tenth chapter of the work. * Causes and Possible Cures of Chronic Ennui. The work will also attempt to compare, contrast and catalogue the major arguments about the causes and cures for the various subjective and sociocultural versions of the malaise. In doing this, I employ a methodology developed out of an understanding of the historic manifestations of the ennui malady itself. The basic principles of this methodology may be summarised as follows: any solution must: (a) correspond cross-culturally; (b) be founded on principles which do not assume the philosophical, psychological, scientific and spiritual superiority of the West over other cultural traditions, or of modern approaches to ennui over earlier Western approaches; (c) actually cure the malady as experienced subjectively; (d) be free of all traces of the symptoms associated with the ennui cycle; (e) have a sociocultural component towards which individuals and societies may work; (f) if it has a spiritual component (which I think it must have), it must be one which is free of the various aspects of the ennui cycle examined throughout the book. (V) Structure of the Investigation The above issues will be discussed and developed within the context of a chronological study of the historical development of the idea of chronic ennui. Only by such a process can we comprehend its transformation in the late eighteenth century from a moral malady affecting only small proportions of the aristocracy (in normative form) to one of the symbols used to describe the dark side of modernity. Part One of this book (composed of the first four chapters) should be seen as a general summary of pre-modern forms of the malaise. The goal here is to give readers a thorough background to the central historical
Steiner (1971) comes closest to defining this concept.
George Cheyne's text The English Malady (1991, first published 1733) was perhaps the earliest English text to introduce aspects of this now dominant theme. 55 Many artists and culture critics besides George Steiner have spoken of something like 'sociocultural ennui'. Healy (1984, p.15) builds on Byron's idea of the 'bored horde' in the following comments: What was once a rare state of mind, confined at least in the common estimation of later times to an effete elite, has now become the common property of the bored horde. Once this development is perceived, a number of questions press for answers: Just what is 'boredom'? Is it one or many? Where does it come from? How widespread is it? What accounts for its growth? And, above all, what does it mean for the individual and his society? Klapp (1986, pp.44-49) also concentrates on the ways in which sociocultural formations can contribute to chronic forms of ennui. After giving a useful summary of the literature on the issue he writes (p.49): '[The] views of economists and sociologists give us at least one thing: a recognition that boredom can systematically arise from social structure or the lack of it. It is a problem of a social system not just of individuals who happen to perceive life in a certain way.' Bernstein (1975, pp.512-537) also points to sociocultural factors in the generation of subjective ennui.
issues related to the emergence of the normative ennui cycle during the Early Modern period. The first chapter of the book deals with classical conceptions of the malady. The key terms here are 'taedium vitae,' and 'luxuria.' Chapter Two looks at early Medieval Christian works concerned with the sins of ' acedia,' and 'tristitia.' Many modern commentators argue that the modern discourse on chronic boredom grew out of these terms. Chapter Three examines the similarities between later medieval conceptions of 'black' or 'saturnine' melancholy' and later forms of chronic ennui. The fourth chapter continues in the same vein with analysis of Early Modern discussions of chronic ennui, both in its own right and in relation to discussions of other terms. At that time the concept was often confused with terms like 'The English Malady', 'melancholy', 'distemper,' 'spleen,' the 'hypp' and the 'vapours.' The first four chapters emphasise the importance of studying classical, Medieval and Early Modern discussions of the malady. Part Two of the book is concerned with chronic ennui in the modern age and is composed of five chapters. This section may be viewed as a sociocultural diagnosis of the role and nature of the various forms of chronic ennui in the post-traditional period. In Chapter Five the study focuses on what Madeleine Bouchez calls 'l'ennui Romantique.' Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century developments in the concepts of 'melancholy,' 'the spleen' and 'hypp' are also discussed in this chapter. A feature of the period was the development of complex sociocultural understandings of the malady. The increasing divergence between artists (who tended to suffer from creative forms of ennui) and mainstream society (with its more aggressive forms of ennui) is also explored. By the time Nordau came to write Degeneration in the 1890s, ennui, and the subjective symptoms associated with it, were seen as central facets of the socalled fin de siècle phenomenon, and thus of the 'modernist' cultural stage. Chapters Six and Seven confront developments in the various forms of chronic ennui that took place between the late nineteenth century and the beginning of WWII. However, the currency of terms like ennui did not end with the fin de siècle and later Modernist poets, writers, artists and philosophers. It also became central to some of the great social critiques of the second half of the twentieth century. Chapter Eight deals specifically with Marxist and Feminist approaches to the problem. Chapters Nine and Ten analyse post-WWII writings on the topic in an attempt to work toward a definition of the concept of 'postmodern ennui'. 56 Chapter Nine gives an overview of the malaise in the post-WWII period, whilst Chapter Ten deals exclusively with postmodern literary and popular descriptions. In Chapter Eleven I attempt to give a brief outline of the concept of sociocultural ennui The final chapter concludes the study. Only in Volume Two of this work will I tentatively introduce possible treatment programmes for the various forms of postmodern ennui. In that work I adopt a modified transpersonal psychological approach to the problem. *
Steiner (1967, Chapt. I) is one of the few to make these particular connections.
It is worth stressing the main points of this introductory chapter again. The goal of Volume One of this work is to summarise and reassess the whole tradition of discourses on chronic ennui in the light of the following theses: (a) the various forms of the malaise should be seen as aspects of a single pandemic illness afflicting the populations of many industrialised societies; (b) postmodern forms of ennui are a major threat to the sociocultural health of Western nations in particular and the world community in general; (c) chronic ennui has been central to the sociocultural dramas of the past two to three hundred years at least; (d) a thorough understanding of the ennui/spleen malady is essential to any serious theorist of post-Enlightenment Western civilisation; (e) the most recent characteristics of this mass illness are in some way connected to the great social, economic, spiritual and cultural changes that have marked the post-traditional period (though the roots of this crisis may go back to ancient Greek and Roman times); and, (f) the complexity and seriousness of the problem demands that new and imaginative ways of looking at the problem be developed, including new methodologies and investigative paradigms. At this stage in the discussion, it can be pointed out that what is sought a particular 'cause' and a 'solution' to the problem may be but a mirage, an illusion, a cruel trick of the light. Chronic ennui may suddenly be revealed as a multitude of disconnected maladies entirely independent of the various sociocultural revolutions of the past two to three hundred years. Alternatively, it may be so central to the human condition, and therefore so mysterious, that there is no hope of ever finding a cure.57 This issue has confronted every sociologist, philosopher, poet and writer who has tried to move beyond mere symptom description toward a definitive assessment of causes and possible cures. Ennui is, to say the least, a complex phenomenon.
Author Bio (as at April 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) is an Australian-based poet/lyricist, writer and non-fiction writer. His work has featured in publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), among many others. His work has also appeared in a number of Australian national poetry anthologies: Best Australian Poems 2005 (Black Ink Books) and Agenda: ‘Australian Edition’, 2005. He is the author of three books and co-editor of three journals. Ian currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as the same program at Victoria University, St. Albans, Melbourne. He has also taught history and social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui. In his recent theoretical work he has attempted to develop an anti-oppressive approach to creative writing based upon the integration of Cultural-Relational theories concerning ‘self in relation’ with Jungian and Groffian models of the ‘collective’ or ‘transpersonal’ unconscious.
As we shall see such problems have always confronted researchers into ennui and related phenomenon, they were as taxing to the sixteenth-eighteenth century writers on melancholy as they were to Freud as he tried to track down the causes of neurosis. The same problems dog Existentialism which speaks of universal 'angst' or 'metaphysical dread.' Similarly, Marxists and Western Marxists have long been haunted by the peculiar problems that arise whenever they try to speak meaningfully of 'alienation' and 'reification'.