Historical Developments Related to the Problem of Chronic Ennui

(reworked conclusion to The Angel of Luxury and Sadness)

Text Copyright: Ian Irvine (Hobson), all rights reserved, 2013. [See also author’s bio at the end of this document.] Note: a slightly different version of this conclusion appears in The Angel of Luxury and Sadness: The Emergence of the Normative Ennui Cycle, 2003, Booksurge, which is available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers]. Image (which is in the Public Domain): Albrecht Dȕrer, ‘Melancholia I’ Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, April 2013.

This book has detailed and taken seriously the arguments of a certain group of what Bruce Mazlish calls 'Lamenters', 1 a group of writers, thinkers, sociologists and artists whose work suggests that something extremely important was lost in the shift from the medieval world to the modern world. It has engaged with the possibility that many of our signs of 'progress' may be nothing but hollow substitutes for richer more meaningful forms of human existence that have been lost, or, as with traditional cultures in many parts of the world, are currently being destroyed by the sociocultural logic of advanced capitalism and its governmental/administrative twin, technocratic and bureaucratic statism. We have explored the contention of many artists and thinkers that it is possible for the web of culture and society to become toxic to the inner needs of human beings—that, instead of sustaining life and nurturing (materially, emotionally & spiritually) us the web of cultural and social institutions may begin to turn against us, creating ‘monsters’, i.e. fragmented individuals adrift in a sea of angst, addiction, triviality, hopelessness, misplaced hatred and despair, chronic ennui. Also, that society may turn out masses of people addicted to 'anti-myths'—narratives about self and society that seek to deny any attempt to maintain, reinstate or develop more humane sociocultural institutions. We have also considered the possibility that currently we are living through an epoch where the degree of personal and sociocultural fragmentation has reached crisis proportions. 2 Along with others I have argued that occupying centre stage in the current drama of social and cultural fragmentation is the strange and unnerving phenomenon of chronic ennui. In Volume One of this study no definitive solution to the phenomenon has been canvassed; instead we have attempted to plot its emergence as an historical phenomenon. In particular we have concentrated on the emergence of the normative ennui cycle. Let us summarise (a) the cultural history of the various forms of personal and collective chronic ennui, and (b) the lessons to be learnt from the history of the phenomenon. * Roman civilisation seems to have been the first to be seriously afflicted with the various forms of chronic ennui. The taedium vitae written about by Seneca (derived in part from the writings of Lucretius) is a direct forerunner to the kind of ennui that predominates today. Seneca described the malady in basically secular terms. Classical medicine had also developed the concept of the 'black gall' or 'black melancholy', which was probably related to what we would today call depression and bipolar mood disorders. However, the specific symptoms of modern chronic ennui (ie. joylessness in all activities plus a pronounced stage of taedium vitae) rarely merged in classical texts and we may conclude that the malady itself was little in evidence. The origins of the Axis One distinctions made in this book between dysfunctional, creative and normative forms of ennui are particularly evident in later Roman literary discussions of the problem. Roman writers also came close to describing sociocultural ennui. Seneca's critiques of 'the crowd' and the behaviours of people at the gladiatorial conflicts and Petronius' descriptions of nobles addicted to luxuria represent the beginnings of a thorough critique of social and cultural institutions and ways of life in terms of their effect on the subject. Nevertheless, there were few tools available to develop a general critique and the problem was not recognised culturally the way problems like alienation, estrangement and anomie are today. I would argue that the closest we come to a Classical literary description of normative ennui is to be found in The Satyricon, though there the malaise is not named. Of the Axis Two forms of chronic ennui little can be inferred for certain
1 2

Mazlish (1989, Part I 'Breakers and Lamenters', pp.1-106).

The possibility that modern outbreaks of chronic ennui are connected to a general crisis of culture and society is powerfully emphasised by Healy (1984, pp.10-11): The prognosis is not cheerful, for the disorder that I set out to examine supposing that it was, though troublesome, benign (in the medical sense), seems on closer examination to be one symptom of an advanced stage of an entire culture in irremediable disintegration.

but it seems likely from Seneca's descriptions of 'The Crowd' and his advice to a bored slave that the problem was a general social problem afflicting Romans of all classes and both genders. Nevertheless, the taedium vitae of Seneca's day is a far cry from the chronic ennui to be found in texts by modernist writers like Beckett or T.S. Eliot; a sense of existential joylessness and numbness is not often articulated in the Classical texts. The concept then took on a basically religious tone. The Desert Fathers began the process of defining the various ways in which mankind could sin against the new Christian god. The sins of dejection and acedia (two of the Eight Deadly Sins) had, by the Middle Ages proper, merged into the sin of sloth. Symptoms of subjective suffering commensurate with modern day chronic ennui were clearly described in relation to these sins. A strange mixture of psychology and mysticism is evident in the works of Cassian and other Desert Fathers. At times the spiritual practices of these men seemed capable of overcoming the normative versions of the malaise perhaps contracted by the monks in the city (i.e. by exposure to civilisation); it as though the ancient near-shamanic practices of isolation, frugality, withdrawal from the crowd, triggered a genuine purging of poisonous emotions and behaviours. The Fathers thus came close to the institutionalisation of a genuinely life-affirmative spirituality. At times they clearly distinguish between what I would call 'primary passions'/ states of consciousness − in their language 'angelic passions' − and diseased states of consciousness. At other times the malaise had the upper hand and withdrawal from life was recommended as a means to avoid the malaise. The sin of sloth became institutionalised later in the medieval period, an interesting phenomenon in itself because the earlier acedia had only been known to a small group of religious leaders whilst the sin of sloth was a widespread malaise of all Christendom. However, the cathartic techniques used by the Desert Fathers to confront the Demon of Noontide were neither developed nor given common currency in the new super church. I would argue that it was during this switch-over period that mainstream Christianity abandoned any genuine attempts to confront the ennui malaise which would later affect masses of people. Mankind lost a major battle against the ennui parasite in those long centuries of struggle in the African desert. Instead of sacralising certain healthy emotional states and classifying states like ennui as noxious, the Medieval church tended to worsen a split already apparent in classical civilisation between the passions, the body and the feminine on one side and the mind, transcendence, the monotheistic God and the masculine on the other. In opting for the ideal of intellectual control over the noxious passions (a tendency that has continued on into modern psychology and psychiatry) the church perhaps lost its ability to halt the progress of the ennui malady. The cathartic principle was not only evident among the founding fathers of its own tradition but also in Celtic, Teutonic and folk remedies for subjective suffering and in the mystical tradition which grew up beside Christianity. In these traditions spiritual catharsis via song, dance, ritual, frugality, isolation and various intoxicants seemed to form an effective mass bulwark against the Demon of Noontide. These traditions were often forcefully outlawed by the church and in their place various forms of world rejection were instituted instead. The overcoming of problems like 'dejection' and acedia was promised only if one was prepared to overcome everything healthy in life as well − sexuality, marriage, childrearing, the body, the healthy passions and so on. However, the older cathartic traditions were never lost. It is my argument that artists and poets took on this role from the early Renaissance on. The theme of the saturnine melancholic artist (later the tortured, alienated Romantic or Modernist artist) is directly related to the older cathartic traditions where shamans, holy men and women, village 'cunningfolk' and musicians plunged themselves and their communities into the via negativa in order to cure people of all kinds of ailments, physical as well as spiritual. However, because normative culture (originally Christian culture, later secular liberal society) increasingly disapproved of these techniques a split slowly opened up between the consciousness of artists and the consciousness of the general population. The genius figure of the Renaissance and after is as much the result of this split as it

was of the gradual process of secularisation and demythologisation which Christianity itself seemed to sponsor. Although this split has widened in modern Westernised societies, it is still generally acknowledged that normative and dysfunctional forms of ennui/spleen are not the same as artistic forms, even though they have many aspects in common, and even though at times artists may suffer from both of the other two forms of the malaise. Increasingly modern artists and intellectuals have found that their own suffering (often deliberately induced by resort to various techniques reminiscent of the shamans and spirit-seekers of traditional cultures) inevitably leads them into critiques of normative consciousness and sociocultural institutions which sometimes put their lives on the line, sometimes leaves them bitter and disheartened by a culture ever more addicted to the life-destroying propensities of the normative ennui cycle. There is little doubt that the Romantic period represents the decisive break between the two types of consciousness. From that point on the artist's exploration of personal psychospiritual suffering was usually conducted in opposition to the normative values of Western civilisation. The consciousness of the rational philosopher, the liberal-minded bureaucrat and the bourgeois businessman became increasingly alien to the consciousness of the poet, painter, sculptor and theologian. By the mid-nineteenth century chronic ennui became ever more tangled up with secular, Enlightenment-based versions of subjective suffering. Increasingly the study of humanity was conducted through the lens of science: the disciplines of sociology, psychology, psychiatry all sought to understand human beings and social structures by resort to the scientific method. Some of these approaches had valid things to say about chronic ennui, and some represent extensions of early descriptions and critiques of the phenomenon. However, the many new approaches, when added to the older understandings, led to a great deal of confusion and people found it difficult to piece the many disparate descriptions of the ennui cycle together. Certainly, the sheer number of writings on the topic suggests that the problem was central to the suffering of the subject in the face of the onslaught of modernity. However, many of the new approaches limited themselves to finding fault with only one or two areas of the social system. Others repeated earlier ethical mistakes by failing to sort out the life-affirming passions from the life-destroying ones. Despite the endless discussions and reformulations of the problem, the reality is that chronic ennui has mutated at secondary symptom levels into an even more virulent malady and now represents one of the major threats to the survival of the human species. Neo-liberal economic ideology, social engineering, consumerism, developments in psychiatry and psychology, secularisation (desacralisation/disenchantment), scientific and technological advances, etc. seem to have led, collectively, to an epidemic of subjective misery (and subjective flight from misery) the symptoms of which are commensurate with what I have termed 'postmodern ennui'. Our late twentieth century love of diversionary activities, when seen as representative of our way of perceiving the world, saps our emotional energies at the same time as it lays waste the planet. We may thus be forced to agree with the musician Roger Waters who in 1990 wrote and sang: 'This species has amused itself to death.' The new normative ennui cycle in many so-called ‘advanced’ nations is nurtured by an increasingly insane (in regard to satisfying the genuine psychospiritual needs of subjects) social world. Apart from the core ennui symptom of radical estrangement, postmodern ennui tends to mutate around secondary symptoms like fragmentation of the self & paranoia, pathological narcissism, severe depression, hyper-addiction as well as psychopathic disturbances. This new strain of chronic ennui can be clearly discerned in texts such as American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Memoirs of a Survivor, Gravities Rainbow and in thousands of films, television programmes, magazine and newspaper articles, popular songs and novels. If the new forms of normative ennui continue to thrive, and all the signs are that they will, we may well be staring down the barrel of an outbreak of mass inhumanity the likes of which would make WWII look like a mere curtain raiser to the apocalypse. People afflicted with normative ennui are dangerous, desperate people: when there are masses of dangerous desperate people

whole nations may come to embrace the options of war, sociocultural oppression, ecological disaster and so on simply as forms of diversion. * I have argued that the vast literature on chronic ennui, stretching back over some two and half thousand years of Western history, points to a modern form of chronic ennui which threatens the whole species. Today's chronic ennui is not confined to specific institutions, nor to particular classes or social group but instead pervades Westernised social structures. It must not be seen as a mere temporary malaise brought on by specific situations in the present but should be seen as the culmination of many historical developments which have placed more and more stress on the emotional and spiritual faculties of the human self. Socio-cultural ennui infects various organs of culture and society in systematic ways. If we take these conclusions seriously, we may become quite pessimistic about our chances of overcoming the destructive aspects of the malaise. Admittedly the picture is fragmented in places, and certainly there is a need to guard against overemphasising the pessimistic tone which can easily dominate a study like this. However, even if chronic ennui is not an out-of-control epidemic, a psychospiritual plague afflicting masses of individuals at the same time as it infects sociocultural institutions, there is little doubt that it is a major problem of our age. Where then are we to look for a solution? To begin with, an answer to the problem does not lie in merely ignoring it (as with the normative stance on the malaise). Nor does it lie in blind adherence to the ideas of evolution, scientific and economic progress, knowledge accumulation and so on. Such acts of post-Enlightenment faith seem to have brought us to the very brink of species annihilation. Likewise, it will solve nothing if the limits of our resolve extend only to a programme of tinkering with the particular sociocultural institutions most obviously infected with the malaise − the political system, childrearing practices and the education system (critiqued by Freudians), urban living (critiqued by the Romantics), the work environment and economic base (critiqued by Marxists/Socialists), and so on. A general holistic understanding of the central principles behind the malaise is much more important than wasting time and energy on theories and cures for specific manifestations in distinct sectors of the sociocultural life support web. An answer to the malaise also doesn't lie in 'science' alone. Indeed the particular way of looking at human beings, at consciousness, at time, at ancestral history and at nature encouraged by the scientific method, may well (in its very modus operandi) facilitate the spread of socio-cultural ennui. Similarly, the answer may not lie in the great postmodern 'dissolution' of all discourses/grand narratives (the goals of certain strains of postmodernist thinking). Such an approach may only lead to the malady taking an even greater hold of the normative subject and of society itself. In turning to the traditional Western spiritual perspective we also find a dearth of answers. This study has consistently shown Christian approaches have failed to provide a viable personal or sociocultural antidote to normative and dysfunctional forms of chronic boredom. In summary, most mainstream religious and secular explanations for chronic ennui have been unable to account for the fact that the malaise has increased its power over Western Civilisation over the past two to three hundred years. They have been unable to cure the mass manifestations of the malaise, and ultimately they have been unable to explain why it is absent in many traditional cultures and present in plague proportions in precisely the most advanced societies. As a sociocultural phenomenon chronic ennui can no longer be seen as a mere evolutionary glitch, a temporary imbalance; nor can it be seen as the illness of particular social or artistic minorities who have failed − or who refuse − to adapt to the new age of Man without God, man with science and technology. Its pre-eminent position among the obsessions of many of the modern era's greatest artists and intellectuals suggests to us that it may be central to many of the other crises which now confront Westernised societies and indeed the entire global population. Chronic ennui

is an illness with a history; that history suggests that it has gradually increased its hold on Western consciousness over a period of some two and a half thousand years. I would argue that any personal solution, supposing it is possible, must involve the body, the emotions, memory, the way in which we interact physically, emotionally, spiritually with other human beings, nature and with sociocultural institutions. We should not adopt mere intellectual remedies. A remedy must lead to the alteration of our state of being, must allow us to confront malign forces resident in the self and in our culture, usually veiled by the ennui malady. Similarly, any proposed sociocultural remedy will be useless if it seeks to alter only certain spheres of a given society.

Author Bio (as at April 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine 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), as well as Best Australian Poems (Black Ink Books) and Agenda: ‘Australian Edition’(2005). He is also the author of three books and currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at Bendigo TAFE (Bendigo, Australia). He also teaches in the same program at Victoria University (St Albans campus, Melbourne) and has taught history and social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo). He holds a PhD for work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.

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