Published Humanitas, Volume XXI, No. 1, 1999

This article focuses on the relevance of early Christian writings on acedia and tristitia to the primary modern and postmodern maladies of the subject, i.e., chronic ennui, alienation, estrangement, disenchantment, angst, neurosis, etc. The focus will be on the ‘chronic ennui cycle’ which has been extensively discussed by Steiner (1971), Bouchez (1973), Kuhn (1976), Healy (1984), Klapp (1986) and Spacks (1995). It can be described as a cycle of boredom and addiction which robs individuals of meaning and a sense of the élan vitale. This cycle has undergone various mutations of form over the centuries. Many of the writers mentioned above have plotted its course of development from classical times to the present. Such discussions begin with the descriptions of taedium vitae, luxuria and the horror loci supplied by Roman philosophers and writers such as Lucretius, Petronius and Seneca. They also encompass analyses of the spiritual illnesses of acedia and tristitia written by the Desert Fathers and of the various emotional and medical conditions described by Medieval and Early Modern poets and medical professionals, e.g., saturnine melancholy, spleen, fits of the mothers, and ‘The English Malady.’

Due largely to the immense sociocultural changes that struck Europe in the nineteenth century the problem of chronic ennui (sometimes termed ‘the spleen,’ hypp, languer, nerves and disenchantment) inevitably became a major theme (if not obsession) for romantic and realist poets and thinkers. By the late nineteenth century it became tangled up with the concept of ‘degeneration’ and also with the fin de siècle phenomenon. By that stage it signified a particular kind of subjective suffering brought about by prolonged exposure to certain types of social institutions and sociocultural stresses. In short chronic ennui was associated with the costs to the subject of urbanisation, bureaucratisation and the industrial revolution…

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