Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ennui is Fine

In recent weeks, the line ''Come on in- the ennui is fine!'', aside from being a nice tag line suitable for putting on tee shirts and coffee mugs, has started to ring a little too true for me. I have been experiencing the sort of spiritual exhaustion that the French Romantics called the mal du siècle, or 'spleen', or simply ennui. Perhaps the simplest way to explain it is that it's not quite depression, boredom, or indifference, but it's a little of each. I feel like sitting in a cafe, smoking gitanes, drinking black coffee, and scoffing. Ennui is sort of like the blues, but more pretentious.

Reinhard Kuhn wrote a solid book entitled The Demon of Noontide in which he detailed the history of ennui in Western Literature. The Greeks wrote very little on the subject, and Reinhard believes that ennui really became a subject in literature with the early Christian writings about 'acedia', the dangerous state of mind that leads to all other sins, but also likely to redemption. It can be defined as 'sloth', but this doesn't quite get at the disengagement of ennui. The world is emptied of meaning, but it's not a necessarily painful state at all. The world simply seems strange and foreign. In many ways, it's pleasant. However, it's the indifference of acedia that leads to sin.

The French writers who dealt with 'spleen' treated it as a sort of world weariness. The post-Revolution generation not only had to live in a world without immanence, but they felt like they had been born too late, having just missed the revolutionary upheaval. The mal du siècle was a certain lassitude in regard to the state of the world. The feeling of being born too late is surprisingly common with ennui; I personally don't think I should have reached adulthood any later than the 1970s, and preferably before the 20th century. I don't know how one solves that particular problem. Ennui provoked many of the French post-revolutionaries to travel and write and smoke opium, but because it often relates to the state of being human- that is being mortal and without God- and not some external state, it tends to travel with you. Ennui is internal, and generally not provoked by external factors.

In a sense, my ennui actually does relate to the idea of mortality, and I've never found it at all reasonable that humans should be the only animals to live with the awareness of our own impending deaths. But a more banal cause of my ennui is simply that my schedule has been altered, from teaching and reading to simply sitting in the library and reading every day. The semester went fairly well, and my students seemed happy to take the final, and in spite of the fact that most of them did lousy on that final, the course was weighted so that most of them had good grades overall. I don't think many of them learned anything, and I'm increasingly skeptical of the possibility of education as a transformative experience in this time and place, but I'm not dwelling on it. I do think that my current schedule, basically working whenever I have the energy, probably isn't healthy. Another reason for the tag line is that I think ennui is the stereotypical affliction of the grad student. We're insufferable.

Strangely though, I'm not completely disengaged. I find myself interested in the buildings of Southern Ontario, Longinus, and this box of free VHS tapes that I've come into. I'm interested in my wife and our cat. In fact, I think I'd be quite happy just walking around all day, were there no people. As long as I could walk around some part of North America that isn't filled with loud, angry, boring, ill-informed binge shoppers and their electronic gadgets, I'd be quite happy. A place with no noise. But I don't know where that is. I sort of feel like I've wandered onto an alien planet, and I would rather not walk around places where there are other people.


gregvw said...

Isn't the population density of Canada the 12th smallest in the world? Surely it must be possible to get away from the noise.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I think we made some sort of mistake in living in such a highly populated part of Ontario. There also must be some sort of cloning machine in the local steel mill that pops out teenage mothers and angry young men with crewcuts, because they're friggin everywhere in this town. Perhaps we'll go spend a week or two in cabin country. It's pretty desolate up there.

Holly said...

This issue of feeling born-too-late, sometimes much-too-late is relatively common, at least among people I know. It always makes me wonder if it's just a romanticizing of the things of the past, in an effort to reject the now and the future, which is surely an extension of now. The flaw in this, of course, is that whatever was going on Then led directly to what is going on Now, which implicates the person who wishes to have been Then instead of Now in a vague desire to be the source instead of the recipient of the discomfort. Although it's not so unusual to feel that way (it's better to give than receive, especially when we're talking about discomfort...) but it's a markedly callous attitude. It's a form of longitudinal Stockholm Syndrome, on top of that.

However! All of that is to say I feel like I relate to much of what you've said here. I find things like Black Phoenix Alchemy Laboratory make me feel better about the potential to have a comfortable accommodation of some type in the here/now. Who doesn't need Lovecraftian cologne?!

Rufus said...

It might just be easier to romanticize the past because nobody can get hurt by that. It's always felt like there was something potentially totalitarian about dreaming up utopias.

It's weird too- I think there have probably always been as many douchebags as there are now, but somehow the past seems to have had a lot more cool people to balance them out. I always say that the problem we have here isn't too few 'public intellectuals', but way too many public anti-intellectuals. Probably there are just as many intellectuals and cool people as there ever were, but thirty years ago the cool people would have been out there doing interesting things, and now they're all on the internet!