Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Demon of Noontide and Happy Pills

The German romantics called it Weltchmertz- world-pain. The French romantics called it le mal du siècle, or ennui. Before them, the Greeks talked about acedia, which the Christian monks called the "demon of noontide". It's a spiritual sickness, akin to boredom, but boredom with being alive in the world.

For the anchorites, it was sin. The French romantics, especially Chateaubriand, saw it as a natural response to living in a socio-political sphere no longer built around honor and religious creed. Without anything to embed him in the world, man goes through a sort of spiritual crisis. Kierkegaard wrote the Sickness unto Death about this sort of despair. Now, of course, we see it as an actual illness to be treated.

Gordon Marino wonders if that's not a bad idea:
"These days, confide to someone that you are in despair and he or she will likely suggest that you seek out professional help for your depression. While despair used to be classified as one of the seven deadly sins, it has now been medicalized and folded into the concept of clinical depression. If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video, he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair."
It seems to me that the human condition is profoundly unfair in some sense. I look at our cat Lola, and she is certainly a brilliant animal. But she'll never have a real sense of her own mortality, until maybe at the end. The fact of our impending nonexistence is so unbelievable and terrible that it's hard not to see despair as a normal part of life. Don DeLillo had a psychoactive drug in one of his books that removed the fear of death, and you sort of wonder, when you see ads for Ambien or Prozac, if there won't eventually be such a drug.


painsthee said...

This is pretty much brilliant. I've reflected on this before, the rampant medication of any sort of sadness, and contrasted that against a work like Sartre's Nausea, and then sort of mourned what is bound to be the loss of the expression of those feelings. Shouldn't we be able to experience sadness without being worried about needing a pill for it? Isn't that a very real part of the human condition?

Rufus said...

Thank you very much. Sartre's a good example because he definitely sees that sort of despair as being the price of being flung into existence. It does seem inescapable, unless you live in an isolated religious community. But, even then, it happens- one of the books I'm reading is an old discussion of life for the early Christian fathers of the desert (written about mid-300s AD) and it deals with ennui and despair at great length. So, it's not just a problem with secular societies. I think it's even more of a problem after the Enlightenment when we figure it's a problem we should be able to solve rationally.

One bit of good news- Claire is a therapist and she reports that many of her clients want to work through their problems without meds. I think it's at least worth going through despair to see what you learn from it.

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