Medieval monks, living far from the hustle and bustle of worldly life, were, amidst all that solitary stillness, threatened by “acedia”. They were advised to combat the bane of acedia through a strict ascetic discipline of study and labor.
The 19th C & early 20th C urbanite upper classes , exposed to the full competitive stress of a busy society life, were rather prone to “neurasthenia” . Thus diagnosed, neurasthenic ladies & gentlemen were sent off for rest cures in sanatoria on the seaside or in the mountains (that is, if they were lucky enough not to fall in the hands of an electro-shock experimenter or, perhaps worse, of some Freudian quack).
And we (2) , on the other hand, can calmly claim “acedia” and “neurasthenia” as ours, allowing us to wallow undisturbed in a rich Saturnine history stretching back to Aristotle.
But let it be clear that neither “acedia” nor “neurasthenia” are still in official use as scientific-medical terms. Which is excellent!!! It means we can let therapists, psychiatrists and the entire pharma-industry earn their living by futilely grappling (1) with ‘official’ ailments such as stress, burn-outs (= neurasthenia) and bore-outs (= acedia) , etc.
We can thus seek the imaginary company of famous melancholiacs, hypochondriacs, neurasthenics, .... We can surround ourselves with heavy tomes of no scientific medical value whatsoever but whose humanistic erudition and mere bulky presence offer solace : Burton’s "The Anatomy of Melancholy" , : “Saturn and Melancholy” by the illustrious trio Klibansky, Panofsky & Saxl . We can languorously heed the ancient advice to hide in sweet musicke .
And instead of abusing painkillers to deal with multifarious aches, we will bravely endure while reciting Proust: “la neurasthénie est un pasticheur de génie”. ("neurasthenia is a genius of pastiche") As to existential anxiety attacks, they can of course be countered by following (again) Proust into the a-temporal realms of Art & Memory : “situé hors du temps, que pourrait-il craindre de l’avenir?” ("being outside time, what could he fear from the future?")
Since neurasthenia is a nervous exhaustion associated with the continuous onslaught of ugliness, pettiness and discordance (both mental and material) in a competitive & materialist society (3) , it is not surprising that rest would be recommended as a remedy. But since one also has to avoid succumbing to boredom or acedia, listlessly lying on a deckchair in a mountain sanatorium (see 19th-20th C remedies above) is not the cure I personally favor.
I much rather pack my bag and board a train for a French provincial city, say Bordeaux. The appeasing effect of the French sense for aesthetics and savoir-vivre is amazing. You already feel stress seeping away when you step out of the train into a beautiful old station hall, which comforts your senses with honest materials such as glass, brick & iron and with just the right sort of relaxed travelers’ bustle. And isn’t it wonderful that you can actually leave the Bordeaux-station without being instantly assailed by the roar of cars. Instead you can sip un verre de rosé on a terrace and savor the muted city sounds while watching sleek silent trams gliding by.
You can then explore the city by tram or by foot , your headaches vanishing thanks to the sheer soothing harmony that oozes from the city; from its lovely squares, its churches (going from sturdy Romanesque over Gothic to ecstatic Baroque) and its many neo-classical buildings, with their beige stones warmly glowing in the autumn sun.
Neurasthenics can also travel on to nearby Poitiers to challenge their delicate decadent broodings by a dose of ardent medieval Christian aesthetics.
The sheer tear-jerking shock of it ….. to turn a corner and to suddenly look up at the stone façade of Notre-Dame-la-Grande, so white & robust against a pure blue sky. Not the soaring heights of a gothic cathedral but all the awesome sturdiness of a Romanesque church. And never mind the icy winds on the square, one stands there gaping and staring, staring & gaping - completely in thrall to the utter abundance & variety of sculptures on the façade – there are grimacing beasts and monsters, stern old testament prophets, engagingly human scenes out of the life of Mary, and, ah, the never failing grace of an Annunciation angel.
There are still many other churches and museums in Poitiers and Bordeaux to delight the heart and the senses. But perhaps, during this trip, I have been moved most by a simple act of random kindness.
Getting hungry from all the walking in Poitiers I had gone into a small grocery shop to buy two apples. The grocer took the apples from me, saying, with all the loving appreciation of the connoisseur: ah des reinettes…. While weighing the apples on a grocer scale, he inquired whether I wanted to eat them right away. Upon my nodding confirmation he said oh, but then I’ll wash them for you, and off he went to the back of the store. When he handed me back the apples, still dripping with water, I could only mumble how very kind he was. (4)
And truly, when I will be reluctantly engaged again in the routine struggles of a competitive & materialist world (5) , I will, even more than the consoling harmonies of art, cherish this memory of the humble washing of two apples.
more mumbling in the notes
(1) Disclaimer: this post should not in any way be construed as doubting the need for professional aid in cases of severe mental turmoil. At the very most this post might aim to lighten the workload of the over-stretched psycho-medical profession by keeping mild cases of spiritual discontent out of medical waiting rooms and away from anti-depressants.
(2) “we”: assuming there is a community of combative melancholiacs
(3) Since I said I’d claim “neurasthenia”, I may coin my own definition
(4) If I could only gratefully mumble, it was because my more articulate & philosophical self was utterly dazzled by this proof of the existence of altruism. I mean, you see a one-time tourist sauntering into your shop to buy apples worth 90 cents. Someone whom you’ll never see again, someone who can’t even recommend your store to the shopping masses. And you kindly take the trouble to go & wash those apples. Your only reward being an astonished (albeit grateful) look and a mumbled thanks.
(5) We all know human nature has been molded by the selfish struggle for survival and reproduction. We all know that success in our world is not only a matter of autonomous talent or skills but also [alas] of being able to use one’s resources as efficiently as possible while relentlessly competing amidst peer pressure. We all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And then, there is the true “otherworldliness” of goodness. “Otherworldly” in the full Arendtian sense because [the] “specific character of goodness” [is that it is] being done for nothing but goodness’ sake”. “Good works, because they must be forgotten instantly, can never become part of the world; they come and go, leaving no trace. They truly are not of this world." Re-reading the startling Arendt-passages about the un-worldliness of goodness, I realized yet again how incisive (though sometimes depressing) her analysis of the human condition is. Disinterestedly kind Poitiers grocers will indeed never reap public fame & material riches in this world of ours. At the most they’ll receive a fond anonymous tribute in a futile, unworldly blog. (But I suspect – I hope - that disinterestedly kind Poitiers grocers are well loved and lead rich, loving lives)