On the Margin ; Notes and Essays
The cœnobites of the Thebaid were subjected to the assaults of many demons. Most of these evil spirits came furtively with the coming of night. But there was one, a fiend of deadly subtlety, who was not afraid to walk by day. The holy men of the desert called him the dæmon meridianus ; for his favourite hour of visitation was in the heat of the day.
He would lie in wait for monks grown weary with working in the oppressive heat, seizing a moment of weakness to force an entrance into their hearts. And once installed there, what havoc he wrought ! For suddenly it would seem to the poor victim that the day was intolerably long and life desolatingly empty. He would go to the door of his cell and look up at the sun and ask himself if a new Joshua had arrested it midway up the heavens. Then he would go back into the shade and wonder what good he was doing in that cell or if there was any object in existence. Then he would look at the sun again and find it indubitably stationary, and the hour of the communal repast of the evening as remote as ever. And he would go back to his meditations, to sink, sink through disgust and lassitude into the black depths of despair and hopeless unbelief. When that happened the demon smiled and took his departure, conscious that he had done a good morning’s work.
Throughout the Middle Ages this demon was known as Acedia, or, in English, Accidie. Monks were still his favourite victims, but he made many conquests among the laity also. Along with gastrimargia, fornicatio, philargyria, tristitia, cenodoxia, ira and superbia, acedia or tædium cordis is reckoned as one of the eight principal vices to which man is subject. Inaccurate psychologists of evil are wont to speak of accidie as though it were plain sloth. But sloth is only one of the numerous manifestations of the subtle and complicated vice of accidie. Chaucer’s discourse on it in the “Parson’s Tale” contains a very precise description of this disastrous vice of the spirit.
“Accidie,” he tells us, “makith a man hevy, thoghtful and wrawe.” It paralyzes human will, “it forsloweth and forsluggeth” a man whenever he attempts to act. From accidie comes dread to begin to work any good deeds, and finally wanhope, or despair. On its way to ultimate wanhope, accidie produces a whole crop of minor sins, such as idleness, tardiness, lâchesse, coldness, undevotion and “the synne of worldly sorrow, such as is cleped tristitia, that sleth man, as seith seint Poule.” Those who have sinned by accidie find their everlasting home in the fifth circle of the Inferno. They are plunged in the same black bog with the Wrathful, and their sobs and words come bubbling up to the surface:
Fitti nel limo dicon: “Tristi fummo
nell’ aer dolce che dal sol s’ allegra,
portando dentro accidioso fummo;
Or ci attristiam nella belletta negra.”
Quest’ inno si gorgoglian nella strozza,
chè dir nol posson con parola integra.
Accidie did not disappear with the monasteries and the Middle Ages. The Renaissance was also subject to it. We find a copious description of the symptoms of acedia in Burton’s "Anatomy of Melancholy". The results of the midday demon’s machinations are now known as the vapours or the spleen. To the spleen amiable Mr. Matthew Green, of the Custom House, devoted those eight hundred octosyllables which are his claim to immortality. For him it is a mere disease to be healed by temperate diet:
Hail! water gruel, healing power,
Of easy access to the poor;
by laughter, reading and the company of unaffected young ladies:
Mothers, and guardian aunts, forbear
Your impious pains to form the fair,
Nor lay out so much cost and art
But to deflower the virgin heart;
by the avoidance of party passion, drink, Dissenters and missionaries, especially missionaries: to whose undertakings Mr. Green always declined to subscribe:
I laugh off spleen and keep my pence
From spoiling Indian innocence;
by refraining from going to law, writing poetry and thinking about one’s future state.
"The Spleen" was published in the thirties of the eighteenth century. Accidie was still, if not a sin, at least a disease. But a change was at hand. “The sin of worldly sorrow, such as is cleped _tristitia_,” became a literary virtue, a spiritual mode. The apostles of melancholy wound their faint horns, and the Men of Feeling wept. Then came the nineteenth century and romanticism; and with them the triumph of the meridian demon. Accidie in its most complicated and most deadly form, a mixture of boredom, sorrow and despair, was now an inspiration to the greatest poets and novelists, and it has remained so to this day. The Romantics called this horrible phenomenon the _mal du siècle_. But the name made no difference; the thing was still the same. The meridian demon had good cause to be satisfied during the nineteenth century, for it was then, as Baudelaire puts it, that
L’Ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,
Prit les proportions de l’immortalité.
It is a very curious phenomenon, this progress of accidie from the position of being a deadly sin, deserving of damnation, to the position first of a disease and finally of an essentially lyrical emotion, fruitful in the inspiration of much of the most characteristic modern literature. The sense of universal futility, the feelings of boredom and despair, with the complementary desire to be “anywhere, anywhere out of the world,” or at least out of the place in which one happens at the moment to be, have been the inspiration of poetry and the novel for a century and more. It would have been inconceivable in Matthew Green’s day to have written a serious poem about ennui. By Baudelaire’s time ennui was as suitable a subject for lyric poetry as love; and accidie is still with us as an inspiration, one of the most serious and poignant of literary themes. What is the significance of this fact? For clearly the progress of accidie is a spiritual event of considerable importance. How is it to be explained ?
It is not as though the nineteenth century invented accidie. Boredom, hopelessness and despair have always existed, and have been felt as poignantly in the past as we feel them now. Something has happened to make these emotions respectable and avowable; they are no longer sinful, no longer regarded as the mere symptoms of disease. That something that has happened is surely simply history since 1789. The failure of the French Revolution and the more spectacular downfall of Napoleon planted accidie in the heart of every youth of the Romantic generation — and not in France alone, but all over Europe — who believed in liberty or whose adolescence had been intoxicated by the ideas of glory and genius. Then came industrial progress with its prodigious multiplication of filth, misery, and ill-gotten wealth; the defilement of nature by modern industry was in itself enough to sadden many sensitive minds. The discovery that political enfranchisement, so long and stubbornly fought for, was the merest futility and vanity so long as industrial servitude remained in force was another of the century’s horrible disillusionments.
A more subtle cause of the prevalence of boredom was the disproportionate growth of the great towns. Habituated to the feverish existence of these few centres of activity, men found that life outside them was intolerably insipid. And at the same time they became so much exhausted by the restlessness of city life that they pined for the monotonous boredom of the provinces, for exotic islands, even for other worlds — any haven of rest. And finally, to crown this vast structure of failures and disillusionments, there came the appalling catastrophe of the War of 1914. Other epochs have witnessed disasters, have had to suffer disillusionment; but in no century have the disillusionments followed on one another’s heels with such unintermitted rapidity as in the twentieth, for the good reason that in no century has change been so rapid and so profound.
The "mal du siècle" was an inevitable evil; indeed, we can claim with a certain pride that we have a right to our accidie. With us it is not a sin or a disease of the hypochondries; it is a state of mind which fate has forced upon us.