Sunday, October 30, 2011

Musings on Literature


      “One cannot long remain so absorbed in contemplation of emptiness without being increasingly attracted to it. In vain one bestows on it the name of infinity; this does not change its nature. When one feels such pleasure in non-existence, one's inclination can be completely satisfied only by completely ceasing to exist.” - Emile Durkheim

Anomie is a term meaning "without Law" to describe a lack of social norms; normlessness". It describes a personal state of isolation and anxiety resulting from a lack of social control and regulation possibly resulting from the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community ties, with fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values. It was popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book Suicide (1897). Durkheim borrowed the word from French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau. It should be noted, however, that Durkheim never uses the term normlessness; rather, he describes anomie as "a rule that is a lack of rule," "derangement," and "an insatiable will." (Mestrovic, Stjepan. Emile Durkheim and The Reformation of Sociology) For Durkheim, anomie arises more generally from a mismatch between personal or group standards and wider social standards, or from the lack of a social ethic, which produces moral deregulation and an absence of legitimate aspirations. This is a nurtured condition: Anomie in common parlance is thought to mean something like "at loose ends". The Oxford English Dictionary lists a range of definitions, beginning with a disregard of divine law, through the 19th and 20th century sociological terms meaning an absence of accepted social standards or values. Most sociologists associate the term with Durkheim, who used the concept to speak of the ways in which the actions of an individual are matched, or integrated, with a system of social norms and practices ... Durkheim also formally posited anomie as a mismatch, not simply as the absence of norms. Thus, a society with too much rigidity and little individual discretion could also produce a kind of anomie, a mismatch between individual circumstances and larger social mores. Thus, fatalistic suicide arises when a person is too rule-governed, when there is ... no free horizon of expectation. 

 In Albert Camus's existentialist novel, The Stranger, the bored, alienated protagonist Meursault struggles to construct an individual system of values as he responds to the disappearance of the old. He exists partly in a state of anomie, as seen from the apathy evinced in the opening lines: "Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas" ("Today mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know"). When Mersault is prosecuted for shooting an Arab man during a fight, the prosecuting attorneys seem more interested in the inability or unwillingness of Meursault to cry at his mother's funeral than the murder of the Arab, because they find his lack of remorse offensive. The novel ends with Meursault recognizing the universe's indifference toward humankind. In the first half of the novel Meursault is clearly an unreflected, unapologetic individual. Ultimately, Camus presents the world as essentially meaningless and therefore, the only way to arrive at any meaning or purpose is to make it oneself. 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose work can be viewed as a philosophical precursor to existentialism, expressed a similar concern in his novels. In The Brothers Karamazov it is expressed by Ivan that in the absence of God and immortal life, everything would be lawful. That one can do as one likes, but this one cannot. The novel, in part, explores the existence of God, the nature of truth, and the importance of forgiveness through the actions of its characters. Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Crime and Punishment, puts this philosophy into action when he kills an elderly pawnbroker and her sister, later rationalizing this act to himself with the words, " wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!" Raskolnikov's inner conflict in the opening section of the novel results in a utilitarian-altruistic justification for the proposed crime: why not kill a wretched and "useless" old moneylender to alleviate the human misery? His nihilism can be seen as a variation on anomie.

Hermann Hesse's Der Steppenwolf can also be seen as a demonstration of anomie.The novel tells the story of a middle-aged man named Harry Haller who is beset with reflections on his being ill-suited for the world of "everybody", the regular people. In his aimless wanderings about the city he is given a book which describes the "Faustian duality" expressed by two natures of man: one "high", spiritual and "human"; while the other is "low" and animal-like. Thus, man is entangled in an irresolvable struggle, never content with either nature. While Haller longs to live free from social convention, he continually lives as a bourgeois bachelor. Haller argues that the men of the Dark Ages did not suffer more than those of Classical Antiquity.   It is rather those who live between two times, those who do not know what to follow, that suffer the most.

 The characters Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Waiting For Godot also express a sense of anomie. The play follows two consecutive days in the lives of a pair of men who divert themselves while they wait expectantly and unsuccessfully for someone named Godot to arrive. Frustrated at the long wait, they think of what to do to pass the time. Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, but since they are concerned that they might not both die, they decide to do nothing: "It's safer", explains Estragon. Another character, Lucky, describes an impersonal and callous God. Lucky next asserts that man 'wastes and pines', mourns an inhospitable earth, and claims that he [man] diminishes in a world that does not nurture him". The play illustrates an attitude toward man's experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be reconciled in the mind and art of the absurdist. 

 Is anomie a symptom of the decline of man or merely a growing pain on the way to a new and better or different culture? My reading of literature raises the question but the search for an answer continues.

"Years have passed, I suppose.  I'm not really counting them anymore.  But I think of this thing often: Perhaps there is a Golden Age someplace, a Renaissance for me sometime, a special time somewhere, somewhere but a ticket, a visa, a diary-page away.  I don't know where or when.  Who does?  Where are all the rains of yesterday?"  
 - Roger Zelazny, "This Moment of the Storm"


wwhidden said...

I believe that decrease in reading of quality literature is leading to a cultural existential crisis. We read to experience other lives, other points of view, and to understand ourselves. It helps with "examined life" if you will. We are a shallow people now with few shared stories to guide us.

James said...

Thanks for your insightful comment. I find it somewhat disturbing to admit to the reality of your comment, but cannot argue against it.
One can, however focus on those who continue to read and think about good literature. It's a positive view that betrays my innate optimism.