Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Old Ennui

I've been on a bit of a binge lately. A reading, thinking, longing kind of a binge. Sometimes things coalesce in just the right (or wrong) way to bring about the old ennui. Or, The Old Ennui, I should say. A familiar sort of friend. Do you know about ennui? You must.

It's a French word. The French are perhaps more inclined than we are to dwell long enough on a particular vague experience or feeling to call it out of the shadows and give it shape. Years ago, in reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening, I came upon the word and something previously felt but unnamed became clearer. The naming helps I think.
But as she sat there amid her guests she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition. It was something which announced itself, a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed. There came over her that acute longing...
(p. 232)

Perhaps Chopin overstates the experience with some hyperbolic drama. Her allusion to the pounding, pulsing, emotional cacophony that is Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" might tip the balance that way. But still,

The Old Ennui arrives, unasked, perhaps overwhelming, but at the very least insistently tugging at the edges of the day, in the quiet moments or in the ones that are so busy and loud and full that you turn inside for just a moment of respite and there you find it, the intangible, unarticulated longing brought on, no doubt, by some half conscious reverie.

For me, this time, brought on by reading an analysis of neuroscience and culture (Nicholas Carr's The Shallows) alongside quiet stories of lost simplicity, unspoken commitments, and joyful work (Wendel Berry's That Distant Land). Add to that a long solitary airplane flight with time to be still, a daily infusion of laundry and dishes, and a disposition bent toward . . . well, toward ennui. Deadly, I tell you.

It's a struggle, with a kind of sweetness. To pull oneself up out of the romantic vision and see, engage, and enjoy or endure the real moments. To know that the longing yearns toward what cannot be attained, and that it can lead one onward always into discontentment and worse. However, to recognize also that it speaks of something better, the way things ought to be. C. S. Lewis knew this pull mingled with promise and called it "joy." And he found, finally, that it hearkens toward heaven. In the sharpest moments of ennui, in the caverns wherein discords wail, it is good to have these names, and to have this hope held out.

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