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Kathleen Norris expands our vocabulary

Words come, words go. In February, Merriam-Webster announced that it was adding “big box,” “ringtone,” and “supersize” to the 11th edition of its Collegiate Dictionary. In order to add new words, others are retired, and “acedia” might be a contender; sometime around the 17th century, the word fell out of use, and is all but gone from our modern vocabulary.

Not so fast, says Kathleen Norris. The author, best known for her “Dakota: A Spiritual Biography” and “The Cloister Walk,” reintroduces us to the concept of acedia in “Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life.”

In the early 1970s, Norris and her husband, poet David Dwyer, moved from New York City to the western South Dakota prairie, where Norris’ grandmother had lived. In the family home, Norris found the peace to write and contemplate, and when she drove to a Benedictine monastery to hear a Carol Bly reading, she found herself drawn toward the intellectual and spiritual life of monks. She was also introduced to the term acedia, a numb spiritual condition which she immediately recognized from personal experience. In a world obsessed with numbing entertainment, reality TV, videogames and “junk-food literature,” Norris realized she was far from alone in experiencing acedia.

Unable or unwilling to care
“The person afflicted by acedia is unable to care or refuses to do so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others becomes too challenging, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: You know the pain is there, but you can’t rouse yourself to give a damn,” she writes.

In a conversation with Norris just before she arrived in the Twin Cities for her reading (Wednesday, Sept. 24), I learned more.

MinnPost: Although you say that monks have recognized acedia for centuries, it struck me as a very modern affliction.

Kathleen Norris:
That’s why I wrote the book. I saw it everywhere in society. Indifference and not caring and “hatred of the place” — that feeling that if you run off to the next best place, you’re going to leave your troubles behind. Whether it’s a marriage, a job or a city, those are all places that people in our society experience a lot of restlessness in.

MP: It sounds like acedia leads to disintegration of community.

Yes, Americans have a hard time with community. There are certainly exceptions, and there are communities that function well, but it’s a struggle. It seems like the whole of modern life is mediating against meaningful community.

As I researched acedia, I felt that it really was a modern condition, something we’re all familiar with, but we don’t know its name — the word has been lost. It was really fun to think about it from that sense — to look at the history of the word; here’s this word that has come and gone out of our language, but maybe we need it again.

MP: As you write about acedia, you also discuss depression. Do you think the modern depression epidemic might involve some misdiagnosed acedia?

There are distinctions between acedia and depression. If you really have depression, you need medical help. But the lines do blur. As I talk more with people about this, it seems like I’m hitting a nerve. I’d be very glad to turn this over to people who know more about this than I do, psychiatrists and monastic scholars.

MP: And other writers.
Yes. One of the reasons we don’t know the word is that for centuries, theologians assumed that only monks suffered from it. When I found that out, I was almost outraged. I said, “That’s not your word! You can’t have it.” Married people suffer from it. Creative people have it. Anyone whose work is considered meaningless by the rest of the world is susceptible, and writers and artists don’t get a lot of encouragement. Anyone whose work comes out of their own blood, sweat, and tears is at risk of acedia, or worse, depression.

MP: I’m thinking of David Foster Wallace here.

Oh, so sad. My husband [who suffered from major depression] said most suicides come out of sheer exhaustion. Apparently [Wallace] had been hospitalized recently. His father said he was getting help. But when one has been through this repeatedly, for many years, it’s hard to get help. I think that’s what killed Virginia Woolf: She had been through it so many times, getting treatment, getting better, then entering the cycle of isolation again. I think she couldn’t face doing it all again, and it sounds like that was where Wallace was at, too.

MP: Do you think we can inoculate our writers from either of these conditions?

Well, it isn’t just writers. These are human conditions. But when someone so young and promising falls victim, we notice it and talk about it.

Acedia isn’t a problem I can solve; it’s a condition I have to live with, it’s part of my personality. Now I’m getting better at recognizing it when it emerges and doing what the monks suggest, which is letting the negative thoughts come, but recognizing them and understand why they are happening. That diminishes its power. I remember waking up one day recently and thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a good day,” and then this little voice said, “No, it’s not.” It’s like this internal dialogue, like a cartoon angel and devil. I could have followed that spiral downwards, but I said no. I don’t want to live that way. With acedia, you can do that, but with depression you can’t take another path.

MP: I was struck by your use of books as “junk food” during an episode of acedia. I commonly hear TV-watching discussed this way, but not reading.

Yes, it almost always started with reading a thriller or mystery, but when I picked up a piece of serious literature, I’d consume it, too, rather than reading it. When I look at acedia’s manifestation in my own life, books are tied in. Now if I am going to read a genre thriller, I’ll read one book and set it aside, and then think of something else to do.

MP: Fans and writers of mystery might take offense at this.

Oh, I’m thinking of these really formulaic novels that don’t demand a whole lot. They are fun. They are page-turners. Stuart Woods is one writer I’m thinking of. It’s OK, but it’s not going to challenge me much. But there are some people who write genre thrillers who really are fine writers. Michael Connelly is one, Dennis Lehane. They could be writing anything.

MP: You went to the same high school as Barack Obama. Now that you’re living in Hawaii again, is his history a part of your surroundings?

Yes. The apartment he grew up in with his mother is about a block from where I live, and I walk past where his grandmother lives when I’m walking to my own mom’s. It’s a very modest condo, not fancy at all. Both he and I were scholarship students, and I’m angered that he’s been portrayed as “elitist.” This whole thing is just horse … well, what I would say is shibai [a Hawaiian word referring to political lies].

We are sending people overseas to be being tortured, we are at war, our constitutional rights are being eroded, but we’re not talking about it. We’re talking about Britney Spears and “Project Runway” and other stuff. We’re so distracted. That’s acedia. But a good sign is that so many people, especially young people, are so excited about Obama’s nomination that they are going to work for change. But I worry that if he doesn’t get elected, people will retreat into their shells again. It’s an interesting time right now politically, in terms of this mood of distraction and indifference. I hope that if we can learn to recognize acedia as individuals it will help us fight it as a society.

Reading and signing (books available at event from Magers & Quinn)
Where: Lyndale United Church of Christ, 810 W. 31st Street, Minneapolis
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 24
Phone: 612-822-4611 (Magers & Quinn)
How much: Free

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by david unowsky on 09/23/2008 - 09:45 am.

    Great interview with Kathleen Norris by Amy Goetzmann. The event day and date is confusing. It is on WEDNESDAY, September 24. Thanks, David

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