The influence of civilization on madness

Alexandre Brierre de Boismont is one of the touchstones of research on boredom and suicide. Baudelaire read his essay on l’ennui – or at least references it in his notebook. Foucault, in his lectures on psychiatric power, mentions de Boismont’s clinic at Saint Antoine, in which the doctor consciously familialized his relations with his patients – they were to consider him a father, and his wife a mother. Elizabeth Goodstein recognizes him, in Experience without Qualities, as the doctor who is most associated with modernizing “the modern topos of ennui as a disease of civilization.” [129] Boismont himself, in his essay on l’ennui, taedium vitae, refers to a talk on the “influence of civilization on madness” that he gave in the 1820s. Boredom – or something like boredom, something like Langeweile, something like tedium, something called l’ennui – was at the center of Boismont’s contention. Boismont was born in Rouen in 1797 (where his father, on his birth certificate, is listed as vivant de son revenue”[Goldstein, 387], and studied in Paris, where he mixed with Esquirol’s circle. He had, by the 1840s when he published his study of l’ennui, plenty of clinical experience in Paris, mixing with the most advanced clinicians.

Boismont’s historical analysis of l’ennui is not just the background of his theory, but an inseperable accompaniment – for Boismont needs to show, at least, a quantitative change in the incidence of l’ennui over time. He traces the disease back to Seneca, then through the church fathers and, rapidly, through the middle ages. From Boismont’s point of view, the interesting thing is the connection between l’ennui and suicide – it is suicide that allows us, so to speak, to medicalize the feeling. But because all incidences of boredom don’t result in suicide, there must exist a, so to speak, non-pathological variant of l’ennui. And is this effected by, even created by, ‘civilization’? It is interesting how he deals with this point when he comes to the seventeenth century and, so to speak, thrusts l’ennui into the heart of French history:

“In the seventeenth century, l’ennui gnawed at the heart of Louis XIV and it was this wound that madame de Maintenon was charged with ceaselessly dressing. But as that celebrated woman represents the triumph of private life, and as that private life, says H Saint Marc Girardin, fell into the sloth (l’oisiveté) of the palace, she had the disease of l’ennui in such a way that madame de Maintenon at Versailles was at the same time the heroine and martyr of private life. What a martyrdom I suffered, she said at Saint Cyr after the death of Louis XIV, in her conversations with madame de Glapion, and in what straits I passed my life while they thought I was the happiest woman in the world!”

In Boismont’s account, private life may be the supportive milieu for l’ennui – but it was the eighteenth century that invented the carrier: philosophy. And it was a woman, du Deffand, who was the exemplary victim and heroine – who was gifted, or injured, by the ability to see to the empty bottom of all things, and who called this vision “l’ennui”.

Boismont’s views in 1850 have been circulating among other doctors and popularizers even in the 1830s, so it is not historically fantastic to conjoin, here, this notion of a philosophical disease and the remarks Büchner puts in Prince Leonce’s mouth. Let’s tie l’ennui a little closer to politics – in a speculative mode, under the conditional. What, after all, is wichtig? What is this emptiness of Deffand’s? These are not simply speculative issues – for Boismont and for Büchner. Or I should say that speculation, here, has a strange material power. In the French revolution, the question of what – and who – was important was asked with an intensity, and produced an activity, that distinguished it from the American revolution. In the latter, the problem of what was important was settled: the settler was more important than the indian or the slave, and his importance was measured by his rights, which were inalienable. But there came a moment in the French revolution, a moment of social eeriness, a moment of terror, where it was not at all clear what was important, and to whom, and what the measure of importance was. This eeriness is still something that jumps out from our histories, and draws its dividing party line among the historians.

But again – what is l’ennui? In Boismont’s essay, it is not only a disease of modernity, but a recapitulation – a negative recapitulation – of the revolution. The torch of terror is not led by hope, here, but by hopelessness. There is no key to liberty in l’ennui.

To mix Kierkegaard with Boismont, in l’ennui, freedom loses the motive to repeat itself.

Another name for boredom might be: fatelessness.


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