Kathleen Norris’s session at the Festival of Faith & Writing offered some good stuff, though my notes are spotty.
She spent most of the time defining that word, “acedia,” that has fallen out of usage. She’s trying to resurrect it, because she thinks it captures our current culture’s general boredom, apathy, or ennui. None of those words expresses the attitude and mood quite right, so she’s returning to acedia.
She wrote in the description:
Few people today have encountered the word acedia, which literally means not-caring, or being unable to care that you don’t care. In some ways, though, acedia defines today’s culture, expressing itself as willful indifference, restless boredom, or even frantic busyness. Norris discusses both acedia and its opposite–the zeal that draws on faith, hope, and love.
She said that when the seven deadly sins were determined and defined, the term “acedia,” which had been used widely among monks who struggled with it, was absorbed into the concept of sloth. It was lost. It has a meaning, however, that is specific and in her opinion, useful.
“I tend to believe words are in usage because we need them,” she said. And she thinks we need the word “acedia” again. When she proposed the idea of a book about acedia, somebody–maybe a monk, maybe an editor–told her, “Well, you’ve got an open field, since not much has been done with it since the sixth century.”
She said she faced an “attack of thoughts spiraling me downward” and made a “powerful connection with my past. When you’re a writer,” she said, “there’s no turning back from such a connection.”
“Acedia works like a spiritual morphine. It leaves you not caring; unable to commit to relationships; unable to stay in one place; and so frantically busy, you don’t have the energy to care….there’s so much coming at you, you can’t care any more. It renders us impervious to care.”
Does that sound like our culture today?
By the way, she passed along what she thought was the best description of midlife she’d ever heard (I can’t remember the source):
“Midlife is a metamorphosis in reverse, where you start out as a butterfly and gradually turn into a caterpillar.”(laughter)
She talks and writes openly of her avoidance of all things math-related. In a room full of writers, I’m sure there were plenty of sympathetic ears. When she said, “I don’t have much faith in linear process,” she was rewarded with a burst of hearty laughter. I have no idea what came before or after that. No context. Only that isolated statement.
She talked about how our culture gives us the art we need and maybe the art we want.
Maybe we want Britney, for example, because we don’t want to deal with the complicated pain and horror of that pesky ground combat in Iraq. “Denial,” she said, “is entrenched in our culture. We don’t want to be awakened from our sleep of acedia.”
Maybe we want to not care; in fact, we might even want to not care that we don’t care.
“Why bother?” we wonder.
She borrowed a phrase from Wordsworth, that we’re in a state of almost “savage torpor.”
Life bores us. And she quoted someone…Baudelaire, I think, saying, “Oh, how tired I am of the need to live 24 hours a day.”
She was speaking to a lot of writers in that room. She talked about the “tyranny of the blank page.” Later she called it the “democracy of the white page–every writer has to return there.”
I would add that bloggers can replace that with “blank screen.” The screen stares. The template taunts. Do we have anything to say? Each writer returns there and asks the same thing…unless, of course, she is plagued by acedia.
“What do writers need?” she asked rhetorically. “Not to stop.”
“We need ‘possibility,'” she said, then quoting Kierkegaard so quickly that I couldn’t get it down. So I jotted a few key words in order to Google it later, which I did, landing on this page of Kierkegaard quotes:
“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!“
She claims that prayer and the reciting of psalms battle acedia.
Finally, she mentioned in passing a “Commonplace Book.”
Do you keep a Commonplace Book?
I think my blog has become something of an online, virtual Commonplace Book; in fact, I think many blogs are, given the description provided at Wikipedia. It says:
They were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.
This very post, in fact, is an act of “commonplacing,” as I record Norris’s quotations and reflect on them personally:
What is “Commonplacing” and what is a Commonplace Book? Commonplacing is the act of selecting important phrases, lines, and/or passages from texts and writing them down; the commonplace book is the notebook in which a reader has collected quotations from works s/he has read. Commonplace books can also include comments and notes from the reader; they are frequently indexed so that the reader can classify important themes and locate quotations related to particular topics or authors.
The commonplace book was always at hand as a conversational prompt…today, perhaps, it can serve as fodder for blog posts, articles, books, or good old-fashioned conversations.
Although I don’t want to add another notebook to my life, juggling it along with my Day-Timer and journal, I’m tempted to begin one for that purpose–to collect sayings and quotations that I can use as a conversational (or blog-versational) prompt. And then the blog itself serves as a more developed, refined version of the notebook.
That’s all I’ve got for Kathleen Norris.
Look for signs of acedia.
And tell me about what you use as a kind of Commonplace Book.
Is it your blog?
Do you weave quotes and facts into your journal or diary?
Do you jot down quotes on pieces of paper or 3X5 cards and toss them in a box?