At the beginning of the book, Norris explains that:
“At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. . . . Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother” (pp. 3-4).Norris’s definition of acedia reminded me of looking through photo albums with my partner’s father—there were his young parents surrounded by their children, and as we flipped through the pages, they aged and eventually slipped away altogether as their children became parents in turn. Having watched nearly whole lives flash before my eyes, a feeling of hopelessness washed over me as my partner’s father morphed from handsome youth to old man literally before my eyes. This is the whisper of acedia, murmuring that there is no point in living because inevitably we all just age and die.
Norris gives an example of how acedia can take hold of her life:
“It begins as a deceptively slight shift in thought, or rather—in a process much commented on by the desert monks—a quick succession of thoughts that distract me from my right mind. I’ve been working too long and need a break; maybe I should read a mystery novel to clear my head. I tell myself that I’m too weary to concentrate. I tell myself that it is a matter of respecting my limitations, and of being good to myself [my emphasis]. If I manage to read one book, and then return to my other obligations, no harm is done. But often, one book does not satisfy me. My ‘rest’ has only made me more restless, and as I finish one book, I am tempted to pick up another. If I don’t check myself, I can slip into a state both anxious and lethargic, in which I trudge through four or five paperbacks a day, for three or four days running. I am consuming books rather than reading them. . . . The contemporary maxim, ‘Listen to your body,’ is useless to me when all I want to do is lie down, turn pages, and ignore that ringing phone [my emphasis]” (pp. 15-16).This resonated deeply with me: reading this passage was an “aha” moment. I do this. I know this helplessness in the face of what seems like mindless repetition, this hollowed-out feeling like nothing matters, everything is meaningless. I’ve also struggled with the fact that in those moments listening to my body doesn’t feel helpful at all.
Norris goes on to meditate on the nature of acedia based primarily on the writings of early monks, as well as to examine its impact on her life, her writing and her marriage. Although I would recommend Acedia & Me to anyone who identifies with Norris’s description of acedia—this book certainly gave me a different perspective on my own “soul weariness”—I found the book lacked narrative structure. It is possible to combine a more scholarly approach with a memoir: Noelle Oxenhandler did it successfully in The Wishing Year: An Experiment in Desire, which I just finished reading recently. Unfortunately, Acedia & Me felt disorganized to me, as if Norris did not have enough distance from the subject matter to write about it clearly. I also wished the book was more personal—with more about her marriage and her writing life and less about the desert monks (these parts of the book started to feel repetitive after a while). Despite this, Acedia & Me is a thought-provoking primer on the all-but-forgotten sin of acedia. Norris even includes a commonplace book at the end of Acedia & Me, with quotes about acedia throughout history, starting with the Psalms and Seneca and ending with contemporary writers as diverse as Anita Brookner, Maurice Sendak and Roland Barthes.
For other reviews, head to these blogs:
Liz Is Nostalgic • Muse Books Reviews • Quotidian Grace • Raging Bibliomania
To read an interview with Kathleen Norris at The Other Journal:
Naming an Ancient Affliction in a Postmodern Age, Part I
Naming an Ancient Affliction in a Postmodern Age, Part II
Thank you to Riverhead Books for sending me this book to review.