“To my surprise, I found that ours is far from being the only age to have perceived itself as the most exhausted—many people in the past have felt exactly as we do now…. anxieties about the exhaustion of our energies is a concern that reaches back all the way to the age of classical antiquity.”—Anna Katharina Schaffner
The following is an interview with Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of Exhaustion: A History:
Q: What inspired you to write a book on exhaustion?
Anna Katharina Schaffner: Like many people, I have experienced exhaustion in its various mental and physical modalities first-hand. I understand exhaustion as a state of being that can be broken down into a range of mental and physical symptoms, including weariness, hopelessness, and disillusionment; and weakness, lethargy, and fatigue. Exhaustion can also be manifest in behaviors such as restlessness, irritability, and the waning of engagement. In my book I am not so much concerned with purely physical exhaustion that is the result of bodily exertion and that can be alleviated by resting, but with chronic, less straightforward cases of exhaustion that are caused by a combination of mental, physical, and wider social phenomena.
A few years ago, I also noticed a significant increase in media debates about stress, burnout, and depression—diagnoses which are all structured around core exhaustion symptoms. Most commentators on exhaustion-related syndromes argue that modernity and its discontents are responsible for our collective exhaustion. They blame acceleration, the spread of new communication technologies such as the Internet, our 24/7 consumer culture, and a radically transformed neoliberal working environment for the vampiric depletion of our energies. They all seem to believe that ours is the most exhausting period in history, and tend nostalgically to glorify the past as a less energy-draining time in which people lived less taxing lives in harmony with nature and the seasons.
I wondered whether that was really the case, and started researching other historical periods in search of earlier discourses on exhaustion. To my surprise, I found that ours is far from being the only age to have perceived itself as the most exhausted—many people in the past have felt exactly as we do now. In fact, I found that anxieties about the exhaustion of our energies is a concern that reaches back all the way to the age of classical antiquity. The causes and effects of exhaustion are theorized in medical, theological, philosophical, popular, and literary sources in virtually every historical period.
Q: Why is the idea of the exhaustion of our energies so disconcerting?
AKS: Fears about the depletion of our energies are related to deep-seated and timeless anxieties about ageing, the waning of our engagement with the world, and death. These fears remain constant through history. What differs is how the causes and effects of exhaustion are explained. Exhaustion is a phenomenon that involves the mind, the body, and socio-political factors, and narratives about exhaustion can reveal very interesting insights into how the interplay of these forces is theorized at a given historical moment. Moreover, the theorists of exhaustion often blame very specific social, political, or technological developments for the perceived rise in exhaustion symptoms. In the eighteenth century, the consumption of exotic foods, spices, and other luxury goods was held responsible for an increase in exhaustion among the people, while in the late nineteenth century, it was attributed to a faster pace of life as a result of trains, steam boats, electricity, and telegraphy. Today, we tend to blame our exhaustion on the erosion of the boundaries between work and leisure brought about by smart phones, which render us perpetually reachable and which make it impossible for us properly to “switch off”. The technologies that were supposed to make our lives easier and to save our energies have brought in their wake a whole new range of psycho-social stressors that undo their benefits.
Q: What did people think caused exhaustion in the past?
AKS: The symptoms of exhaustion can be found in a wide range of diagnoses, including melancholia, acedia (a theological version of melancholia, also described as ‘weariness of the heart’), neurasthenia, depression, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The causal explanations of exhaustion range from biochemical imbalances, somatic ailments, and viral diseases, to spiritual failings. Exhaustion has also been linked to loss, the alignment of the planets, a perverse desire for death, social and economic disruption, and the development of new technologies, particularly in transport and communication. In addition, a constantly changing regime of specific cultural transformations is held responsible for the depletion of our energies in different periods. Exhaustion theories do of course also reflect wider medical paradigm changes, such as the move from humoral to modern medicine, and from psychoanalytical to biochemical models.
All of this does not mean that the exhaustion we feel in our age is to be taken less seriously. Although it is primarily psycho-social in nature, it is real and its effect can be devastating. Furthermore, it is important to talk about the potentially damaging impact of new technologies, the specific stressors of our work environment, and anxieties about how our well-being is affected by wider global and ecological issues. But we can nevertheless derive some solace from the fact that we are far from being the only ones to have felt exhausted in human history. Historicizing exhaustion can thus reassure us, but it also challenges some of the narratives that glorify our own suffering by furnishing it with an air of exclusivity.