Evolution and the humanities
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Posted by Shaun Johnston, April 7, 2017.
“Neurasthenia” was a medical term characteristic of the period from 1880 to 1920 that I think we’d be well off reintroducing. Also called “Americanitis”: “The best educated, most cultured Americans were suffering from a new, distinctly American condition that was destroying their health. They had migraines, poor digestion, fatigue, depression, and even complete mental collapse in alarming numbers. They suffered from neurasthenia – nervous exhaustion…. Beard saw neurasthenia as created by the hectic, fast-paced life in American cities – he even called it ‘American nervousness.’ The nation’s leaders in business, government, and the arts were made ill by the stress and strain of modern life. The only cure was withdrawal from the pressures of urban life, rest, and a simpler, healthy lifestyle.” (from http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/nerves/). The term "neurasthenia" was succeeded by terms such as “neuroticism.”
In “No Place for Grace” Jackson Lears accounts for neurasthenia as a reaction against the meaninglessness associated with the loss of Christian faith and the onrush of modern city life, and he details various distinct strategies that sufferers employed. Interesting, because in today’s widely-reported transgressiveness and feeling of not belonging to the world these causes are often blended and hard to identify. I think the term helpfully tags a common modern attitude that otherwise we find it difficult to acknowledge and engage with.
Here are some of the strategies Lears mentions: retirement into arts and crafts handwork, losing insistent invidualism in the imperatives of combat, mind cures, return to a medieval lifestyle, adopting Catholicism for its ritual, romantic creativity, folk customs, exotic travel and eastern religions. Lears has a wonderful turn of phrase. Some examples: modernity's evasive banality,the worship of force, republican strenuosity, quest for authentic selfhood, the spiritual dessication of a rationalizing culture, and repeated references to modernity as "weightless."
Notably, the period 1884 to 1940 is also marked by a lull in belief in evolution. Today we could add to Lears' various causes of neurasthenia the debilitating implications for human nature of its evolution being thought to consist of purely physical processes.