The Persistence of Boredom: Aldous Huxley’s Accidie and Great Towns

Boredom, hopelessness and despair have always existed, and have been felt as poignantly in the past as we feel them now. Something has happened to make these emotions respectable and avowable; they are no longer sinful, no longer regarded as the mere symptoms of disease. That something that has happened is surely simply history since 1789. The failure of the French Revolution and the more spectacular downfall of Napoleon planted accidie in the heart of every youth of the Romantic generation – and not in France alone, but all over Europe – who believed in liberty or whose adolescence had been intoxicated by the ideas of glory and genius. Then came industrial progress with its prdogious multiplication of filth, misery, and ill-gotten wealth; the defilement of nature by modern industry was in itself enough to sadden many sensitive minds. The discovery that political enfranchisement, so long and stubbornly fought for, was the merest futility and vanity so long as industrial servitude remained in force was another of the century’s horrible disillusionments.

A more subtle cause of the prevalence of boredom was the disproportionate growth of the great towns. Habituated to the feverish existence of these few centres of activity, men found that life outside them was intolerably insipid. And at the same time they became so much exhausted by the restlessness of city life that  they pined for the monotonous boredom of the provinces, for exotic islands, even for other worlds – any haven of rest. And finally, to crown this vast structure of failures and disillusionments, there came the appalling catastrophe of the War of 1914. Other epochs have witnessed disasters, have had to suffer disillusionment; but in no century have the disillusionments followed on one another’s heel with such unintermitted rapidity as in the twentieth, for the good reason that in no century has change been so rapid and so profound. The mal du siècle was an inevitable evil; indeed, we can claim with a certain pride that we have a right to our accidie. With us it is not a sin or a disease of the hypochondries; it is a state o mind which fate has forced upon us.

Huxley, Aldous (1958/1920) ‘Accidie’ in Mass Leisure. Edited by Eric Larrabee and Rolf Meyersohn. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press. 18