Kathleen Norris is the award-winning poet, writer, and author of The New York Times bestsellers The Cloister Walk, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and The Virgin of Bennington.
“Reading this strongly argued, paradigm-altering work may be the first strike against the demon it portrays.”
“Filled with gorgeous prose, generous quotations from Christian thinkers across the centuries and fascinating etymological detours, this discomfiting book provides not just spiritual hope but a much-needed kick in the rear.”
Why not? Nothing else seems to work. But then again, what writer would give up her depressive muse?
Good literature – not just cathartic scribbling – It has been produced by some of the most lonely people of the last one and a quarter century. I don’t have to supply my own references, for Norris offers a multitude from our common heritage: John Berryman, Plath, Lowell, Kenyon. What writer doesn’t have a downer streak?
Norris calls this depressive trend – from which sometimes genius comes – Acedia, taking after a long history rooted out of religious reference. Her book is rife with reference. It is strung through with her own personal history of apathy tied to her husband’s profound depression and eventual death to cancer.
What turns this story on its axis, however, is the poetic condition of despair that Norris entertains. Not that she cultivates ill thoughts for the sake of inspiration. She expressly councils against such narcotics. But Norris advocates for a firm embrace of a condition that most would write off as depression.
On the contrary, this book devotes itself to the finer points of sloth, apathy, and despair, taking a lolling journey through the historical psyche of religious and literary culture. Early on, she clarifies her aim: to go exploring, to circumnavigate the topic by way of her narrative and meditations. Accordingly, please don’t expect a sharpened thesis to drive you through this work.
This is more like hacking at a maple with a pocket knife – the sap will come if one’s persistent. If the delay frustrates, it may equally increase how dear one holds the task at hand. Not all insight comes at first pass. Norris has taken many passes at acedia and, in a nutshell, this is what she has learned:
Acedia is not the same thing as depression. Depression involves deep grief, self spite, and anger, often for good reason. “Acedia,” says Norris, “is more marked by absence of emotion.” It is a withering of intent that leaves a deficit of meaning, an inability to participate in what she calls divine life, which a writer might substitute for inspiration.
This is a nuanced point, and if it seems like Norris is splitting hairs, she does at times. What helps is that she delivers her claims with a dose of humility, acknowledging the Sisyphean task at hand. She goes admittedly, “where only a fool would dare to tread.”
Norris’s character is certainly half the intrigue of the game. A successful writer, who moved with her poet husband to North Dakota, she confesses she’s plagued by the beauty and the bareness of the Northern Plains. She enrolls in a monastery as a lay participant almost on a whim it seems. She knows Kierkegaard, Aquinas, and Aldous Huxley all in equal parts.
The time spent reading is worth that mash up alone.