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Mental Fatigue and Physical Exhaustion in History By Anna Katharina Schaffner

Social & Cultural Studies | Book Review | TLS

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When you experience fatigue, the poet John O’Donohue writes, “Heaviness invades your spirit. / Gravity begins falling inside you, / Dragging down every bone”. A character in Guy de Maupassant’s La Nuit: Cauchemar captures the exasperation and despondency that can manifest when we are depleted:

The day tires and annoys me. It is brutal and noisy. I get up with difficulty, I get dressed with weariness, I go out with regret, and each step, each movement, each gesture, each word exhausts me as though I were lifting a crushing burden.

Yet the experience of fatigue reminds us that our energies are limited and that we have to take care of them. Constant overwork, excessive effort and prolonged stress can push us into chronic states of exhaustion. Our energy levels also decline as we age. Fatigue, then, is a perennial and ubiquitous human experience.


As Georges Vigarello reveals in his captivating new book A History of Fatigue: From the Middle Ages to the Present (Polity, 2022), fatigue has a long and fascinating history. Because the causes of fatigue can be psychological as well as physiological and social, its discourses can yield illuminating insights into the ways in which the connection between the mind, the body and the social has been imagined over the centuries. To whom or to what do we tend to attribute our tiredness, and why? Nowadays we often blame new technologies, intensified capitalist competition, economic precarity, work-related stressors and fears about the future of the planet for our collective weariness, but fatigue long predated contemporary concerns.


In his genealogy Vigarello considers the various ways in which fatigue has been conceptualized from the Middle Ages to the present day. Touching on the histories of the body, hygiene practices, social structures, work, war, sports and psychology, he focuses on a wide array of fatigue-related phenomena, including warrior fatigue, traveller fatigue, the fatigue of serfs and farmers, court fatigue, war fatigue, neuraesthenia, stress and burnout. Since the medieval period attention has shifted between external and internal causes of fatigue. Until the Enlightenment fatigue was generally understood as resulting from an imbalance between the four bodily humours. In the eighteenth century notions of fibres, currents and nerves came to predominate. In the nineteenth century the focus shifted to urban and technological overstimulation and acceleration as the main causes of exhaustion.


In the twentieth century mechanical conceptions of the body as a “human motor” were replaced by endocrinological and nutritional models, and there was also a psychologization of fatigue. In current discourses on stress and burnout the focus tends to be on the interplay between internal mental stressors and structural, technological and occupational causes. Purpose, meaning and spirituality have also become touchstones in recent debates on fatigue – an acknowledgement that the exclusive focus on the self is no longer enough.


In this wide-ranging study we encounter pilgrims with sore feet, penitent monks and courtiers who had to remain still for hours on end. We meet masturbators and those who cannot cope with information overload, as well as oxygen-deprived mountaineers, industrial labourers, workers’ rights campaigners and those who tried to make labour more productive, including Angelo Mosso, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford. Ford famously sought to enhance efficiency in his factories by eliminating unnecessary movements in the workers stationed at conveyor belts. While he thus managed significantly to whittle down the production time for his motorcars, he also kept losing his workforce, whose discontent grew in tandem with their enforced efficiency. According to Vigarello, they quit in droves. In 1914 Ford was forced to raise salaries and shorten working hours “to keep his plants running at full strength”.


We also learn about the effects of new psycho-social pressures. In a nineteenth-century study of neuraesthenia, for example, the novelist Marcel Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, and Gilbert Ballet comment on the side effects of social mobility on people’s attitude to work and rest:

In the past social classes were enclosed by impenetrable barriers, and very few attempted to leave the milieu dictated by happenstance. Today everyone tries to attain a higher level than the one his forebears occupied; competition has increased, clashes between people and conflicting interests have multiplied in every walk of life … Most people place undue stress on their mental faculties by taking on more work than they can tolerate … Battered by relentless agitation, the nervous system will eventually become exhausted.

The psychological pressures of social mobility and individualism, and, as the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg observes, the new imperative to seek fulfilment by transforming infinite theoretical possibilities into concrete realities, can result in a profound “weariness of the self”. The more sovereign we became in theory, it seems, the more we struggled with our freedom, blaming ourselves for failures to realize our dreams, regardless of the obstacles posed by external structures.


Over the centuries the fatigued have sought to cure their tiredness in numerous more or less effective ways, including bloodletting, oils and essences, tonics, tobacco and coffee, water cures, electrotherapy, amphetamines, cocaine and hormones. Coffee in particular was celebrated as a welcome counterforce to alcohol. An anonymous seventeenth-century English Puritan enthusiastically proclaimed:

When the sweet Poison of the Treacherous Grape Had Acted on the World, a General Rape COFFEE arrives, that Grave and Wholesome Liquor That heals the Stomack and makes the Genius quicker … And cheers the spirits without making us mad.

Stimulants and tonics may enable us, if only ever temporarily, to override our body’s need for rest. They can, however, never provide long-term solutions. The lament of an anonymous nineteenth-century captain of industry may resonate with many of us today:

I work steadily from eight in the morning to ten at night. I barely have time to eat. Most often, I eat standing up, a meal of cold, bland dishes. At ten o’clock I am so tired that I struggle to bring my accounts up to date. At night, thoughts of the business I was conducting during the day come to mind so insistently that I can only manage to get a little rest in the early morning hours. I feel exhausted when I get out of bed and have to down a few little glasses of cognac to give myself the energy to go back to work.

While Vigarello includes an impressively diverse cast of the exhausted from across the class spectrum, he does less well when it comes to gender and race. Most of his examples are tired white men. They did, of course, record their own fatigue more assiduously, but that changed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Vigarello’s history of fatigue is, moreover, predominantly a French one, with only the odd reference to English sources and even fewer to other European and American sources.


Although he has assembled a remarkable number of illuminating and often entertaining examples, Vigarello is less successful in presenting a clear narrative on the ways in which conceptions of fatigue have shifted over the centuries, and why those changes occurred. His book would have benefited from a more concerted attempt to synthesize his findings and to theorize the broader historical shifts. Too often description prevails at the expense of analysis. This is not helped by often highly abstract and flowery prose. One learns little from sentences such as: “The shadow of fatigue was lengthening in step with modernity. It took different shapes and occupied different settings” ; “the landscape of languor had become more extensive and had even been redefined”; or “When curiosity has been revitalized, defenses have been too”.


Vigarello’s is nonetheless an important study of an increasingly important subject. The technological inventions that were designed to save us from various forms of exertion, and that promised to increase our leisure time, have become serious stressors in their own right. Many of us work longer hours than did previous generations, as work bleeds into leisure time; the quality of our sleep has deteriorated; and stress-related diseases and syndromes such as depression and burnout are on the rise. By making us perpetually reachable, preying on our attention and eroding our ability to focus, social media in particular has been a prime cause of increasing levels of fatigue. That said, Georges Vigarello’s book reminds us that we are far from alone in battling the demons of fatigue. For all the important historical changes, fatigue is timeless. That can be as soothing as it is concerning.


Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. Her most recent book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten timeless truths, 2021

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