This is what anomie feels like.
For years I’ve stumbled upon that word, especially in French anomie. People who are fascinated by decadent moments in history—and their painters and poets–people who relish accounts of wars and moments of political revolution are bound to know what I mean. Yet if you, like me never really understood that word , well now we can. This day is a perfect moment to seize the meaning of anomie. It is how we feel.
[French from Greek anomia, from anomos lawless: cf: ANOMY [disregard of (esp. divine) law]).
Lack of the usual social standards in a group or person.
The French definition provides a crucial precision: “Absence d’organisation ou de loi, disparition des valeurs communes à un groupe.”** [Absence of organization or law, disappearance of values common to a group.] The word disappearance captures why we all feel so weird; we’re still in thrall to values that no longer hold true and we’re not sure what the new ones are, or if they will endure.
Lack of the usual social standards is putting it mildly!
Even among standard-makers, the standards range wildly. From “Shelter-in-Place,” “Stay home, stay healthy,” or “Self-Quarantine,” to building “Herd Immunity” and using state sovereignty to stay open, as in Mississippi (“We ain’t China!”), our political leaders are evidently confused.
The new genre of empty isn’t helping. See the New York Times special section, “The Great Empty,” showing extraordinarily evocative images of empty streets in the world’s major cities: haunting, poetic, tragic.
But c’mon, NYT, couldn’t you have done better with Seattle???! (seen above, with regret)
For the literal-minded, anomie is a recipe for disaster. For the imaginative too. The one doesn’t know whose orders to follow, while the other creates all kinds of disastrous scenarios to fill the void.
Since I exhibit both traits, I’ve decided to try a little experiment. Since the Seattle government edict says only, “Stay home, stay healthy,” and I don’t know what that second word means anymore because I’m going stir-crazy after staying indoors for the past three days, I will follow the directions of the Paris government instead. They say, “From now on, anyone leaving their house for physical exercise is required to write down the time they left. … physical exercise must be limited to an area of one or two kilometres from home. ‘1km or 2km max.. You’re not supposed to distance yourself from your house,’ the ministry tweeted.”
OK! We have rules! Anomie can be beaten.
1. Before going on a walk, write down the time.
2. Walk two kilometers and then turn around and walk home.
Armed with the rules, I am now going out for a 2k (1.2 mi) walk from my house. I’ll check in again when I get back, to see if it changed my sour, bored, semi-depressed feelings into something better…
* The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), vol. 1, 85.
** Le Nouveau Petit Robert. Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française, ed. Josette Rey-Debove et Alain Rey (Paris: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1993), p. 88.