It is interesting to note another book that came on the scene in 2015: The Burnout Society by Korean born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Han’s brief foray into exhaustion, while incomplete, is to be commended as he broaches the malignant phenomenon through several helpful texts and ideas. One that is of particular interest is Han’s treatment of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”—a sure precursor to the age of exhaustion if ever there was one. Following a reading developed by both Agamben and Deleuze, Han presents Bartleby as a prototype of late modern fatigue—a victim of the liturgies of pre-Fordist mechanization and the insatiable machinery of runaway capitalism. As Deleuze writes: “Even in his catatonic or anorexic state, Bartleby is not the patient but the doctor of sick America, the Medicine Man—the new Christ or brother to us all.” François, of course, is no Bartleby; but he is certainly a symptom of a neoliberal woundedness. In his case, it is a sustained moral and spiritual blindness, reinforced by the “pressures of modern life”—the business ontologies of commodification and atomization that not only disconnect him from the people he “loves,” but which also foreclosed upon his interior development as a person from day one, ensconced as they are in culture: “I wondered what could interest me, now that I was finished with love,” muses François in a moment of utilitarian splendor, “I could take a course in wine tasting, maybe, or start collecting model airplanes.”
Neither Houellebecq nor Han are moralists, of course, but the links among moral injury, psychological turmoil, and spiritual aridity are under serious review in their work. Han’s The Burnout Society indicts the toll that highly competitive achievement cultures take on us all. He then posits a kind of solution to this problem, one you, dear reader, will surely recognize: “We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep contemplative attention,” an insight Josef Pieper develops much more fully than Han in his 1963 study.
As Pieper argues, contemplation is central to any philosophy of ritual, festivity, and culture: “The concept of festivity is inconceivable without an element of contemplation”; and this contemplation, performed in intentional liturgies, explodes outward as a sign of recognition, right relationship, and praise. “This is as true today as it was a thousand years ago,” observes Pieper, “It remains the form of the praise given in ritual worship, which is literally performed at every hour of the day. By its very nature that praise is a public act, a festival celebrated before the face of creation.”
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