“Unreal City” – Neurasthenia and Modernity

Posted: February 4, 2018 in Uncategorized

Edvard Munch
Friedrich Nietzsche (1906)

NEURASTHENIA: (noun) Psychiatry (not in technical use) nervous debility and exhaustion occurring in the absence of objective causes or lesions; nervous exhaustion.


Edvard Munch
The Dance of Life (1900)


A life in boundless pursuit of pleasure makes one blasé because it agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all. In the same way, through the rapidity and contradictoriness of their changes, more harmless impressions force such violent responses, tearing the nerves so brutally hither and thither that their last reserves of strength are spent; and if one remains in the same milieu they have no time to gather new strength. An incapacity thus emerges to react to new sensations with the appropriate energy. This constitutes that blasé attitude which, in fact, every metropolitan child shows when compared with children of quieter and less changeable milieus. . . .

In the blasé attitude the concentration of men and things stimulate the nervous system of the individual to its highest achievement so that it attains its peak. Through the mere quantitative intensification of the same conditioning factors this achievement is transformed into its opposite and appears in the peculiar adjustment of the blasé attitude. In this phenomenon the nerves find in the refusal to react to their stimulation the last possibility of accommodating to the contents and forms of metropolitan life. The self-preservation of certain personalities is brought at the price of devaluating the whole objective world, a devaluation which in the end unavoidably drags one’s own personality down into a feeling of the same worthlessness.

–Georg Simmel
The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903)

Nordau Nietzsche

Neitzsche Biology Metaphor

Nietzsche, Biology and Metaphor explores the German philosopher’s response to the intellectual debates sparked by the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. By examining the abundance of biological metaphors in Nietzsche’s writings, Gregory Moore questions his recent reputation as an eminently subversive and (post-) modern thinker, and shows how deeply Nietzsche was immersed in late nineteenth-century debates on evolution, degeneration and race.

  1. Natalie Van Orden says:

    I worry that the “blasé” Georg Simmel is describing in 1903 is spiraling out of control today. My dad has often joked that for a normal person to get through a movie anymore, there needs to be an explosion (or something sensationally similar) every five minutes just to refocus the person’s attention.

    With all the technology we have at our fingertips, there are dozens of things competing for our attention at any second, and often the image or snap-story that wins is the most shocking to our senses. In movies, music, food, and even pictures of one another, we’re constantly being shown the brightest, the loudest, the sweetest, and the most seemingly perfect, until reality isn’t enough for our senses and we become numb and bored. Our products, and ourselves fall short of these heightened sensations, to the point where what we have is never enough in comparison and we are stuck in a cycle of wanting more and more sensation. It’s hard to even image sitting alone and quietly thinking, because there’s always something else to be seeking on the internet. I sometimes find that after I have been scrolling through social media on my phone, or when I have just been at a loud, busy party, I experience a letdown after I get off my phone or go home by myself again. When I’m reading, I constantly have to fight the quick, interesting pictures I could look at on my phone, even though I know what I want to be doing is reading.

    I hope that even though this is becoming a bigger problem in our society, individuals can fight against this numbness and change for the better, even if fighting requires a constant effort against the flow.

    • People have been claiming about this issue for a very long time. Each generation seems to feel that the next is in real trouble because it lives at speeds the last generation considers unnatural and unhealthy. Consider, for instance, how disturbing persons in the 1830s considered the new possibility of traveling at the unprecedented and unthinkable speed of 30 mph. This is something about which you can read in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s study The Railway Journey. His study seems to suggest that what we now have grown accustomed to this once unthinkable pace.

      Still, Schivelbusch also points out how certain traditional concepts about time and space, and certain traditional values do get lost forever in the turn toward mass, high-speed transportatrion.
      There do in fact seem to be limits to the human organism’s capacity to adapt, and we to be approaching the breaking point. A number of scholars have begun to document the harsh reality of living in a world which is never off the clock and never goes to sleep. And important recent book on this topic is Jonathan Crary’s 24/7, which reads like an update on Simmel and Schivelbusch.

      Finally, recent studies in the new field of Trauma Studies, suggest just how toxic our culture of unlimited productivity has become. See, for instance, Cruel Optimism, by Lauren Berlant.

  2. Nat says:

    I love Edvard Munch’s art and I wrote an essay on his painting “Anxiety” when I was in an art history class in high school. I didn’t know he did portraits of Nietzsche, who I also think is a really interesting figure.

    • Munch was very interested in Nietzsche, as so much of his work dealt with the decadence of modern society, on the way it was over-stimulating and enervating the human body and mind. While most persons think of Nietzsche as a philosopher and mythologist, some of his most important works were dedicated to the study of biology and pathology, on which he carefully read all the most recent research. Interesting to note that all the most famous images of Nietzsche were painted while he was sick and dying. As Munch never met Nietzsche, I’d say it’s a safe bet that he deliberately worked from images of Nietzsche that depicted him in a state of decrepitude. In the past, I have begun the semester with assigned readings from Nietzsche, and his English analogue Oscar Wilde. For better or worse, I didn’t put either of them on the syllabus this semester because I didn’t want us to get to mired in the 19th century.

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