German Burnout

In the Times Literary Supplement, Anna Schaffner has an excellent essay on the topic of ‘burnout’ as it is currently playing out in Germany:

One of the abiding refrains in exhaustion theories, both past and present, is the idea that modernity as such drains the individual’s energy. The aspects of modernity that are repeatedly identified as responsible include technological inventions that have dramatically increased the pace of life, as well as wider cultural developments such as the spread of capitalism, secularization, urbanization, industrialization, and, more recently, the imperative to be a constantly self-fashioning, entrepreneurial subject in a highly competitive environment.

Schaffner notes that Germans of the fin de siècle age (insofar as it was channeled through the intelligentsia of that age) also felt the same way:

Wolfgang Martynkewicz’s erudite and highly enjoyable study Das Zeitalter der Erschöpfung announces its thesis in its title. Martynkewicz marshals an impressive range of evidence to establish that numerous German bourgeois and bohemians living around the turn of the twentieth century felt physically and emotionally drained by the demands of what they perceived as an ever more complex modernity. Perceptive case studies include the “tired colossus” Otto von Bismarck, the diet-obsessed Friedrich Nietzsche, the sharp and ascetic Cosima Wagner, the depressed Protestant Max Weber, and the fitness fanatic Franz Kafka, as well as Gustav Meyrink, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke and many other key figures of German modernism.

Rilke’s famous dictum “Du mußt dein Leben ändern” neatly sums up the resolute attempts of these characters to counter their exhaustion-related disease by subscribing to various tenets of Lebensreform (lifestyle reform). It is one of the many strengths of this fine study that the intricate connection between these salvation-promising reform movements and exhaustion is so cogently demonstrated: Martynkewicz shows that the fin de siècle did not just produce exhaustion, but also saw the advent of numerous strategies to counter and even to prevent its effects. “In times of weakness and illness”, he writes, “the longing for salvation and redemption, as well as for saviours, spiritual guides, prophets, trainers and dieticians, multiplies.”…

Other practices that were frequently mobilized to counter exhaustion include nudism, vegetarianism, macrobiotics, gymnastics, yoga, gardening and expressive dancing. Martynkewicz discusses the thriving sanatorium culture (famously satirized in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain), as well as a phenomenon called “Europe-fatigue”, manifest in an escapist idealization of the Orient’s exotic otherness, as seen, for example, in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Das Zeitalter der Erschöpfung goes on to engage with a range of famous declinist thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and, above all, Nietzsche, who articulated a sense of “belatedness” and bitterly complained about the decadence, degeneracy and weakness of their contemporaries.

In some of the contemporary essays she reviews, Schaffner spots a romanticization of the pre-modern past:

Many of the contributors to Leistung und Erschöpfung look back nostalgically to times imagined to be calmer and less strenuous. Some subscribe, without ever acknowledging or theorizing it, to an essentially Rousseauist vision of the corrupting nature of modern society and the nerve-shattering, attention-sapping impact of new technologies. Most exhaustion theorists, past and present, assume that pre-modern man must have been happier, more energetic and less existentially troubled, safely supported by a religious world view, strong communal patterns and a pre-industrial agrarian way of life in harmony with nature. This is, of course, a romanticization – those living in the pre-modern period were doubtless drained of their energies by physical labour, unless they were fortunate enough to belong to the aristocracy.

Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted, is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal? If we were to venture further back into the past, crossing the frequently evoked modern/pre-modern threshold, we would find that many medieval men and women suffered from a lack of energy and spiritual weariness too, which might simply have been articulated in religious language – the numerous works written on melancholia and acedia (diagnoses that are also essentially structured around mental and physical exhaustion) suggest as much. Werner Post, in his beautifully written treatise on acedia (Acedia: Das Laster der Trägheit, 2011) has recently presented this argument in the most persuasive of terms. But one could look back further still: the weariness of the melancholic was a condition already theorized by Hippocrates and Galen. Rather than lamenting the horrors of modernity, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that exhaustion is simply an essential part of the human experience. Indeed, the fact that our energies are limited, and that this worries us, is very much part of what makes us human. What changes through history is not the experience of exhaustion as such, but rather the labels we invent to describe it, the causes we mobilize to explain it, and, of course, the specific cultural discontents that we tend so readily to map onto it.

It is tempting to speculate on why exhaustion has become such a popular topic in Germany at present, and not, for instance, in the UK. Germany’s economy is currently the strongest in Europe, and the country’s income levels and general quality of life are also higher than those of most of its neighbours. According to the statistics, Germans do not work longer hours than the British, or indeed many other nations – a recent OECD survey showed that only the Dutch work fewer hours than the Germans. Why, then, do the Germans feel so exhausted? Might there be some truth to the old cliché of the specifically German Arbeitsethos (work ethic) after all? Do they perhaps invest more (emotionally, physically, existentially) in their work, and are they therefore more prone to burnout? Max Weber certainly thought so. In his theorization of the Protestant work ethic, he presented a range of theological and historical reasons to explain the Berufspflicht that led to the exhaustion of one’s energies in work. Yet Germany is, of course, not the only predominantly Protestant nation in Europe. Moreover, as Martynkewicz and others have shown, Weber’s theses were not only in tune with the exhausted zeitgeist of his age, but might also at least partly have been motivated by personal experience.

Being burned out is a socially “respectable” condition, implying, as it does, that one has simply worked too hard. It carries less stigma than depression. It is a disease of those who have overtaxed themselves in the name of work, and it might therefore be worn almost as a badge of honour. Wolfgang Martynkewicz convincingly demonstrates that a not inconsiderable degree of pride and self-moulding was often involved in the accounts of neurasthenics in the late nineteenth century: neurasthenia signified refinement, sensibility and an artistic streak. Burnout, in contrast, signifies a work ethic carried to the extreme. Seen from that perspective, one can begin to imagine how, paradoxically, it might serve as a means not only to deplore modernity but also to praise it.

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