Not a very wake-up-in-the-morning word for any day, much less the last Saturday of Christmas. And yet it is a word that runs through my mind as I watch this weary world.
If the carols of Christmas weren’t honest about the “and yet, and yet” nature of life, I wouldn’t pay them much attention. They might hold cultural meaning, but it would be a romanticized feeling about feelings, without much to do with anything in my life or the world which is ours. That they do speak about “a weary world,” about “painful steps and slow,” about “Babel sounds,” draws me in, allowing them to enter into my heart again another year.
But “anomie”? Not a word most of us use very often, but it is one worth understanding. My favorite dictionary is the Online Etymology Dictionary, which of course takes us into the history and meaning of words, showing the ways that words were first used, and why. Anomie means without law, a-nomos. It is not a cheap word, but one that allows us into the world and the way it is—whether we like what we see, or not. First used in 1590, it came-of-age in the 20th-century with the sociologist Emile Durkheim who used it to describe “an absence of social values.” Once in my life I spent most of month reading a book, “After Virtue” by Alistair McIntyre, and he too draws on the word to explain “the new dark ages” he sees us entering into.
Is it apocalypticism? Maybe. But others I read make their own arguments, differently done from different places. Walker Percy’s fiction was full of this concern with novels like “The Thanatos Syndrome”; Neil Postman was sure we were “amusing ourselves to death.” Yes to all.
This morning I read a fascinating essay by David Gelertner of Yale Univerity, and he too offers “anomie” as a word to understand our life and times. The words have their own flesh in the author, as he was one of those tragically “bombed” by the Unabomber some years ago; he lost a hand and an eye, so has born in his own body the weight of a world gone awry. Gelertner calls us a “morally wobbly” people, and spends himself in thoughtful, rigorous analysis of the modern-becoming-postmodern world, digging deeply into what it is and why. You would have to have a good cup of something and a warm fire to make your way through his critique. But it is worth it.
Perhaps especially if you hold onto a meaning for the carols of Christmas that is beyond feelings about feelings. If they aren’t true, then we all should do something else with the winter holiday—which is of course what more and more of us are doing.