Rare is the person who has never known the feelings of apathy, sorrow, and uselessness that characterize the affliction known as melancholy. In this book, one of Europes leading intellectuals shows that melancholy is not only a psychological condition that affects individuals but also a social and cultural phenomenon that can be of considerable help in understanding the modern middle class. His larger topic is, in fact, modernity in general. Lepenies focuses not on what melancholy is but on what it means when people claim to be melancholy. His aim is to examine the origin and spread of the phenomenon with relation to particular social milieux, and thus he looks at a variety of historical manifestations: the fictional utopian societies of the Renaissance, the ennui of the French aristocracy in the seventeenth century, the cult of inwardness and escapism among the middle class in eighteenth-century Germany.
In each case he shows that the human condition is shaped by historical and societal forces--that apathy, boredom, utopian idealism, melancholy, inaction, and excessive reflection are the correlates of class-wide powerlessness and the failure of purposeful efforts.Lepenies makes inventive use of an extraordinary range of sociological, philosophical, and literary sources, from Robert Burtons Anatomy of Melancholy to the ideas of contemporary theorists such as Robert K.
Merton and Arnold Gehlen. His study gains added richness from its examination of writers whose works express the melancholy of entire social classes--writers such as La Rochefoucauld, Goethe, and Proust. In his masterly analysis of these diverse ideas and texts, he illuminates the plight of people who havebeen cast aside by historical change and shows us the ways in which they have coped with their distress. Historians, sociologists, psychologists, students of modern literature, indeed anyone interested in the problems of modernity will want to read this daring and original book.