“Oh, that sounds interesting. Which books are about stress?” That’s a frequent response, when telling that for the past months I’ve spent all of my waken hours on my master thesis on stress in modern, Danish literature. And the disappointment is clear, when I answer, that the books I write about are actually not about stress at all.
Was Jastrau stressed?
It’s not completely unthinkable at the possible breakdown novel of 2016 — our time’s Hærværk from the 30’s — should be about a person, working way too much, drinking way too little and would face his/her demise because of this, and despite living as an anti-Jastrau will share his tragic destiny.
Because stress to day is an enormous problem, actually compared to numbers of cases a larger problem than i.e. alcohol. The question just is if the mechanisms, that send the good Jastrau over the edge back than, wasn’t also in some ways stress related — the feeling that the demands of the surroundings surpassed what the individual was capable of. A feeling of not being able to keep up with time and feel insufficient.
Stress as alienation
The motif of rushing through life, being too busy or feeling overwhelmed by the still more intense demands of modern society, was already a well-known topos in the works of the man over them all, Søren Kierkegaard, when he in the diapsalmata of the 1843 classic Either-Or wrote:
Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work. Therefore, whenever I see a fly settling, in the decisive moment, on the nose of such a person of affairs; or if he is spattered with mud from a carriage which drives past him in still greater haste; or the drawbridge opens up before him; or a tile falls down and knocks him dead, then I laugh heartily.
But, the state of stress is of course about more, and more severe phenomenas than ‘just’ being busy. The Danish mag.art and clinical psychologist and author of the books Stress – Et moderne traume (2007) and Den etiske udfordring i en global tid (2013), Nadja U. Prætorius, describes the biggest hazard of being stress — alienation:
“Being a stranger to one’s self and experiencing not being able to live up to one’s own self-image of who am I, is what is very central (…) The stressed person doesn’t only lose the contact to one’s normal self, but also it’s sense of judgement (…) The stressed person is beside himself and has gone on auto-pilot and is kept in an anxiety controlled, restless, but rigid and inflexible management of his functions.” (Prætorius, 2007, own translation)
And this feeling all of a sudden appears in many books in Danish literature, or better still: they are built thematically and stylistically on a feeling of alienation.
First came anger, or?
In the previous years in the literary field there has been numerous scientists exploring the many feelings of literature. Professor in literature and critic at Politiken, Lilian Munk Rösing, has been interested in the anger in literature, and analysed the phenomena of shame as well as other mental disorders and queer studies have taken up place. They all fit in to the category of affect studies, and have provided a great insight to the human being-in-the-world.
The poet, Lars Skinnebach (f. 1973) who, according to Munk Rösing, writes with “the angry voice of literature”is one of the poets I’ve analysed as part of stressed literature. Because, the voice may very well be angry, he might snap at the “du” (English: you), and the subject is generally unsatisfied. But the question is, if this atmosphere isn’t to do with a disharmonious relationship between the modern, capitalistic society and the subject? If the anger isn’t a symptom of stress, more than it’s pure anger? AS he writes very directly: “fri mig for stresssymptomerne, shhh” (English: Free my of the stress symptoms, shush)
The space of stress
In literary theory we understand spaces and places as something fundamental to our presence in the world. In the space our personal state, feelings and reactions are connected to the embedded system of society and a perception of time in modern society, where time seems to be accelerated.
To Skinnebach as well as Ursula Andkjær Olsen, who’s also a part of my analysis, the affects are closely tied to special spaces. And the subjects of the work try to move from one space to a new, utopian space, hoping to rid themselves of discomfort. By analysing these spaces we might understand what caused or produced the stress reactions in the first place.
In reality, it’s unfortunately rarely so that the stress disappears instantly if only one moves far away from the established society. But by pointing at the literary topos, where movement from one space to another is central, it’s made possible to discover some underlying structures helping us to understand what stress does to a person. Especially the fact that stress seldom — if ever — is caused by an insufficiency in the individual. That stress isn’t about the person, but more likely about the fact that we exist in hopeless spaces.
The ‘systemless’ alternative
Society is always, anywhere, making escape impossible. What, however, is possible, is changing the factors producing the spaces through the commodification of time, a rise in demand of more productivity and quicker productivity as well as the view of humanity as part of a production paradigm.
And exactly this, is what stress literature is about. The question therefore, is not what stress is, but what stress does. Stress is a fundamental defense mechanism, protecting us from harming, challenging or tiresome surroundings. And thus, stress appears as an exit route: an extra force making us capable of escaping. The problem just is this: Where to escape to, when the stressing systems are everywhere? In literature, the ‘systemless’ alternative is possible. It is possible to reach utopia where everything is possible. Where systems have been made superfluous and man finally lives in peace with nature. Finally, free from stress symptoms, shush…
This post was originally published in Danish at Netudgaven.