Acedia is Walker Percy’s great theme, and there is no place for it in America precisely because we have always been puzzled or embarrassed by lives of contemplation.
In 1972, Lancelot wasn’t coming off as cleanly as Walker Percy would have liked. He was under intense, self-imposed pressure to produce another critically successful novel. A relatively new empty-nester, he was also drinking more heavily than usual, and was in something of a crisis of faith. Writing to his friend Shelby Foote, he said, “I’ve been in a long spell of acedia, anomie and aridity in which, unlike the saints who write under the assaults of devils, I simply get sleepy and doze off.” Percy being Percy, he inserts a wry, self-deprecating note into his reportage, but his travail with the affliction was very real.
Two years later, he was still struggling. His novel was a little closer to being finished, but then he contracted hepatitis. He became depressed. Writing to Caroline Gordon in June of 1974, he told her,
My hepatitis and depression are better. Maybe one caused the other. Truthfully I don’t know whether I’ve been overtaken by a virus or male menopause or the devil—who I am quite willing to believe does indeed roam about the world seeking whom he may devour. Anyhow it takes the form in my case of disinterest, accidie, little or no use for the things of God and the old virtues. I’d rather chase women (not that I do, but how strange to have come to this pass). I think it has something to do with laziness or the inability to give birth to a 2-year-old fetus of a novel. I don’t like it at all and keep tearing it up. I feel like a Borgia Pope, I still believe the whole thing, but oh you Italian girls!
Acedia made its way into modern parlance as sloth, a word we now associate with the supposedly benign vices of laziness or idleness. Percy knew better. In these couple of instances, he does indeed mention laziness and sleepiness, but he does so in the context of acedia’s more classic associations: as a complex, subtle, destructive habit of the soul—with a possibly demonic origin—that neglects the weightier matters of love of God and neighbor for more immediately gratifying pleasures. Moreover, he interprets acedia not just as an arcane spiritual malady of early monastics. Rather, it is a widespread, distinctly modern phenomenon that “has settled like a fallout,” as he says in The Moviegoer, and it is capable of imposing itself upon the modern person regardless of his or her affiliation with the religious life.
A wily demon, acedia is difficult to pin down. It’s a trickster, a shapeshifter, a boggart. It goes out of focus when you try to look directly at it. The term itself defies translation: despondency, sloth, lassitude, ennui, melancholy—each displays an aspect, none the full image.
The desert monks who first wrestled the demon acedia to the ground did so by grinding through their prayers in the pitiless heat of the Egyptian wilderness. In doing so they became superbly intimate with their failures. Evagrius had a theoretical bent and began cataloging the modes and patterns of failure he and his fellow monks encountered. Eventually he placed acedia at the center of a spectrum comprising the “eight thoughts,” the fountainhead of the seven-deadly-sins tradition. On the one side of the spectrum, he said, lie our animal or material vices; on the other, the vices of the intellect. Acedia, he said, is “the complex thought” because it stands at the center of the spectrum and thus assimilates aspects of both the material and the intellectual into itself.