The Lexicon - Anomie

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Word: Anomie

Definition: (n) social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; also : personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals.

Origin: fr. anomos lawless, a- + nomos (law)

Source: Joan Didion's "I Can't Get That Monster out of My Mind" as collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem --

I am reminded of a screenwriter who just recently discovered dwarfs -- although he, like the rest of us, must have lived through that period when dwarfs turned up on the fiction pages of the glossier magazines with the approximate frequency that Suzy Parker turned up on the advertising pages. This screenwriter sees dwarfs as symbols of modern man's crippling anomie. There is a certain cultural lag.


Commentary: Was anomie used more commonly in those disintegrating late-60s days, the word of the moment? A quick search on "critical evaluations of Didion's work" will return the word with surprising frequency, so maybe it's a Didion thing. And certainly it makes sense in conjunction with the title essay of that famous collection. In the preface, Didion refers to "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and the Yeats poem it was born of, explaining

It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.

The evidence of atomization. The conviction that her work was irrelevant. That things were not what they seemed. That certainly sounds like an "uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals." But she doesn't use the word in that most famous essay. She uses it in a brilliant, and bitingly funny, take down of Hollywood, an essay that employs the parenthetical aside with a heavy, but somehow perfectly applied, hand. It is light, it is critical, it is impossible to quote. Like the best stand-up comedians, Didion stretches out her commentary, building each story with a kind of sympathy, before flatly destroying her subject with a short, concluding sentence. It may be formulaic, but it works.


Interesting that this word could be used so candidly in a popular essay about movies in 1964 and now occurs only in the dusty wings of academia. But what are we experiencing if not anomie? And what to do about it if we are?

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