APATHY: The paradoxical power of disengagement in Scandinavian literature

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Jens Jørgensen


Aalborg University


DKK 708,181




Monograph Fellowships


The purpose of my project is to analyse the conceptual development of the notion of apathy in Scandinavian literature. This development testifies to the changing use of apathy to characterise and evaluate human reactions to crises from an individual to a planetary level. I will focus on three cases, where the awareness of societal crises in Scandinavian literature is pertinent: 1. Renaissance and Enlightenment literature, which is informed by the re-introduction of apathy by Flemish neo-Stoic thinkers. 2. Literature of Decadence that testifies to a pathologisation of the notion of apathy, which corresponds to the emerging references to it as an individual symptom in psychiatry of that age. 3. Contemporary literature, in which we are witness to a complex plurality of expressions of apathy.


Apathy is a common response to crises, and knowledge about the manysided conceptual development of the notion provides an essential insight into our possible measures in situations, where we face problems we have not had to deal with earlier. It is, however, symptomatic of our times that we mainly perceive of apathy in negative terms. We lack a systematic analysis of the development of the notion, and this limits our possibilities of understanding how we respond to crises today. I will argue that literature provides a privileged source to such an analysis. Recurrent in ontological definitions of what literature is, is the idea that it is animated by emotions. As such, literature provides us with the most extensive "archive of feelings" available.


The analyses of the project will have two main focus points: 1) The depiction of the relationship between the characters and the surrounding world, which concerns the framing of apathy: 2) Style, which concerns the staging of apathy. The analyses will be informed by extensive contextual material concerning the philosophical, medical and political history of the notion of apathy. Theoretically, the project contributes to the development of the relationship between the fields of literary history and the history of emotions: a relationship that offers great potential to the development of both fields, but which is theoretically underdeveloped. Methodologically, the project will draw on a number of approaches, including affective narratology, stylistics and digital text analysis.

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