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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Mal de siècle

(n.) a pessimistic apathy or world-weariness brought on by the current state of affairs

In 1802, the French author François-René de Chateaubriand published René, a novella set in the early eighteenth century telling the tragic tale of a melancholic and sensitive young man struggling to find his place in the world.

Leaving behind an unhappy life in France, René travels across Europe in the vain hope of encountering something or somewhere to lessen his despair, but eventually he returns to France unfulfilled and feeling more out of place than ever. “I soon found myself more isolated in my own land than I had been in a foreign country,” he laments. “Alas, I was alone. Alone on the earth.”

Chateaubriand’s novel proved a landmark in the nineteenth century Romantic Movement, with its protagonist’s alienation and disheartening failure to fit in matching the apathy and dejectedness of many young writers and artists of the day. To them, René’s life epitomized what became known as the mal de siècle—a literal ‘sickness of the century’, encapsulating all their feelings of dislocation, pessimism, and downheartedness. In fact, so neatly did Chateaubriand’s René embody this romantic melancholy that he eventually did find a home for himself—in the pages of Le Trésor de la Langue Française, the great French equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. As it explains, mal de siècle is the ‘state of malaise, sadness [and] disgust for life … that Chateaubriand portrayed in the character of René.’

The term mal de siècle made its way across the Channel in the late 1800s and was adopted into English, by which time its connection with a novel now almost a century old had weakened. By then, it had come to be used as merely an expression of world-weariness and doubt, and an all-encompassing pessimism for the current state of affairs—especially one tinged with a nostalgic yearning for a time now long gone.

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