Edward Thomas

Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History

Francis O’Gorman describes how his tendency to worry led him to investigate its cultural and literary origins. We talk about Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes stories, and the prominence of ‘worry’ in everyday life
Francis O'Gorman, Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History
Francis O’Gorman, Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History

What motivated you to write the book?

There’s a very short answer to that: I’m a worrier and I wanted to think about what that meant. Several people have asked me why a literary critic would write such a book, and whether I am merely using literature as a kind of case study, as representation. But for me being a literary critic means reading as intently and alertly as possible. And that includes, where necessary, reading the patterns of one’s own mind.

What exactly is ‘worry’, and why is it so difficult to pin down?

I don’t think that there is an ‘exactly’ in relation to worry. In the book, my topic is being fearful about the turn of ordinary things. Worry—those questions in the mind that mostly start with ‘what if …’—is a way of trying to take some control over a future that we don’t know but would like to. Worrying isn’t a ‘mental health’ book in that it doesn’t concern conditions of mind that would even vaguely interest a clinician. And I don’t write about grave worries—including worries about the grave. I’m interested, rather, in the mundane, in the meaning of low level bothers about what might happen next.

“Modern capitalism […] is entranced by the promise of the future (the rising income, the increasing production) just as it is profoundly anxious about that future’s failure.”

What I do know about worries is this: first, they are often bound up with security. Worrying, as a mental activity, indicates something of the worrier’s needs for safety, for home and stability. Worrying is an attempt to take control over the precarious nature of our lives by planning—albeit fretfully. Second, worrying is peculiarly intensified by the modern world. The customary regimes of thought and ways of living and working that we have made for ourselves in the modern west multiply opportunities to, and for, worry. Modern capitalism, for instance, is entranced by the promise of the future (the rising income, the increasing production) just as it is profoundly anxious about that future’s failure. In our hectic normalities, with minds directed to the unknown ahead, worrying is oxygenated. Worrying might indicate something of an individual’s sense of security but it also indicates something of the mental states created by how we live now.

Third, I have come better to understand, since I wrote the book, that worries can also be a way of demanding. Worries are frequently about someone (‘I’m worried about my sister …’) but they are also, often enough, for someone. Telling another person about my worries can be an emotional request: look at me, pay attention to me. Worrying in this respect could be described as a technique for encouraging someone to understand—in George Eliot’s words—that the worrier has ‘an equivalent centre of self’. I’ve certainly found it helpful to ask, in the midst of worrying, to whom my worry is directed.

What can Sherlock Holmes’ brother tell us about the nature of worrying?

mycroft_holmes
Mycroft Holmes

Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft has a brief walk-on part in my book. That’s because he helps represent, for me, an aspect of worrying’s strange advantages. I don’t mean that Mycroft is a worrier—he isn’t. But even Sherlock acknowledges that his brother is a better ruminator on possibilities, on the implications of ideas or actions. Now the worrier is, as I said, the person absorbed by the uncertainties of the future. There is a sense in which worrying is a kind of risk assessment; a thinking through of potential outcomes, an attempt to guess the fall of the dice, of what would could wrong, and to prepare for it. In the abstract, without the actual pain of the worrying, this planning is sensible. If only we could take the pain of worrying away, we worriers might be a little like Mycroft: good at thinking ahead.

So in the book this idea leads me to assess the things—odd though it might sound—for which a worrier might be thankful. We worriers spend a lot of time analysing what could go awry in the future and—usually—planning what we can do to minimise problems or somehow accommodate them. This plotting and attentiveness can be as simple as making sure that we’ve packed everything we need for a night away. But it can also be more complex: arranging contingency plans for what could go wrong, making—so to speak—‘escape routes’ if things don’t work out as expected. Hedging, rendering as secure as possible: we’re good at that, however much it emotionally costs us. I think worriers dislike being caught out by events that they hadn’t taken into account or expected, hadn’t somewhere in their head made ready for, either practically, emotionally, or both. As planners and analysers, worriers are—despite their sadness—strangely reliable.

Worrying is a book that draws on some things that I have read, seen, and heard over many years, and continued to think about.”

Your book encompasses a broad range of texts, from the Ancient Greeks to the modern day. How did you go about researching your topic and accumulating material?

This book arose, though it is not a long one, from a life-time reading, looking, and listening. I didn’t ‘research’. Let me say that I think the term ‘research’ has become debased in both popular speech and Higher Education. ‘Research’ is now the term many people in the humanities use when they actually mean ‘read’ just as ‘interdisciplinarity’ is the term many people in the humanities use when they mean ‘widely read’. Worrying is a book that draws on some things that I have read, seen, and heard over many years, and continued to think about. My next book, incidentally, is about the loss of precious historical documents from contemporary culture. It is in part about the way the notion of ‘research’ (which comes, I think, from labs not libraries) helps inhibit the idea that we might care about reading what’s worth reading, looking at what’s worth looking at, and hearing what’s worth hearing.

ede18-284344-shakespeare-first-folio
Shakespeare only uses the word ‘worry’ once, to signify a kind of chase or harrassment

The book’s recent paperback edition has two prefaces, and two histories of worry. Could you say a little bit about how the book is organized?

To answer those questions in reverse order. The ‘two histories’ are my way of organising an account of worry’s local origins and its longer ones. The local history of worry is this, as far as I see it. The verb ‘to worry’ didn’t refer to mental anxiousness or anything to do with the head until, roughly, the middle of the nineteenth century. Up to that point, the verb primarily meant what a dog does to sheep in a field: it chases and harasses them, possibly to death. Shakespeare only uses the word ‘worry’ once—and that is what he means. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, worrying left the meadows and entered the mind. As I mentioned, I am, among other things, interested in worrying as a product of modernity. So the ‘short history’ is the recognition of worry by the modern world (from about 1850) and that world’s attempts to handle it. The first worry self-help books, revealingly, emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century by which time psychological studies were diagnosing worry on both sides of the Atlantic as a peculiar feature of the West, a ‘disease of the age’, as one writer called it.

“The first worry self-help books, revealingly, emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century by which time psychological studies were diagnosing worry on both sides of the Atlantic as a peculiar feature of the West, a ‘disease of the age’, as one writer called it.”

But there’s a ‘long history’ of worry too. This what might be thought the philosophical and psychological conditions that allow worry to exist. And those conditions are primarily the result of our human capacity, first, to have choice, and second to have reason to assess what might be the right choice. Although the specific experience of modern worrying emerged in the Victorian period, the deepest origins are remote in our history. As soon as we can reason, we can potentially worry; as soon as Homo sapiens has a future tense, he or she can begin to plan, and therefore, potentially, to be bothered about that plan.

As for the Prefaces—well, the original one outlines why I wrote the book and what each chapter says. But Bloomsbury kindly allowed me a further preface for the paperback edition and I took the opportunity to explain my worries about what I had missed out! For instance, I concentrate in the last chapter about forms of art that, for me, alleviate worry—temporarily, to be sure, but still valuably. I focused on my enjoyment of the visual arts and music, particularly contrapuntal music that offers a sonic word of order in which worrying doesn’t make sense. But in the paperback preface I reflect on what words can do—ordered, achieved, and harmonious language—to figure the kinds of world we worriers would like to inhabit. I hadn’t taken that into account in the first version.

“I realized that there are men and women for whom the question ‘what if …?’ doesn’t produce a shudder, and that they are far more numerous than I had thought.”

The paperback preface also gave me an opportunity to think about the reception of the book—the articles, lectures, interviews, and broadcasts that I did—and what I learned. One of the things I definitely learned was that there are some people who do not worry. Some people listened politely to my pieces and at the end said, or wrote to me to say, ‘I enjoyed your views but fundamentally I didn’t understand them because I don’t know what worrying is like.’ I realized that there are men and women for whom the question ‘what if …?’ doesn’t produce a shudder, and that they are far more numerous than I had thought.

Worrying ends on a note of acceptance, and a celebration of the role of art. Have you learned to live with worry?

The short answer to that is No. I’m still trying to figure out what is really involved in worrying, what it means, and why it takes up so much of so many people’s time, including mine. Art, as I mentioned, can be a moment’s relief, but it’s definitely relief not solution. Perhaps one day, near my end, worrying about the future will turn into regret for a past life not entirely grasped, not lived to the full because of worrying about tomorrow. I suppose that’s a worry about worrying, isn’t it?

Who do you think writes best about the inner life?

The answer to that has to be personal, of course. So for me, who do I find revealing about the attic of the mind? First would have to be Adam Phillips, whose books are an inspiration. In literary terms, I think Virginia Woolf un-putdownable about the intimacy of private thoughts and feelings and W.G. Sebald likewise in his exploration of mental states. I have spent a lot of time recently reading the correspondence of Edward Thomas, whose poetry came late in the day (he had been a prose writer up till then). The candour, as well as the cruelty, of his descriptions of himself are hard to put out of one’s mind.

What’s next for you?

The worrier’s great question! First of all, in literal terms, I’ve just started a new job and there is a lot of new teaching that I have to get on top of: books I haven’t read for years and lectures I haven’t written. As a literary critic, I am, right now, editing Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm (1861-2) for Oxford University Press, and thinking hard about a novelist whom I’ve come to care about a great deal, having written for most of my career about poetry or non-fictional prose. My next book that follows on from Worrying is called Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia. That should be out from Bloomsbury in New York in the autumn of 2017. I’ve referred to this already but its central subject is the multiple forms of cultural and political forgetting that the modern world compels on us, and what damage that is doing. It’s more of an irritated book than Worrying (which is intended in places to be funny): it’s cross with things from Human Resources to the ubiquitous and egotistic language of ‘satisfaction’, from the modern absorption with ‘innovation’ to academic liberalism and its rigid control of what can and can’t be discussed. But its principal claim is not irritation but praise: it’s a book in celebration of knowing and thinking about the best of the past’s achievements.

Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History is available from Bloomsbury.


About the Author

Francis O’Gorman is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and prior to this taught at the University of Leeds for sixteen years. He was educated at the University of Oxford and writes mainly about nineteenth-century literature, including Ruskin, Swinburne, Trollope, and Matthew Arnold. Follow Francis on Twitter @francis_ogorman. [Read More]

Advertisements
  1. Pingback: A short history of worrying – Coming through

  2. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up (14 Nov 2016) – RhysTranter.com

Add your thoughts, links, and recommendations

%d bloggers like this: