A History of Fatigue, Reviewed

In 1698, the Duc de Berry had a nosebleed. This calamity was brought on by his “overheating” during a partridge hunt. Three hundred and nineteen years later, the writer Anaïs Vanel quit her editing job and went surfing. What links this unlikely couple? Well, both of them earn a mention in “A History of Fatigue” (Polity), a new book by Georges Vigarello, translated by Nancy Erber. The book sets out to examine, in frankly draining detail, the many ways in which humans, often against their will, end up thoroughly pooped.

Vigarello is not, as his name suggests, an irrepressible sidekick in a minor Mozart opera, egging his master on to commit extravagant japes, but a research director at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris. He has previously written books about, among other things, cleanliness, obesity, and sports. Now it is the turn of the tired—the French tailors, for instance, who worked “fourteen to eighteen hours in the most painful positions,” as one of their number reported in 1833. Or the combatant in the First World War who found himself “on the brink of the void, feeling nothing but monotony and lassitude.” Or, at a slightly lower pitch of extremity, the supermarket cashier who, in 2002, was struck by “terrible pain” after lifting a pack of bottled water. Will the agony never cease?

As a theme, fatigue is so extensive, and so intrinsic to the fact of being alive, that demarcating where it begins or ends is no simple task. One can imagine a Borgesian fable in which a fatiguologist, bent upon covering every aspect of the topic, dies of sheer inanition with the project incomplete. The more encyclopedic the mission, the stricter the boundaries that need to be set; if you’re expecting “A History of Fatigue” to begin with the Iliad—whose protagonists are pre-wiped, having battled for nine years before the action of the poem gets under way—you are doomed to disappointment. Nothing about the ancient world, it would seem, appeals to Vigarello. He doubtless believes that everyone back then was brimming with juice and zip, and that if Achilles harried Hector three times around the walls of Troy it’s because both guys needed the exercise.

Defiantly, then, and without ado, Vigarello starts his clock in the Middle Ages. One of his earliest witnesses is Constantine the African, an eleventh-century physician, who issues an ominous caution: “You must avoid and reject heavy burdens and cares because excessive worrying dries out our bodies, leaches out our vital energies, fostering despair in our minds and sucking out the substance from our bones.” (Sounds to me like last Thursday.) Nine centuries and three hundred pages later, Vigarello finally reaches the tribulations of the now, including the shatteringly thankless experience of life online. In a despondent afterword, he casts his gaze upon COVID-19, though not, oddly enough, upon the specific drudgery of long COVID. What that bequeaths, as I could have assured him, is the very dreariest of double whammies—feeling tired of feeling tired.

As with chronology, so with geography: Vigarello, having the entire globe at his disposal to comb for traces of tiredness, opts to be as French as possible. There are cursory nods to other countries, most of them in the Northern Hemisphere, and Theodore Roosevelt gets a shout-out for his 1899 collection of essays and speeches, tellingly titled “The Strenuous Life,” but, for the most part, Vigarello plants his heels in home turf. To be fair, some of his compatriots are a treat. Say hello to the bilious M. Petit, aged fifty, “overwhelmed with business stresses and worries,” whose heart was “irritated by strenuous exercise, by heat, by bathing and sexual intercourse, by intoxication, by drinking strong wine and by quarrelling.” He could be the deserving victim in a Maigret mystery of the nineteen-fifties. In fact, his troubles date from 1646.

Sometimes the Frenchness kicks in as a curlicue—a tiny twist to an otherwise solemn recitation of scholarly facts. Here is a prime example:

Jacques Fessard and Christian David investigated an accident where a driver skidded and was seriously injured after a 600-kilometer journey. The researchers took a cautious approach: Was it the length of the drive? The lack of rest breaks? The need to meet a deadline? Was it the result of anxiety about the driver’s promise to meet, with very little time to spare, both his wife and his mistress?

What we really need at this juncture is a graph, with the dual amours helpfully plotted along the x- and y-axes. Or a Venn diagram, with adultery lurking and smirking in the shaded area. In the event, Vigarello’s book is bereft of diagrams—a genuine surprise, given how insistently he is drawn toward the calibrated and the categorized. (“Using the diagnostic tools of the time, they measured strength with a dynamometer, fatigue with an ergograph, and lung power with a spirometer.” Be still, my beating pulse!) His methodology places him squarely in the most distinctive of Gallic traditions, as a long-range beneficiary of the Enlightenment; hence the jolt of fellow-feeling with which he seizes on his forebears, such as the nobleman who rides from Fontainebleau to Paris, in 1754, with “a watch sewn onto his left sleeve so that he can always know the time.” The driving principle of “A History of Fatigue,” indeed, is that the human race is a race, with every generation of innovators striving to outrun the discoveries of the previous one, and the march of progress quickening into a sprint. To be honest, the whole thing is exhausting.

So, what’s the plot? What has fatigue been up to? Well, initially, it was all about the leaching. In the medieval map of the body, Vigarello tells us, we were filled with fluids, and the trick was to prevent them from dripping or flowing away. Withering and stiffness were signs of superfluous exertion, and perspiration was “a dangerous symptom,” though how you were meant to stanch your sweat while bending over to dig up root vegetables, say, is unclear. If we hear little of the laboring poor, that’s because documentation was, by definition, the preserve of the literate, notably the highborn and the priestly. When it comes to clanking knights, loaded down with armor and knocking lumps out of each other with the swing of an axe, the records give Vigarello a ringside seat, and he is pleased to register the tally of blows that were stipulated by Jean Pitois for his bout with Jacques de Lalaing on October 15, 1450: sixty-three. Talk about crunching the numbers.

We are also honored with a useful section on “redemptive fatigue”—the soul-cleansing result of pilgrimages and other acts of penance, undertaken either barefoot or in shoes that were, as Vigarello says, “usually made of one piece of leather.” You have to admire the Count of Flanders, Guy of Dampierre, who died in 1305; skillfully covering his bets, he left the huge sum of eight thousand pounds in his will to anyone who would walk to the Holy Land on his behalf. All of the shriving and none of the blisters. Job done.

The strange thing is that Vigarello, having glanced at the subject of spiritual exhaustion, goes briskly onward and doesn’t look back, as if the figure of the pilgrim were too antiquated to detain him further. Yet the Christian narrative of depletion and renewal has proved stubbornly enduring. Crowds of the faithful have sat in the pews of churches and listened to this:

Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

That lofty guarantee, from the Book of Isaiah, is borne forward into a single verse in the Gospel of St. Matthew, and thence into the Book of Common Prayer: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” Spurn or scorn such promises, if you will, but it’s hard to deny them a place in any history of fatigue, just as the history of art has been enriched by recurring images of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, surrounded by his somnolent disciples (“Could you not watch with me one hour?” he asks Peter), or rising from the tomb, unnoticed by the dozing Roman guards. Of all the tumults in the world, they sleep through this one.

“Push the calamari!”

Cartoon by Mark Thompson

Vigarello is unmoved. He is concerned with religious instruction, but solely as it pertains to remedies for the flagging. Prospective travellers, in the thirteenth century, were advised by Aldebrandin of Siena “to eat only light meats and drink plain water or water infused with onion, vinegar or sour apples to purify their humors.” How comforting to know that our weakness for dietary elixirs, far from being a passing fad, is one of the eternal verities, and that, when Aldebrandin counsels his readers “to keep a crystal in their mouths to calm their thirst,” he is not, as you might think, clinging to absurd superstition but courageously paving the way for Gwyneth Paltrow.

Like any chronicler, in other words, Vigarello is alert to the competing claims of common sense and nonsense. “During the Enlightenment, interlocking fibers, filaments, ‘currents’ and nerves took the place of bodily humors, and they explained the presence of fatigue,” he says in his introduction. “New physical sensations were recognized that interacted with a feeling of emptiness, a lack of motivation, and the loss of spirit.” The fibres and the filaments may strike no chord with us, but the emptiness is gallingly up to date, as is a guilty suspicion that complaining about it, and seeking tonics to allay it, may be more entwined with privilege than we care to admit. If you’re holding down three jobs to feed your offspring, it’s unlikely that “lack of motivation” will earn much space in your head.

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