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Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History

Francis O'Gorman

WHEN he is not teaching Victorian literature at the University of Leeds or writing books, Francis O'Gorman admits to doing a lot of unnecessary brooding. 'Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History' is his affectionate tribute to low-level fretting - what the author calls 'he hidden histories of ordinary pain' - in everyone's life.

The word itself is comparatively new. Although it was used in the 16th century, in all of Shakespeare's works 'worry' appears just once - as a transitive verb denoting strangling or choking. Only in the Victorian era did its contemporary meaning come into widespread use. The advent of literary modernism in the 20th century placed the personal inner world centre-stage. From James Joyce's Leopold Bloom to Virginia Woolf's Mr Ramsay, worriers came to abound in the modernist canon.

Humanity's sense of anxiety has deep roots. Contemporary angst is inextricably tied up with living in an advanced, hyper-modern society, and yet, when worrying takes hold, it often does so in ways that appear altogether premodern, even pre-Enlightenment. How else to explain, for example, the anti-rational, superstitious caprice of the obsessive compulsive or the obsessively religious?

Perhaps inevitably, in a short book on a sprawling topic, 'Worrying' is meanderingly ruminative, flitting from Virgil and Homer to John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens and W.G. Sebald, a German writer and academic who died in 2001, while offering reflections, both on the contemporary self-help business and cosmetic surgery. But Mr O'Gorman is a pleasant and good-humoured guide, and his candid, self-effacing style helps mitigate any boredom. If there is a message, it addresses the ever-expanding cottage industry around happiness and well-being. The latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association's 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, DSM-5', has broadened psychiatry's reach into everyday life, medicalising and stigmatising an ever greater number of quirks and foibles. Against this backdrop, Mr O'Gorman's celebration of the wonderful eccentricity of human nature is both refreshing and necessary.

He believes that 'being a modern worrier is just ... the moth-eaten sign of being human' and playfully suggests that people should refine Descartes's famous dictum to: 'I worry, therefore I am.'

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