Alexander Wells

Perpetual Motion Machine


Until I got sick, I never really thought about fatigue. As a young cis white man—and a promising student-athlete at that—I wielded my body unthinkingly, invoking “mind over matter” whenever it threw up signs of weakness. Oi, don’t be soft, I insisted to my teammates on the soccer field (and to myself in private), pressing the back of my right hand into the firm open palm of my left. I believed, like many able men, that fatigue was for the lazy or entitled. “That dude’s a machine,” someone once said about me, and I liked it.

Later, as a management consultant in NYC, I joined a cohort of young high achievers as we recorded and rationalized the operational processes of various companies. We were fueled by uppers, adrenalin, $20 salads, and a winner’s mentality; we worked madly long hours from the client site, office, hotels, airports or home. We wanted to conquer our own fatigue; we wanted to rationalize our own bodies. It worked up to a point, but not beyond. As I became chronically ill, and chronically fatigued, I felt increasingly estranged from the modern West’s fixation on productivity—and from its recurring fantasies of somehow overcoming fatigue (particularly popular among today’s tech leaders). And I have gradually come to see how it systematically excludes disobedient strains of thought and targets marginal identities in terms of race, sexuality, class and ability. (For all my strange tiredness, on account of my privilege, I am generally believed at the doctor’s.)

The way we talk about fatigue—the way it is symptomized, both morally and medically—is deeply shaped by contemporary power structures and by the ways we have thought about fatigue in the past. The late Victorians were fixated on increasing productivity through scientific innovation: that era’s scientists and social planners saw fatigue as a physiological problem, a limit to human activity that might be rationally repositioned. (They even tried to find a “cure” for tiredness.) Today’s fatigue discourse combines that view with an earlier Christian vision of fatigue as a personal moral failure, a vision reinforced by the loser-blaming ethics of modern neoliberalism. We share the Victorians’ desire to fine-tune the human motor – but instead of utopian scientists, we ourselves are responsible for ensuring our peak performance. If the late 19th century saw the onset of grandiose, industrial-scale fantasies about curing man’s fatigue, then late modernity is characterized by the individuation of that pressure—the demand that one cure oneself, at best preemptively, of anything that hinders our productive perpetual motion.


The moral injunction against fatigue has deep roots in the West. In the early 5th century, church father Saint Cassian wrote influentially on the problem of acedia (later called sloth) among monks at the Abbey of Saint Victor, the monastery he founded near Marseille. Cassian believed that this “weariness of the heart,” troublingly common among his soldiers for Christ, posed a serious threat to the contemplative life of the cell. Listless monks would disengage from spiritual labor; they would long to be elsewhere, find it hard to read or concentrate, or grow so distracted that they sought chatter and refreshment outside the monastery itself. Worst of all, an acedic monk would often become “lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory.”

Cassian’s choice of cure for this contagious malady was revealing: manual labor. He quoted Paul the Apostle’s “He who does not work, neither shall he eat,” an epigram also taken up by John Smith in Virginia and Lenin in Russia. Whereas earlier Greco-Roman ideas about weariness and melancholy had been based on the physical Galenic idea of the humors, early Christians like Cassian moralized such aimlessness as sloth—and counted it as one of the very deadliest of sins. In hindsight, it is hard not to sympathize with these acedia-suffering monks: leaving the cell to have a drink and a chat by the sea. And one need not be a diehard Foucauldian to see this assault on acedia as a disciplining strategy, particularly in the close-knit social and economic environment of the monastery.

In the later Middle Ages, less cloistered thinkers like Thomas Aquinas popularized the monastic concept of acedia, spreading this aversion to sloth throughout European society. Lay audiences heard sermons warning that “idleness is an enemy to the soul,” often targeting vagabonds and beggars; acedia became increasingly secular, but the work cure remained. In The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity, Anson Rabinbach traces how the sin of sloth became a social proscription against idleness, which closely mirrored the eventual rise of industrial capitalism. An imperative not to waste time grew in importance as agrarian rhythms gradually gave way to commercial clock-time. The languorous were no longer just spiritually ungrateful; they were socially and economically neglectful.

The modern injunction against idleness became a tool for expressing—and reinforcing—an emergent bourgeois middle-class social identity, one dominated by the white male. As Rabinbach explains, “a two-front battle was waged by the advocates of industry against the unproductive idleness of the aristocracy and against the irregular and desultory work habits of the lower orders.” Female workers were often portrayed as dissolute and profligate, as opposed to orderly and obedient men. Traveling ethnographers were struck by the “idleness and savagery” of non-European societies, with some setting out (unsuccessfully) to prove that European civilization promoted not just diligent habits but also superior physical development. And idleness was also applied as a disciplining force against queer sexualities and female masturbation: those who gave in to “sinful” proclivities were accused of causing individual and collective exhaustion.

Tiredness, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, was understood as a weakness of will—and individuals themselves were blamed for their physical fatigue, for their distraction, or for any divergence from the mainstream’s ideals.


The late Victorian period saw the emergence of a new discourse—one that understood fatigue as a symptom of society, a physiological reflection of the demands of modern life. If idleness was a moral question, then fatigue was a medical one. Unlike idleness, fatigue could be measured and studied—possibly, even, eventually solved.

As the Second Industrial Revolution transformed European and US society—as cities swelled and technology radically altered the workplace—there emerged an influential field of thought that focused on the question of human energy. The study of thermodynamics had popularized two ideas: the conservation of energy, which suggested that energy exists in a universal store, and the principle of entropy, which implied this store was inevitably declining. Rabinbach recounts that social thinkers, applying natural science to humans in that unsettling Victorian way, began to theorize “labor power” as one cosmic resource of productivity—and the body as a work-making machine, up until the point that it grew tired. Scientists began investigating fatigue, not as a moral shortcoming, but as a marker of the human horizon: the limit of what a person can sustainably be made to do.

In his 1891 bestseller La Fatica, Turin-based physiologist Angelo Mosso argued that fatigue could be analyzed, measured, and managed. Mosso was determined to strip fatigue of its subjectivity and uncover its universal physical laws: his lab experimented with muscular mechanics, taking readings on an “ergograph” while plying patients with all manner of chemical uppers, downers and unusual diets. Once he injected a dog with the blood of a tired dog, and found the injected dog became tired as well—this could only be proof that fatigue was a poison.

Applying the principle of entropy to the human race provoked a kind of fatigue panic. Many commentators claimed that exhaustion was taking hold of Western society. The psychologist Charles Feré warned that growing fatigue was causing a rise in crime; physician Marie Manacéine cautioned that “agents which weaken, slacken and trouble the associations” were destroying the “foundations of the progress of humanity.” Some even theorized an imminent global “heat death” caused by cosmological exhaustion.

“Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière” by André Brouillet

The flip-side of this panic was the dream of curing fatigue forever. If the body was a machine, then why not perfect it? Europe’s long-standing fantasy of perpetuum mobile—the perpetual motion, the self-moving machine—was displaced onto humanity itself. In 1904, German physiologist Wilhelm Weichardt announced he had produced a fatigue “vaccine.” After years of experimenting on rodents—squeezing their tired muscles for “press-juice,” analyzing their blood chemistry—Weichardt claimed to have identified the toxins that caused fatigue and developed a substance that immunizes against them. He then injected human subjects with his patented antikenotoxin mixture, reporting that they performed better on a controlled exercise test. This apparent success provoked a frenzied response from fellow scientists, and much interest among the German and Austro-Hungarian armed forces. In 1909, Weichardt and his assistant sprayed a Berlin schoolroom with antikenotoxin and found “considerable improvement” in the students’ mathematics performance and afternoon energy levels. The discovery was thrilling, he wrote. “It might enable one to drastically enhance the individual’s performance-potential,” Weichardt suggested, “and more importantly, to keep away the manifold impairments that occur on account of tiredness.” Yet the excitement was premature. By the 1920s, the scientific community had determined that Weichardt’s studies must have been faulty. His antikenotoxins had no effect on humans.

If fatigue could not be eradicated, then progressive reformers and utopian ideologues had to come to terms with it. They would use it as a guide to social planning. The labor force was a totality of productive bodies, which could be regulated en masse according to their capacities and limits. Effective management of fatigue would allow for the most efficient use of workers’ productivity. So fatigue science was invoked in all the major social questions of the day, from factory organization to the length of the workday and arguments over leisure time. (In some cases, this paternalism became extreme: Mussolini mandated Saturday nights at the opera to prevent his workers from over-exertion but also keep them from the melancholy of free time.) Technical management of human resources would continue in the postwar emergence of Taylorism and in the rise of management sciences. Cool debates about energy management had taken the place of the moral injunction against idleness, with its call to work as hard as possible, no matter what.


The irresolvable murkiness of fatigue—the subjectivity of its experience, the sheer diversity of its effects—would ultimately exasperate late 19th-century scientists, but to non-mainstream intellectuals, it offered a kind of respite.

Despite his grand claims, Angelo Mosso was frustrated in his quest to unearth fatigue’s objective basis: people had similar-looking “fatigue curves,” but he could not explain why demographically similar subjects might have very different fatigue levels, why some fatigued gradually whereas others kept going and then crashed, or why reports of physical tiredness didn’t seem to line up well with the machine readings. Fatigue, like pain, is a matter of subjectivity; it is utterly experiential. In that sense, the Positivist war on fatigue was directed not just against the stubborn frontier of working bodies, but also against the inexplicable muddiness of subjective human experience—an existential land-grab for the “objective” natural sciences.

A reading on Mosso’s ergograph

It is no coincidence, then, that fatigue became a locus of dissent for the cast of characters that did not fit (or didn’t want to fit) into modern industrial society—aristocrats, aesthetes, radical intellectuals, and many Modernist writers. The age’s iconic diagnosis, “neurasthenia,” was associated with a curious catch-all of symptoms: physical exhaustion, ennui, hayfever, weight loss, lack of ambition, nose bleeds, premature balding, skin rash, hysteria, insomnia. John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt each suffered from it; so too Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, and both Jameses. One of the leading neurasthenia experts in France was Dr. Achille-Adrien Proust, whose vivid, long-winded descriptions of the condition—he associated it with the ills of “society” life—were almost definitely based on his neurasthenic son, Marcel.

Contemporaries explained neurasthenia through the metaphor of human beings as overspent batteries, their vital energies squandered through careless expenditures (boozing, masturbation) or due to the hectic demands of modern life. Physicians were divided about whether the condition had moral or material origins—and about how to cure it. If you were lucky enough to be diagnosed by the American George Beard, you would be complimented for your sensitivity and then thoroughly electrocuted; others proposed hard work, others rest. For Dr. Proust, neurasthenia represented a constant threat to civilization’s vital yet ever-depleting stocks of energy. Meanwhile his son lay back and wrote, exploring the creative potential of wakefulness and sleep.

Neurasthenia eventually disappeared from Western medical textbooks, its symptoms divided into a range of other categories. In medical terms, it was not a particularly illuminating diagnosis. And neurasthenics did not tend to have a good time—especially those women who, like Charlotte Gilman, were prescribed Silas Weir Mitchell’s infamous “rest cure”: Gilman was forced by her husband and a doctor to stay at home under a program of excessive feeding, isolation and bed rest, with mental stimulus completely forbidden. (No coincidence, surely, that the misogynistic Mitchell’s cure involved forcefully returning a woman to the domestic space.) Marxists and other radicals were accused of having their minds bent out of shape by fatigue; one commentator suggested neurasthenics had grown intellectual to a fault, corrupted by their “reflection addiction.”

But the embrace of neurasthenia among Modernist intellectuals suggests they might have found something useful in it—a site of resistance to the petty-bourgeois, aggressively rationalizing world around them. (No doubt many of them were also physically or mentally ill in ways medicine could not yet account for.) Perhaps the diagnosis offered them a kind of permission to disengage, or at least a little room to maneuver thanks to their never-quite-readable bodies. Fatigue, in its mundane or chronic form, is one way of understanding the body’s limits against the demands of a dominant discourse—even if the mind is compliant, the flesh can stay stubbornly weak. For those who wanted to “marinate” like Flaubert, or plumb the subjective possibilities of idleness, fatigue might well have had something unique to offer.

The ethical and aesthetic potential of fatigue would be taken up throughout the 20th century by thinkers like Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Lévinas. For Lévinas, fatigue represented a heightened state of consciousness—a stage of moral renewal that awakens us to the ongoing work of being. Peter Handke would later theorize a redemptive form of tiredness, a collective loosening of the strictures of identity and a disarmament of the self. He describes “a tiredness that trusts in the world”—a tiredness “as a becoming-accessible, as the possibility of being touched and of being able to touch in turn.” Which sounds nothing at all like actually being tired. But you would take it over Beard’s electrocution any day.


In the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper plays a depressed, long-haired failing writer. After being dumped by his girlfriend, he is serendipitously offered a pill (NZT-48) that allows you to use the full 100% of your brain. The moment the pill kicks in, he is being berated by his landlord’s mean wife—then there are some highly futuristic visualizations of red, throbbing neurons—and suddenly he is charming her by mansplaining her law textbook to her. Shortly afterwards they are having noisy sex. He gets a haircut, makes a killing in finance, goes to parties with the rich and the famous. “I don’t have delusions of grandeur,” he tells a rival, “I have a recipe for grandeur.”

As Bradley Cooper soars high, the movie keeps hinting at the crash that’s bound to come. Everyone else on the drug has died or got sick from its side-effects; his girlfriend leaves him (again), says she doesn’t know who he’s become. But somehow the crash never comes. In the novel it’s based on, the protagonist learns he was part of a sinister government scheme and dies of withdrawal. Limitless turns the tables. Now Bradley Cooper “hacks” the drug (no side effects!), begins a senate run, and wins his girlfriend back (again). His big mid-movie speech in a nightclub—“There are no safeguards to human nature, we are wired to overreach”—is somehow not a warning but a manifesto. And we, the (male) viewers, are left hoping that we too might be freed from our torpor by such medicine.

Limitless is fundamentally confused about its categories—it is never quite clear if NZT-48 is a pill for brain, body, motivation, or libido. Bradley Cooper works without sleeping or eating; he can suddenly fight; he gives up his literary nonsense for a conventional regime of finance, politics, and assertive straight sex. He is not just limitlessly brainy—he might equally have become a monk, or made electronic music, or become even more depressed—but limitlessly active. All at once, he abolishes his tiredness, his ennui, his difficult ideas and his submissiveness. This is no dark satire, but a fairytale of male power for reactionary, post-crisis America.

The film is an artifact of its time, our time—an era marked not just by Victorian-style productivity mania but also by the capitalist glamorization of individualism and competitiveness. Limitless has nothing but contempt for the pre-pill loser, nothing but admiration for the superman of its finale. When hyper-capable-hyper-motivated Bradley Cooper hacks the medicine to remove its side-effects, he takes responsibility for his over-performing body: he becomes both patient and doctor, both athlete and coach. Such is the fantasy of work under the radically individualizing ethics of neoliberalism—an ethics where market outcomes are morally valorized and where fatigue, like disengagement, is a sign of somebody’s failure to navigate our world. The late-modern subject is both the work machine and the repairperson who has to optimize its output, prevent it from breaking down.

If you google Limitless—as I did, trying to make sense of its plot holes—you find some revealing discussions on Reddit and Quora. A series of men (always men) ask how they too can reach their potential like in the movie, either with or without a pill. For example: “I want to elevate my entire existence like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, only without NZT. I want it to be fast, effective, powerful and sustainable.” The various responders (mostly men) offer a wide range of self-improvement tips—“metathinking” techniques and self-improvement tools, an enumerated framework for “unlocking” charisma, diet tips, various nootropic (brain-boosting) drugs, the power of positive thinking. “Stop accepting limits,” says one. “That sounds too simplistic, but it’s the only answer, and while it IS simple, it’s not easy.”

The mastery of fatigue, and the ethical glamour of hard work—these are ubiquitous in modern Western culture. Whitewashed and stripped of its guileful spirit, “hustle” is used to describe all manner of regular diligence; Coca-Cola uses the motto Hydrate the Hustle to try and sell me vitamin-y water at a corporate retreat. Fitness studios boom, offering a physical means to peak performance. The ostensibly gentle discourse of “wellness” makes an enemy of fatigue, hoping to (pseudo)medicalize and cure any barrier to living one’s full potential. Meanwhile, many students and workers take unprescribed nootropics; tech geeks experiment with biohacking and Soylent; and military scientists have tried to eradicate the need for their snipers to sleep.

Now, as before, utopianism coincides with anxiety. Since the 1970s, journalists and academics interested in “burnout”—and in burnout-related instances of fatigue-based illnesses—have used exhausted bodies as a site of critique against workaholism and other modern performance pressures. Here the imagery of man-as-machine has returned—overwhelmed workers might be running on empty or running out of steam; they must learn to switch gears and recharge their batteries or risk breakdown; a psychologist might help with reprogramming. While the burnout’s personal fate is met with sympathy, the real cost of such misfiring machinery is quantified as damage to the firm or the whole economy (billions!). With a now-mainstream corporate discourse around “work-life balance” and “staff well-being,” management sciences continue to use fatigue as a guide to the most sustainable use of human resources.

In today’s fatigue talk, such “human motor” imagery is combined with a highly moralized discourse of self-responsibility. The ascendant neoliberal culture implies a new relationship between self and society: the recognition of an individual is based not in rights or common good but in that individual’s success at optimizing human capital—and individuals who fail to succeed within the system have only themselves to blame. We believe we are free to act, but we are constantly being regulated by structures that take advantage of our self-disciplining. German historian Jürgen Martschukat has argued that Fitness is a key norming discourse for neoliberal society. Here the fit body, as a necessary precondition for social recognition, represents the ability to motivate and manage oneself; the unfit body, especially the overweight body, is considered a sign of immorality or irresponsibility. Such biopolitics are perfectly suited to the neoliberal workplace, where individuals are expected to be self-motivated and to see themselves as entrepreneurs selling their labor to the firm. In Germany, this discourse was literalized when a controversial program to nudge the unemployed into (precarious) self-employment was named Ich AG (“Me, Inc.”). Similarly, independent contractor laws in the US make “gig economy” workers more exploitable under the cover of self-determination.

As in Fitness, the neoliberal discourse on fatigue blames tired workers for their tiredness – it exploits our knack for self-exploitation. In this way it resembles the traditional crusade against idleness and sloth, the accusation of “spiritual tepidity” as a deep moral failing. (Imagine beginning a white-collar career today and not saying you’re passionate about it!) But management is required alongside motivation. A good employee is an overworked one; a burned-out employee has failed to self-regulate. (When I burned out at my consulting job, having been made to work 70+ hour weeks, I was told in year-end reports that I must learn to improve my work-life balance.)

This is the paradox of fatigue in the modern workplace: it is both medical and moral. Whereas Germans have tended to discuss burnout from a system-critical perspective, most English-language literature takes the form of manuals offering guidance on how to make healthy choices, keep a balanced home life, retain a strong sense of meaning at work, etc. (Perhaps the arrival of Anglophone discourses around work and responsibility have provoked a more critical response in Germany, where social-democratic ideas are more firmly rooted.) As sociologist Ulrich Bröckling has noted, Anglophone burnout guides often try to protect the individual by re-empowering the Ich-AG—not the self—against the employer. One example argues that employees should “keep an eye out for new opportunities and monitor, and if possible increase, their market value” and “must always remain the ones who act and must never allow themselves to become the ones acted upon.”

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han has theorized Western society as one defined by fatigue—by the self-exploiting habits of a performance-focused citizenry, by the “neuronal violence” of excessive positivity. The dialectic of master and slave, in Han’s view, has led not to a world of freedom but to a vast labor camp, where the master has become both work slave and supervisor. Industrializing Europe’s defining fantasy was once the perpetuum mobile, the self-moving machine that required no external source of energy. The later Victorians gave up on this idea, but one suspects they’d be impressed by the self-motivating, self-disciplining “Ich-AG”—a work machine that fuels and repairs itself, a computer that does its own reprogramming, an endlessly adaptive and obedient AI.


Today I am exhausted. Not happily weary from a long day of activity: I am tired, worn-out, stuffed. My legs are impossibly heavy. I am hungry, and slightly high from it, but simply cannot imagine getting up to cook. The fatigue makes the world outside the window seem alluring, half-real—and physically threatening. Alright mate. Time to get up. Can I push through it? Or should I just accept the compulsion to rest? When I finally give up, and stay in bed, it feels like that moment when you’ve just turned off your phone—it’s a reordering sense of relief, a limp but contented return to the horizon.

My fatigue is not normal: I have a chronic illness, although we aren’t sure which, possibly something like Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). Fatigue is just one of the symptoms, but it is a defining one. Experiencing this medical limbo has made me acutely aware of how society looks upon fatigue, particularly of the inexplicable kind—how we refuse to accept its mysteriousness and subjectivity; how we insist upon its cure; and how we treat the tired themselves with moral suspicion and disbelief.

It is difficult to research the history of exhausted people—the categories of the past seem so thoroughly determined by social values and incomplete medical knowledge. How many of Cassian’s lukewarm monks were not spiritually weak but suffering from mental or physical illnesses that we would easily recognize today? How many of Adrien Proust’s neurasthenics—indeed, how many of today’s “burnout” or ME/CFS patients—had or have conditions that will be clear to medical professionals in the future? The limitations of past medical knowledge, and the benefit of hindsight in identifying disciplinary strategies, make it hard to take seriously any past generation’s moralizing.

But the history of those discourses themselves can be revealing. Every society articulates its fear of fatigue—and its disdain for the exhausted—in its own way. Cassian insisted on his guilt-tripping “work cure,” constantly afraid that acedia was contagious. Industrial modern Europe made fatigue its enemy, while the vague category of neurasthenia offered a certain (dangerous) cover for thinkers unwilling or unable to join in the rationalizing hurly-burly. Today, ME/CFS is no longer called “Yuppie Flu,” but the stigma remains. Patients are regularly accused of malingering or psychosomatics; at best, they are presented as helpless mirrors to the massive social changes in contemporary society. (Such prejudices tend to be targeted against women, particularly older women, who along with people of color have a much harder time in the medical system.) Despite growing counter-evidence, official guidelines prescribe a graded return to exercise and work, plus Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to re-wire the “disordered” mental response to physical fatigue signals; most sufferer groups say such treatment often makes them worse. This contemporary fatigue cure—its insistence on getting moving, its CBT language of “reprogramming”—is revealing of our own time. We hate the thought of idle, undisciplined bodies. We understand that something medical is going on, but we believe patients will not improve until they take responsibility for their mindset.

Of course, the hatred of the weak has deeper heritage. In his concentration camp memoirs, Primo Levi wrote about the inmates’ dislike for Muselmänner (“Muslims”), a term for those fellow prisoners so tired and defeated that they walk about hunched, the “divine spark” gone forever. The fatigued remind us of our fragility to death; the inexplicably tired are a disturbing reminder of the limits of medical science. “If you cannot cure the patient,” writes Laurie Edwards in her history of chronic illness, “then blaming the patient often follows suit.” And when we morally valorize how people perform in the market, the chronically tired give the appearance of having failed at (social) life. The subjectivity of overly fatigued people is not just strange and mysterious: it is a threat to our sense of hard work as moral good. Perhaps society’s distaste for these too-tired bodies reveals how destabilizing it is when we remember the limits of meritocracy – a social order based on the flaky assumption that all our bodies are equally capable of being disciplined, tuned-up and mastered.

I wonder if these disordered bodies can point towards a different understanding of tiredness – an idea of fatigue as something disarming, restorative, or at the very least acceptable. Online ME/CFS groups talk about fatigue like it’s the weather: it comes and goes, and one makes do. It is less about “mind over matter” and more about the mind squirming under the weight of one’s matter, seeking out the humor and togetherness in it. Chronic illness communities seem to do a good job of building solidarity without the assumption of identical bodies. They work towards an understanding of bravery that doesn’t necessarily mean action, an idea of strength that doesn’t seek to eliminate weakness. And for the friends and family that care for us, there is the learning how to love and support a body that can’t be read from the outside.

Byung-Chul Han’s book The Burnout Society ends with an ode to Handke’s “we-fatigue”—an eloquent, healing tiredness that can teach us how to look and how to think. With fatigue we grow attentive and open, Han writes: “Everything becomes extraordinary in the tranquility of tiredness.” Identities are loosened, and new communities emerge, as we gaily inhabit the Sabbath. In the time of refusal, the space-in-between, we discover the radical potential of rest.

Could embracing fatigue really offer an escape from our dullness, our cruelty? Could it restore us to ourselves? I’m not so sure: I really, really hate being tired. But I do believe that the strangeness of fatigue – its opaque dispersed disorderedness – is the key to an important revelation, one that frightens me as much as it inspires me to gentleness: that we are all in fact alone inside our bodies.

In Kafka’s prose fragment “Prometheus,” he imagines four different versions of the famous parable. In the first, Prometheus is clamped to a rock and punished by the eagles that feed ceaselessly on his liver. In the second, goaded by the pain of the beaks, he presses into the rock so hard that he becomes one with it. His crimes are forgotten by the gods, eagles, and Prometheus himself during the third—and in the fourth: “everyone grew tired of the meaningless situation. The gods grew tired, the eagles grew tired, the wound closed tired.” In the end there remains only the blank mass of rock. “The legend tries to explain the inexplicable. Because it comes from a rock-layer of truth, it must end with the inexplicable.” Han calls this a parable of the modern subject: endlessly self-disciplining, finally healed by the warmth of fatigue. But perhaps it is also a parable for the unreadable body—the mystery of pain and fatigue, even unto oneself. And I wonder if it holds a clue to the hatred for too-tired people: now, and then, and always.

Alexander Wells discussed this article in a panel discussion hosted by Hypocrite Reader entitled Doing Politics in/with Collective Bodies. You can view the discussion here.

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