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In contemporary English the word anomie can mean not only normlessness but also anarchy. Émile Durkheim and later theorists, meant with anomie a reaction against or a retreat from the regulatory social controls of society, and is a completely separate concept from anarchy which is an absence of effective rulers or leaders.
Anomie in literature and film
In Albert Camus’s existentialist novel The Stranger, the protagonist Meursault struggles to construct an individual system of values as he responds to the disappearance of the old. He exists largely in a state of anomie, as seen from the apathy evinced in the opening lines: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas” (“Today Mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.”)
Dostoevsky, whose work is often considered a philosophical precursor to existentialism, often expressed a similar concern in his novels. In The Brothers Karamazov, the character Dimitri Karamazov asks his atheist friend Rakitin, ”...without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?” Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, puts this philosophy into action when he kills an elderly pawnbroker and her sister, later rationalizing this act to himself with the words, “...it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!”
On Hermann Hesse´s Der Steppenwolf we can also find a very clear picture of anomie. The protagonist affirms that the men of the Dark Ages did not suffer more than those of the Classical Antiquity, and vice-versa. It is rather those who live between two times, those who do not know what to follow, that suffer the most. In this token, a man from the Dark Ages living in the Classical Antiquity, or the opposite, would undergo a gulping sadness and agony.
- Marco Orru 1883. The Ethics of Anomie: Jean Marie Guyau and Emile Durkheim, British Journal of Sociology, 34, #4. 499–518.
- Jordi Riba 1999. La morale anomique de Jean-Marie Guyau. Paris : L'Harmattan.
- Concise OED p51.
- "Anomie" discussed at the Émile Durkheim Archive.