Alienarea

A history of alienation By Sally Davies 

The fear of ‘alienation’ from a perceived state of harmony has a long and winding history. Western culture is replete with stories of expulsion from paradise and a yearning to return, from Adam and Eve’s departure from the Garden of Eden to the epic journey of Odysseus back to Ithaca. In the modern era, ‘alienation’ really came into its own as a talismanic term in the 1950s and ’60s. At the time, the United States was becoming increasingly affluent, and earlier markers of oppression – poverty, inequality, social immobility, religious persecution – appeared to be on the wane. Commentators and intellectuals needed a new way to characterise and explain discontent. Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks the incidence of words in English-language books, shows ‘alienation’ rising spectacularly from 1958 to its height in 1974. But since then it has dropped like a stone. Why? Does the lexical decline of alienation suggest that the condition itself has been conquered – or merely that the context in which it made sense has now changed beyond recognition?