On Boredom

These reflections are made by Charles Citrine in Saul Bellow’s new novel, Humboldt’s Gift.

I had a lively time in the vast jurors’ hall going over my boredom notes. I saw that I had stayed away from problems of definition. Good for me. I didn’t want to get mixed up with theological questions about accidie and tedium vitae. I found it necessary to say only that from the beginning mankind experienced states of boredom but that no one had ever approached the matter front and center as a subject in its own right.

In modern times the question had been dealt with under the name of anomie or Alienation, as an effect of capitalist conditions of labor, as a result of leveling in Mass Society, as a consequence of the dwindling of religious faith or the gradual using up of charismatic or prophetic elements, or the neglect of Unconscious powers, or the increase of Rationalization in a technological society, or the growth of bureaucracy. It seemed to me, however, that one might begin with this belief of the modern world—either you burn or you rot. This I connected with the finding of old Binet the psychologist that hysterical people had fifty times the energy, the endurance, the power of performance, the keenness of faculties, the creativity in their hysterical fits as they had in their quiet periods. Or as William James put it, human beings really lived when they lived at the top of their energies. Something like the Wille zur Macht.

Suppose then that you began with the proposition that boredom was a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents, and was accompanied by expectations of the optimum utilization of capacities. (I try to guard against falling into the social-science style on these mental occasions.) Nothing actual ever suits pure expectation and such purity of expectation is a great source of tedium. People rich in abilities, in sexual feeling, rich in mind and in invention—all the highly gifted see themselves shunted for decades onto dull sidings, banished exiled nailed up in chicken coops. Imagination has even tried to surmount the problems by forcing boredom itself to yield interest. This insight I owe to Von Humboldt Fleisher who showed me how it was done by James Joyce, but anyone who reads books can easily find it out for himself.

Modern French literature is especially preoccupied with the theme of boredom. Stendhal mentioned it on every page, Flaubert devoted books to it, and Baudelaire was its chief poet. What is the reason for this peculiar French sensitivity? Can it be because the ancien régime, fearing another Fronde, created a court that emptied the provinces of talent? Outside the center, where art philosophy science manners conversation thrived, there was nothing. Under Louis XIV, the upper classes enjoyed a refined society, and, whatever else, people didn’t need to be alone. Cranks like Rousseau made solitude glamorous, but sensible people agreed …

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