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 that it was really terrible. Then in the eighteenth century being in prison began to acquire its modern significance. Think how often Manon and Des Grieux were in jail. And Mirabeau and my own buddy Von Trenck and of course the Marquis de Sade. The intellectual future of Europe was determined by people impregnated with boredom, by the writings of prisoners.
Then, in 1789, it was young men from the sticks, provincial lawyers scribblers and orators, who assaulted and captured the center of interest. Boredom has more to do with modern political revolution than justice has. In 1917, that boring Lenin who wrote so many boring pamphlets and letters on organizational questions was, briefly, all passion, all radiant interest. The Russian revolution promised mankind a permanently interesting life. When Trotsky spoke of permanent revolution he really meant permanent interest. In the early days the revolution was a work of inspiration. Workers peasants soldiers were in a state of excitement and poetry. When this short brilliant phase ended, what came next? The most boring society in history. Dowdiness shabbiness dullness dull goods boring buildings boring discomfort boring supervision a dull press dull education boring bureaucracy forced labor perpetual police presence penal presence, boring party congresses, et cetera. What was permanent was the defeat of interest.
What could be more boring than the long dinners Stalin gave, as Djilas describes them? Even I, a person seasoned in boredom by my years in Chicago, marinated, mithridated by the USA, was horrified by Djilas’s account of those twelve-course all-night banquets. The guests drank and ate, and ate and drank, and then at 2 AM they had to sit down to watch an American Western. Their bottoms ached. There was dread in their hearts. Stalin, as he chatted and joked, was mentally picking those who were going to get it in the neck and while they chewed and snorted and guzzled they knew this, they expected shortly to be shot.
What—in other words—would modern boredom be without terror? One of the most boring documents of all time is the thick volume of Hitler’s Table Talk. He too had people watching movies, eating pastries, and drinking coffee with Schlag while he bored them, while he discoursed theorized expounded. Everyone was perishing of staleness and fear, afraid to go to the toilet. This combination of power and boredom has never been properly examined. Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death.
There were even profounder questions. For instance, the history of the universe would be very boring if one tried to think of it in the ordinary way of human experience. All that time without events! Gases over and over again, and heat and particles of matter, the sun tides and winds, again this creeping development, bits added to bits, chemical accidents—whole ages in which almost nothing happens, lifeless seas, only a few crystals, a few protein compounds developing. The tardiness of evolution is so irritating to contemplate. The clumsy mistakes you see in museum fossils. How could such bones crawl, walk, run? It is agony to think of the groping of the species—all this fumbling, swamp-creeping, munching, preying, and reproduction, the boring slowness with which tissues, organs, and members developed. And then the boredom also of the emergence of the higher types and finally of mankind, the dull life of paleolithic forests, the long long incubation of intelligence, the slowness of invention, the idiocy of peasant ages.
These are interesting only in review, in thought. No one could bear to experience this. The present demand is for a quick forward movement, for a summary, for life at the speed of intensest thought. As we approach, through technology, the phase of instantaneous realization, of the realization of eternal human desires or fantasies, of abolishing time and space the problem of boredom can only become more intense. The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence—one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer—has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! For people who crave continual interest and diversity, O! how boring death will be! To lie in the grave, in one place, how frightful!
Socrates tried to soothe us, true enough. He said there were only two possibilities. Either the soul is immortal or, after death, things would be again as blank as they were before we were born. This is not absolutely comforting either. Anyway it was natural that theology and philosophy should take the deepest interest in this. They owe it to us not to be boring themselves. On this obligation they don’t always make good. However, Kierkegaard was not a bore. I planned to examine his contribution in my master essay. In his view the primacy of the ethical over the aesthetic mode was necessary to restore the balance. But enough of that. In myself I could observe the following sources of tedium:
1) The lack of a personal connection with the external world. Earlier I noted that when I was riding through France in a train last spring I looked out of the window and thought that the veil of Maya was wearing thin. And why was this? I wasn’t seeing what was there but only what everyone sees under a common directive. By this is implied that our world view has used up nature. The rule of this view is that I, a subject, see the phenomena, the world of objects. They, however, are not necessarily in themselves objects as modern rationality defines objects. For in spirit, says Steiner, a man can step out of himself and let things speak to him about themselves, to speak about what has meaning not for him alone but also for them. Thus the sun the moon the stars will speak to nonastronomers in spite of their ignorance of science. In fact it’s high time that this happened. Ignorance of science should not keep one imprisoned in the lowest and weariest sector of being, prohibited from entering into independent relations with the creation as a whole. The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world. But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted.
2) For me the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom. This increasing, swelling, domineering, painful self-consciousness is the only rival of the political and social powers that run my life (business, technological-bureaucratic powers, the state). You have a great organized movement of life, and you have the single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever—by the sufferings of others or by society or by politics or external chaos. In a way it doesn’t give a damn. It is asked to give a damn, and we often urge it to give a damn but the curse of noncaring lies upon this painfully free consciousness. It is free from attachment to beliefs and to other souls. Cosmologies, ethical systems? It can run through them by the dozens. For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else. This is Hamlet’s kingdom of infinite space in a nutshell, of “words, words, words,” of “Denmark’s a prison.”
Copyright © 1975 by Saul Bellow.