But Boredom

Voltaire observed that there are “three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” He was not alone in believing “boredom is the root of all evil,” which Soren Kierkegaard called “eternity devoid of content.” To Kierkegaard eternity devoid of content precisely tracks his beliefs about death outside belief in God. Boredom as a gruesome death he shares with Marxist art critic and historian John Berger who asked “Is boredom anything less than the sense of one’s faculties slowly dying?”

John Berger may have well been echoing Sherlock Holmes, who also saw boredom as a type of slow degradation “My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work…” Or, less fictionally, Patrick Bigelow, in the “indifference of boredom, nothing matters, not even the nothing.”

Boredom as pure apathy is a rich heritage. Acedia, or a lack of spiritual energy, was first described by Evagrius, who gives us no definition, but writes that the demon of acedia:

Is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk about [10 A.M.] and attacks the soul until [2 P.M.]… He makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly towards the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from [3 P.M.]… he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself… He finds it would be better if he were not there.

David Miller’s boredom shares Evagrius’s essential quality of camouflage, boredom as a type of “pornography,” “hysterically converts into yawning affectlessness what would otherwise be outright panic.” In this he channels a long line of left thinkers, who deeply detested and feared a society of consumers without authentic moral values of their own, sunk in vulgarity and boredom in the midst of mounting affluence, blind to sublimity and moral grandeur, bureaucratic organisation of human lives in the light of what the French called “la petite science,” the puny science, a positivist application of quasi-scientific rules to society.

One conclusion of this part-fear-part-observation, perhaps not the best but my favorite, was by Arthur Schopenhauer,

“Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied, all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom but the feeling of the emptiness of life? If life—the craving for which is the very essence of our being—were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing.”

But is boredom such a vice?




Me, The Collector

I should not be writing this post. I should be writing something else. I should, I should and I should. There are a half dozen other things I should be doing but everyone needs some private time to relax, reconsider and collect themselves. The search for a summer internship can be placed on hold. Understanding the arbitrariness of our country’s highest court can wait. After all, the list of things I should do today is big enough to take care of itself. It does not need fretting. There’s a joke.

I like to think that literature does not provide us with completely new information, but that the best writing is a tool. Literature belongs in the same family as telescopes, or perhaps microscopes, and it provides us with a way to see something about ourselves that we could not see before. But we knew where to look. In short, literature is a game of optics.

With that point of departure, dear reader, I would like to share the story of Beersheba from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one. The image propagated by tradition is that of a city of pure gold, with silver locks and diamond gates, a jewel-city, all inset and inlaid, as a maximum of laborious study might produce when applied to materials of the maximum worth. True to this belief, Beersheba’s inhabitants honor everything that suggests for them the celestial city: they accumulate noble metals and rare stones, they renounce all ephemeral excesses, they develop forms of composite composure.

They also believe, these inhabitants, that another Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them, and it is their constant care to erase from the visible Beersheba every tie or resemblance to the lower twin. In the place of roofs they imagine that the underground city has overturned rubbish bins, with cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater, uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them. Or even that its substance is dark and malleable and thick, like the pitch that pours down from the sewers, prolonging the route of the human bowels, from black hole to black hole, until it splatters against the lowest subterranean floor, and from the lazy, encircled buybbles below, layer upon layer, a fecal city rises, with twisted spires.

In Beersheba’s beliefs there is an element of truth and one of error. It is true that the city is accompanied by two projections of itself, one celestial one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about their consistency. The inferno that broods in the deepest subsoil of Beersheba is a city designed by the most authoritative architects, built with the most expensive materials on the market, with every device and mechanism and gear system functioning, decked with tassels and fringes and frills hanging from all the pipes and levers.

Intent on piling uo its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet a flutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven long-tailed comets fly-past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.

The words vibrate with an energy all their own, I admit that, but the notes reverberate within me. I chose to make a decision long before I read this passage that heaven is not where glistening spires (and evidently their close companions, tired metaphors, reside) and tightly wound displays of security shine. Nabokov was right, I think, in writing that the study of literature sits atop one crucial assumption and that assumption is simply a feeling that what we’re reading is something important. Special. I like to think that seed of meaning is a portion of ourselves that we recognize in the text, but everyone has their own thoughts. But that is why I write and why I read. I collect portions of myself.

I’m probably insane.

Remembering Books

I am surprised at how little I remember the books I read. There is only a few scraps of each that remains after I’ve devoured them, and sometimes I do not know what scrap goes with what book. For example I have iridule seared across my brain–inexplicable. Perhaps, even, inexcusable. I have no idea what it means or how it got there. It is, however, in my brain. Is there a more curious incident?

I wonder if it is because I read too much or if it is because I read too little. Perhaps my mind is not equipped for remembering all the small, minute and titillating peculiarities that I collect through my endless travels. If that is the case then I cannot help but notice that I share something similar with the Family Sciuridae. I have a romp through a book, and then at its conclusion I declare–like Milton’s Satan–that even if I do not remember, exactly, every carefully tended paragraph I still enjoyed myself. “What though the field be lost?”

The conversations I have with people, alive and in person, spare me this sort of introspection. I can neither remember what I had for breakfast–though a nearby plate confirms that it was several blueberry muffins–or what the conversation was like. I have a vague feeling of either well-contemplated execution or the lack thereof. But beyond a general feeling I cannot think of a tangible thing to say. I do not care. I console myself, ‘such is life!’ If I had a photographic memory then, of course, life would be different but I do not so it is not. But then I look over to the books I have read, boughten and–I hazily recall–enjoyed. If I had to stop and think I cannot seem to gather more than a dozen facts about them. How peculiar!

Take my last post, for instance. That definition of literature, I am now sure, was not my own. It must have come from somewhere. But from where? My mind immediately drifts through my library. It drifted towards some of the pieces of literary criticism, especially the frothier specimens, I’ve consumed over the last few years. Was it in Gore Vidal? T. S. Eliot? Michael Dirda? I quietly and quickly scanned through a few books. I have a habit of underlining the best lines. I am a squirrel, always collecting, with little or no reason. It’s actually quite bizarre.

What is more bizarre is that as I flipped through the pages more and more came back to me. Here, underlined, is one of my favorite quotes from Jonathan Swift: “But not to digress farther in the midst of a digression, as I have known some authors to enclose digressions in one another, like a nest of boxes.” A digression digressing on the unpropitious use of digressions! Now located within a digression of my own making! I am sure I am not the first to think of this bemusing and amusing bit of smug diversion. But, please, bear with me dear reader.

I think my problem comes from a disease, one that is closely related to the one identified by Merton and labeled ‘insanabile scribendi cacoethes. In plain English, the itch to publish. My ailment, since I hardly publish and if then only on this blog, is the itch to read. I must read. It’s almost an obsession and must be, I believe, labeled appropriately. It is a disease. Suspend your disbelief! If only for a moment. Se non e vero, e molto ben trovato — if it is not true, it is very well invented. You must allow me that much.

My choice of reading material is not always defensible. I am sure there are people out there who find my bookshelves pretentious, a waste of time or an unpleasant mix of both. My comments follow a similar trajectory. Swift quipped that “Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book.” I feel something similar, but when I read these little nuts that I have burrowed away inside the pages of these books. Some of my notes are informative. They have grown into trees of knowledge–yes, I am straining this metaphor to the breaking point. Some are entertaining. Some are great. Quite a few are trivial, useless and ultimately dismissible. Yet if there were only gems how I would ever distinguish the good from the bad? Contrast is key.

To get back to my original point I have found where that little, nugget of inspiration was for my attempt to elicit a chuckle–or, at least, a grimace–from you, dear reader. It is found within, of all things, the (new) introduction by Mary Russell to A Canticle For Leibowitz (Eos Paperback Ed. 2006). The first page no less! What are the chances that of the books that I picked up, randomly, from my bookshelf the one that I turn to has it? If there is any need for proof of a disturbingly sentient subconscious, I think I have it. I can only wonder how many other, small tidbits and large ideas–or, at least, a few of the former–have I been accidentally borrowing from other authors? How many authors out there have committed preemptive plagiarism on me–to pull from Merton’s OTSOG?

I doubt I will ever know and for that I can only thank whatever higher power exists in the world. Ignorance, sometimes, is bliss. But, if nothing else, then at least trying and failing mightily in the world of reading is better than a life of bare economic necessity. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that since cows may be purely economic it is “why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.” If there is a ever going to be a book about myself, or at least about people like myself–precious, precocious and smugly self-satisfied residents of the United States–at least it will make for some lively reading.