A Bibliography of Boredom

This afternoon I reread the passage in The Magic Mountain in which Thomas Mann expounds on the nature of boredom.  Lars Svendsen in A Philosophy of Boredom asks, “What is the difference between profound boredom and depression?” concluding that there is considerable overlap.

Thinking about how various thinkers have dealt with boredom led me to scribbling a bibliography for a study on the subject, which I thought I’d share here. All of these works deal to a greater or lesser extent with the concept of boredom:

  1. Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind – Patricia Meyer Spacks
  2. In Praise of Boredom (from On Grief and Reason) – Joseph Brodsky
  3. Boredom is a major preoccupation in much of Herman Melville’s work
  4. Being and Time – Martin Heidegger (on the theme of profound boredom)
  5. The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell
  6. The themes of boredom and  waiting are dominant in the novels of Marguerite Duras, notably Moderato Cantabile (which is brilliant and you should read anyway.)
  7. The Voyage Out – Virgina Woolf (fascinating exploration of the textual use of boredom)
  8. Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity – Elizabeth Goodstein
  9. Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
  10. A Philosophy of Boredom – Lars Svendsen
  11. Boredom: A Lively History – Peter Toohey
  12. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

I realise there is an extensive literature of the phenomenon of boredom, many of which I have not included. I came cross Lee Rourke’s top 10 books about boredom. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section.

Old Chestnuts

I am immensely moved by this Richard Rorty essay written just before his death, with this staggering closing paragraph:

However that may be, I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human — farther removed from the beasts — than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.

Authenticity and Semiconsciousness

Quote

Three Worlds - MC Escher (1955)

Three Worlds – MC Escher (1955)

This “authenticity,” also tackled by Derrida, inspired by Aristotle and Heidegger, is a central preoccupation. Is it possible to stay in this state always? If so, how?

[..] I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition between everyday life-which is lived in semiconsciousness and in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence in the world-and of the privileged states in which we live intensely and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the “they,” and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the “authentic.”

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Gerhard Richter - 'The Reader.'

Gerhard Richter – ‘The Reader.’

Gerhard Richter is the top-selling living artist. This thrilling lecture/essay [PDF] takes two of Richter’s paintings (including The Reader) and examines them using as a framework Heidegger’s thesis that art should be understood as a discovery and disclosure of truth. “Things, scenes and persons depicted do not act for the spectator; rather, they act as if the spectator is not present.”

Chris Kraus’s intelligent, controversial I Love Dick narrates an infatuation with a fictional media theorist based, allegedly, on Dick Hebdige, whose 1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style , [PDF]influenced by Julia Kristeva’s work, provides a semiotic reading of punk.

Reading Jacques Lacan can be worthwhile but hard work. This guide to Lacan is very useful, as is this Cambridge Companion [PDF] (Alenka Zupančič’s essay is particularly good).

In The Art of Fiction Henry James provides a practical, radical definition of the novel, arguing that the craft of writing cannot be taught and pouncing on the failings of philistine readers. Surprisingly relevant and amusing to read.

Do you know Borges’s short story, Of Exactitude in Science? It is a favourite, and short enough to quote:

In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

I mention Borges’s story because I am always reminded of it by Jean Baudrillard’s Simulcra and Simulation [PDF] in which he argues that our models and maps have distanced us from the real world that preceded the models and maps:

It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.

Paul Virilio’s The Information Bomb [PDF] packs a lot of power into less than 150 pages, a deeply pessimistic analysis of humanity’s relation to technology.


The legendary 1978 samizdat recording of Audience, starring Václav Havel (1936-2011) as Vanek and Pavel Landovský as Sládek.

The only way I can take Georges Bataille’s work seriously is to read it ironically. Like Björk, I read his Story of the Eye [PDF] when I was 17 years old.

I read Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life much more recently, and it is rare a day goes by that I don’t dip into the copy I keep on my desk.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

The unshackled cultivation of Rimbaud

Unsettling collection of photos of life in a 1938 psychiatric hospital

“Ridiculously beautiful locations are tough…”

The Paris massacre that time forgot, 51 years on

The TLS try to classify the ‘unclassifiable’ Clarice Lispector

Guy Debord’s letters (1957-60)

English translations of all 12 journals of the Situationists

Collection of photos of the uprising and general strike in May 68 in France

“Katie Kitamura has earned comparison to great writers like Nadine Gordimer and Herta Müller.”

Melville House is republishing Mary Maclane’s ‘I Await the Devil’s Coming’

Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard

AM Homes is a ‘social arsonist’ (as opposed to an anti-social arsonist?)

Simon Critchley – 8 part series on Martin Heidegger & Being and Time

“if I can’t have womb tanks I don’t want your revolution.”

Read the first chapter of César Aira’s new novel, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen

Using  more literary than philosophical sources, though there is a section on Heidegger’s idea that boredom was the ideal state for metaphysics to begin, Lars Svendsen provides a series of sketches on the theme of boredom.

Svendsen argues that boredom is significant because it involves a loss of personal meaning. Boredom is a modern condition, though there were similar historical states (the acedie of monks). With the advent of Romanticism, man began to see himself as an individual. At the end of the eighteenth century the word ‘boring,’ linked with the word ‘interesting,’ became widespread. Shortly afterwards, boredom is also linked with nihilism, which converge in the death of God. There is a kinship or overlap between boredom, melancholy (but without its charm) and insomnia.

[..] deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void.

There are no reliable studies but evidence suggests that boredom is increasing. Its increase implies a serious fault in a society or culture. Neither leisure, nor work offer a respite from boredom because neither give any real meaning. We seek distraction and differences. The advertising industry flourishes to create these qualitative differences where there are none. In my favourite parts of the book, Svendsen uses Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Ballard’s Crash to build his argument of a profoundly bored late capitalist society.

Desperately seeking external distraction we turn to television:

But are not the extent of the entertainments industry and the consumption of intoxicants, for example, clear indications of the prevalence of boredom? People who watch TV four hours a day will not necessarily feel or admit that they are bored, but why else should they spend 25 percent of their waking hours in such a way.

Or build an ‘extended family’ of celebrities:

That boredom is probably more widespread than ever before can be established by noting that the number of ‘social placebos’ is greater than it has ever been. If there are more substitutes for meaning, there must be more meaning that needs to be substituted for. Where there is a lack of personal meaning, all sorts of diversions have to create a substitute – an ersatz meaning. Or the cult of celebrities, where one gets completely engrossed in the lives of others beaches one’s own life lacks meaning.

Or like Bateman in American Psycho obsess about fashion:

As Georg Simmel points out, dependence on fashion indicates the insignificance of the own personality, that a person is incapable of individuating himself.

Svendsen suggests only one possible cure for boredom: to relinquish personal meaning. He uses Beckett and Warhol as examples of people who have tried to embrace meaninglessness.

There is possibly one sure cure for boredom – to leave Romanticism behind and renounce all personal meaning in life. In a sense this was what Beckett did, but his work concerns itself mostly with the vacuum that is left.

Born Fascist

Michael Howard’s Liberation or Catastrophe (Reflections on the History of the Twentieth Century) is bracing. I find myself disagreeing with the thrust of his political interpretation but edified by his historical perspective, which reflects a broad reading of philosophical and literary texts.

Xenophobia, an inclination to violence, a pleasure in humiliating others, the desire to find security from a hostile world in one’s own group or tribe or gang with its own initiation processes and symbols and necessary enemies, all these are features common to all mankind (though not of corse womankind) as schoolboys know very well. We are all born Fascists, and have to be expensively educated out of it. And when all the structures of civil society painfully built up over generations disintegrate, whether through sudden catastrophe or gradual erosion, it is to these habits that we naturally return.

It’s difficult to disagree, though hard to accept, Howard’s ‘born Fascist’ theme. His analysis of the roots of Fascism and the challenges posed by a modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society is excellent.

As for the West, we know our situation far too well to believe that the Enlightenment has yet solved the problems it has created and that history for us has come to the end. Andre Gidé said something to the effect that ‘to free oneself is only a beginning. The real problem is to know how to live in liberty'; a discovery being made today by the populations of the former communist countries. A prison is also a kind of home. In the West, intellectuals may have become used to living in the godless world explored by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in the last century, Heidegger and Sartre is this. But the social effects are only now beginning to be widely felt, of a world in which people are left entirely free to create and live by their own values, with neither traditional authority nor religious beliefs to guide them. We do now worry too much so long as, for most of the population, liberal capitalism continues quite literally to deliver the goods, in quantities and of a quality undreamed of by our forbears. But it liberal capitalism were to fail, as has its rival communism, we know what would be the likely alternative.

Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

Old Masters is flawless.

I’ll attempt to distil my impressions of Thomas Bernhard’s book without using the word rant. It is almost impossible to write about Thomas Bernhard’s prose without using that word. (Around 1645 there was an English antinomian sect called the Ranters, though the etymology of the word is German.) In its place I will use a word I relish: tirade, from the French tirer “draw out, endure, suffer.”

Every other day, musicologist, Reger, sits on a sofa in the Kunthistorisches Museum  facing Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. Sometimes he reads, other times he contemplates the painting. Uncharacteristically he visits the museum on two successive days, inviting his friend, Atzbacher, to join him for a second day. The reason is, until the final pages, a mystery.

Thereafter, either directly or through his mouthpiece Atzbacher, Reger’s tirade makes up the rest of the book, interrupted occasionally. Reger’s tirade unfolds, repeats, loops relentlessly, sometimes it risks folding in upon itself. It wearies and requires a degree of endurance, but it is also occasionally very funny. The targets of Reger’s Nietzschean tirade are multifarious and include art historians,  Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, Viennese public lavatories and philosopher Martin Heidegger. The latter, in particular, creased me up. Of the Heideggerian criticism I have come across, Reger’s calling him out for a kitschy brain and as a mediocre rustic was hilarious:

Heidegger is the petit bourgeois of German philosophy, the man who placed on German philosophy his kitschy nightcap, that kitschy nightcap which Heidegger always wore, on all occasions. Heidegger is the carpet-slipper and night-cap philosopher of the Germans, nothing else.

The interruptions to Reger’s tirade are rare but necessary, and often droll and moving. On one occasion, Reger’s sofa, facing  White-Bearded Man, is invaded by an Englishman, world-weary to the same degree as Reger, who has come to Vienna to verify that there is another White-Bearded Man, a duplicate or forgery of the one given to him by a Glaswegian aunt. On another occasion, Reger movingly expounds his despair since his wife’s death.

In the final pages we learn why Reger has broken a routine of thirty years to invite Atzbacher to the museum on two successive days. The deliverance, and the last line of the book, had me grinning from ear to ear. For once, in Old Masters, the ending does not disappoint.

I read the novel as part of German Literature Month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Existential Hammer Blow

A couple of weeks past I indulged in a “parlour game” of naming 15 books that somehow influenced my life. I thought it might be fun to explore what impact these texts made. It seems logical to begin with the book that had most influence.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938). At 17, a phase of dabbling with religion left me unconvinced. I was vaguely aware of existentialism. Nausea was the book that erased four years of mysticism and occultism. After reading the book twice in succession I came to the conclusion of my search for meaning.
Two years of disquietude followed as the discovery reshaped how I was to live in life. During that period I  read Sartre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I attempted Heidegger. Indirectly Nausea lead to Kafka and Dostoyevsky, both whom became important influences. Twenty-five years on I still strive to define myself and to live an authentic existence. I frequently fail, taking little reassurance from the knowledge that Sartre was frequently lead to inauthenticity. Each year I examine my personal commitment to bring meaning to my existence.
My recent reading of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge brought strong memories of Nausea. It is said that The Notebooks were a source of Sartre’s inspiration.