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.