June 13, 2011

On boredom, suicide, and commencement speeches


The most talked about novel of the year so far has certainly been David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King, an unfinished attempt to address the face the philosophical, existential, and day-to-day dilemma of boredom. Wallace’s hypothesis, as described in a note attached to the manuscript, was that “Bliss — a second-by-­second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”  A similar notion is at play in Lee Rourke‘s The Canal, another novel that addresses both the frustrations and possibilities of the ubiquitous human state. As Rourke said in this 2010 Bookslut interview:

Boredom is the great opener of possibilities, the maddening gateway into the gaping void: the state of being where things, including ourselves, can be observed in minute detail. The trouble is, boredom forces most of us to do the opposite, it forces us to deny this gaping void and fill our time doing things in order to keep nothingness at bay.

At Commentary, Joseph Epstein considers boredom and two new books on the subject Boredom, A Lively History by Peter Toohey and A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen. “Noteworthy,” Epstein writes, “that men living, respectively, in western Canada and Norway should be attracted to the subject of boredom; obviously their geography and occupations as academics qualify them eminently for the subject.” Whereas Svendsen believes that boredom is a great predominantly-modern problem to be overcome, Toohey, like Rourke and Wallace, sees the philosophical potential of boredom, believing that existential “boredom intensifies self-perception.” Furthermore, Toohey insists that boredom and depression are not the same: ”Suicide has no clear relationship with boredom.” Though it makes sense to draw a distinction between despair and apathy, it does seem evident that the two go hand-in-hand. Exhibit A: the suicide note left behind by the actor George Sanders.

Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.

Exhibit B might be Mr. Wallace who, though obviously chemically depressed, perceived this depression in terms of boredom. In the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005, he warned the graduates about the coming onslaught of boredom:

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about….It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out….It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

Epstein, in his Commentary article, concludes by recounting a very similar hold-no-punches commencement speech given by the poet Joseph Brodsky in 1989:.

Brodsky told the 1,100 Dartmouth graduates that, although they may have had some splendid samples of boredom supplied by their teachers, these would be as nothing compared with what awaits them in the years ahead. Neither originality nor inventiveness on their part will suffice to defeat the endless repetition that life will serve up to them, as it has served up to us all. Evading boredom, he pointed out, is a full-time job, entailing endless change—of jobs, geography, wives and lovers, interests—and in the end a self-defeating one. Brodksy therefore advises: “When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom.”

There’s a Zen-appeal to Wallaces and Brodsky’s philosophies. Boredom is inevitable. Life is unquestionably boring. The desire to escape boredom lets only to endless craving and insatiable desire. One must learn to accept it and embrace it. One must not run away from it, but pass through it, and emerge on the other side with a higher consciousness and greater passion. We want boredom and other sufferings to be instructive experiences. We want melancholy to lead to sensitivity, and suffering to lead to understanding. We want badness, in all its forms, to be part of the greater good. But when you consider the people who have succumbed to boredom over the years (Sanders, Wallace, etc.) there is certainly something to be said for a straightforward definition of boredom. A boredom that is not beneficial at all, but merely the name for those times when nothing seems worth your while, and you haven’t a worthwhile thought in your head.