Sunday, August 22, 2010

Meditation on the Innovation of Boredom

In Boredom: the Literary History of a State of Mind, Patricia Meyer Spacks explains that boredom as such is a relatively recent invention, from the eighteenth century at the latest. Before that we had melancholy (which was a kind of affliction of the spirit) and, further back still, acedia (which was a sin). What’s distinctive about boredom is that we don’t see it as either a condition of our own selves or a sin, but rather something that just happens to us. When we’re bored, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with us: we think the world is at fault. Stupid old world — it doesn’t interest me. And interesting me is the world’s job.

(Alan Jacobs, quoted by Joe Carter, "Thirty-Three Things" on First Thoughts Blog, entry posted August 21, 2010, http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/08/21/thirty-three-things-v-11/ [accessed August 23, 2010])

What happened? If boredom is an innovation that roughly coincides with the enlightenment, it would seem that Descartes developing an epistemology in which everything but himself is doubted would lead to this very thing–– boredom. Ho-hum, clock-watching, face-heavy-in-the-hand, nose-picking, boredom. When everything– besides me– is made into an accessory, and when accessories gradually take on a disposable nature, and when everything disposable tarnishes and browns with age like a discarded issue of People magazine from 1994, what are we left with? Not much. Moreover, when God himself is deemed unnecessary, as Nietzsche lamented, we are in a doubly dire straight, because all transcendence becomes relegated to climbing the uselessly short ladder of our own mind. This is the post-modern milieu– boredom insulated by the earbuds of my I-Pod, noise bouncing off the interior walls of my skull with nowhere to go.

This innovation is more than incidental. When we consider that the medieval mind was everywhere haunted by the sacramental, boredom seems an impossibility. Seemingly everything was expressed in relational terms. Before an object falling was mere gravity, it was an object pursuing the ground with something like desire. The planets moved according to a kind of music, which suggests a scale that can be appreciated if not comprehended by the human mind. Christ was not absent at the communion, but was manifest in a "real presence." In a world like that, in which the eternal was constantly breaking into the temporal, who could be bored?

Here in Vancouver, during the long rainy months, I have found it fearsome to think that, as Christ walked among us with hard calloused feet, (to borrow from Gerard Manley Hopkins) the Spirit broods over this city in a low, heavy cloud, intermittently dunking and sprinkling us, and that the mountains surrounding it are somehow the cusp of the Father's palm, hovering somewhere between cradling and crushing this pile of glass, brick and mortar. It seems positively old-fashioned to imagine that mingling with the hydrogen and oxygen of the atmosphere, holding the space between atoms, is the same One who hovered over the waters in the beginning. As I sit on the bus, enduring the grind of my routine and trying not to make eye-contact with anybody in particular, I cannot think of a better way to remember God's immanence. It moves me to pray for the "timekept City," to remember that even in a country that claims something like 40% of the world's freshwater, "[Y]ou neglect and belittle the desert./ The desert is not remote in southern tropics,/ The desert is not only around the corner,/ The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,/ The desert is in the heart of your brother." In a world like this, who could be bored?

(Poetry quoted from Eliot, Thomas Sterns, "Choruses from 'The Rock'" in The Complete Poems and Plays. [New York; Harcourt Brace, 1967] 96, 98)

6 comments:

Julie said...

Jon. This is amazing.

david gentino said...

Wow Jon, this is just a different caliber of writing.

I've been thinking a lot about this in regards to prayer. Why do I have a ready-made rational explanation for every answered prayer? Like the blind man's neighbors, I'm so quick to dismiss God's handiwork.

Jon Furst said...

David, I'm not sure I follow you. Could you elaborate?

Nathan Jordan said...

I, too, really *really* admire the language of this post. thanks Jon.

With that said, I want to ask the obvious question: I wonder if any of us could stand to be around someone who was incapable of "boredom" in the most immediate sense of the word? I think we would all get a little fatigued being in the company of someone who was constantly on the cusp of epiphany or ecstasy every moment of the day. Even our beloved (albeit fictional)Ames, found his sacramental world through boredom and not necessarily in spite of it.

Hannah Arendt has some interesting things to say about boredom in "The Human Condition." She encourages us to seek out work that is "mind numbing" because she believe it is a necessary kind of suffering for man. I guess the question is whether the boredom you mention is acute or chronic. If we lived in an agrarian society and, by necessity, had to spend hours at a time behind a team of mules, we would certainly suffer being "bored" but beneath that boredom there would be a kind of humility that can only come when we relinquish our demands for intellectual captivity or entertainment. so maybe "boredom" is necessary and, at times, good for us. maybe it isn't always the symptom of disillusionment. You seem to argue that it requires a distrust of reality, but perhaps it is also an important reality check. boredom is a way for man to let go of mastery and take on humility.

"And, please, a little boredom--boredom is so healthy in small doses." -Hannah Arendt

david gentino said...

Great perspective Nathan. Maybe we're talking about two kinds of boredoms. The first is man-centered. Its an anxious, needy, demanding restlessness made worse by a two-dimensional view of creation.

The kind you mention is completely opposite - "a way for man to let go of mastery and take on humility."

That latter kind really accounts for the pace of the Bible - seedtime and harvest, waiting for babies, traveling thousands of miles, jail terms, seasons of prosperity, etc. The very fact that we sleep a third of our lives puts a damper on life's dynamism.

You've got me thinking brother. Or better, maybe you've got me relinquishing my need to be intellectually captivated.

Nathan Jordan said...

David, I think you're right. It's an important distinction. I would imagine that chronic boredom is, as you said, man-centered in its nature. Chronic boredom makes ego-centric demands from the world, instead of contributing (or aligning itself) with it. In that way chronic boredom is as indifferent toward God's creation as a shrug of the shoulders. Where acute boredom is instead a burdening of said shoulders, those times when we let the weight of this world fall on us and admit that we are not its master.

This *does* account for the pace of scripture, which is a very insightful way to put it. It convicts me on both accounts.

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