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14 JANUARY, 2015

Kierkegaard on Boredom, Why Cat Listicles Fail to Answer the Soul’s Cry, and the Only True Cure for Existential Emptiness

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“The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

Boredom has a long cultural history and an adaptive function in human life — it serves a vital creative purpose and protects us by helping us tolerate open-endedness; in childhood, it becomes the wellspring of imaginative play. And yet we live in a culture that seems obsessed with eradicating boredom, as if it were Ebola or global poverty, and replacing it with a peculiar modern form of active idleness oozing from our glowing screens.

No thinker in the history of humanity has done more to shed light on both the problem of boredom and its existential solution than Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — a man of such timeless insight into the fundamental desiderata of the human soul that he was able to explain, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the psychology of online trolling and bullying, the reason for the eternal tension between the majority and the minority, and why anxiety fuels creativity rather than stifling it.

In a section of his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), which also gave us Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, the Danish philosopher defines boredom as a sense of emptiness and examines it not as an absence of stimulation but as an absence of meaning — an idea that also explains why it’s possible, today more than ever, to be overstimulated but existentially bored.

Bemoaning how “utterly meaningless” his life has become, 30-year-old Kierkegaard writes:

How dreadful boredom is — how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like… I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness. I do not even suffer pain… Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me. If I were offered all the glories of the world or all the torments of the world, one would move me no more than the other; I would not turn over to the other side either to attain or to avoid. I am dying death. And what could divert me? Well, if I managed to see a faithfulness that withstood every ordeal, an enthusiasm that endured everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I were to become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite.

In this conception, boredom becomes indeed an emptiness of meaning rather than a lack of diversion. In fact, Kierkegaard likely influenced Tolstoy when the beloved Russian author, in his own existential quest for meaning, asserted that “for man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

Kierkegaard also illuminates our modern cult of productivity and our compulsive busyness as a hedge against that dreaded boredom:

Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.

Such a conception explains, for instance, why all the cute-cat listicles spewed by the BuzzWorthy establishment of commodified distraction are hapless in assuaging the soul’s cry — which is, after all, the task of philosophy — in the face of such terrifying boredom springing from a lack of meaning. Alan Watts, another prescient sage of the ages, termed such futile strategies of diversion “orgasm without release.” Noting that such “misguided diversion” is itself the source of existential boredom — which is “partly an acquired immediacy” — Kierkegaard adds:

It seems doubtful that a remedy against boredom can give rise to boredom, but it can give rise to boredom only insofar as it is used incorrectly. A mistaken, generally eccentric diversion has boredom within itself, and thus it works its way up and manifests itself as immediacy.

Illustration by Edward Gorey from 'The Shrinking of Treehorn' by Florence Parry Heide. Click image for more.

Kierkegaard laments that “habit and boredom have gained the upper hand to such a degree” in society and argues that this stems from how deeply boredom is woven into the fabric of our cultural mythology:

Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse.

In a remark at once amusing and disquieting in the context of modern childhood — recently, while playing with my four-year-old niece, she pressed her thumb into the circle portion of my arm tattoo as one would press a device button, expecting it to perform some entertaining animation and being visibly disappointed when it didn’t — Kierkegaard offers an illustrative example of this mythology’s aftermath:

How corrupting boredom is, everyone recognizes also with regard to children. As long as children are having a good time, they are always good. This can be said in the strictest sense, for if they at times become unmanageable even while playing, it is really because they are beginning to be bored; boredom is already coming on, but in a different way. Therefore, when selecting a nursemaid, one always considers essentially not only that she is sober, trustworthy, and good-natured but also takes into esthetic consideration whether she knows how to entertain children. Even if she had all the other excellent virtues, one would not hesitate to give her the sack if she lacked this qualification.

[…]

It would be quite impossible to prevail if one wanted to demand a divorce because one’s wife is boring, or demand that a king be dethroned because he is boring to behold, or that a clergyman be exiled because he is boring to listen to, or that a cabinet minister be dismissed or a journalist be executed because he is frightfully boring.

And yet boredom, he argues, is our basic constitution:

All human beings, then, are boring. The very word indicates the possibility of a classification. The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebeians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility. How remarkable it is that those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others.

Illustration by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag,' a most unusual alphabet book. Click image for more.

Echoing his own admonition against our busyness as a distraction from living, he adds:

Generally, those who do not bore themselves are busy in the world in one way or another, but for that very reason they are, of all people, the most boring of all, the most unbearable… The other class of human beings, the superior ones, are those who bore themselves… They generally amuse others — at times in a certain external way the masses, in a deeper sense their co-initiates. The more thoroughly they bore themselves, the more potent the medium of diversion they offer others, also when the boredom reaches its maximum, since they either die of boredom (the passive category) or shoot themselves out of curiosity (the active category).

So what, then, are we to do to protect ourselves against the great evil of boredom? As its counterpoint, Kierkegaard offers the virtue of “idleness” — a concept he uses much like we use the notion of stillness today, a quality of being necessary for mindful presence with our own lives. Kierkegaard writes:

Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored… Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good. Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.

Much of this, of course, is semantic play, further complicated by the messiness of translation. But Kierkegaard’s distinction between boredom and idleness seems rather similar to Van Gogh’s distinction between the two types of idlers. Implicit to the positive counterpoint of the perilous kind is the “fertile solitude” necessary for a full life.

Echoing Seneca’s timeless admonition against compulsive busyness, he admonishes against our tendency to conceive of life as a series of tasks to be accomplished rather than moments to be filled with living:

There is an indefatigable activity that shuts a person out of the world of spirit and places him in a class with the animals, which instinctively must always be in motion. There are people who have an extraordinary talent for transforming everything into a business operation, whose whole life is a business operation, who fall in love and are married, hear a joke, and admire a work of art with the same businesslike zeal with which they work at the office. The Latin proverb otium est pulvinar diaboli [idleness is the devil’s pillow] is quite correct, but the devil does not find time to lay his head on this pillow if one is not bored. But since people believe that it is man’s destiny to work, the antithesis idleness/work is correct. I assume that it is man’s destiny to amuse himself, and therefore my antithesis is no less correct.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Our compulsive busyness also manifests itself in how we attempt to relieve ourselves of boredom — a strategy he explains through the agricultural metaphor of crop rotation done badly, which “consists in continually changing the soil,” a sort of grasping after “the boundless infinity of change.” Kierkegaard explains the failure of this boredom-alleviation method, which twentieth-century psychologists would come to term “the hedonic treadmill” of consumerism:

This rotation of crops is the vulgar, inartistic rotation and is based on an illusion. One is weary of living in the country and moves to the city; one is weary of one’s native land and goes abroad; one is [weary of Europe] and goes to America etc.; one indulges in the fanatical hope of an endless journey from star to star. Or there is another direction, but still extensive. One is weary of eating on porcelain and eats on silver; wearying of that, one eats on gold; one burns down half of Rome in order to visualize the Trojan conflagration. This method cancels itself and is the spurious infinity.

This he counters with the correct strategy — a method akin to mindfulness training, which emerges again and again, across every major spiritual tradition and secular school of thought, as our most promising gateway to happiness. Kierkegaard writes:

The method I propose does not consist in changing the soil but, like proper crop rotation, consists in changing the method of cultivation and the kinds of crops. Here at once is the principle of limitation, the sole saving principle in the world. The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes. A solitary prisoner for life is extremely resourceful; to him a spider can be a source of great amusement… What a meticulous observer one becomes, detecting every little sound or movement. Here is the extreme boundary of that principle that seeks relief not through extensity but through intensity.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

A masterwork of timeless insight, Either/Or is infinitely rewarding in its totality. Complement it with legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life and How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, a wonderful vintage field guide to joyful solitude, then revisit Kierkegaard on why haters hate.

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14 JANUARY, 2015

A Graphic Cosmogony: Illustrators Imagine the Origin of the Universe

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From the lyrical to the ludicrous, uncommon takes on how our world came to be.

Humanity’s history of mapping the cosmos is as long as our margin of error in explaining the universe is wide. We have been wrong about so much so often and so staunchly stubborn in admitting our errors. But we have also produced works of immeasurable beauty in giving form to our awe, however rooted in illusion, and continue to dwell in awe as we struggle to reconcile conflicting explanations and pursue the truth of our origins.

In A Graphic Cosmogony (public library), twenty-four of today’s most celebrated illustrators and graphic artists each take seven pages to tell their version of the story of the universe’s origin and how our world came to be. There are unusual takes on traditional creation myths like The Book of Genesis (who needs Adam’s biologically suspect rib when there is Eve’s true-to-life vagina?), imaginative homages to evolution, gorgeous interpretations of Japanese folktales, and all kinds of fanciful alternative mythologies that fuse the playful with the profound.

In the introduction, Paul Gravett considers why the medium of comics lends itself to the story of creation so aptly:

There is something instinctual, almost primal about making and reading/viewing comics, especially highly graphic ones with few or no words. They spark a provocative clarity that taps into our inner caveman’s brain, our pre-literate child-self deciphering to make sense of the strange wonders of the everyday. And for all our scientific advances, here we are now, only a mere decade into this second millennium, and still finding fascination in the show-and-tell choreographies of pictures, lettering, balloons, captions and panels.

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis

Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis

Jon McNaught: Pilgrims

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Clayton Junior: Ara Poty

Luc Melanson: Deus Magicus

Yeji Yun: Solitude

A Graphic Cosmogony, far more delightful in its sequential and tactile totality, comes from British independent press Nobrow, who have previously given us such gems as a graphic biography of Freud and an illustrated tour of how the brain works. Complement it with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s bewitching Ballad, a different kind of lyrical graphic mythology as old as the world, and this evolution coloring book.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow

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13 JANUARY, 2015

Paul Goodman on the Nine Kinds of Silence

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“There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.”

“I must learn to keep silent,” young André Gide resolved in his journal. But what kind of silence did he mean, exactly? In the 1972 masterwork Speaking and Language (public library), which became his last published work, the great twentieth-century novelist, poet, playwright, and psychiatrist Paul Goodmandubbed “the most influential man you’ve never heard of” — examines the nine types of silence present in life.

“Paul Goodman’s voice is the real thing,” Susan Sontag would come to write in her beautiful eulogy a week after Goodman’s death in August of the same year. “There has not been such a convincing, genuine, singular voice in our language since D.H. Lawrence.” In his exquisite paean to silence, full of what Sontag calls his “patient meandering explanations of everything,” Goodman’s voice spills into its most singular reverb.

Goodman writes:

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

In this beautiful recording from WBUR’s radio program Stylus, British literary critic and poetry scholar reads Goodman’s anatomy of silence in his own deeply resounding voice:

What a shame that Speaking and Language is long out of print, but used copies can still be found and are well worth the pursuit. Complement it with this fascinating history of the origin and cultural evolution of silence.

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13 JANUARY, 2015

How to Master the Vital Balance of Freedom and Restraint: Young André Gide’s Rules of Conduct

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“One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.”

French author André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) is one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century — in no small part, paradoxically, because he adamantly believed that a great writer must always swim against the current of his era. He dedicated his life to the problem of personal freedom and became a staunch champion of the oppressed. His work inspired legal reform in the Congo and helped loosen the grip of colonialism, championed prison reform and more humane conditions for the incarcerated, and laid the philosophical foundation for marriage equality a century before it became a legal reality. The tradeoff for Gide’s devotion to speaking truth to power was that he was systematically snubbed by the literary establishment and deprived of award nominations. It wasn’t until shortly before his death that the Swedish Academy granted him the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” and even then 78-year-old Gide proudly declared to a journalist that if the had been asked to recant any of his subversive work in order to qualify for the prestigious accolade, he would have gladly “bade farewell to the Nobel Prize.”

But nowhere does this “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight” reveal itself with more crystalline precision than in Gide’s six decades as a dedicated diarist with an intense inward gaze exquisitely reflective of the notion that “the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are”; nowhere does Gide’s deepest personhood and most universal insight on the human experience come more fully and dimensionally alive than in The Journals of André Gide (public library), of which young Susan Sontag found “such perfect intellectual communion” as she wrote in her own journal: “I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it — I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times.” Sontag was not alone — it is no more possible to put down Gide’s journal than it is to finish it without feeling wholly transformed.

In one of the earliest entries in the journal, from November of 1890, the 21-year-old author grapples with what would become the defining quest of his life as a thinker and a writer — the pursuit of a moral framework that combines freedom and restraint. Gide itemizes his aspiration toward proper conduct:

I am still clumsy; I should aim to be clumsy only when I wish to be. I must learn to keep silent… I must learn to take myself seriously; and not to hold any smug opinion of myself. To have more mobile eyes and a less mobile face. To keep a straight face when I make a joke. Not to applaud every joke made by others. Not to show the same colorless geniality toward everyone. To disconcert at the right moment by keeping a poker face. Especially never to praise two people in the same way, but rather to keep toward each individual a distinct manner from which I would never deviate without intending to.

Under the heading “RULE OF CONDUCT,” Gide goes on to outline his self-imposed moral mandates:

First point: Necessity for a rule.

2. Morals consist in establishing a hierarchy among things and in using the lesser to obtain the greater. This is the ideal strategy.

3. Never lose sight of the end. Never prefer the means.

4. Look upon oneself as a means; hence never prefer oneself as the chosen end, to the work.

(At this point a blank space in which the question arises as to the choice of the work, and the free choice of that work. To manifest. And yet… Can one choose?)

He adds a further admonition against this focus on the self as a means:

Thinking of one’s salvation: egotism.

The hero must not even think of his salvation. He has voluntarily and fatally consecrated himself, unto damnation, for the sake of others; in order to manifest.

A few months later, in the spring of 1891, he revisits the question of discipline in manifesting the end via the means:

One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it. But I desire everything and consequently get nothing. Each time I discover, and too late, that one thing had come to me while I was running after another:

He then resolves:

No compromise (either ethical or artistic). Perhaps it is very dangerous for me to see other people; I always have too great a desire to please; perhaps I need solitude… (But there should not be any “perhaps” in matters of conduct. There’s no use creating question marks. Answer everything in advance. What a ridiculous undertaking! How rash!)

That he should issue this self-admonition in a parenthetical remark — the ultimate “perhaps” of punctuation — speaks to Gide’s willingness to complicate and contradict his thought, which is the greatest gift of his diary as a timeless trove of psychological insight and creative assurance.

Complement the endlessly rewarding The Journals of André Gide with some of history’s greatest writers, including Gide himself, on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit these 15 self-refinement aspirations from some of humanity’s greatest minds.

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