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Posts Tagged ‘Bertrand Russell’

21 JANUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom and “Fruitful Monotony” in the Conquest of Happiness

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“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Between the time Kierkegaard contemplated boredom and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his bewitching case for why the capacity for it is essential for a full life, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) tussled with the subject more elegantly than any other thinker before or since. In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement” from his altogether indispensable 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer” — he teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how vital it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence — a capacity essential for that very conquest of happiness — Russell shines timeless wisdom and remarkably timely insight on the deep-seated demons of human nature that keep us small and unhappy, and offers sage assurance for transcending them by bringing greater awareness to our own perilous pathologies.

With the same astounding prescience that defines most of his work, Russell writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, refuge for running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Indeed, the cultivation of this core capacity early in life fortifies the psychological immune system of the adult. Nearly a century before the iPad, which is now swiftly shoved in the screen-hungry hands of every toddler bored to disgruntlement, Russell writes:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

DIY indoor boomerang from the vintage gem 'How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself.' Click illustration for more.

Instead, he exhorts parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself,” a testament to Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” Russell writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

Even humanity’s greatest works of literature, Russell points out, have boredom baked into their very substance — something he illustrates with an entertaining example all the more perfectly parodic of contemporary publishing:

All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives have contained uninteresting stretches. Imagine a modern American publisher confronted with the Old Testament as a new manuscript submitted to him for the first time. It is not difficult to think what his comments would be, for example, on the genealogies.

“My dear sir,” he would say, “this chapter lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the highlights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

So the modern publisher would speak, knowing the modern reader’s fear of boredom. He would say the same sort of thing about the Confucian classics, the Koran, Marx’s Capital, and all the other sacred books which have proved to be bestsellers.

(Of course, it’s triply tragicomic to imagine what Russell might make of the listicle — today’s ultimate reactionary hedge against our fear of boredom.)

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish illustrated guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

He uses the most intimate of metaphors to illustrate the existential emptiness that such groping for fleeting excitement engenders:

Consider the difference between love and mere sex attraction. Love is an experience in which our whole being is renewed and refreshed as is that of plants by rain after drought. In sex intercourse without love there is nothing of this. When the momentary pleasure is ended, there is fatigue, disgust, and a sense that life is hollow. Love is part of the life of Earth; sex without love is not.

This, indeed, is both Russell’s most timeless and most devastatingly timely point — that our dread of boredom is a self-inflicted wound resulting from the singular modern violence of our break with nature. But here is the most striking part: The sight of a man walking down the street transfixed by a glowing rectangle, completely blind to the sky and deaf to the birds and hardened to the wind’s caress, would have been completely foreign to Russell. Many decades before such violent forms of severance from nature existed, he admonishes:

The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. It makes life hot and dusty and thirsty, like a pilgrimage in the desert. Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind. A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

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

The Conquest of Happiness is a spectacular, existentially necessary read in its entirety. Complement it with Russell on human nature, his heartening message to descendants, and his ten commandments of teaching and learning.

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28 JUNE, 2013

Happy Birthday, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: 21 Essential Reads on Education

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Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Isaac Asimov, Kio Stark, and more.

After previously requested reading lists like famous writers’ collected advice on writing, the best books of 2012, and history’s finest letters of fatherly advice, here is another omnibus of popular demand: 21 great reads on education from the Brain Pickings archives, to commemorate the birthday of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712–July 2, 1778), whose reverberating wisdom shaped modern thinking on education.

Complement with the Book Pickings education archive.

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22 MARCH, 2013

In Which Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw Collide on Their Bicycles

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“Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been.”

“How many intellectuals does it take to crash two bicycles?,” asks Craig Brown in Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — the same wonderful daisy chain of famous encounters that gave us Rudyard Kipling’s warm memories of Mark Twain and Walt Disney’s copyright contentions with Igor Stravinsky — before introducing us to a calamitous encounter between George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. And, yes, it does involve bicycles.

Brown chronicles the unusual encounter, which took place in September of 1895, while the two then-young men were visiting the socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb at their house in Monmouthshire:

Though aged twenty-nine, he is still learning to ride a bicycle, and is doing so with a recklessness at odds with his usual physical timidity. He regularly falls off at corners, simply because no one has satisfactorily convinced him of the need to lean into them. Faced with a steep downhill slope, he places his feet on the handlebars, and is then unable to steady himself when he hits a bump. Whenever he falls off his bicycle, which is often, he never admits to a mistake, behaving as though it had always been his intention.

“Many of his falls, from which he would prance away crying ‘I am not hurt,’ with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism,” notes his biographer, Michael Holroyd. “The surgery afterwards was an education in itself. Each toss he took was a point scored for one or more of his fads. After one appalling smash (hills, clouds and farmhouses tumbling around drunkenly), he wrote: ‘Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been. Nobody but a teetotaller would have faced a bicycle again for six months.’ After four years of intrepid pedalling, he could claim: ‘If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.'”

Also staying with the Webbs was up-and-coming philosopher Bertrand Russell, twenty-three at the time. Years later, he would come to use the bicycle — like Steve Jobs famously did — as frequent metaphor for his intellectual arguments. In the 1926 treatise Education and the Good Life, for instance, he offers learning to ride a bicycle as an example of overcoming fear by acquiring skill.

But on that particular September afternoon, the bicycle carried an urgency of a far more practical nature for Russell and Shaw, who could’ve used this vintage bike safety manual. Brown details the farcical incident:

The two spindly intellectuals set off on their bicycles through the rolling hills of Monmouthshire. Before long, Bertrand Russell, slightly out in front, stops his bike in the middle of the road in order to read a direction sign and work out which way they should head. Shaw whizzes towards him, fails to keep his eyes on the road, and crashes right into the stationary Russell.

Shaw is hurled through the air and lands flat on his back “twenty feet from the place of the collision,” in Russell’s empirical estimation. Following his normal practice, Shaw picks himself up, behaves as though nothing is wrong, and gets back on his bicycle, which is, like him, miraculously undamaged.

But for Russell, it is a different story. “Russell, fortunately, was not even scratched,” Shaw tells a friend, adding mischievously, “But his knickerbockers were demolished.” Russell’s bicycle is also in a frightful state, and is no longer fit to ride. Russell says of his assailant: “He got up completely unhurt and continued his ride. Whereas my bicycle was smashed, and I had to return by train.”

Shaw, true to his bravado, reinforces his “victory” in a rascally demonstrative manner:

The train is extremely slow, so Shaw is easily able to outpace it. Never one to let tact get in the way of comedy, he pops up with his bicycle on the platform of every station along the way, putting his head into the carriage to jeer at Russell. “I suspect that he regarded the whole incident as proof of the virtues of vegetarianism,” suggests Russell sixty years later.

Their relationship never fully recovers, though it bumbles on for half a century or so. Russell concludes that, “When I was young, we all made a show of thinking no better of ourselves than of our neighbours. Shaw found this effort wearisome, and had already given it up when he first burst upon the world. My admiration had limits … it used to be the custom among clever people to say that Shaw was not unusually vain, but unusually candid. I came to think later on that this was a mistake.”

The rest of Hello Goodbye Hello goes on to recount such similarly riveting encounters between luminaries like Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy, Andy Warhol and Jackie O, J. D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway, and a wealth of others.

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