Monday, June 13, 2011

Of Boredom and Definitions

Nathan Ihara relates weighty philosophical speculation from David Foster Wallace and others, but then botches things in the translation and self-narrated conclusion.

First off, I agree completely with the Lee Rourke and Joseph Brodsky quotes. Fine stuff. Wallace, however, is another matter. The biggest problem I have is with thinking that something as subjective as personal boredom can be universalized into a one-size-fits-all assumption. Wallace states 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." But it's been my experience that the opposite of boredom is curiosity. Boredom equals incuriosity, and equals stagnation. Curiosity doesn't relate to bliss, though it can lead there, even in difficult and labyrinthine ways. The opposite of bliss, for me, has been fear and the prevalence of frustrating conflict.

And this brings up another problem I had with Wallace's later quotes (in the link) from his commencement speech to Kenyon College in 2005: that boredom has to do exclusively with circumstances in one's life. Again, one can only speak individually. I'd rather have heard what each of those college kids had to say about boredom than to listen to a single "expert" "warn" them.

My longest bout of boredom arrived with the least pressure from home or work life. It was existential, mysterious, and lasted for several years. Like Brodsky and Rourke, I let it be without manipulation. Conversely, in traditionally boring circumstances (and Wallace and others, of course, are right, these are unavoidable) -- repetitive job duties, suffocating social settings, attendance to bureaucratic necessity -- I've often found a refreshing and perversely contrasting counter to it: impish internal or external challenge, or in the latter case, avoidance (death is the victory for all procrastinators).

The boredom that Wallace talks about seems to me quite superficial: circumstance? Bah! Boredom may be stagnation, but inertia is not always self-perpetuating, and certainly not a necessary life sentence. Ihara's stupid reduction, "Life is unquestionably boring", isn't given gravitas by John Berryman's similarly famous line in one of his Dream Songs. Boredom is a passing state, even on a deeper plane, the same as all other states.

I would reverse Ihara's statement that "The desire to escape boredom lets only to endless craving and insatiable desire". Insatiable desire is inherently frustrating, and can only lead to boredom. But this repeats in all of us, and in every day to some extent, and most importantly, is again part of the lesser see-saw playing out of boredom. This form of boredom could be more accurately called distraction or restlessness, not at all the kind of boredom that I think Wallace and Ihara are talking about.

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