Sunday, August 30, 2009

'The Boredom Project' by Saul Bellow

'Now you can write your big essay on boredom, and maybe the human race will be grateful. It's suffering and you want to help. It's wonderful to knock yourself out over these deep problems, but personally I don't care to be around while your doing it. I admit you're smart. That's all right with me. You should be as tolerant towards undertakers as I am towards intellectuals. When it comes to men, my judgements are completely female-human, regardless of race, creed, or previous condition of servitude, as Lincoln said. Congratulations, your intelligence is terrific. Still I agree with your old sweetie Naomi Lutz. I don't want to get involved in all this spiritual, intellectual, universal stuff. As a beautiful woman and still young, I prefer to take things as billions of people have done through-out history. You work, you get bread, you lose a leg, kiss some fellows, have a baby, you live to be eighty and bug the hell out of everybody, or you get hung or drowned. But you don't spend years trying to dope your way out of the human condition. To me that's boring."



  1. ..In modern times the question has been dealt with under the name of anomie or Alienation, as an effect of capitalist conditions of labor, as a result of leveling in Mass Society, as a consequence of the dwindling of religious faith or the gradual using up of charismatic or prophetic elements, or the neglect of Unconscious powers, or the increase of Rationalization in a technological society, or the growth of bureacracy. It seemed to me, however, that one might begin with this belief of the modern world- either you burn or rot...

    Suppose that you began with the proposition that boredom was a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents, and was accompanied by expectations of the optimum utilization of capacities. Nothing actual ever suits pure expectation and such purity of expectation is a great source of tedium. People rich in abilities, in sexual feeling, rich in mind and invention- all the highly gifted see themselves shunted for decades onto dull sidings, banished exiled nailed up in chicken coops. Imagination has even tried to surmount the problem by forcing boredom itself to yield interest. This insight I owe to Von Humboldt Fleisher who showed me how it was done by James Joyce, but anyone who reads books can easily find out for himself. Modern French literature is especially preoccupied with the theme of boredom. Stendhal mentions it on every page, Flaubert devoted books to it, and Baudelaire was its chief poet...Cranks like Rousseau made solitude glamorous, but sensible people agreed that it was really terrible...

  2. Then in the eighteenth century being in prison began to acquire its modern significance..the intellectual future of Europe was determined by people impregnated with boredom, by the writings of prisoners...Boredom has more to do with modern political revolution than justice has.

    In 1917, that boring Lenin who wrote so many boring pamphlets and letters on organizational questions was, briefly, all passion, all radiant interest. The Russian revolution promised mankind a permanently interesting life. When Trotsky spoke of permanent revolution he really meant permanent interest. In the early days the revolution was a work of inspiration. Workers, peasants soldiers were in a state of excitement and poetry. When this short brilliant phase ended, what came next? The most boring society in history. Dowdiness shabbinesss dullness dull goods boring buildings boring discomfort boring supervision a dull press dull education boring bureacracy forced labor perpetual police presence penal presence, boring party conferences, et cetera. What was permanent was the defeat of interest.

    What would modern boredom be without terror? One of the most boring documents of all times is the thick volume of Hitler's "Table Talk". He too (like Stalin) had people watching movies, eating pastries, and drinking coffeee with Schlag while he bored them, while he discoursed, theorized expounded. Everyone was perishing of staleness and fear, afraid to go to the toilet. This combination of power and boredom has never been properly examined. Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and death.

  3. There were even more profounder questions. For instance, the history of the universe would be very boring if one tried to think of it in the ordinary way of human experience. All that time without events! Gases over and over again, and heat and particles of matter, the sun tides and winds, again this creeping development, bits added to bits, chemical accidents- whole ages in which almost nothing happens, lifeless seas, only a few crystals, a few protein compounds developing. The tardiness of evolution is so irritating to contemplate...It is agony to think of the groping of the species- all ths fumbling, swamp-creeping, munching, preying and reproduction, the boring slowness with which tissues, organs, and members developed. And then the boredom also of the emergence of the higher types and finally mankind, the dull life of paleolithic forests, the long long incubation of intelligence, the slowness of invention, the idiocy of peasant ages. These are interesting only in review, in thought. No one could bear to experience this. The present demand is for quick forward movement, for a summary, for life at the speed of intensest thought.

    As we approach, through technology, the phase of instananeous realization, of the realization of eternal human desires or fantasies, of abolishing time and space the problem of boredom can only become more intense. The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence- one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer-has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! O! how bring death will be! To lie in the grave, in one place, how frightful!

  4. Socrates tried to sooth us, true enough. He said that there were only two possibilities. Either the soul is immortal or, after death, things would again be as blank as they were before we were born. This is not absolutely comforting either. Anyway it was natural that theology and philosophy should take the deepest interest in this. They owe it to us not to be boring themselves. On this obligation they do not always make good. However, Kierkegaard was not a bore. I planned to examine his contribution in my master essay. In his view the primacy of the ethical over the esthetic mode was necessary to restore the balance. But enough of that...

    These were some of the notes I had a lively time going over in the vast jurors' hall which my friend Thaxter wanted me to expand. I was however in too unstable a condition. Several times a week I went downtown to see my lawyers and discuss my problems. They told me how complex my situaton was. Their news was worse and worse. I soared in elevators looking for salvation in female form whenever a door opened. A person in my condition should lock himself in his room, and if he hasn't the strength of character to take Pascal's advice to stay put he ought to throw the key out the window. Then the door rolled open in the county building and I saw Renata....

  5. "Humboldt's Gift" A Novel by Saul Bellow; The Viking Press, N.Y. 1973

    At the time Mr. Bellow was chairman of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago