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On the Philosophy of Boredom

Who does not dislike the experience of boredom?  To be bored is to feel one’s time, one’s energy, one’s capacities are wasted, withering away on nothing.  But, at times, the boredom that seizes us disregards even our greatest loves: no matter the diversion attempted, boredom takes sway.  We might pick up a favorite book, only to put it down with a sigh after a few pages; or begin to watch a movie, a television show, even a live sport—and yet care not a whit for word or action on the screen, no matter how compelling the plot or play.  Chores and to-do’s are often a last resort, for at least the hope that something productive will be done and accomplished: but they seem little more than means to “pass the time”.

But this experience, with which no doubt we all are familiar, serves it seems only to cover up the fundamental and seldom-asked question—and which we intend to discuss in this week’s Philosophical Happy Hour—namely: what is boredom itself?

Kierkegaard and the Root of All Evil

“Boredom”, infamously writes Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), “is the root of all evil.”  Interpreting Kierkegaard never presents an easy task.  Is he being ironic?  Literal?  A mixture of the two?  This last seems often to be the case.  It is not, in other words, that boredom causes in the most literal sense all the evils attributed to it; but there is, no doubt, something pernicious about boredom.  What else does he have to say?

Strange that boredom, in itself so staid and stolid, should have such power to set in motion.  The influence it exerts is altogether magical, except that it is not the influence of attraction, but of repulsion.

In the case of children, the ruinous character of boredom is universally acknowledged.  Children are always well-behaved as long as they are enjoying themselves.  This is true in the strictest sense; for if they sometimes become unruly in their play, it is because they are already beginning to be bored—boredom is already approaching, through from a different direction.

1843: Either/Or, Vol.1, The “Either”, p.281.

We will pick Søren back up momentarily, but this merits a pause: do we not observe today, in the era of constant distraction from distraction by distraction, a rising unruliness in youth?  Is this indeed because they are bored—or because they do not know how to quiet their sense of boredom?  But this raises the question: what is the experience of boredom itself?  Continuing:

The history of this [world going from bad to worse, its evils increasing more and more as boredom increases] can be traced from the very beginning of the world.  The gods were bored, and so they created man.  Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created.  Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase 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; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse.   To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens.  This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.

1843: EIther/Or, Vol.1, The “Either”, p.282.

Here we sense, no doubt, some of Kierkegaard’s characteristic irony.  But though the irony rises to the fore, laced throughout we sense a certain truth.  Much of what we do, much of what we seek, seems motivated—somehow—out of boredom; out of a kind of dissatisfaction with what we have, or a failure of that which we have to satisfy—something.  We may not even ourselves know what.  Is that vagueness itself not a part of the experience of boredom?  That is, we feel ourselves bored when we know not what would get rid of the feeling of being bored; or, if we believe something would, we do not know how to get it.

Still, this does not answer the question: what is boredom?

Heidegger and Indifference

In a lecture course given some 74 years after Kierkegaard passed, Martin Heidegger offered his own extended thoughts on boredom.  Like much of Heidegger’s work—indeed, I’d dare to say, all of it—ultimately he resolves the question into that of being and of time.  But this resolution is not without reason, and, moreover, the path he takes toward it sheds important light on the question itself.  Boredom, as he describes it, has come to the fore in our world precisely through the structures of culture.  As he writes:

Have we become too insignificant to ourselves, that we require a role?  Why do we find no meaning for ourselves any more, i.e., no essential possibility of being?  Is it because an indifference yawns at us out of all things, an indifference whose grounds we do not know?  Yet who can speak in such a way when world trade, technology, and the economy seize hold of man and keep him moving?  And nevertheless we seek a role for ourselves.  What is happening here?, we ask anew.  Must we first make ourselves interesting to ourselves again?  Why must we do this?  Perhaps because we ourselves have become bored with ourselves?  Is man himself no supposed to have become bored with himself?  Why so?  Do things ultimately stand in such a way with us that a profound boredom draws back and forth like a silent fog in the abysses of Dasein [i.e., the intentional structure of human living]?

1929-30: Die Grundbegriff der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, p.77 in the English translation.

Heidegger goes on for quite some time (roughly 80 pages in the English translation) inquiring into the nature of boredom—examining differences of being bored and bored with and boredom itself, between superficial and profound boredom, and so on and so forth.  It is not at all, for seriously-inquiring minds (especially those already familiar with Heidegger’s philosophy), a boring read.

Homesickness and Boredom

But among the many wanderings undertaken through this contemplation, one today caught my attention.  First, he draws attention to the German word and its rather obvious etymology: Langeweile.  The English cognate—“long while”—speaks true.  But within this context, he draws an interesting and, I think, rather profound connection:

We pass the time in order to master [profound boredom], because time becomes long in boredom.  Time becomes long for us.  Is it supposed to be short, then?  Does not each of us wish for a truly long time for ourselves?  And whenever it does become long for us, we pass the time and ward off its becoming long!  We do not want to have a long time, but we have it nevertheless.  Boredom, long time: especially in Alemannic [a group of High German dialects] usage, it is no accident that ‘to have long time’ means the same as ‘to be homesick’.  In this German usage, if someone has long-time for… this means he is home sick for… Is this accidental?  Or is it only with difficulty that we are able to grasp and draw upon the wisdom of language?  Profound boredom—a homesickness.  Homesickness—philosophizing, we heard somewhere, is supposed to be a homesickness.  Boredom—a fundamental attunement of philosophizing.  Boredom—what is it?

1929-30: Die Grundbegriff der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, p.80.

Boredom—homesickness—philosophizing.  The reference of “we heard somewhere” may be a bit of a joke, as the word used for “homesickness” here is unheimlichkeit, literally, “not-at-home-ness”.  In other works of Heidegger, such as his then-famous Being and Time, it will be translated inadequately as “uncanniness”.  But, at any rate, this merits our contemplation.  Is boredom essentially an experience of being homesick, of being “not at home”?  Homesickness itself can tell us something, I believe, about boredom.  When we are homesick, we are uncomfortable: not with the things around us, but with the absence of home.  Our attunement is to the absent and not the present.  We might lash out at the present—in the form of persons or things, in actions or thoughts—but less because of what they are than because of what they aren’t.

So too, I believe, when we are bored, we might become bored with this or that object, but less because of what it is and more because of what it isn’t.  But whereas homesickness has a specified object that it desires (even if we seldom know precisely what it is or why home satisfies us), boredom seems more fundamentally lost.  We seek, therefore, not to alleviate boredom by satisfying its fundamental desire, but by quieting it, putting it to sleep—as Heidegger says—through some distraction, some temporary movement which alleviates that sense of “not being at home”.

Philosophizing at Home

So what is it we are missing when we are bored?  And are we condemned—like Freud’s civilizational discontents—to perennial dissatisfaction, to naught but inadequate sublimations of our fundamental desire to not be bored?

Join us this Wednesday (9/13/2023) for a Philosophical Happy Hour on the topic of boredom: what is it, why do we experience, and what should we do about it?

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

A Meditation on Exile

For better than a decade, I have found myself drawn more to Virgil’s Aeneid and the titular character’s sense of exile and searching—derivative, imitative, precise—than to the great epics of Homer. Voicing this opinion often raises eyebrows, especially those on classicists’ faces. After a meditation upon the insightful conversation of John Senior and Dennis Quinn, of the Integrated Humanities Program once offered at Kansas University, however, I have finally understood my own preference.

Namely: the Aeneid is a poem of maturity. The titular character loses everything. He wanders in homeless exile. But he persists. Virgil, as poet, may be exciting and dashing from time to time, but never, as Senior and Quinn say, could he be called “bombastic”. He crafted his masterpiece over a decade: every phrase and word pruned and ripened by countless hours of care.

But exile—like that faced by Aeneas—more rapidly ages any man or woman, and, today, we are all wandering in exile. We want for a home… many seem not to possess even the sense of what “home” is. This deprivation seems especially true of my own generation (millennials) and younger. Not only are we geographically uprooted, but culturally and spiritually, too. I think therefore that Virgil can teach us more than Homer—Aeneas, as someone facing a situation more alike to our own, more than Achilles or Hector, Odysseus or Telemachus or Penelope.

How are we to deal with our exile?

As I travelled to visit family for Christmas, I read the excellent collection of short stories by Joshua Hren, This Our Exile. Not coincidentally (there are few, if any, coincidences in the stimulation of our minds), we recently concluded our Lectio Commedia: Dante, Poet of Hope reading. Dante, of course, begins his poem in exile: lost in the dark wood of doubt and confusion. Dante the poet appoints Virgil as the guide for Dante the pilgrim. Hren identifies our contemporary lostness. Virgil gives us a tale of human virtue by which we may endure the trials and tribulations of a hostile world. Dante points us toward a divine resolution to our lives.

Late Modern Exile

It is no reach to say that exile has been a theme, of late. It is also no reach to say that this exile is a theme viewed not only from a distance, but one felt.

Our exile is not the same as that faced by Aeneas. We have not been thrown from our land nor had our homes destroyed. Rather, we possess nothing truly ours from which we can be thrown. No foreign invader truly threatens us. We might live in our childhood homes or towns and go off to college, never to return but for visits. But what were the homes which we left?

Speaking for myself, I have long been displaced—uprooted, living in one place after another, moving from apartment to apartment, and only of late have I “settled” in a place I might obliquely call my home. Still, the long habit of living without a place in which I seem to belong leaves me with a feeling of the temporary. But… is it merely the lack of sameness in place that leaves us feeling always stranded in a place we do not quite belong, even when in our houses? Doubtless, geographical uprootedness has something to do with that—but can it alone be accused as the cause?

No: we are homeless because of a cultural decay, a rot from the inside-out.

What makes a house into a home? What makes a land our father or mother? Not a contract, but indeed a belonging—a fittingness in place which constitutes much more than merely “feeling accepted”. To belong is “to go along with”. We belong with that which goes along with us (something much more than merely a psychological subjectivity) toward our end. A home cannot be a place of mere idle rest (more on that momentarily), but must fit what we are as humans. Does one have that, in a modern apartment? In a faceless suburb? In a digital world of communication without community?

Confusing Anesthetic for Genuine Comfort

Late modernity—in the nadir of which I hope we find ourselves, that is, that it may not get any darker than we see now—strives still for the goal of modernity’s founders, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and René Descartes (1596–1650): namely, the mechanical domination of all nature. Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) rightly asserted that the final hurdle for this intended domination was the human being. The late modern seeks to dominate both others and himself. He is not, therefore, at home either among others or in himself. This exile, into which all of us have been thrown whether willing it or not (relationally-constituted as we are), may last some time. It may outlast all who are now living. How can we rediscover a sense of home?

First, we need to recognize that much of what we take as comfort or comforting in our daily lives, in fact, serves only to numb us. To draw upon another epic poem of antiquity, we have become lotus-eaters. Today we see a proliferation of marijuana dispensaries, smoke shops (many advertising kratom in their windows), and, generally, a culture of using alcohol for numbing our pains or escaping the doldrum rather than in festive celebration of friendship and achievement of the good.

Even apart from use of anesthetizing substances, however, we subject ourselves to anesthetizing habits. We binge watch television on streaming services. Video games suck away hours of one’s life. The doomscroll keeps us numb to our own thoughts. We do not—cannot—think deeply about what we see or hear when something new displaces the old every other second. We thereby become lazy and self-indulgent. Striving for the good appears painful; we expect to be handed it. We outsource difficult, tedious, and unpleasant tasks—caring for the elderly, for young children, educating the youth, caring for our property—to paid professionals. We segment and fragment our lives.

Meditation upon Home

Recognizing our anesthetized condition proves far easier than remedying it. Providing that remedy requires more than breaking the spell of the lotus, as it were. We need a positive purpose. Starved of such purpose, we go hungrily in search of our preferred anesthetics.

But, shocked from our anesthetized insensibility, we may recognize ourselves as lost—therein the chief intellectual merit to Hren’s stories. We know that we lack a home. Let us conceive how to build one.

As aforementioned, a home consists in the fittingness of place. Arguably, nothing in this world ever gives us a perfect sense of fittingness, itself an argument for belief in an afterlife. But we may nevertheless benefit from an imperfect-and-perfecting fittingness. That is, some imperfections are means to greater perfections. Our terrestrial homes ought to fall into this category.

We could do far worse than looking to Aeneas and Dante to re-discover how. In Dante the pilgrim, we discover the correction of will through deepened understanding of error and, especially, the peeling back of our self-deception. In Aeneas we discover firmness of character. Through both, we experience a journey in search of a place where one belongs. Neither choice nor “feeling” dictates this belonging. Neither stumbles into his home by fortuitous accident. Rather, they follow aims handed down from on-high.

Their journeys are unpleasant. They undergo many trials. Aeneas, in particular, finds himself enmeshed in an easy and pleasant distraction—the anesthetizing embrace of Dido. But Carthage is not where he belongs. He matures most of all in leaving her behind: for maturity consists, principally, in doing what we would rather not but know we ought.

We want today for such maturity just as we want for a sense of home. Aeneas and Dante alike must discover who they are in order to discover where they belong. Each, subsequently, matures through undertaking the unpleasant challenges that stand between them and those homes.

So, too, must we.