A few words about boredom: on the novel and globalisation

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L’Atelier du Roman, Paris, no.26, summer 2001


Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or writes in praise of the magical influence of boredom. In his archipelago of black-coated Protestants, in the middle of his sententious century, one of his strokes of genius was to make boredom apparent, to give it its rightful place in the philosophy of the emotions. As Denmark’s theologians stayed lashed to their moral liferaft, Kierkegaard plunged into the foaming equation of modernity. Boredom is the negative pole of reality, he wrote — not idleness as the Protestants would have us believe. And as a Christian he continues to astonish us, as he did the sorely tried crew of the Copenhagen Church, because for him it’s pantheism — not God — that occupies his opposite pole. Boredom is nothing less than the daemonic  side of pantheism, he argues. Pantheism is characterized by fullness, whereas boredom can be recognised by its dependence on the nothingness that pervades reality.

His solution? “If we remain in boredom, it becomes the evil principle; if we annul it, we posit it in its truth; but we can only annul boredom by enjoying  ourselves — ergo, it’s our duty to enjoy ourselves.” Not very Lutheran, you’ll agree. But not entirely useless in practical terms either: every debate, for example, exists to be enjoyed, especially one that involves the clash of aesthetics — which is the general basis of any confrontation between the forces of globalisation and their detractors, and certainly of that between the novel and economics. Money talks. To use money’s language, pleasure at least doubles the value of any argument. (Though boredom too is doubly precious to us, for reasons which will become clear.)

Globalisation wears many costumes. I’m not keen to be found rummaging through its wardrobe: to favour any particular definition, I suspect, would only be to reveal one’s own sartorial preferences. I’d prefer to understand whether there’s a reason within us all — because we are all globalisers now — for the desire to pursue it. Kierkegaard’s foundations strike me as useful. He associated boredom with dread: as the infant rises to consciousness, it feels the dread of nothingness. Later, as it becomes accustomed to this feeling and terror subsides into discomfort, the child seeks to dominate the feeling by its thirst for adventure. We get bored, we cry out for change. (We touch the theme.) In Kierkegaard’s opinion, there were two ways to overcome boredom. The first was by a methodical restlessness, by being always on the move, by depending every day and always on outward change.

“One tires of living in the country, and  moves to the city; one tires of one’s native land, and travels abroad; one is europamüde, and goes to America, and so on; finally one indulges in a  sentimental hope of endless journeyings from star to star. One tires of porcelain dishes and eats on silver; one tires of silver and turns to gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the burning of Troy [my italics].”

The alternative method he stated more succinctly. “It is in your power to  review your life,” he said, borrowing Marcus Aurelius’s glowing phrase, “to look at things you saw before, from another point of view.” Globalisation means the progressive annulment of both history and geography, and it strikes me as curious that Kierkegaard’s two remedies for boredom belong to the same categories: one related to the use of history, the other to the abuse of geography. Naturally one is interested in both — but let us take geography to begin with, because the seductions of restlessness have commanded a far bigger public than the attractions of careful self-review ever since Cristóbal Colón, from the north coast of Jamaica, raved to Queen Isabella in his lettera rarissima of 1503 of his unrivalled triumphs and his devastated life.

The great sea voyage was perhaps the first form of globalisation; it may be there that humanity started its globalising career. Anyone who enters an airport or picks up a telephone is a part of the phenomenon, so let us attempt, if not a definition, a comparative theory. Globalisation represents a thirst for adventure, distorted by the power of capital, whereas the novel, with its self-interrogation and unhealthy interest in existential themes, is both an accessory (adventures by the score!) and  a restraint, a tool of irony. Don Quixote, Gil Blas, Candide, Yevgeny Onegin — ancient friends, those denizens of restlessness — don’t let us down: they watch over our actions carefully, as we watch over them. Meanwhile globalisation pursues its unitary aim, which is to reach the point where global production and global consumption become indistinguishable, when the mechanism of fusion is so locked together that the two cannot be told apart. So far the mechanism is not perfect, as the thirteen-year-old girl from the Jakarta kampung assembling the Nikes naturally cannot afford, on the money Nike pays her, to drink the Coca-Cola nor spend her leisure time in the MacDonald’s, but I set out the goal. Perhaps one distinction, in passing, between the realm of capital and the realm of fiction is that the chief agents of globalisation — the G7 economies, the World Trade Organization, the score or so corporations that dwarf the GDPs of half the world’s population — would make the first point; a novel that treated of globalisation would surely make the second.

To leave the raft of the Medusa, as Kierkegaard did — or its twenty-first-century version, on which the bishops have been replaced by journalists and doctrinal religion by mobilised media — is salutary. Globalisation remains the darling of the business-class magazine covers. (“Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere” — Kierkegaard, 1848). But how often do issues — the big fish of orthodoxies — truly coincide with a novelist’s interests? The critical establishment rejected Scott Fitzgerald in the 1930s principally because he refused to model society from the bottom up, as the commentators of the American Depression demanded. Yet The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s grand time-piece, has silenced the alarm clocks of a decade: it turned out to be a truer picture of the American century because Jay Gatsby is the near-perfect creation of the archetypal aspirant, an American twentieth-century Quixote who endures in our sympathies by his doomed belief in repetition, or what we might call — before, thanks to Fitzgerald, we learn to deny it — the possibility of return.

The American century: a geography, a history. A hundred years ago now; its end so recent, its beginning so ancient, a primitive artefact, like tribal New Guinea or, for that matter, the Europe of regionalism — of ETA and Balkan disorder — and marketing wars. Because, according to at least one definition, every culture is identical, a system of means by which a group seeks to resolve its problems, give an architecture to its temptations, satisfy its needs, assuage its fears. And such systems presume groups, histories and geographies. As Herder rapturously declared in 1791, “How marvellous it is that Nature has separated nations, not only by forests and mountains, seas and deserts, rivers and climates, but more particularly by language, inclination and character, in order that the work of subduing despotism should be more difficult….” He was speaking of local despotisms — but that geography and history with its despotisms has so far saved the world from supranational despotisms. It is incidentally curious to see that the arrival of globalisation coincides with the growth of nationalisms good and less good; and that the number of nation-states (a cherished principle of Herder’s time that has had more than long enough to exhaust itself) is still growing.

And what about global literature? Harry Mulisch once pointed out to me that the Dutch, farmers and traders — Europe’s psychologists and philosophers of finance — read Cervantes differently from the Spanish. For Spanish readers, or South American, the hero is Don Quixote while Sancho Panza is merely silly, while for the Dutch Don Quixote is the foolish knight and “clever is Sancho Panza”. So universal literature — the canon I scratched the surface of earlier — has to be local to qualify.  Thus, possessing nothing universal, it allows many readings. One must name the place — El Toboso, West Egg, Millionaya Street — and then its events may flower into a universal signifier.

I said earlier that boredom is doubly precious to us. As Kierkegaard said, it’s strange the power it has to set things in motion. It makes us act, makes us want to enjoy ourselves. Our discomfort forces us to dispel it. But it teaches us too, by its negative power, what we like. And what we need: the daemonic element that sooner or later forces us to confront the existential consequences of the deepest things we don’t understand about ourselves, leads us to know — trusting that we survive the encounter — where in future we shall keep our best remedy for pain. In the globalised future, desperate to confine us in its product-based realm, there is no pain. But in the novel, which has nothing to lose but its archetypes, there is always, in Pushkin’s modestly offered phrase, “the record of a heart in pain” even as we laugh. Every time we read, we repossess our geography and our history.

And do we risk, in future, seeing those archetypes of the novel disappear which have made it such a laboratory of synthesis, of diversion, of indirect communication? It seems as though it may not be impossible. The norm of the British novel today can even be seen as a kind of acknowledgement of globalisation: the orthodoxy is of lost boys (and girls) performing a kind of play-version of self-discovery within that product-based realm. One quickly recognises that the natural home of such writing is within the global realm because, for all its intermittently existential content — couched in the habits of urban cool, the fashions of urban language, the gentrified version of illicit pharmacology, and the tell-tale inclusion of issues — it too contains no pain whatsoever.

Another feature of the global realm is that it privileges distance, proclaiming its power to shrink and simplify, persuading of the nearness of things that in reality are far away — declaring relationships to be things you have with people you are not too close to: too bad about that, but you can’t have people getting too close, they might turn to discussing matters and come to the conclusion that their relationship is more important than the global realm. Thus, in such novels, featherlight irony, gentle satire, stylistic tricks and cosmopolitan liberalism replace an engagement with emotion, with anger and place, and the struggle to identify freedom. There is neither the furious rhetoric of wit (José Saramago), nor the witty rhetoric of fury (Thomas Bernhard).

How are we to prevent those archetypes from disappearing? We may not prescribe, but I nevertheless believe the novel — that guilty party that insists on complicating a simple and modest homogenisation of the world — knows what it is. It is local. With its geography it creates its metaphors. It creates a mosaic of place that holds an empty space for the locking-piece of human emotion. With its history it tries to soften its own — and our — fears. An example of how serious a matter this is: at Campo de Criptana, hard inside the Manchego plain, there remains a group of windmills. From several miles away they are giants, with their gleaming white bodies, their sails offensively outstretched, ranged in battle formation — and there were even more of them, 40 or so, in Cervantes’ time. And these were the actual windmills mentioned in the novel, my guide says (unless, I reflect, it was some others near Consuegra, 30 miles away, or the ones at… it doesn’t matter. This is the vision the tormented knight saw.) And the guide also says that a Japanese visitor once asked him which was the exact windmill Don Quixote had tilted at, and that when it was broken to him that Cervantes’ account was only a story, he turned on his heel and informed his fellow countrymen, and the whole group returned to their bus then and there and drove away, crushed by the loss of their illusions.

As the above episode shows — you’ll notice it doesn’t matter whether the guide was telling a true story or not — the novel above all things doesn’t privilege distance. It privileges intimacy, the longing in the heart of a businessman from Kyoto about a book he has probably never read, and intimacy remains what it has always been: a form of resistance against the void. So we are free to choose which of Kierkegaard’s remedies we prefer: global restlessness, or local review. And if we opt for the second, we might stop and reflect that there is a good reason why literature moves so slowly: from Cervantes to Balzac, unsurpassed chronicler of monetary capital, was 225 years; from Cervantes to Houellebecq, Balzac’s representative in the globalised world, nearly 400 years. The answer is that the notion of progress in literature is false: literature isn’t a rising graph, but a map, a universal landscape. We may, also, pause and reflect that the point about resistance is not to beat the other side, but to last longer than they do.


© Julian Evans 2001

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