Sunday, March 29, 2009

What’s New?

Limited as my skills in small talk are, one of the hardest challenges people routinely face me with is one most people find easy: “How was your day?” “What’s going on in your life now?” “Tell me about what you’ve been up to.”

The problem is that, as a college instructor, I lead an eventful but fairly repetitive life. For me, the news is papers to grade, committee meetings to attend, and lectures to prepare. Then repeat.

And a community college faculty’s salary, after rent, utilities, debts, and groceries, leaves little left over for those wild nights on the Sunset Strip I sometimes like to imagine for myself.

My life is boring.

The year before he died, Nobel-prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky published his essay “In Praise of Boredom,” to which Andrew Sullivan’s blog recently drew my attention.

In this essay, composed as a commencement address, Brodsky recommends,

“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface.”

My first thought is, Is this generalization true? It seems to be so to me, based, unscientifically, on my own life, which contains not only lulls but a wide range of other “things unpleasant.”

My second thought is, from the vantage of our present crises, Wouldn’t it be better, then, just to let the economy, the system, the government, the environment, the whole infrastructure of the nation and the world simply to fail? Won’t the rebound be a lot quicker if we simply give up on padding the fall?

Even if bottoming out is good for the individual soul, a further question is whether the same will work for societies. About this I have some doubts, but, on the whole, most aspects of the economy, system, government, etc., strike me as hopelessly corrupt, and perhaps (perhaps!) starting from scratch could not be much worse than what we have.

The natural world and the long stretch of human history seem at least as resilient as the individual soul. Of course, when governments and environments bottom out, the situation is generally known as a cataclysm—and the benefits of cataclysm, evolutionarily sound though they are, might be a difficult sell right now.

But back to boredom, relatively benign in the face of cataclysm.

Brodsky continues: “The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.”

Now this is the pessimistic embrace of the worst I admire in Russian writers. Despite a persistent but usually negligible sentimental streak, I am the Anti-Pollyanna. With Bertrand Russell, I say, “The secret to a happy life is to face the fact that the world is horrible.” On the whole my mindset has made me more contented than my hopeful, positive-thinking, and can-do acquaintances.

But what Brodsky touches on here is the spiritual quality of boredom—the zen of the doldrums—the perception of the vastness of time as a pure concept—the existential insight that there are just too many diems to carpe.

He goes on to say, “Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it teaches you the most valuable lesson of your life: the lesson of your utter insignificance.”

My utter insignificance. Here we are along with the Latin satirist Juvenal—and his Enlightenment admirers who meditated on the “vanity of human wishes”—long before Dr. Norman Vincent Peale added Enthusiasm to the trinity of virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.

The idea that, in the huge scheme of things, my individual actions are futile and, with apologies to It’s a Wonderful Life, my existence of no importance whatsoever, and that, as a system of personal faith, cause-and-effect is fallible, if not outright fallacious, is invigorating and weirdly reassuring.

Perhaps, after all, we do children a disservice by constantly assuring them of their special-ness, affirming their self-confidence, stoking their ambitions, and enumerating their entitlements. Given a couple of decades of such hype administered through mass entertainments, assertiveness training, doting adults, glimmering (though touched-up) role models, and catchy jingles, no wonder that, as we mature, even after we shed ourselves of belief in the tooth fairy, Santa, and perhaps even God, it’s such a stunning shock to us to face our own mediocrity.

The hard truth is that nothing new stays new—and taking nothing away from the pleasures of newness, it is unreasonable to expect the new car smell or whatever to last long, much less permeate every moment of our lives. How wonderful, then, that life offers us boredom as a corrective to our unreasonably high expectations.

Again, I find myself musing on my dog, Tom Ripley, as my guru and mentor. How many hours of the day does he stay cooped up in my one-bedroom apartment, doing nothing, occasionally sniffing the dusty corners of rooms, rubbing his back against the furniture, and cuddling up next to my leg to look out the window at the March winds blowing through tree limbs? Yet a more generally cheerful creature I have never met.

He doesn’t buy a new outfit every week. He doesn’t watch TV, much less complain about there being nothing on. He has no career path whatsoever, no vacation plans, no ambitions beyond his daily kibble and hopes of frequent contacts with other sentient beings, canine or other. Clocks and calendars mean nothing to him. The Sunset Strip means nothing to him.

Nature blesses animals with no need for boredom. We civilized humans, however, need boredom as a sort of reality check—a purgative to our inflated sense of self.

Life is precious, though often routine, seldom dramatic (even more seldom dramatic “in a good way”), hardly ever epic or even truly tragic (in the strict classical sense).

Life is more typically light comedy—but mostly, unsurprisingly, it’s just slice-of-life.

Let’s face it: there’s probably a good reason more sentences end in periods and question marks than in exclamation points.

“As music to your ears, this, of course, may not count,” Brodsky states; “yet the sense of futility, of the limited significance of even your best, most ardent actions, is better than the illusion of their consequences and the attendant self-aggrandizement.”

What’s new? Not much. Nice, isn’t it?

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