Somewhere I read (Schopenhauer, I think) that boredom occurs when you feel time pass while doing fruitless activity. Unlike pain, which invades our sensations, forcing our response, boredom seeps in from contrasting our current action from a better alternative.
Existential boredom, then, is a sense that life more generally is not fulfilling. It might be “pleasurable” at a daily level, but when one steps away, it lacks something. Life–like a story–needs a certain cohesion, a “meaning” or significance.
As the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote (or so the various quote websites have us believe),“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” So it is with me.
A confirmed bibliophile, I may not be a surprising case, but I’ll never forget one of my co-workers at Lowes. An older man with rough hands, worn blue jeans, and work boots, he rasped contracting stories in a cigaret-stained voice about “idiots who didn’t know shit about construction.”
But one day, during his break, when I was reading Don Quixote over a turkey sandwich, he sat down and started talking about books. Books he read in school, like Hemingway, Austen, Faulkner, and Dickens. Books his wife read, like Jody Piccoult and John Grisham. Books his father gave him, worn how-to manuals and beat-up hardcovers gathered from outdated encyclopedia sets.
“I miss reading,” he said, leaning back in his metal fold-out chair. “I miss the stories.”
Soon, I went back to the registers, thinking about it. Probably nothing would happen. But a few weeks later, he came in and pulled out a worn copy of the The Old Man and the Sea.
“My favorite,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten this book.”
A quick post for today. I’ve been working on a longer one, but I wanted to do some edits, and I have to run some errands this morning. Expect it later in the week. I hope the holidays have been good to everyone and that the new year is shaping up as it nears.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Existentialism, researching for a paper I hope to write examining the existential elements in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, especially as they connect to Jean-Paul Sartre’s unique brand of it.
One particular tension that has always struck me, which Sartre stresses, is the limited nature of “facticity” and the perceived limitless horizon of the “transcendent.” Facticity captures the “in-itself” nature of something, and is connected with objects. So a particular table could be wooden in itself, three feet tall, made by Stickley Furniture, etc. These are largely fixed properties and therefore limiting.
Transcendence covers the “for-itself” nature of the subjective: the comprehensive range of possibilities, hopes, plans, dreams, and perceptions individual people have. These do change. Constantly. They push and prod us into action, then shift as the action shapes us.
Sartre always stressed the tension between these two ideas as “bad faith.” Sometimes people try to be objects, limiting their transcendence. Sartre gives the example of the waiter who wants to be known only as a waiter, but he has a whole life beyond this. Other times we try to escape our facticity–like our past actions. These are fixed qualities that affect who we are and how others see us. I am a white male.
To me, this tension is a really interesting thing to puzzle over. How am I limited? How am I limiting myself?
For a while now I’ve been wanting to write an essay about end tables, coat pockets, bag bottoms, and storage cabinets. We often forget these clutter-gathering crevices of our individual lives, until we fish through an old coat and pull out receipts, candy bar wrappers, and a dollar or two tangled with some coins. These seemingly random articles, disused and long-forgotten, once played a role. We bought something, earning that receipt. We ate that candy bar and couldn’t find a trash can. We pocketed that loose change.
Such odds and ends reveal our former lives, providing a time stamp for our days and habits, whether they are the books and jewelry on our end tables, the unused casserole dishes in our cabinets, or the grit and at the bottom of our bags. Our past selves leave traces. And just as archaeologists dig through the rubbish of past cities, we can dig through our own lives.
But unlike archaeologists, we don’t normally care about these random bits of rubbish. We crave the big picture–the narrative that collects the pieces, not the pieces themselves. Perhaps a few things transcend this bias, like a stone from our childhood house, a ticket stub from a memorable movie, or that framed first dollar a business might display. We infuse these random pieces of existence with meaning and display them, like a museum of our lives.
But in themselves, they are mere physical objects. That dollar passed trough hundreds of indifferent hands before it fell behind that frame. Its “it-narrative” probably included stints buried in coat pockets or lost in the wrappers and rubbish on the bottom of a bag. Maybe it fell behind a bed. Maybe it went from a lemonade stand to a store clerk to a strip club. That dollar connects us to hundreds of other lives–including our past selves–but its average everydayness camouflages it.
Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.
Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.
Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:
I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight A fair field full of folk · found I in between, Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, Working and wandering · as the world asketh.
Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.
The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.
In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.
I’ve been on the road for most of this weekend, so I haven’t had a chance to update the blog. I apologize. In the meantime, here’s a video. It’s a two-part video on Kierkegaard from a BBC documentary called Sea of Faith that covers a number of modern philosophers, including Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and how they approached faith in the modern era.
In 1841 a little-known English poet escaped an asylum and wandered back to his childhood home in the farmland of Northamtonshire, convinced that he was married to a woman who had died three years earlier.
The poet, John Clare, said that separation from his childhood home–its fields, cottages, and the small taverns where he worked–had made him increasingly alienated from his own self. His later poems reflect his fixation. In one he claims that he was once Shelly and Lord Byron. In his most famous one, “I Am,” he reflects on his isolation:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed.
Isolated and unknown, Clare clings to the few activities, memories, and passions that adhere to his fragmented self. This raises an important question: Who is this “I Am” Clare speaks of, separated from his roots? Who is an I? What is a self?
Standing in the tea aisle of my local Wegmans, my heart pounded and my head froze. The prim, brightly colored canisters and shiny, cellophaned boxes stared at me, rows of them, emblazoned with brand names, alleged health benefits, and flavors. Some were fair trade, some were organic. Others were just cheap.
I didn’t know what to do.
In the end, I picked a compromise of price and quality. The anxiety seems crazy. And, as my dad quipped when I mentioned the issue, it’s better to have too many choices than none at all. True. But option overload has become an increased problem in the West.
As absurd as it sounds, too many choices can be a bad thing.
I spent the last three days traveling to Boston with an old friend and his girlfriend, scouting for apartments. They’ll both be PhD candidates in the fall–one at B.U. and the other at MIT. My old friend called me about a month ago to catch up, and we decided it may be neat for me to move in with them.
I didn’t get into the MFA programs I applied to last winter, and the prospect of a gap year living with my parents at home as I applied to other programs didn’t seem pleasant. My friend agreed. Boston would have plenty of people, schools, and opportunities to explore. I’d be out of the house, living in the world.
The plan was to find a two-bedroom in Cambridge area for a reasonable price. Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.