O MacGuffin

segunda-feira, setembro 06, 2004

Bad and bored
in The Spectator
"In 1850, the famous French alienist Brierre de Boismont began his disquisition on the medical consequences of boredom, ‘The man who thinks, a famous philosopher once said, is an animal depraved; it had been better to say, an animal that is bored.’
He went on to assert that if the prevalence of madness increased with civilisation, then, a fortiori, that of boredom increased even more. This is a dangerous romantic conceit; and people who are weak in logic are likely to conclude that if sophisticates are often bored, then boredom is a sign of sophistication. To adapt slightly a maxim of La Rochefoucauld, some people would never be bored if they had never heard of boredom.
‘When I tap the keyboard I want you to do an emergency stop.’
Still, the phenomenon of boredom is real enough; and for myself, I doubt that much sophistication or leisure was ever necessary for a person to experience it. It is, after all, perfectly possible to be very busy and yet bored. Indeed, I suspect that this is, and has been throughout history, the fate of most working people.
It has fallen to our generation, however, to create a population that is bored equally by work and leisure. (That, of course, is why ‘leisure management’ has become both an academic subject and a career.) When I meet patients who tell me that they are fed up with their work because it is so boring, and they wish they could stop working altogether, I ask them what they would like to do instead. The question comes like an unexpected thunderclap, or a flash of lightning in a darkened landscape: they’ve never thought about it, and when they do they are completely unable to answer. They realise for the first time that it is not so much work that bores them as existence.
This underlying, or existential, boredom — and the desire to overcome it by whatever means — is a major cause of the epidemic of self-destructive, as well as antisocial, behaviour that has swept the Western world in the past few decades, Britain above all. In matters of self-destruction, in fact, we are in the vanguard. If gold medals had been awarded at the Olympics for senseless, self-destructive egotism, we’d have swept the board, gold, silver and bronze.
By and large, the struggle for existence, which once might have given a grim purpose to life, is over. You can’t really go hungry, whatever you do. On the other hand, it seems to millions of people that a life of labour will bring them very little more than would a life of laziness. Not only is the work unsatisfying in itself, having little or no intrinsic meaning, but it brings only marginal benefits from the point of view of standard of living. The dignity of labour is nothing, especially to people who inhabit the fantasy Hello! magazine world of Posh and Becks. To be busy, bored and poor is not much fun; in fact there are few worse fates.
Religion, except for a small minority, has long since ceased to give the transcendent meaning to existence that, for some reason as yet undiscovered, most men need. The Church of England has become social democracy at prayer, with the politics and prayer removed; the Pentecostal churches are flourishing in a small way, but not everyone can become a Holy Roller. Young Muslims of Pakistani origin have become entirely secular, except when it comes to mistreating women. No, religion is not a likely path out of our current existential impasse.
Culture — in the sense of belonging to a great tradition which one inherits and to which one does one’s small best to contribute in some way — is not a solution either. We now live in a culture of the present moment that specifically derides the achievements of the past and treats the latest thing as inevitably the best thing. There is therefore no transcendence in it, only trance and distraction.
Patriotism is as dead as religion as a source of transcendence or sense of purpose. I am not much of a flag-wagger myself, and I acknowledge that patriotism, whosever it might be, can all too easily turn into abject self-worship. Nevertheless, a sense of national achievement is a spur both to further achievement and individual self-respect, a quality in which the contemporary British are so obviously and conspicuously lacking.
What, then, is left? The day-to-day flux of existence, which is boring, banal and meaningless. People who are lacking in ambition may nonetheless derive satisfaction from being useful; but such a solution is increasingly denied to people who live in the thin world of popular culture, which is swiftly moving, endlessly exciting in the most superficial way, utterly fixated on celebrity as the highest good, and childishly glamorous.
Many people, then, are left without ambition, but with plenty of daydreams. An ambition is something to which you can take rational, if not necessarily successful, steps; a daydream haunts your waking life and is as realistic as a ghost, but nonetheless leads to resentment when it remains as unfulfilled as ever.
What is a person to do who is tormented by daydreams, but bored sick with his daily life, or any likely variation of it? One possible solution is to turn it into a soap opera, with himself as the principal character. An endless succession of dramatic moments is a powerful substitute for a genuine purpose, and if pursued with enough tenacity will successfully disguise the fact that life is without purpose or even interest.
If I am right, this explains why so many people — hundreds of thousands, if not millions — pursue courses of action that are predictably and obviously disastrous not only for themselves but for others, and do so not once but repeatedly. In part they do so because they are aware that the state will always pick up the pieces; but the state’s role is enabling, not determining. Those with an autonomous sense of purpose will not accept the state’s poisoned chalice, however it is offered.
I came to my conclusions about the desire to avoid boredom being at the root of so much contemporary evil by considering many cases in which very badly abused women have repeatedly taken up with lovers who have brutality written all over their faces (in some cases literally, by means of tattoos). Usually the brutality becomes insupportable in the end, and they leave their latest brute. But what is very striking in their histories is that many of them have had relations, at least once in their lives, with a decent man who has treated them ‘right’. Their relationships with these men have almost always been the shortest of all their relationships.
It isn’t that they lack that worst and most useless of qualities, self-esteem. As for the men, their vile conduct creates dreadful complications for them, too. No; the moral cesspit in which they live, which both imitates and inspires modern soap operas, disguises by means of its inevitable crises the vacuity of their lives."

Ah pois é, ah pois é...

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