Thursday, August 04, 2011

Anxiety and Boredom

Mailer complained that Hemingway "left us marooned in the nervous boredom of a world he didn't try hard enough change". I've always liked that formulation, though I don't think it's particularly constructive to blame a great author for the mess we're in. Let's say Hemingway here comes to represent his generation. They didn't try hard enough. Neither did Mailer's generation. Neither has mine. So here we are.

"Nervous boredom." That was Mailer's description of the mid-1950s. I want to try to use the notions of "care" and "daring" to understand this state. Can we say that boredom is to care as anxiety is to daring. When we "don't dare", we "lose our nerve". There is a sense in which we lack the courage to proceed but, knowing that we must proceed, we grow anxious. We know that something has to be done, but we don't dare to do it.

(We'll leave aside clinical cases and debilitating phobias for now. I'm not an existential psychologist. I'm a philosopher-poet.)

Likewise, boredom indicates a lack of curiosity. It is when we are bored that we must learn to care again. Often, we must find something that captures our interest, something to care about.

What constitutes this "world" that Hemingway did not try hard enough to change? The modern world is constituted by a network of machines (the materialization of science) and a web of machinations (the socialization of politics). Taken together, they can be called, using Foucault's word, the "apparatus" of the age. Heidegger might say that it "enframes" us. "Apparatus" comes from Latin, apparare, "to make ready for". "The readiness is all," said Hamlet. Why does this bore us? Why does it make us anxious?

I think I know. It is because in a world of machines and machinations it is too often stupid to care and cruel to dare. One might say that it is impossible to care (to engage with impossibilities is the fundamental stupidity) and it is unnecessary to dare (to pursue unnecessary danger is to risk cruelty).* More precisely, there are very few things that it is possible to genuinely care about, and there are almost no occasions where an act of daring can be said to be necessary. And yet, in our nervous boredom, it is precisely those moments that we must discover. ("Bring us necessity," implored Kierkegaard. "Bring us possibility!")

I do think both Mailer and Hemingway did their best to locate those moments. At least before they stopped writing for the day, and started drinking.

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*[Update: I might be getting this backwards. Perhaps it is cruel to care and stupid to dare. Then again, maybe we're entering a region where one is foolish to distinguish too clearly. What Beckett called simply "the mess".

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