“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, June 25, 2010

The influence of civilization on madness

Alexandre Brierre de Boismont is one of the touchstones of research on boredom and suicide. Baudelaire read his essay on l’ennui – or at least references it in his notebook. Foucault, in his lectures on psychiatric power, mentions de Boismont’s clinic at Saint Antoine, in which the doctor consciously familialized his relations with his patients – they were to consider him a father, and his wife a mother. Elizabeth Goodstein recognizes him, in Experience without Qualities, as the doctor who is most associated with modernizing “the modern topos of ennui as a disease of civilization.” [129] Boismont himself, in his essay on l’ennui, taedium vitae, refers to a talk on the “influence of civilization on madness” that he gave in the 1820s. Boredom – or something like boredom, something like Langeweile, something like tedium, something called l’ennui – was at the center of Boismont’s contention. Boismont was born in Rouen in 1797 (where his father, on his birth certificate, is listed as vivant de son revenue”[Goldstein, 387], and studied in Paris, where he mixed with Esquirol’s circle. He had, by the 1840s when he published his study of l’ennui, plenty of clinical experience in Paris, mixing with the most advanced clinicians.

Boismont’s historical analysis of l’ennui is not just the background of his theory, but an inseperable accompaniment – for Boismont needs to show, at least, a quantitative change in the incidence of l’ennui over time. He traces the disease back to Seneca, then through the church fathers and, rapidly, through the middle ages. From Boismont’s point of view, the interesting thing is the connection between l’ennui and suicide – it is suicide that allows us, so to speak, to medicalize the feeling. But because all incidences of boredom don’t result in suicide, there must exist a, so to speak, non-pathological variant of l’ennui. And is this effected by, even created by, ‘civilization’? It is interesting how he deals with this point when he comes to the seventeenth century and, so to speak, thrusts l’ennui into the heart of French history:

“In the seventeenth century, l’ennui gnawed at the heart of Louis XIV and it was this wound that madame de Maintenon was charged with ceaselessly dressing. But as that celebrated woman represents the triumph of private life, and as that private life, says H Saint Marc Girardin, fell into the sloth (l’oisiveté) of the palace, she had the disease of l’ennui in such a way that madame de Maintenon at Versailles was at the same time the heroine and martyr of private life. What a martyrdom I suffered, she said at Saint Cyr after the death of Louis XIV, in her conversations with madame de Glapion, and in what straits I passed my life while they thought I was the happiest woman in the world!”

In Boismont’s account, private life may be the supportive milieu for l’ennui – but it was the eighteenth century that invented the carrier: philosophy. And it was a woman, du Deffand, who was the exemplary victim and heroine – who was gifted, or injured, by the ability to see to the empty bottom of all things, and who called this vision “l’ennui”.

Boismont’s views in 1850 have been circulating among other doctors and popularizers even in the 1830s, so it is not historically fantastic to conjoin, here, this notion of a philosophical disease and the remarks Büchner puts in Prince Leonce’s mouth. Let’s tie l’ennui a little closer to politics – in a speculative mode, under the conditional. What, after all, is wichtig? What is this emptiness of Deffand’s? These are not simply speculative issues – for Boismont and for Büchner. Or I should say that speculation, here, has a strange material power. In the French revolution, the question of what – and who – was important was asked with an intensity, and produced an activity, that distinguished it from the American revolution. In the latter, the problem of what was important was settled: the settler was more important than the indian or the slave, and his importance was measured by his rights, which were inalienable. But there came a moment in the French revolution, a moment of social eeriness, a moment of terror, where it was not at all clear what was important, and to whom, and what the measure of importance was. This eeriness is still something that jumps out from our histories, and draws its dividing party line among the historians.

But again – what is l’ennui? In Boismont’s essay, it is not only a disease of modernity, but a recapitulation – a negative recapitulation – of the revolution. The torch of terror is not led by hope, here, but by hopelessness. There is no key to liberty in l’ennui.

To mix Kierkegaard with Boismont, in l’ennui, freedom loses the motive to repeat itself.

Another name for boredom might be: fatelessness.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

the visions of the bored

Was die Leute nicht alles aus Langeweile treiben! Sie studieren aus Langeweile, sie beten aus Langeweile, sie verlieben, verheiraten und vermehren sich aus Langeweile und sterben endlich aus Langeweile, und – und das ist der Humor davon – alles mit den wichtigsten Gesichtern, ohne zu merken, warum, und meinen Gott weiß was dazu. Alle diese Helden, diese Genies, diese Dummköpfe, diese Heiligen, diese Sünder, diese Familienväter sind im Grunde nichts als raffinierte Müßiggänger. – Warum muß ich es gerade wissen? Warum kann ich mir nicht wichtig werden und der armen Puppe einen Frack anziehen und einen Regenschirm in die Hand geben, daß sie sehr rechtlich und sehr nützlich und sehr moralisch würde?

What don’t people do out of boredom. The study out of boredom, they pray out of boredom, they fall in love, marry and multiply out of boredom and finally they die out of boredom… and, this is the funny thing – do this all with the most important faces, without seeing, why, and God knows for what purpose. All these heros, these geniuses, these imbeciles, this saints, these sinners, this family men are fundamentally nothing more than refined loungers. But why do I know this? What can’t I take myself seriously and dress the poor doll up in a frock coat, with an umbrella in his hand, in order for it to become very proper and sober and moral? – Leonce and Lena

I began this interlude in Strassburg, 1831. Büchner, 18, arrives there in November, in time to get involved with the student greeting of the Polish hero, R. Of course, the greeting was produced not simply to show sympathy with Poland, but contempt for the former liberals who were now forming a centrist group, Since the editor of Büchner’s works first drew attention to this letter in the 1870s, it has been interpreted in ways to shed light on Büchner’s radical politics, and this has become the Leitfaden in Büchner studies – is this the young man, so ardently longed for, standing in the sun with his gun? Or is this another poseur? But I am interested in the way that Büchner, even at 18, saw double – he saw that politics was ‘important’, and he saw that it was theater – and that he cast this vision over the whole of life. Is this double vision the characteristic propositional attitude of the bored? Belief and non-belief, a binocular attitude that does not negate itself, but does not take itself ‘seriously’?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Defending myself against the materialist attacks of my conscience

Now we're gonna be face to face
As I lay right down in my favorite place



When Emile Tardieu published his book on L’ennui, a reviewer in the Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane in 1905 reproached him for taking much of his data from the belles letters, which “proves little.” Today’s Tardieus, notably Elizabeth S. Goodstein, in Experience without Qualities: boredom and modernity, also references, besides such writers as Tardieu, of course, the same writers Tardieu mentions, from Senacour to Flaubert and Baudelaire. Goldstein is an infinitely cleverer methodologist than Tardieu, and defends herself by taking up the thesis that if we are to look for affective changes, or changes in the interpretation of effect, in a culture, we should look in the discourse – we should look in the rhetoric, our collective sensorium for the registration of mood.

I, too, am going down this route, and I’m not quite satisfied with the unanchored discourse defense of gathering evidence among the literati. Rather, I think there are good sociological reasons to say that discourse itself changes in modernity – that a greater space is taken up, materially, by the “third life” as a result of urbanization and literacy, which thrust into the everyday life of the people a more crowded and changing visual and symbolic vernacular – books, signs, songs, paintings, vaudeville, and of course the technologies for reproducing the ‘work of art”. In Dostoevsky’s The Devils, there is a joke about the fact that one day, public opinion ‘appeared’ in Russia and became subject to discussion in Stepan Verkhovensky’s little circle. Engels in the Position of the Working Class discusses public opinion, similarly, as a semi-institutionalized force in the advanced countries. Discourse is not some abstract universal, but a form subject to variation and tied down by a thousand Lilliputian strings to everyday life. And as it was commodified, industrialized, massified, there is no doubt that its producers – its clerks – were aware that there was a new power under their fingertips – if they only knew it. Nietzsche was certainly not crazy to think that, in spite of selling a couple thousand books, he was dynamite – the feeling that one has written something that will be read, that bears its audience with it into the future, is in one way a very clear response to what was happening to ‘discourse’.

There is, of course, another aspect to the expansion and entrenchment of the third life. As I have often pointed out – go back to the post on November 21, 2008, for instance – what demographers discovered in the sixties and seventies – the shift in the composition of the Stem-household in Northwest Europe, in which males no longer brought their wives home to the patriarchal manse – created a discontinuity in bio-social time that became “youth”. Look at the aliens in the artificial paradise, so many of them are marked by bachelorhood – Baudelaire, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard. Youth, which becomes, on a large scale, identified with the third life – with learning to read, with reading, with, among the members of the circulation class, reading as a identity shaping event – is both symbol and audience, here. The novel of apprenticeship, Moretti’s central novelistic form, reflected the golden age in which it was to be read.

Happiness, as we have pointed out for the last three years, is a total social fact. To a certain extent, boredom, l’ennui, Langeweile, is too. Tardieu, who we will look at later, found it at the root of modernity itself. I have a more complicated story than that.

The court rests.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Places and people: bored Europe

The year 1831 in Strasbourg, according to the city chronicle written by Charles Staehling, saw the return of reaction after the liberal revolution that had put Louis-Philippe in power. Strasbourg had been a hotbed of liberalism under Charles X; its chief notable, Frederic Turckheim, had allied himself with Benjamin Constant. But in 1831, Turckheim, who had been appointed mayor of the city by the king, tried to deflect the liberal momentum, for instance by advocating the disbanding of the national guard, and then, when that didn’t work, operating to elevate reactionary officers. Of course, the university – and especially the medical students – were notoriously to the left. Surely they took part in the charivari that greeted Turckheim in the summer of that year, when he and his associates – the respectable middle class – took to calling themselves the Juste-Milieu, after a phrase of the King’s.

And this is a scene from the year of the juste milieu, preserved in amber by Staehling:

“The brasseurs of Strasbourg sent to Paris three delegates, MM. Schott of the Tigre, JJ Lauth of the Chain and Wagner of the Ostrich in order to complain about certain vexing measures of indirect taxation. Presented by the baron Athalin, deputy of the Bas Rhin, they were admitted to an audience with the king who, says the journal, welcomed them with much beneficence and expressed very flattering sentiments for their department.”

The juste milieu could not hold from the very beginning. The king and the restauranteurs, brought together by a Balzacian baron, are a sort of omen that the order cannot last. The Lord, it says in Revelations, spews the lukewarm out of his mouth.

But even if the liberal momentum was stopped, romantic nationalism, with which a certain liberalism was associated, wept its tears that year for the aborted revolt in Poland. A Polish general, Ramorino (who, it turned out from evidence supplied later, had probably been paid off by the Russians) was feted in Strasbourg as he passed through on his way to Paris. The liberals mixed up sentiment for defeated Poland and sentiment for the defeat of liberalism in the celebration accorded to the general. Which is where I will start this parenthesis. With a letter written by an 18 year old medical student that detailed these events to his parents: Georg Buechner.