Skip to main content

Looking back at the midlife crisis



In the middle of my life – a point that I crossed while sitting in a messy studio  apartment in Austin – I looked around, and then at the mirror – where else? – and thought about the pattern of failure in my life. Of course, this was that old thing,  the cardboard middlelife crisis and all that, but out of the stereotypes in which we are locked we sometimes achieve spiritual insight. We sometimes find a key, unlock  the stereotype, and step out.  

My answer, my key, to this failure I felt was: that I just could not take boredom. Boredom stuck in my craw.

Or perhaps I should say my inability to endure boredom for the sake of making money. In this, I am spiritually one with the street people, the addicts, the semi-professional criminals – with all of those who never quite grew up, whose immaturity is caught in their throat. The difference is that, among the decayed Peter Pan gang, there is – as you will find out very quickly if you talk to them - an astonishing nostalgia for the larva days – high school pranks, days of honey in the suburban hive. I hate that shit, which bored me at the time, and bores me in memory still.

Which made  me want to start over again and ask whether my failure, here, is not so much that I fly from boredom, as that I am bored at the wrong time and by the wrong things. Add to this another confusion: although sometimes I will say, like anybody else, that such and such a thing is boring – and mean, like anybody else, that it is contemptible, that I would like to step on it, shit on it, spit on it, expel it – at other times I despise this kind of language. Boredom, I think – at these other times – is a kind of test, an exercise. It has a necessity, especially in relation to the ecstatic, the sublime, the interesting. To fly boredom in these cases is to fly the depths. To be unable to be bored is to be unable to be. All of which ties me into knots.

If there is midlife crisis, there is literature. There is, for instance, Kierkegaard. A man to turn to when one is locked in a stereotype.

Our man, in the Concept of Dread (or Anguish), has a lot to say about boredom. In the fourth chapter, Kierkegaard asks what happened to the demons. Why do Christians no longer talk about the demons in 19th century Europe? Are they ashamed?

This is the starting point for Kierkegaard’s discussion of the demonic. He makes a two-fold approach to the demonic. One approach is to see it in terms of communication. Communication, for Kierkegaard, is ultimately about revelation, and revelation is ultimately about the divine. Every act of true revelation is divine. And revelation is at the heart of communication. Thus, every act of non-revelation is on the side of the devil, the ‘spirit of negation’. The demon is, ultimately, non-communicative – on the ethical level. He is closed, locked. The demon is the antithesis of the key – all the keys the demon holds out are skeleton keys, keys to nothing and everything.

 However, granting this two-sidedness, the communication that doesn’t communicate,  what is the positive content of revelation, or communication? What is affirmed? The affirmed is, ultimately, the continuous. Continuity itself. The devil’s share, then, is the sudden – the German term seems to me to contain the forked tail more audibly.  Plotzlich, that which puts itself in opposition to the continuous.

Here we have to engage in some dialectical shenanigans, because if the divinely continuous is really to be continuous, it must contain the sudden. The demon with the false key must be in the house, y’all.  Revelation, after all, has its own suddenness. This gets us to boredom. Boredom is, Kierkegaard maintains, incommunicable – it expresses nothing. This is because its content is the content-less. The content of boredom is no content.

This polarity between the sudden and the continuous explains the boring core of entertainment as we have come to know it. Boredom lifts, briefly, at the end of the horror movie or thriller, and it is in that lift that we retrospectively justify our scares and the fine ethical line we cross by watching, without any kind of mourning or sympathy, numerous killings. Or I should say, not only at the end, but the way in which the entertainment lays itself out as a series of ends. In the classic archetype of the horror movie, the monster always comes back after it has been, supposedly, killed. This is a way of playing with the end as a viewpoint from which to look at any cultural product. This is where killing takes our secular knowledge – death is really an end – and makes it ambiguous.

Myself, at the time of my midlife crisis, was  possessed by the l’wa of boredom, longed for a continuum of suddenness – for the ultimate miracle, for nothing to become something all of the time. Never want to work/always want to play.

Play, as opposed to playfulness, was just what is lacking in Kierkegaard – what pulls him to the right.  Still, what a writer to have at hand for us residents in a lost modernity, for which we have only the most comic of names!

Here’s a bit from K.

“Thus the demonic always is, and thus unfreedom becomes anxious, and thus its anxiety moves. Hence, the tendency of the demonic toward mime, not in the sense of the beautiful but in the sense of the sudden, the abrupt, which life itself often gives opportunity to observe.

The demonic is the contentless, the boring.

In the case of the sudden, I have called attention to the esthetic problem of how the demonic may be represented. To elucidate what already has been said, I shall again raise the same question. As soon as one wants to have a demoniac speak and to have him represented, the artist who is to solve this problem must be clear about the categories. He knows that the demonic is essentially mimical; the sudden, however, he cannot achieve, because it interferes with his lines. He will not cheat, as if he were able to bring about the true effect by blurting out the words etc. Therefore, he correctly chooses the very opposite, namely, the boring. The continuity that corresponds to the sudden is what might be called extinction. Boredom, extinction, is precisely a continuity in nothingness. Now the number in the legend can be understood somewhat differently [The legend here is one about the devil meditating for 3,000 years about how to destroy humanity] . The 3,000 years are not accentuated to emphasize the sudden; instead, the prodigious span of time evokes the notion of the dreadful emptiness and contentlessness of evil. Freedom is tranquil in continuity. Its opposite is the sudden, but also the quietness that comes to mind when one sees a man who looks as if he were long since dead and buried. An artist who understands this will see that in discovering how the demonic can be represented he has also found an expression for the comic. The comic effect can be produced in exactly the same way. When all ethical determinants of evil [IV 400] are excluded, and only metaphysical determinants of emptiness are used, the result is the trivial, which can easily have a comic aspect.”

Ah that dead and  buried person! This was my image of the quiet desperation that consists in  selling his or her boredom for money. And using that money to buy plenty of nothing – suddenness in all its multiple forms and varieties.

The me who dreamed in this way, years ago, is measurably different from the me with a certain ease, an achieved peace with the culture of the bored. Kierkegaard was a bachelor, and it shows, it shows. Or at least, this is how I register the change in myself.