Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Being Bored

The nightmarish scenario of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1975), depicts time travelers (“tempunauts”) stuck in a time loop. In Dick’s novel A Maze of Death (1970), a group of space travelers is stuck forever in an orbit around a dead star, unable to break free of its powerful gravitational field. And in Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), an astronaut is forced to remain in orbit around the earth, doomed to die alone in his space ship, unable to return home because the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Dick’s idea of Hell as being stuck in a loop (time, or an endlessly reiterated orbit) was plundered for comic effect in Groundhog Day (1993), perhaps the most truly Phildickian film ever made, although ironically it doesn’t bear his name. (As T. S. Eliot once observed, “Strong poets steal; weak poets imitate.” The filmmakers obviously recognized a good idea when they saw one.) Once, after having shown the film to the students in one of my classes, a nonplussed student asked me to say exactly how many times Bill Murray had lived through Groundhog Day. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer, I say. So I replied simply, “a lot.”

Personally I thought the question itself demonstrated a colossal misunderstanding of the movie, on the order of, say, someone having seen Citizen Kane and then asking what “Rosebud” meant. In other words, she didn’t “get” it. While stuck in the loop, we see Bill Murray—a Dickian hero if there ever was—go through several phases, among them a suicidal one, a prankish one, and, of course, one in which he is profoundly bored. But his boredom is a kind that comes not simply from repetition, but from the recognition that the repetition will never end. Of course, for Philip K. Dick, the loopiness I’ve remarked upon is more of a metaphysical nightmare than the sort of crushing spiritual effect of boredom known as ennui.

But Philip K. Dick wrote about that, too. In perhaps his greatest novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian colonists seek escape from their dreary lives through the ingestion of a drug, Chew-Z, that enables what we would now call “virtual” experience, fantasies that are almost impossible to distinguish from actual reality. The irony is that while the colonists presumably live in an exotic locale like Mars, and presumably are enacting the nineteenth-century American form of individualism known as “pioneering” or “settling the frontier,” they suffer from profound boredom, from ennui. Their lives are very much like those of the space travelers in A Maze of Death: stuck in an endless loop, with no hope of escape, escape in this case being returning to Earth. The world of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is, of course, uncannily similar to our own: the spirit of the Martian colonists is crushed because the colonists live in a world that claims it prizes and values individualism, yet is really dominated by mindless, unrewarding labor.

Walter Benjamin observed over seven decades ago, in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that mechanically reproduced art had rendered obsolete aesthetic concepts like “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime” because they both depend upon the idea of aura—that there is just one of a particular art work, an original. (In other words, most of us encounter the reproduction of a work of art before we encounter the actual thing, e.g., we know the Mona Lisa because we’ve seen a reproduction of it, not because we’ve actually been to the Louvre to see it.) While our so-called “entertainment industry” is premised on individualism—the “artist”—it is actually premised on reiteration and redundancy, on immediate recognition—what we call “genre” or “type.” But if our system of artistic evaluation no longer employs concepts such as “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime,” it no longer employs “the Boring,” either. Critics avoid using the term if at all possible. Thus in the same way that the modern world prizes individualism while the life of most people is comprised of mindless labor, modern critics laud originality in the form of generic innovation (the same, only different).

Most of us experience what we call “boredom” much like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, the same, in an endless loop, day in, day out. One must recognize that the entertainment industry is premised on this sort of reiteration. The repeat, the re-run, the second run, the golden oldie, the classic, classic rock—all of these institutional practices are based on redundancy, and in fact, encourage repetitive behaviors such as “fan favorites” and, in radio, for instance, “make a request” programming. I’m not sure about you, but my idea of Hell would be to hear endlessly looped Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” the scenario Bill Murray endures in Groundhog Day. The trouble is, with no concept like “the Boring” anymore, there’s no way of making the simple aesthetic observation that what was a bad song then is a bad song now. Nostalgia, often understood as the longing for an earlier and hence simpler time, is actually a peculiar expression of boredom, a consequence of having forgotten the monotonous redundancies of an earlier age. If you don't believe that, put on “I Got You Babe” and hit the repeat button, promising not to stop the process, minimally, for at least 36 hours.

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