Power, Boredom, and Bellow

Friday, November 27, 2020
Arbor Heights, Seattle, Washington

Achieving the fearful state of “caught up” on the Blackest of Black Fridays, mid-Covid, after illegally traveling by airplane, overeating, over-drinking and, worst of all, over-thinking, I stumbled upon these startling words on p. 203 of Saul Bellow’s book, Humboldt’s Gift:

This combination of power and boredom has never been properly examined. Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death.

Should a day after Thanksgiving even exist, I ask you?

After the feast, with its horrible historical origins, comes talk, television, board games, video games, movies, telephone calls, emails, a Zoom conference or two, texts to your dearest loved ones.

Then, the time just runs out.

Bellow nails it with the death and anguish stuff, continuing:

For instance, the history of the universe would be very boring if one tried to think of it in the ordinary way of human experience. All that time without events! Gases over and over again, and heat and particles of matter, the sun tides and winds, again this creeping development, bits added to bits, chemical accidents—whole ages in which almost nothing happens, lifeless seas, only a few crystals, a few protein compounds developing. The tardiness of evolution is so irritating to contemplate.

In the novel, readers witness the descent of playwright, novelist, double Pulitzer-prize winner, and overall romantic Charlie Citrine. Citrine, in turn, memorializes, in gripping detail, the break-down of his closest friend, Von Humboldt Fleisher, who he surpasses in literary achievement, fame, and success. Humboldt emanates a cruel envy. He ends up in Bellevue. He dies of a heart-attack in an alley, alone, penniless, loveless.

It’s almost enough to distract from the horror of an empty day, a day in which the emptiness promises fulfillment from retail purchases of one type or another.

Purchases never do it.

Experiences might.

But you can’t hold ’em.

Should you even try?

The Buddhists and Taosts preach against it.

All hang-ups result from attachments, desires, or wishes—all phenomena preventing you from being here now—they proclaim.

And, what if being here now feels painful?

You breathe through it.

The point of the novel, I think, as well of this post, is a reflection on romanticism.

The Romantic Period arose in reaction to the rise of science, the objectification of all things. It was a movement in arts and literature, reaching its height in the late 18th century. The artists involved emphasized inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual.

For the record, then, and as evident, it ain’t always romantic.

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