Bored Out of My Mind: Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire’s Reflections on Boredom, Art, and Experience

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The relationship of boredom to art, entertainment, and modernity is a topic of interest to great thinkers and writers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin. For all of them, boredom is something that is born out of modernity. In many ways it is something that passes on from the aristocracy to the emerging “petit bourgeoisie.”   Karl Marx, who coined the term “petit bourgeoisie,” thought of boredom in a very negative manner. Mockingly taking a jab at GWF Hegel, he argued that “insofar as abstraction comprehends itself it is seized by an infinite boredom.”   Indeed, the highest exercise of thought is, for Marx, informed by boredom. His counter-argument to Hegel, in many ways, aims to somehow eliminate it.   But he was not alone in his distaste for this modern phenomenon. He was interested in how it affected thought and the apprehension of class difference. But thinkers and writers like Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, and Benjamin were interested in how it effected experience, literature, art, and poetry. While Kierkegaard and Baudelaire had a negative attitude towards boredom and its relationship to literature, Walter Benjamin had a more positive attitude.

In his exceptional allegory, “A Heroic Death,” Charles Baudelaire pits the artist (mime) against a Prince. He is, to be sure, the court jester. Both of them are, as we learn at the beginning, “almost friends.” However, in truth, the Prince is not an entertainer, he is an artist. But the narrator calls both of them “artists.” Obviously, the reader wonders why the Prince, a consumer of art, would be called an artist by the narrator. After all, consumers don’t produce art. They consume it. However, in suggesting that the Prince’s “worst enemy is boredom,” and that he would do anything to “eliminate it,” the narrator suggests that the Prince’s art is the art of pleasure.

From the narrator, we learn that the jester involved himself, unthinkingly, in a plot to overthrow the Prince. When the Prince finds out, he doesn’t kill him…directly. Rather, the narrator suggests that in making the jester perform, the Prince is really out to end his boredom. As a result, he performs an “experiment” on the jester so as to see what will happen when he is under pressure. This experiment is much like what we find on reality TV today. However, the narrator – and Baudelaire – is shocked by this since, in the end, the Prince, in feeling that the jester has too much power because he enraptured his audience, decides to indirectly kill him. In other words, for Baudelaire, Boredom kills. And the art of ending boredom is ultimately violent and to the detriment of the artist. Boredom doesn’t produce great art; it destroys it.

Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, also expresses a disdain for Boredom.   It is the root of not just all modern evil but evil throughout history: “What wonder, then, that the world goes from bad to worse, and that its evils increase more and more, as boredom increases, and boredom is the root of all evil” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 22).

To illustrate this, Kierkegaard goes through history, starting with the Bible, and argues how nearly every major evil was caused, in some fashion, by boredom.  Kierkegaard states as his universal proposition that “all men are bores” and launches into an interesting rant on boredom which tries to fit in as many particulars as possible within this category:

It may as well indicate a man who bores others as one who bores himself.  Those who bore others are the mob, the crowd, the infinite multitude of men in general.   Those who bore themselves are the elect, the aristocracy; and it is a curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others (24).

In contrast to Baudelaire and Kierkegaard, Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Storyteller,” argues that Boredom has a positive relationship with literature and, in fact, can be drawn on as the basis for what he calls “experience.” He argues that if a writer or storyteller is going to have an effect on his or her listeners then they must appeal to the memory of the listener and this requires time and what he calls “relaxation.” Without “relaxation,” the reader won’t be able to “assimilate anything.” Boredom, he argues, is a modern equivalent of such relaxation:

This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a stage of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling of the leaves drives it away. (91, Illuminations)

Benjamin laments that “his nesting places” are “already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well.” In other words, people and cities and in the country are no longer bored, at least in the sense that Benjamin suggests. And when boredom disappears, “the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears.”

Reading this, one wonders if Benjamin and Baudelaire are talking about the same kind of boredom. To be sure, the boredom of the Prince is an allegorical figure for the boredom that would drive us to watch Reality TV, buy iPads, etc. However, Benjamin’s sense of boredom is one that goes hand in hand with patience, not speed. The bored individual, today, is anxious and wants to get rid of that feeling. Much like the Prince, they don’t have time to listen. Boredom, as Benjamin thinks of it, requires a different sense of time.

Questions for Benjamin: Why isn’t literature or a three hour movie a space that preserves boredom?   Don’t we still find time for reflection? And can’t we still have experiences? Or is our development to jagged and sporadic? Is the other kind of boredom leading us astray? Are we, as Baudelaire says, in his poem, “To the reader,” “hypocrites” because our desire for poetry or literature is based, ultimately, on boredom?  Are we so bored out of our minds that even if we think of ourselves as authentic listeners – in Benjamin’s sense – we are really….”hypocrites”?

To the Reader

Folly and error, avarice and vice,

Employ our souls and waste our bodies’ force. 


As mangey beggars incubate their lice, 


We nourish our innocuous remorse.

 

Our sins are stubborn, craven our repentance.

For our weak vows we ask excessive prices.

Trusting our tears will wash away the sentence,

We sneak off where the muddy road entices.

 

Cradled in evil, that Thrice-Great Magician,

The Devil, rocks our souls, that can’t resist;

And the rich metal of our own volition

Is vaporised by that sage alchemist.

 

The Devil pulls the strings by which we’re worked: 


By all revolting objects lured, we slink

Hellwards; each day down one more step we’re jerked

Feeling no horror, through the shades that stink.

 

Just as a lustful pauper bites and kisses

The scarred and shrivelled breast of an old whore, 


We steal, along the roadside, furtive blisses,

Squeezing them, like stale oranges, for more.

 

Packed tight, like hives of maggots, thickly seething


Within our brains a host of demons surges.

Deep down into our lungs at every breathing,

Death flows, an unseen river, moaning dirges.

 

If rape or arson, poison, or the knife 


Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff 


Of this drab canvas we accept as life —

It is because we are not bold enough!

 

Amongst the jackals, leopards, mongrels, apes,

Snakes, scorpions, vultures, that with hellish din, 


Squeal, roar, writhe, gambol, crawl, with monstrous shapes,

In each man’s foul menagerie of sin —

 

There’s one more damned than all. He never gambols,


Nor crawls, nor roars, but, from the rest withdrawn,


Gladly of this whole earth would make a shambles


And swallow up existence with a yawn…

 

Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams 


Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother. 


You know this dainty monster, too, it seems —

Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!

 

(Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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