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Proustblogging: On Boredom

Because the narrator of In Search of Lost Time is, as I noted in the last post, always either anticipating or reflecting on some experience, events themselves tends to disappear in a haze of hyper-selfconsciousness. When he kisses his lover Albertine for the first time he is thinking so hard about what-it-will-be-like-to-kiss-Albertine that he doesn’t quite notice that he is in fact kissing her. The ridiculousness of this is, I think, obvious to Proust, who in the end opens a way for Marcel to make this habit of mind a virtue rather than an absurd quirk. But more about that in another post.

But in light of all this attentiveness to the details of even the most trivial phenomena, there’s one experience that Marcel has quite often that he doesn’t really reflect on, doesn’t think analytically about: boredom. Throughout almost all of this long book, Marcel is a devoted social climber, which means that he spends a great deal of time at parties and other social occasions that almost always — or so he says — bore him. And yet he describes them for us with apparently loving detail, on a couple of occasions devoting more than a hundred pages to a single party. Does he want us to experience that boredom also?

Similarly, when Marcel and Albertine become lovers they bore each other: they go through the same tiresome arguments, mostly deriving from his jealousy of her and his suspicion that she is a lesbian, over and over and over again. They get sick and tired of each other and can renew their love only by separating. And here too it’s hard not to think that Proust wants us to experience that very boredom also, since he devotes two entire volumes to Marcel and Albertine’s affair — two volumes I can’t believe more than a handful of readers have ever read without skimming.

I say that Proust never reflects directly on the character of boredom, but maybe he did in one of the passages I skimmed. (Seriously.) But boredom, as writers from Kierkegaard to Walker Percy to David Foster Wallace, is one of the major concerns of the modern age — or rather, it is the avoidance of boredom that obsesses us. And Proust knows — he cannot not know — that his dozens of pages about Parisian salons and the quarrels of young lovers are at the very least tempting his readers to boredom. So why does he do it?

I wonder if Proust, like David Foster Wallace, thinks that there might be something on the other side of boredom — something that we can only know by accepting rather than fighting against boredom. This was, clearly, what Wallace wanted to find some way to write about in The Pale King, the book he left unfinished when he took hisown life. Thus this obvious central passage, left in his notes, which I’ll close with as an object of meditation:

“Bliss — a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.

Michael Sheehan’s essay/post/review “Boredom as Religious Experience” is a good reflection on what Wallace was trying to do in the work he never managed to finish.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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