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Don’t just do something, stand there!

Three new books resist the modern cult of busyness

A thirty-something runner slowed down outside my house to check his performance data on whatever device he was using. A look of anguish crossed his face and he set off again, no doubt in harder pursuit of a personal best.  

Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity, Byung-Chul Han, Polity, £12.99

It was ten o’clock on Christmas morning.

In the modern west, social and technological acceleration is observable in just about everything that can be quantified (which is to say most things). The speed at which we consume information, images, jobs, homes, partners, culture, crises, wars, and road miles intensifies from year to year. We are either working ourselves to death; or, as Neil Postman would have had it, amusing ourselves to death; or exercising ourselves to a slightly deferred death. Even at our ease, we are not at rest: If we can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance scrolled, then ours is the internet and everything that’s in it, no?

Or is this perhaps too bleak a view of things? Why shouldn’t people vigorously pursue greater remuneration, or more and more amusement, or a better body? A haunting observation by the Irish writer Roisin Kiberd comes whispering to my mind: Reflecting on her time immersed in late-night gym culture, Kiberd wrote: “It is possible to practise habits of self-improvement, and at the same time continue to long for your slow destruction.”  

But even if our mode of living is not, most of the time, a desperate scramble to avoid facing some hollowness inside, there does seem to be a widespread reluctance to just… Stop. In an experiment conducted at the University of Virginia in 2014, participants were asked to sit with their thoughts for 15 minutes or choose to push a button and receive a painful shock. 67 percent of men, and a quarter of women, opted to shock and hurt themselves rather than endure a quarter of an hour without external stimulus.  

Being forced to depend on our own mental and intellectual resources is something we are desperate to avoid.  It raises the spectre of what capitalism is always trying to have us believe we need never face again: boredom, the noon-day devil, that feeling constantly settling on us like “some sort of dust”, as Georges Bernanos writes — the trapdoor to vices old and new. 

The publishing industry sometimes has a good nose for things that are troubling the margins of the zeitgeist. The three books stacked at my elbow as I write — slimmish, almost pamphlet-like volumes, which heightens the sense that some urgent, topical issue is being addressed — seem to be in part predicated on the intuition that while more of us might want to close the gate on the inward rush of stimuli, we worry that we won’t know what to do once that gate is shut. 

Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity comes from South Korean philosopher and cultural critic, Byung-Chul Han who has been living in Germany for around forty years.  Reading the opening pages is like walking into a blizzard of all the ways in which modern thinking condemns the doing of nothing. A weakness, a defect, a deficiency. An absence, a refusal, an incapability. An emptiness. But Han is having none of this. His book is as about as bullish one could ever expect a paean to inactivity to be. By the end, he seems to be on the verge of becoming pure passive, contemplative essence, which he has argued in wave after wave of assertion and citation is life in its most benign form.

Think: In Defence of a Thoughtful Life, Svend Brinkmann, Polity, £10.45

In Think: In Defence of a Thoughtful Life, Danish professor of Psychology, Svend Brinkmann, flies the flag, and provides a how-to guide, for Socratic thoughtfulness, which he sees as Western philosophy’s version of Eastern meditation practice. Again, our current way of life is found wanting: “We think happiness is being glad and satisfied, being able to consume and enjoy without limits, but these are just coping mechanisms for dealing with life in a thoughtless society. Only through thinking can we rise above all that.”

In Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure and the Quest for a Meaningful Life, American academic Kevin Hood Gary lays an important dilemma at our feet: The ways in which we try to avoid or alleviate the boredom we experience in particular situations tend to exacerbate the more troubling existential boredom, the nagging, debilitating feeling that life, writ large, is boring and futile.  Gary excels at mastering eclectic sources — you will find integralist Catholic monk Edmund Waldstein on page 101, and Nigella Lawson on page 102 — to advance a coherent argument, written with an eye on what happens in schools but with a message of wide applicability.

But now I should come clean. I’m not actually very susceptible to boredom, not to the degrees thoughtfully charted by Kevin Hood Gary. If I had been subjected to the Virginia experiment, for example, I suspect that I would have passed with flying colours. As an excruciatingly slow thinker, I find it easy enough to pose questions to myself that eat up the time nicely before some external stimulus arrives. These questions need not be profound: I could easily squeeze the requisite fifteen minutes out of “What is my favourite football stadium?”

I’m convinced, as well, that boredom immunity has something to do with not having a very good memory. Profound boredom involves a kind of foreclosure of the possibility of fresh knowledge. But my underperforming memory puts a stay on my concluding that I know a lot about any situation or topic; and instead uses up most of its available energies clinging as tenaciously as it can to any epiphanies I am lucky enough to have.

But I also think that somehow, somewhere — this may be a neglected sub-stratum in the Irish temperament — I have picked up a form of “the culture of leisure”, which Kevin Hood Gary champions in his book. Taking his cue from Josef Pieper and his 1952 classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture and thus from Pieper’s two great sources, Aristotle and Aquinas, Gary revives the medieval division between ratio and intellectus. Under the impetus of ratio, the mind pursues truth through cogitation, disputation, deduction, logic. Under intellectus, the mind devotes itself to looking and apprehending, disposing itself to receive reality as a gift.  

Both are noble activities, but we moderns neglect intellectus. Without intellectus, and relying solely on ratio, even experiences such as encounters with beauty can result in pain, mainly through our subsequent fevered attempts to wrestle secrets from them or to capture their essence in words. But such encounters need not be the launchpad for energy-sapping “mental masturbation”. Instead, they can become, in Etty Hillesum’s terms, a cloak about the soul and our greatest protection against boredom, frustration, despair.

Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life, Kevin Gary Hood, Cambridge University Press, £20.75

Gary offers three directives for developing a culture of leisure.  Such a culture,  among other things, relieves us of having to rely on the fraught boredom-beating prescription supplied by Heidegger (who features heavily in all three books), which involves employing our individual capacity to power through boredom and realise our pure, authentic selves. (It’s always a relief when someone isn’t barking at you to be more authentic.)

Gary’s Directive One is: Become an apprentice — an apprentice, that is, to trusted others who already possess a culture of leisure. Two: cultivate a spirit of study, free from a lust for novelty or what Buddhist traditions know as “monkey-mind”. Thanks to the internet, Gary drily observes, “the monkey-mind within is now greeted by the monkey-mind without.”  

And Three: remember your epiphanies. The bored mind, according to Gary, has become “immune to epiphanic breakthrough — there is nothing new to see”. Well, fight back. Here Gary is half-channelling James Joyce and Ulysses (“Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world”) and urging us to store up and jealously guard the kind of summonses that sometimes come to us, that open up ever fruitful, ever fruitful compelling avenues of thought. 

Han, Brinkmann and Gary all have interesting things to say about our modern predicaments and together they form a three-volume compendium of the best that has been thought and said about overcoming boredom.  

But it is Gary’s advice that I will probably lean on most. Ultimately, he argues, the ground of leisure, and the enemy of boredom, is love, as selfless and appreciative of reality as we can make it.

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