Monday, November 28, 2005

Benjamin on Boredom and Listening

We talked a few weeks ago about boredom and listening to music, and someone (Lizzie?) brought up the idea of listening in the car or while engaged in some other automatic task. I thought this passage from Benjamin's "The Storyteller" was relevant - he's talking about listening to stories, not music, but methinks the ideas transfer quite readily.

"If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relatxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places - the activities that are intimately associated with boredom - are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. [...] It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled."

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken Books, 1968. p 91.

Wagner and the Egg of Experience

"Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so."
John Berryman, “Dream Song 14”

In the Parsifal Prelude, Richard Wagner has brought forth luxurious and languid music that flows like an somnolent brook shimmering in silver moonlight. The music is a languorous dream journey full of masterly confidence and slow genius. In a word, it’s profoundly boring. Let me explain.

In this day and age, we rarely allow ourselves to be bored. I need not enumerate the multitudinous distractions that lie ready to amuse us, but think internet, television, mp3s, ringtones. Boredom in adult life is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable sensation, and in general we learn to avoid it through a busy, accessorized iLife.

And the Parsifal Prelude, like much of Wagner’s music, is indeed very boring. It contains little in the way of frilly ornamentation and rarely gives us anything approaching a catchy melody; there is little in Wagner’s music to distract us. The Prelude begins with a simple theme (if one can call it a theme) consisting largely of inverted and reiterated arpeggios. The orchestral effects are admittedly quite beautiful: light strings mixed with muted, thoughtful winds. After several minutes with little change in sound, however, beautiful quickly becomes boring. Three minutes or so into this bland mishmash, the music fades to a moment of silence. Then, almost unbelievably, the entire tedious process is repeated. For all that’s become of Wagner’s music in the last century, the stuff is really quite boring.

Contemporary American adults seem to share a common fear of boredom. I myself have a hard time admitting that I am bored; it is much easier to admit sadness or even a failed attempt. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” If we know what we want to do—or what we ought to do—then we can either do it or bask in anticipation of it. But to be bored is to admit that we do not know what we want, and so we wish desperately for a desire or, better yet, a distraction. Boredom is worse than failure because it isn’t even an attempt. It’s no wonder, then, that we fear and resent boredom with such vehemence; to be bored is to face the existential crisis of not knowing what to do.

When you throw Parsifal’s Prelude on the CD player, you’re in for a long thirteen minutes. See it in concert, and be prepared to twiddle those thumbs. Perhaps at first you’ll follow the ambient effects with anticipation of, and then desire for, a more gripping musical experience. Eventually you’ll realize that nothing is coming but more of the same, and this leads to frustration and then resentment. At this point, you may look something to do while you listen or simply put on more exciting music. If you’re like me, though, you’ll wallow stubbornly and stoicly in excruciating boredom through the end of the piece, enacting some half-masochistic duty to finish what you started.

Yes, you will be bored as hell. But beware: in the boringness of Wagner’s music lies its power. Adam Phillips writes that “boredom is inherent to the process of taking one’s time” , an idea that Wagner surely would have embraced. He values music too much to give his listeners easy ways out, demanding instead that we engage with the music even if boredom is inevitable to the process. The Parsifal Prelude bores through our defenses, through our desperate desire for distraction, and touches us at the vulnerable core of our uncertainty. If given time to gestate, the boring beauty of the Prelude becomes hauntingly melancholy as it fills with insecurity and ephemerality. Walter Benjamin once wrote that “boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” Indeed, Wagner challenges us with his boring beauty, for when we are bored we unwittingly ask ourselves that great existential question: “What shall I do now?” Don’t get me wrong though: the Prelude remains painfully boring.

Phillips, Adam. “ On Boredom” in On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken Books, 1968.