Sublime Boredom and the Drowsy Reader
I can’t remember who first observed that Kafka’s novel The Castle was capable of inducing an effect of “sublime boredom,” but many other novels and stories in the 19th and 20th centuries have evoked a curious condition that lies somewhere between consciousness and sleep, a twilight state in which we are only half-awake and dimly conscious of what is happening, or, more often, not happening, on the page. Here we may think of Alice as the exemplary reader dozing off over a book before plummeting down into Wonderland. Robert M. Adams, in his essay “Some Instances of Boredom” 1 notes that Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, regards boredom itself as exemplary, and absolutely central to the “logic of everyday aesthetic experience.” 2 But in fiction the situation can be amplified to instances of action so minimal as to seem inert, and to other instances of writing so repetitive that thought itself seems to have been temporarily shelved or displaced, the two conditions seeming to oscillate between a kind of Buddhist joy in releasing the will and abandoning ideas in a kind of trance, on the one hand, and anguish (of nothingness, of paralysis, of dying), on the other. (Playing a recording of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” to my seminar students, and keeping it softly lulling in the background, I found that they were able to tolerate about fifteen minutes’ worth of the 840 repeats of that piece before one of the students cried out, “Stop it! Turn it off!”). Micro-action—as joy, as release from work and responsibility—in the 19th century achieved a sort of lyrical perfection in Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859). This novel, whose central figure is a daydreamer who, in the course of almost 400 pages, rarely rises from his divan, is one of the great fictions about happiness. Confronted by his friend Stoltz or his would-be wife, Olga, urging him to do something, the immobilized Oblomov, a virtuoso of wasting time, prefers to think about the distant family estate, Oblomovka, and to stay right where he is, lounging his life away. The story has wonderful comic moments, as Oblomov’s friends scurry around him predicting doom, but our recumbent hero, who agrees with his friends that soon he must get upright and into motion, is somehow untouched by the calamities they predict. Goncharov’s single masterpiece, this novel performs that impossibility, a dramatic narrative of contented immobility. The novelist Tatyana Tolstaya has observed that “there is something deeply Russian in the character of Oblomov, something that strikes a chord in every Russian heart.” The novel mirrors me: reading it, I find myself turning into Oblomov: I am half-asleep, sitting there immobilized, nearly unable to rise from the chair, as nonevent follows nonevent until the book stops, or I do. Entranced, one nods off, almost forgetting what is going on; the compulsion to move forward is suspended. There is no wind in the sails and nowhere to get to. Americans have had their own Oblomovs. Witty, intelligent, and worldly, William Demby may be the greatest neglected African-American writer of the 20th century; his novel The Catacombs (1965) has a central character named William Demby, who is writing about Doris, an extra in the film Cleopatra, and about himself, an African-American who works as a translator and who is temporarily unable to move from Rome back to America. The book is simultaneously boring and beautiful on the subject of the self-consciousness induced by racism and the ways in which racism may cause a kind of thoughtful, drowsy paralysis. But the full flowering of inaction may reside in those great, semi-readable novels of the 20th century, headed by Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (926 pages) from 1925, Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling (1168 pages) from 1965, and Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul (835 pages) from 1991. These books seem to mine boredom and its affiliated afflictions as endlessly renewable resources. Many other candidates might offer themselves, including the novels of Dorothy Richardson and Henry Roth (the ones after the electric Call It Sleep), but to qualify they must be repetitive, turgid, uninterested or contemptuous of action, droningly monotonous, uncomical, and incapable of profound thought or observations (Proust, Mann, and Robbe-Grillet therefore do not qualify; nor does Samuel Beckett, except in How It Is). David Foster Wallace seems to have wanted to write such a book in The Pale King. In citing these novels, I am proposing that woolgathering fictions may figure in a dialectic as deliberate, revolutionary failures: they are spellbinding, hypnotic, and liberating. From them, we return to our own ordinary lives refreshed and disenchanted, as after a good nap.
- In Nil: Episodes in the Literary Conquest of Void During the 19th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).
- Adams, 223.
Charles Baxter is the author of eleven books of fiction and two books of criticism. He lives in Minneapolis.