It is one of the most basic tenets of liberal belief that
most people were bored out of their minds for most of human history. Before
there were cinemas, art exhibitions, concerts, wine-bars, public gyms, internet
sites and a variety of ethnic restaurants, there was basically nothing to do -
except of course suffer pain, which was more or less continuous.
Here one has to wonder why, in this particular instance,
liberals take leave of all their critical faculties, which they normally and
rightly value. For obviously, boredom is relative; what you miss you don't know
and if you've never seen a film, then you look forward to sermons. I did as a
child, because my then strictly Methodist parents scarcely ever took me to the
cinema and we had no television.
And much more decisively, variety and boredom stand in an
ambiguous relationship. At first, variety reduces boredom, but in the long term
it can induce it because it reduces the effort of response you have to make in
the face of any experience. In fact, sustained attention to detail and creative
use of what you're given is a far greater salve against boredom than the mere
passive sampling of a large menu of consumer delights.
Thus Charles Baudelaire already realised back in nineteenth
Paris that rural melancholy was giving way to urban spleen, and today we know
that lassitude and depression all too often strike precisely those who are
offered a plenitude of possibilities.
For where less is offered, then the more the power to be
fascinated by small differences and unfolding depths is cultivated. Thus the
Count of Monte Cristo evaded boredom in his bare cell by gradually exploring
all its hidden possibilities for communication, subterfuge and escape.
For just this reason we have to ask whether premodern
peoples might even have been less bored than us, because greater monotony
incited more active attention - for example, to the changing seasons and the
annual variations upon their changes - and a paucity of resources led to
greater imaginative involvement with the use of words, music, human movement
and ability to shape natural materials.
Do Brueghel's peasants look more bored than a people in a
snapshot of a contemporary cityscape? And he was a careful observer. What is
more, the sheer exigencies of survival and the need to supply domestically so
many of life's necessities gave little time for ennui, save for the leisured
and learned. Constant struggle surely had its upside in terms of absorption,
engagement and sense of achievement.
Similar considerations apply to the supposed unending dirt
and suffering of the "horrible" past in which children are now so
basely indoctrinated. For one thing, the low average life-spans of past times
are misleading since large numbers who survived a likely infant death often
enjoyed a reasonable longevity.
And not only were expected pains perhaps less acutely
suffered than in our current culture, where all pain is regarded as an outrage;
it was also not, as yet, the thing most feared, as Michel Foucault, Talal Asad
and indeed Ivan Illich have shown. Rather, a different social construction of
value both ritualised physical suffering and feared far more the loss of
honour, of human relationship, of landed connectedness and of one's immortal
Nowadays, even the 1950s is regarded by liberals as
basically the tail end of this gothic epoch of tedium relieved only by torture.
And those who are old enough claim actually to remember the escape they made
from the evil citadel of the primordial past. However, they are currently
challenged in the blogosphere by the memories of others who look back upon this
epoch with fond nostalgia as one of childhood liberty and robust embrace of
risk and adventure.
Of course, both sides are right, and it seems amazing that
we are not able to recognise that history is inevitably a process of
simultaneous loss and gain. On the one side, we can say that the comfort and
variety of life has vastly improved, along with liberty and equality for women
and a greater social tolerance in certain respects, if not others.
It is possible to celebrate all that and yet to mourn the
loss of less tangible realities: indeed the childhood freedom to roam and
fantasise, plus the higher levels of civic engagement in religion and politics,
the greater cultivation of hobbies and allotments - all, of course, reasons why
this was no era of tedium.
And yet the materialism of social liberals in relation to
this debate is surely disturbing, as it is in league with the materialism of
financiers which they might elsewhere denounce. For the increase in cushioned
comfort has not accidentally coincided with an increase in economic inequality
and social isolation.
Just take Catherine Bennett's attempt, in the face of a
resurgence of 1950s nostalgia, to unmask the hardships and tedium of the past,
with its lack of showers, aubergines, inside toilets and coal fires - how could
these be absences if they were not felt as such at the time, and were in any
case amply compensated for by family security, neighbourliness and a still
surviving oral and folk creativity?
Moreover, it is only a smugly metropolitan bourgeois
perspective that can imagine that "unending domestic drudgery" has
vanished (for single-parent families, for instance), along with bullying,
snobbery, poor education and bigotry - which generally mutate.
To symbolically split the difference I would venture, as a
parent, that while things are now fortunately on the whole better for girls,
they are often worse for boys - and not as good for either sex as they so
easily could be.
The current rate of male adolescent depression suggests that
boys are indeed the victims of an excessively indoor and two-dimensional
culture, and of an incredibly conformist and sedentary educational curriculum.
Indeed, both boys and girls suffer from a teaching-process that delivers
neither very much knowledge, nor encourages their creative imaginations. By
contrast, the 1950s and 60s in retrospect appear as a short epoch where a
balance was achieved between these two requisites - especially in state primary
These debates about the past matter, because they slant the
current perspectives of the left. A revived scientism tricks it into imagining
that increased hygiene and anaesthetics is a sign of "progress" in
general. The same goes for the variety of entertainment, largely a by-product
of technological advance.
But while these things should not be derogated, there is a
real sense in which they are trivial, and either neutral or actually
detrimental to participatory freedom if they subordinate human action and
interaction to automatic processes.
As to the advent of greater tolerance, freedom of choice and
social fluidity, then we should be able to celebrate such things, while also
counting their cost in terms of the loss of solidarity. Here, again, the
debates about the past tend to slant our sense of possibility in the present,
because too often they present a necessary either/or which precludes us from
considering a possible both/and.
If the cost has been counted, then perhaps people may now
more freely choose the advantages of rootedness, tradition, conservation, faithful
commitment and fascinated attention to the common and repeated as more likely
to hold their long term interest.
Indeed, I think this is already happening. One indicator of
such a process is the strikingly increased attendance at cathedral and Oxbridge
college chapel worship. This by no means as yet clearly betokens a big
religious revival. But it does suggest that many people are rediscovering that
ritual is actually less monotonous than constant surprise and novelty.
The same new mood is shown by the radiated faces of all
classes emerging from the recent London Royal Academy exhibition of the work of
David Hockney. For his revived qualites of craft and attention to hidden beauty
have succeeded in making the ordinary (the Yorkshire wolds) sublime and the
sublime (the Yosemite) familiar; the small and intimate complete in itself, and
yet only a part of a an ever-more awesome non-identical variation and irregular
symmetry. This makes up his "bigger picture" which conjoins locality
to the whole planet.
Indeed it is in both ritual and contemplative art that
security and surprise can be integrated - a fact that perhaps provides a clue
for how we might try to shape loyally committed and yet not tightly
constraining human communities in the future.
See the original article here.