enrique vila-matas on robert walser

Sometimes one stops writing because one simply falls into a state of madness from which one never recovers. The best example of this is Hölderlin, who had an involuntary successor in Robert Walser. The former spent the last thirty-eight years of his life enclosed in the attic of the carpenter Zimmer, in Tübingen, writing strange and incomprehensible verses which he signed with the names Scardanelli, Killalusimeno and Buonarotti. The latter spent the last twenty-eight years of his life shut up in the mental hospitals first of Waldau and then of Herisau, engaged in a frenetic activity of microscopic handwriting, fictitious and indecipherable gibberish scrawled on minute pieces of paper.

I think it might be said that, in a certain way, both Hölderlin and Walser carried on writing. “To write,” Marguerite Duras remarked, “is also not to speak. It is to keep silent. It is to howl noiselessly.” Of Hölderlin’s noiseless howls, we have the record of, among others, J. G. Fischer, who gives the following account of his final visit to the poet in Tübingen: “I asked Hölderlin to write some lines on anyone topic, and he asked me if I would have him write on Greece, on Spring or on the Spirit of Time. I replied the last of these three. And then, with what might be described as a youthful fire burning in his eyes, he settled himself at his desk, took a large sheet of paper, a new pen, and began to write, marking the rhythm on his desk with the fingers of his left hand and expressing a hum of satisfaction at the end of each line while nodding his head in a gesture of approval … ”

Of Walser’s noiseless howls, we have the copious testimony of Carl Seelig, the loyal friend who continued to visit the writer when he ended up in the mental hospitals of Waldau and Herisau. Out of all the “portraits of a moment” (the literary genre Witold Gombrowicz was so fond of), I choose the one where Seelig caught Walser at the exact moment of truth, that instant when a person, with a gesture — Hölderlin’s nodding of the head, for example — or a phrase, reveals who they really are: “I shall never forget that morning in autumn when Walser and I were walking together from Teufen to Speichen, through a thick fog. 1 told him that day that perhaps his work would last as long as Gottfried Keller’s. He stood rooted to the spot, viewed me with utter seriousness and asked me, if I valued his friendship, never to repeat such a compliment. He, Robert Walser, was a walking nobody and he wished to be forgotten.”

Walser’s entire work, including his ambiguous silence of twenty-eight years, is a commentary on the vanity of all initiative, the vanity of life itself. Perhaps that is why he only wanted to be a walking nobody. Someone has compared Walser to a long-distance runner who is on the verge of reaching the longed-for finishing-line and stops in surprise, looks round at masters and fellow disciples, and abandons the race, that is to say remains in what is familiar, in an aesthetics of bewilderment. Walser reminds me of Pique mal, a curious sprinter, a cyclist in the sixties who suffered from mood swings and would sometimes forget to finish a race.

Robert Walser loved vanity, the fire of summer, women’s ankle boots, houses illumined by the sun, flags fluttering in the wind. But the vanity he loved had nothing to do with the drive for personal success, rather it was the sort that is a tender display of what is minimal, what is fleeting. Walser could not have been further from the heady heights, where power and prestige dominate: “Were a wave to lift me and carry me to the heights, where power and prestige are predominant, 1 would destroy the circumstances that have favoured me and hurl myself downwards, to the vile, insignificant darkness. Only in the lower regions am I able to breathe.”

Walser wanted to be a walking nobody and what he most desired was to be forgotten. He realised that every writer must be forgotten almost as soon as he has stopped writing, because the page has been lost, has literally flown away, has entered a context of different situations and sentiments, answers questions put by other men, which its author could not even have imagined.

Vanity and fame are ridiculous. Seneca claimed that fame is horrible because it depends on the judgement of many. But this is not exactly what made Walser desire to be forgotten. More than horrible, worldly fame and vanity were, to him, completely absurd. This was because fame, for example, seems to assume that there is a proprietorial relationship between a name and a text that now has an existence, yet which that pallid name can surely no longer influence.

Walser wanted to be a walking nobody, and the vanity he loved was like that of Fernando Pessoa, who once, on throwing a chocolate silver-foil wrapper to the ground, said that, in doing so, he had thrown away life.

­—from Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby & Co. (translated by Jonathan Dunne), New Directions, 2004

pessoa on work & boredom


We may know that the work we continue to put off doing will be bad. Worse, however, is the work we never do. A work that’s finished is at least finished. It may be poor, but it exists, like the miserable plant in the lone flowerpot of my neighbour who’s crippled. That plant is her happiness, and sometimes it’s even mine. What I write, bad as it is, may provide some hurt or sad soul a few moments of distraction from something worse. That’s enough for me, or it isn’t enough, but it serves some purpose, and so it is with all of life.

A tedium that includes the expectation of nothing but more tedium; a regret, right now, for the regret I’ll have tomorrow for having felt regret today—huge confusions with no point and no truth, huge confusions…

…where, curled up on a bench in a railway station, my contempt dozes in the cloak of my discouragement…

…the world of dreamed images which are the sum of my knowledge as well as of my life…

To heed the present moment isn’t a great or lasting concern of mine. I crave time in all its duration, and I want to be myself unconditionally.

—from Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

the philosophy of boredom: the boredom of philosopy

boredom as a philosophical problem

Svendsen’s conclusion: “Boredom is life’s own gravity."

As a philosopher, from time to time one must attempt to address big questions. If one fails to do so, one loses sight of what led one to study philosophy in the first place. In my opinion, boredom is one such big question, and an analysis of boredom ought to say something important about the conditions under which we live. We ought not – and are actually unable to – avoid considering our attitude towards the question of being from time to time. There may be many initial reasons for reflecting on one’s life, but the special thing about fundamental existential experiences is that they inevitably lead one to question one’s own existence. Profound boredom is one fundamental existential experience. As Jon Hellesnes has asked: ‘What can possibly be more existentially disturbing than boredom?’

The big questions are not necessarily the eternal questions, for boredom has only been a central cultural phenomenon for a couple of centuries. It is of course impossible to determine precisely
when boredom arose, and naturally it has its precursors. But it stands out as being a typical phenomenon of modernity. On the whole, the precursors were restricted to small groups, such as the nobility and the clergy, whereas the boredom of modernity is wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomenon today for practically everyone in the Western world.

Boredom is usually considered as something random in relation to the nature of man, but this is based on highly dubious assumptions regarding human nature. One could just as well claim that boredom is embodied in human nature, but that would also presuppose that there is anything at all that can be called ‘human nature’ – a presupposition that seems problematic to me. Postulating a given nature has a tendency to put an end to all further discussion. For, as Aristotle points out, we direct our attention first and foremost to that which is capable of change.
By postulating a nature we are claiming that it cannot be changed. It can also be tempting to postulate a completely neutral human nature, where man has just as great a potential to experience sadness as happiness, enthusiasm as boredom. In that case, the explanation of boredom is exclusively to be found in the individual’s social environment. I do not believe, however, that a clear distinction can be made between psychological and social aspects when dealing with a phenomenon such as boredom, and a reductive sociologism is just as untenable as a psychologism. So I choose to approach the matter from a different angle, adopting a perspective based partly on the history of ideas and partly on phenomenology. Nietzsche pointed out that the ‘hereditary fault of all philosophers’ is to base themselves on man at a particular period of time and then turn this into an eternal truth. So I will make do with stating that boredom is a very serious phenomenon that affects many people. Aristotle insisted that virtue is not natural, but that it is not unnatural either. The same applies to boredom. Moreover, an investigation of boredom can be carried out without presupposing any anthropological constants, i.e., anything given independently of a specifically social and historical space. We are dealing here with an investigation of man in a particular historical situation. It is us I am writing about, living in the shadow of Romanticism, as inveterate Romantics without the hyperbolic faith of Romanticism in the ability of the imagination to transform the world.

Even though all good philosophy ought to contain an important element of self-knowledge, it does not necessarily have to take the form of a confession modelled on Augustine’s
Confessions. Many people have asked me if I undertook this project because I suffered from boredom, but what I personally feel ought not to be of any interest to readers. I do not conceive philosophy as being a confessional activity, rather one that labours to gain clarity – a clarity that is admittedly never more than temporary – in the hope that the small area one feels one has shed light on will also be of relevance to others. From a philosophical point of view, my private conditions are irrelevant, even though they are naturally important to me.

I carried out a small, unscientific survey among colleagues, students, friends and acquaintances that revealed that they were on the whole unable to say whether they were
bored or not, although some answered in the affirmative or the negative – and one person even claimed that he had never been bored. To those readers who have possibly never been bored I can say by way of comparison that deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void. One tries to fall asleep, takes perhaps a few faltering steps, but does not gain sleep, ending up in a no man’s land between a waking state and sleep. In Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa wrote:

Certain sensations are slumbers that fill up our mind like a fog and prevent us from thinking, from acting, from clearly and simply being. As if we hadn’t slept, something of our undreamed dreams lingers in us, and the torpor of the new day’s sun warms the stagnant surface of our senses. We’re drunk on not being anything, and our will is a bucket poured out onto the yard by the listless movement of a passing foot.

Pessoa’s boredom is obvious – it is distinct in all its formlessness. It is, however, in the nature of things that very few people indeed can come up with an unequivocal answer as to whether they are bored or not. First, moods, generally speaking, are seldom intentional subjects as far as we are concerned – they are precisely something one finds oneself
in, not something one consciously looks at. And second, boredom is a mood that is typified by a lack of quality that makes it more elusive than most other moods. Georges Bernanos’s village priest provides us with a fine description of the imperceptibly destructive nature of boredom in The Diary of a Country Priest:

So I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this – one does not see it immediately. It is a like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it, and it is so fine that it doesn’t even scrunch between one’s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off one. That is why people are so restless.

It is perfectly possible to be bored without being aware of the fact. And it is possible to be bored without being able to offer any reason or cause for this boredom. Those who claimed in my small survey that they were deeply bored were as a rule unable to state accurately
why they were bored; it wasn’t this or that that plagued them, rather a nameless, shapeless, object-less boredom. This is reminiscent of what Freud said about melancholy, where he began by stressing a similarity between melancholy and grief, since both contain an awareness of loss. But whereas the person who grieves always has a distinct object of loss, the melancholic does not precisely know what he has lost.

Introspection is a method that has obvious limitations when investigating boredom, so I decided to look critically at a number of texts of a philosophical and literary nature. I regard literature as excellent source-material for philosophical studies, and for the philosophy of culture it is just as indispensable as scientific works are for the philosophy of science. As a rule, literature is a great deal more illuminative than quantitative sociological or psychological studies. This applies not least to our subject, where much research has focused on how the deficiency or surplus of sensory stimuli cause boredom without this always being particularly illuminative when considering such a complex phenomenon as boredom.
As Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, has expressed it: ‘Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.’

Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

bernardo soares (fernando pessoa) on the task of living

… I have lived so much without ever living! I have thought so much without ever thinking. Worlds of static violence, motionless adventures heavily oppress me. I am sated with what I never had nor will never have, annoyed by non-existent gods. I wear the scars of all the battles I avoided fighting. My muscular body is exhausted from the effort I have not thought of making.
Dulled, silent, nothing … The sky high up there is a dead, unfinished summer sky. I look at it, as if it were not there. I sleep what I think, I am prostrate when walking, I suffer without feeling anything. That immense nostalgia I have is nothing, it is nothing, like the high heavens which I do not see and which I stare at impersonally.
The whole of life is an attempt to make life real. As everybody knows, even if we act in ignorance, life is totally unreal in its direct reality; fields, cities, ideas are totally fictive things, born of our complex realisation of ourselves.

… To speak! To know how to speak! To know how to exist using the written voice and the intellectual image! Life is worth nothing more; the rest are men and women, imagined loves and false vanities, digestive subterfuges and those of oblivion, people who race around like insects when a stone is lifted, under the vast abstract rock of the unfeeling blue sky.

— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet