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Are We Bored by Disaster? Call It ‘Drennui’

This mix of dread and ennui. Might it be the lull before the breakthrough we know must happen?

Dorothy Woodend 1 Apr 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Is boredom a good thing?

Usually, I would say no. But given the current state of the world, maybe this is a time for a reassessment of the condition.

Every morning, I make the rounds of other media sites and publications. I start with the Guardian, but make quick pit stops at Salon, Slate, the Atlantic, the New Yorker and New York Magazine. Sometimes to change things up a bit, I read Vogue, Harper’s and the BBC.

I have the world’s news at my virtual fingertips. But increasingly, it all feels remarkably the same. Day in and day out, there’s the usual Trump stories, the Sturm und Drang of U.S. politics, the celebrity story of the moment. In addition to the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza, there’s Haitian collapse and the boiling ocean, all set against the ongoing drumroll of incipient doom.

The overall state of dread and ennui (drennui?) from reading the daily news cycle gives me pause. Is the world repeating itself? Is there nothing happening that hasn’t already happened a few times over?

It feels like we’re stuck in a skipping record. The U.S. election is perhaps the most immediate and obvious example. That Joe Biden and Donald Trump, two elderly white men, could again be vying for the leadership of America makes it feel like little has changed and time, in fact, has gone backwards.

I watched the 2016 American election in befuddlement but also, I hate to admit, a weird form of prurient curiosity. How bad could it get, really? Well, we all found out. Now, here we go again?

A recent essay in the Financial Times called “Democracy Dies in Trumpian Boredom” laid it out, terming the current conditions the “banality of chaos.” More interesting than the article was a video from none other than Margaret Atwood responding about the fragility and/or resiliency of democracy itself. But neither really offered any options for curtailing incipient catastrophe other than the usual stuff of voting.

When even disaster feels a little dullish, you know that something has got to change. But here is where boredom might do us some good.

‘How could they have held for so long?’

Reading an interview in the Guardian with artist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi about her new graphic novel Woman, Life, Freedom, I came across the following quote: “Never forget, all the dictatorships are the same,” she says.

“A night before they fall, everyone says: they are so solid, it’s impossible they can fall. Then they fall, and everyone asks: how could they have held for so long?”

A slow-motion thrill ran through me reading this. How long can things continue to go in only one direction before the inevitable swing back?

Is it time? How about now? I mean right now.

Humans are creatures that crave both security and novelty. Nothing makes one yearn for the safety and comfort of home like being long removed from it. So, too, grows a creeping desire for newness after periods of stasis, of things remaining the same for too long.

After the panic of the pandemic eased its grip, even if only slightly, humans looked back at the period of change that it instilled. The idea that things could be different, and that change could happen in a heartbeat, felt, still feels, like something of a revelation.

Even before that sensation had time to settle, there was the rush to return to normal. It’s understandable. The eagerness to put pain and suffering in the rear-view mirror and keep on barrelling down the highway is a normal reaction.

But the efforts in re-establishing the old order took on a more sinister cast, when potential new directions were quickly thrown out the window, like so much highway litter.

It isn’t only in the realm of current events that the record seems stuck.

In culture circles, the sensation comes through clearly in film. After enticing audiences back into the theatres for the summer season of Barbenheimer, things tapered off a bit. To be fair, there were a number of interesting offerings over the past year: Poor Things, The Zone of Interest, Anatomy of a Fall, surrounded on all sides by the usual junk of rom-com silliness, superhero shenanigans and reams of documentary biopics.

But the number of remakes continues to confound even as it’s made clear that people yearn for something they haven’t seen before. How many versions of Ghostbusters can there be, one might reasonably ask?

Sometimes, a remake, even if it’s half decent, simply makes you long for the revelation of the original. In the many different iterations of Star Wars — its limited series, animated versions, video games — nothing even comes close to the shock of seeing the first film in the theatre.

The weird part, or maybe it’s not weird at all, is to want that same sensation again. But, of course, it’s impossible. Surprise is always a surprise.

Here’s where the arts come in.

Searching for a seismic shift

Artists are the ones charged with imagining other possibilities. I think often about Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time, which offered up two distinctly different futures.

Piercy’s double-barrelled vision of the future is something of a binary system. In one, not all that far removed from where we are now, patriarchy, hyper-capitalism and environmental free fall were the norms. The other option, called Mattapoisett, is a proto-hippie world, where folks live in a genderless, classless, agrarian society that largely resembles the communal utopias envisioned in the ’60s and ’70s. But those, too, are dogged with some complexities. Humans never met a system they couldn’t mess up.

Amongst all this, I’m also bored of myself. “You must change your life,” Rilke famously said. And he was right.

Comfort, like soft and fuzzy manacles, is something that is natural to gravitate towards. And at a certain point, once you’ve drunk deeply of its still waters, it can start to feel stifling. But seasons of change rarely come when you want them to.

More often than not, seismic shifts ensue when you’ve given up all hope and resigned yourself to things continuing on in the usual fashion. Then, one morning you wake up, expecting the usual stuff, and everything is different.

In recent years, the things that precipitated this were not on the happier side. But how long can people endure ongoing darkness before they long for something new, something different? Has that time finally come?

Lately, I’ve taken to listening to the German composer and music educator Carl Orff’s song cycle Carmina Burana, which he composed in 1935 and 1936. Most folks are familiar with the opening blast of “O Fortuna” from films and television. There’s lots more, including some pretty kooky stuff — a song from a roasting swan, drinking rowdiness and plenty of paeans to the pleasures of the flesh.

I never really paid much attention to the words — Orff's cantata is based on a collection of Latin poems and texts from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. The material, written mostly by students poking fun at the Catholic Church, is full of bawdy satire. In my recent listening, though, I've noticed something curious emerging, more than the sauciness of youth. It’s the human propensity to look for meaning in a random and chaotic world. They were doing it centuries ago, and not a lot has changed.

As the opening choral entreaty howls out: “Hateful life, first oppresses, and then soothes as fancy takes it; poverty, and power, it melts them like ice.”

We’re still concerned with the same stuff, and looking for indications that it all means something. So, what does it mean, all this sound and fury?

It may feel and look like the usual chaos, but on the horizon, I espy something new coming into view. Not a rough beast slouching towards disaster, but its opposite. A new creature, gentle, spotted. Hope.  [Tyee]

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