Ennui. N-U-I. On-wee. Do you feel it? I have it really bad. The French poet Charles Baudelaire said ennui was the evil of modernity or, as Michael Wood once elegantly described it, a “‘fastidious monster’ which threatens to swallow the world in a yawn.” While other poets idled about writing stray verses about trees, Baudelaire’s pen was sardonically perceptive. As he wrote of ennui in his 1857 volume of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal:
There is one uglier, wickeder, fouler than all! He does not strike great attitudes nor utter great cries, but he would happily lay waste the earth, and swallow up the world in a yawn.
It is Boredom! — an involuntary tear welling in his eye, he dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah. You know him, reader, that fastidious monster — hypocrite reader, my fellow-man, my brother!
Anyway, ennui — commonly defined as boredom, but better defined as the refusal to interrogate your rapidly changing surroundings — was a simpler concept in Baudelaire’s time. Back then there was ample access to opium and zero access to the internet. Everyone had syphilis and died at 40. Is that better than living until 110, and having to work as an Instacart shopper until you're 108 because the labor infrastructure of America has dissolved? I can't say.
Ennui today is best described as the impossible act of ignoring the sound of a thousand dolphins screaming, which is what I hear when I log online every morning:
So that, times one thousand. As long as I am on the internet, or near people who are on the internet, the dolphins in my brain scream. They are set off by stuff like this:
And oh my god this.
Some may say I have a bad attitude. But I say this is ennui now, the logical evolution of our culture. Instead of being bored despite the interesting things going on around us, like in Baudelaire’s Paris, everything is annoying and nothing is interesting and the dolphins never stop screaming. I want to die!
I find French theory (I want to die) more comforting than postmodern theory (I want to die) at this juncture. A lot of people are leaning on the postmodern to describe the mechanisms of Donald Trump. Many have suggested that Trump is our first postmodern president, a Baudrillardian realization of performed reality, blah blah blah, something about simulacra, advertising is bad, everyone is a brand, yeah a middle-aged man told me I was smart once too.
But I don’t think this is completely correct. Far from being political simulacra, Trump is the most authentically banal man to hold the highest office in the land. He is the president we have the most information about, the most access to the purity of his id. We have seen his panty lines, his fear of stairs and pee-pee, his inability to pass a single piece of legislation. He hides information he does not want the public to see — sometimes successfully (his tax returns), sometimes not (his weight). As a politician, Trump is a piece of saran wrap attempting to sheath a porcupine — transparent and utterly ineffectual. But as an expression of America, he is its culture realized: crass, loud, idiotic, and petulant. He leads the charge of democratizing information, rendering most of it useless. He is ennui incarnate — the sound and the fury, signifying nothing.
And yet. Every move he makes, every tweet, sends the internet into paroxysms of despair and/or excitement. If I see the words “THIS. IS. NOT. NORMAL.” quoted above a Trump tweet one more time… well. The thing is, this is normal. There is nothing more normal than ennui.
I’m not sure if there’s any way to break through ennui. I googled “coping mechanisms ennui” and the first result was a Chuck Palahniuk quotation, so that’s out. I unfollowed most people on Twitter but that was a while ago and it’s still really bad. A walk in nature? No, there are bugs. Reading a Twitter feed belonging to someone you hate? That’s only fun for a little bit. Looking at the Instagram explore tab until your eyes hurt? Not sustainable behavior. Online shopping? I can confirm this works.
I’ve been reading a lot about outer space lately. I want to go there. There is no David Brooks in space. No Lena Dunham, no Louise Mensch. Alexei Leovnov, who in 1965 became the first man to “float freely in the vacuum of space” described the feeling as such:
“I felt excellent and in a cheerful mood and reluctant to leave free space ... As for the so-called psychological barrier that was supposed to be insurmountable by man preparing to confront the cosmic abyss alone, I not only did not sense any barrier, but forgot that there could even be one.”
Seems great. Unfortunately, it was probably better in 1965 before the earth began to visibly crumble. Now when astronauts are asked about space they talk about how they can see the seas shrinking. Baudelaire perhaps nailed the enormity of this before it even started happening: “Nature is so beautiful, man is so great, that it is difficult, from a higher point of view, to grasp the meaning of the word: irreparable.” In this way, the vagaries of ennui can shield us from what will destroy us. Perhaps I should just learn to enjoy it.
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