the motif i want to fix on is that of ennui. "boredom" is not an adequate translation, nor is langweile except, perhaps, in schopenhauer's usage; la noia comes much nearer. i have in mind manifold processes of frustration, of cumulative désoeuvrement. energies eroded to routine as entropy increases. Repeated motion or inactivity, sufficiently prolonged, secrete a poison in the blood, an acid torpor. febrile lethargy; the drowsy nausea (so precisely described by coleridge in the biographia literaria) of a man who misses a step in a dark staircase -- there are many approximate terms and images. baudelaire's use of "spleen" comes closest: it conveys the kinship, the simultaneity of exasperated, vague waiting -- but for what? -- and of gray lassitude:
rien n'égale en longueur les boiteuses journées,
quand sous les lourds flocons des neigeuses années
l'ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,
prend les proportions de l'immortalité.
--désormais tu. n'es plus, ô matière vivante!
qu'un granit entouré d'une vague épouvante,
assoupi dans le fond d'un sahara brumeux;
un vieux sphinx ignoré du monde insoucieux,
oublié sur la carte, et dont l'humeur farouche
ne chante qu'aux rayons du soleil qui se couche. *
[les fleurs du mal]
"vague épouvante," "humeur farouche" are signals we shall want to keep in mind. what i want to stress here is the fact that a corrosive ennui is as much an element of nineteenth-century culture as was the dynamic optimism of the positivist and the whig. it was not only, in eliot's arresting phrase, the souls of housemaids that were damp. a kind of marsh gas of boredom and vacuity thickened at crucial nerve-ends of social and intellectual life. for every text of benthamite confidence, of proud meliorism, we can find a counterstatement of nervous fatigue. 1851 was the year of the universal exhibition, but also of the publication of a group of desolate, autumnal poems, which baudelaire issued under the significant title les limbes. to me the most haunting, prophetic outcry of the nineteenth century is théophile gautier's "plutôt la barbarie que l'ennui!" if we can come to understand the sources of that perverse longing, of that itch for chaos, we will be nearer to an understanding of our own state and of the relations of our condition to the accusing ideal of the past.
george steiner. in bluebeard's castle. read now
nothing is as interminable as those limping days / when, beneath the heavy flakes of snowbound years / ennui, fruit of dreary apathy, / takes on dimensions of everlastingness. / henceforth, oh living form, you are nothing more / than a block of granite surrounded by an aura of indistinct terror, / drowsing in the deeps of a misty Sahara; / you are nothing more than an old sphinx disregarded by a careless world, / forgot on the map, an old sphinx whose fierce temperament / gives echoing reverberation only to the rays of the setting sun.