Thursday, December 20, 2012

Existential Boredom

Life becomes a set of repetitions. There are the long taxi rides, moving through traffic up and down Vibhavadi Rangsit. There are the walks to the corner food stall, via the little bridge over the filthy, twilight-darkened canal, as the men in blue workshirts are just getting off their shifts at the printers' shops on Phra Ram 6.

And I know this is supposed to be a brilliant equatorial metropolis, a city hemmed in by crystalline beaches and perfumed jungles, a city of unparallelled vibrancy (as the glossy travel magazines are wont to put it), where all pleasures can be had at the wink of an eye and the drop of a coin.

But what they don't tell you about places like this is how fucking boring the nightclubs and the beach towns can be. Beyond being tragic or even pathetic, the bargirls and the sexpats and the backpackers and the fugitives are by and large just so goddamn dull. The dullness starts here, and bleeds over into everyday life.

Now, there are boredoms that can be remedied and there are those that cannot. The boredom of sitting around one's apartment can be resolved by going for a walk, putting on a movie, reading a book, whatever. And there is also the boredom of long waits at train stations and hour-long meetings. This boredom is conditioned entirely by circumstance, and is often defined by spatial and temporal constraints. You're stuck in this one place at this one time, and it's not a place you want to be.

But there is also a third form that defies easy categorization, and is far more insidious than either. It is the unresolvable boredom that is unconditioned, a melancholy and existential boredom. This is what occurs when you flip through every channel on the TV and they all seem equally dull and crass. Existential boredom is marked by its sense of inescapability. You look around yourself, and everything presents itself with a harshness and a clarity, as if it's being illuminated by an industrial-sized fluorescent light.

Existential boredom is experienced quite differently by those who are rooted and those who are rootless, to draw a suspect but convenient distinction.

For the "rooted," existential boredom might present itself as an unsatisfying career or a loveless marriage. They think they might be able to fix the situation by quitting their job, getting a divorce, or moving to a new town.

But for those of us who don't have as many solid connections, we can't really draw that conclusion. And I think this explains the cynicism of so many rootless types, because there is this awful and nagging suspicion that things will never get better, and that we're doomed to repeat our motions again and again, in slightly different circumstances, like a set of piano variations carrying on into infinity.

Eternal tourists seem to keep moving because there's nothing else to do. It's not that they/we/whatever think that the next stop will necessarily resolve the ennui, but maybe there's something unnameable and unknowable, however distant it might be.

My mind is drawn back to the legend of Tantalus, who in Greek myth spent the afterlife in a lake beneath a plum tree. When he reached up for a piece of fruit, the branches would raise up. And when he bent down for a drink, the waters would recede.

During the Dark Ages, theologians like Evgarius of Pontus, commented on the monastic hermits that lived in the harsh regions along the Black Sea coast. Alone with their thoughts, their minds so often didn't turn inwards, towards the heavenly father that scholastic thinkers believed was reachable through wisdom and logic, but towards a darker place. Lonely, slothful, and restless, they fell slack in their clerical duties and eventually stopped living like humans altogether. Acedia, Evgarius called it.

And this was believed to be a laziness, a refusal to take the effort to know Christ, and an intentional turning away from all that was good and right and humane.

What this point of view gets right is that the state of acedia is as much as anything else a temptation. When one accepts everything fading to gray, there is a certain peacefulness, a letting go. And it provides a justification for one's own unhappiness-- a depressive realism, as certain psychiatrists call it.

So we find whatever bright spots we have as a way of taking solace-- the sun setting over the Olympic Mountains, a box of faded photographs, the smile of someone next to you in bed in the blue light before sunrise, a book of Flannery O'Connor short stories, a white ceramic cup of jasmine tea.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Creative Destruction

The other night I was walking around the intersection of Rama 9 and Ratchadaphisek. Above looms a massive fa├žade, stretching with what looks like blocks down the busy road. It blinks with multi-colored lights, on again and off again, waving like auroras.

The same ad copy greets me every few meters as I walk down the road:


All under a photo of a handsome, pale, Pan-Asian male in a cardigan, sipping a coffee in his bamboo-floor condo, fawning over his equally handsome, pale, Pan-Asian child.

To build this new CBD, the clearances have begun. When urbanists and geographers make the claim that Bangkok mirrors Los Angeles, this is the sort of place they're thinking of-- isolated towers separated by vast parking lots, 25th story Japanese-fusion restaurants and rooftop terrace bars, palm trees silhouetted against a golden sunset.

You are recognizably in a place in transition. Entire neighborhoods seem to have been demolished wholesale, leaving vast tracts of blasted flatland, a few houses remaining here and there, lonely as prairie homesteads, separated by fields of rutted soil. The new skyline hasn't been built yet. Now there is only wasteland, and the cranes that hang overhead like the slender legs of an enormous arachnid.

I'm reminded of Baudelaire in his Paris Spleen. Mass destruction becomes the essence of modernity. During the Haussmannization of Paris, the broad, military boulevards (beautiful, yes, but could there be a more totalitarian mode of building? "Champ de Mars"-- how fascist is that?) cut across in ignorance of the old city. On the edge of the new boulevards, the rag-dressed residents of the old Medieval slums stare into new cafes.

I suppose the same sentiments were expressed by Marx when he said that "all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

On the right, Joseph Schumpeter famously claimed that "this process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in."

Now, a great many neoliberal economists will provide arguments about why this is a good thing, invoking the principle of lower prices thanks to greater efficiency and the axiom of economic liberalization preceding political liberalization, meanwhile invoking the twin bugbears of Mao and Stalin as the sole alternative option. But I have to conclude that these are mere bromides, poorly supported by empirical evidence and, on a more philosophical level, ultimately and deeply inhumane apologias delivered by the apparatchiks of Empire.

In the fields around Rama 9, we don't see what was destroyed-- we only see an emptiness, a cipher. Perhaps we see Baudelaire's street children begging at streetside bars in Sukhumvit 11, but this particular strip is a massive void.

And yet there is something so rapturous about it-- the flicker of distant lights, the lunar emptiness, the ice-blue glow of sodium vapor bulbs, the rush of oncoming traffic.

Because, despite all of the claims about postmodernity, we are still aching to be moderns. We don't want to give up on the thrill of the present, the near-sexual infatuation with the now.

The result is a dissonance, a raw ecstasy running headlong into rational empathy. Recognizing this dissonance, for me at least, tends to result in an especially bleak view of humanity's prospects.

The writer Marshall Berman claimed that the spirit of modernism was to embrace the uncertainty and contradiction of contemporary life, to thrive on the thrill of this modern moment, to see it for all its myriad possibilities and potentials. It's a lovely idea, and I'd like to embrace it, but I'm not so sure, and most certainly not as hopeful.

But I suppose that's my strategy at the end of the day. I continued walking down the road until I came to the bar where my friends were and ordered a vodka-tonic. And the next day I sat down at the coffee shop and started to write the above paragraphs.