Who is comforted by it?
Pent in the packed compulsory ring
Round father’s frown each famus waits his
Day to dominate. Here a dean sits
Making bedroom eyes at a beef steak,
As wholly oral as the avid creatures
Of the celibate sea; there, sly and wise
Commuters mimic the Middle Way,
Trudging on time towards a tidy fortune.
(The senator said: ‘From swimming-hole
To board-meeting is a big distance.’)
Financiers on knolls, noses pointing
East towards oil fields, inhale the surplus
Their bowels boast of, while boys and girls, their
Hot hearts covered over with marriage
To tyrant functions, turn by degrees
To cold fish, though, precarious on the
Fringes of their feeling, a fuzzy hope
Persists somehow that some day all this
Will walk away, and a wish gestates
For explosive pain, a punishing
Demanded moment of mortal change,
The Night of the Knock when none shall sleep,
The Absolute Instant.
From W. H. Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety” (1948)
I draw emphasis to this verse because of its reference to a “wish for explosive pain” that gestates in the anxiety wrought by life in Western societies.
The poem covers an array of diseases that afflict us: the obsession with ‘fathers’ of all sorts (founding fathers, nation states, religious fathers, but also sports-team fathers, etc.: masculine patriarchy, tied up with debt, compulsion, enforcement, etc.) by sons who are just waiting for the opportunity to take over and rule (to kill the patriarch, only to establish more fraternities); the erotic sloth of exorbitant consumption; the boredom of passing the time for meager achievements; the uncritical function of religion when it only greases the wheel of the machine of mobilization and production; the greed of investors bent on exploiting resources for profit; the impotent loud-mouthing of a political class disconnected from the people; the youth brought too soon into normalized roles and the resulting indifference; etc. I’m not so interested in this list of ills, but in what is described as the culmination of this (basically middle-class or affluent) ennui/depression: a “hope” that it will all go away, for an “explosive pain,” a necessary moment of punishment, the imposition of some change to wake us from our moral laxity and courage deficit, the Absolute Instant when attention must be paid, and so on. What sort of fantasy is this? And why does it appear here in affluence, where culture has largely achieved its goals (cleanliness, orderliness, taming of the instincts, adjustment to “reality,” etc.)?
I’m trying to root out certain continuities between what is registered in such a poem as part of the “affluent imaginary” and what might be called the “terroristic drive.” There is in the latter also a certain craving for an “Absolute Instant” in which all dissatisfaction and tension can be released in one devastating blow. As the poem makes explicit, this is a retributive moment, a time of payback against the past. This dream of obliteration has always been the stuff of apocalyptic thinking, but here we find it utterly secularized, without any horizon of salvation, Phoenix reduced to a kind of zero point of pyromania and arson. Here, the wish that, in this instant, everyone on earth be kept awake, is ambiguous: on the one hand, it could suggest the need for a certain existential awakening, and could perhaps represent heeding the call of justice (Levinas’ “insomnia”); but on the other hand, this sleepless vigil could be the mournful aftermath of the death and destruction spread in the “punishing moment” (which we should note in passing is the bad alternative to forgiveness).
We often try to trace a terrorists’ motives, for good reason, back to ideological causes, fantasies of fame or reward in heaven, social alienation, and economic situation, geopolitical entanglements (including access to weaponry). But I wonder sometimes if the dynamics of these decisions don’t have as much to do with something much less coherent, something essentially anti-cultural and anti-sensical: the aggression or death drive tacked on to all the other factors, feeding on them and aggravating them, and finally reducing them to rubble. I wonder how this death drive links up with the fantasy of the Absolute Instant (as much the answer to the anxiety of boredom as to the anxiety of oppression). Freud tells us this destruction drive is always dressed in the colors of Eros; I cannot help but recall the promise to martyrs that they will be welcomed by virgins after death, but in a sense any promise of reconciliation will work to justify the use of violent force. (There is an erotics to militarism which should be discussed, and in two directions: in the quest to found the One (founding and conserving violence) but also in the desire to have itself torn apart by the Other it can only feign to exclude from itself. According to the paradoxes of auto-immunity, the violent state wants contact with the very thing it says it wants to guard itself from contacting. The inevitable contact is devastating: the conflict goes on as if it wasn’t happening, as if without casualties or damage. But the drive for purity always ends up in contamination.)
Auden’s poem lacks a promise of reconciliation. It shows the abyss of the terror motive in the more general longing for the unprecedented (in truth, a longing for time). This section of the poem ends:
It [the Absolute Instant] is here, now.
For the huge wild beast of the Unexpected
Leaps on the lax recollecting back;
Unknown to him, binoculars follow
The leaping lad; lightening at noonday
Swiftly stooping to summer-house
Engraves its disgust on engrossed flesh,
And at tea-times through tall french windows
Hurtle anonymous hostile stones.
No soul is safe…
We are mocked by unmeaning; among us fall
Aimless arrows, hurting at random
As we plan to pain.
The nonchalance of the imagery should not blind us to the implication here. My suggestion is that, read in a certain way, this describes a terrorist attack, the fruit of an aggression drive attacking, but also delivered over the abyss of affluence and futility. In the broader arc of the poem, all the characters end up tired and without patience and join the “jaw-dropped / Mildewed mob.”
Two other anecdotes come to mind in connection with our problem: Baudelaire’s causing trouble for the fun of it, a punk-beat anticism which almost sounds proto-terroristic: “These nervous practical jokes are not without peril, and they may often cost one dearly. But what does an eternity of damnation matter to he who has found in a second an infinity of enjoyment?” (The Bad Glazier); and Breton’s comment that, “The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly. Anyone who has never felt the desire to deal thus with the current wretched principle of humiliation and stultification clearly belongs in this crowd himself with his belly at bullet height.” Puerility and belligerence are perhaps never too far apart. (And we will probably not escape the impression that these ennui-terror narratives chronicle a particularly male type of masculinity: virility, control, potency, pride, protection.)
In broad strokes, the question is about the relation between our boredom with modern life (a problem that technology and relative affluence make possible but that, in my opinion, cannot be answered by them, especially when it is so organized to fill the void and never let it appear to us) and the increasing level of “explosions” now punctuating our lives with terrorism and its threat (the void manifesting in frustrations and murders). Not only do the authorities consider us all potential terrorists, but we ourselves are confronted with these possibilities, it is being advertised to us, flaunted even, as an answer to “nihilisitic” culture and its dreariness. It would be fruitful to ask how we are “terroristic” in our own messages and behaviors. To what extent do we demand “punishing moments” and hurtle “hostile stones”? How is this possible when we lack a goal for it?
To plan to pain is to let the mockery of unmeaning reign. Wherever this takes place, however, the arrows fly aimlessly. The “enemy” cannot be located, and to target one is to target civilians. And, we should add, it is to always hit the wrong target–or to hit it as haphazardly as the gunman. Perhaps we know this, but we keep shooting. The reason, I would argue, is an inability to confront the tedium and tyranny of our own world, to address it from the void that both boredom and terror reveal to us in concealed forms, and their apparent reversibility and mutual energetic.
Because the border between the two is not as wide as we might think. A few months ago, in Dubuque, Iowa, a young man accosted, raped, and murdered an elderly woman. His reason? He was bored. I neither mean to discount the other factors involved in that attack, nor do I mean to suggest that Islamist terrorism is at all traceable to boredom. I’m trying to tease out the more complex chain, as it seems to emerge in affluent-media culture, from boredom to restlessness to desensitization… to the rage for consequences, destruction, and conquest. What does it tell us about our emptiness within, our refusal of it? What does boredom share with oppression tout court, if they can both lead to such outbursts, to hellfire visions of revolution where they meet on the horizon with innocent vandalism? (Should we speak of a sublimation of the death drive in art? Is that why philosophy is so “boring”? This is, after all, an age of struck canvases.)
What exactly is this lust for the Absolute Instant? We could never recall all the ways religion and philosophy are looped around such a concept. Nor could we count all the atrocities committed underhandedly in its name. The fight for the Unique, the Absolute, the Ultimate–this is a fight for mockery and unmeaning, its result a sorry string of futile appropriations (patriations, patriarchializations, etc.) on the way to terror and, in their failure, boredom. At any rate, this is a psychic space that is very poorly understood, which I think can be seen in our collective inability to critically address either of these problems. In lieu of this confrontation, I fear we risk slipping even further into a world that is increasingly terrifying, boring, and anxious.