“Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s biggest enemy is not the West’s reticence to sending more drones, more weapons, and more fighter jets. President Zelenskyy’s biggest enemy is boredom.”
“France s’ennuie” (France is bored) in 1839, he had hit on something quintessential to the zeitgeist of modern Europe. While the previous revolution of 1789 had been precipitated by the hunger of “sans-culottes” and peasants with breeches rioting in the Vendee, the revolutions of 1848 featured philosophers discussing how many angels one can fit on a pinhead. The bourgeoise corruption reflected what the philosopher Guy Debord saw as the evolution of society as a “spectacle.” In this “being becomes having and having appearing.” This can be seen in the new inner cities of Europe, where the lumpenproletariat is forced to live in a sense of “appearing” (the mobile phone, the Real Madrid football shirt) and masking a hopeless, valueless existence. Now, in liberal capitalism’s twilight zone, its members are destined merely to “appear.”hen the poet French Lamartine noted that
The entire culture is prey to this devaluation, where appearance replaces substance in large swathes of society, from the caliber of government to music to literature, from Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Coldplay. When the 1970s rock genre descended into 60-minute drum solos and Mike Oldfield twinkling on bells, along came the Sex Pistols and the Teutonic boot-stomping of “I Don’t Want a Holiday in the Sun” to wake society from its coma. Great art is Joseph Conrad’s Captain Kurtz going crazy down the Congo River and not an LGBTQ love triangle in Tower Hamlets. In this way, culture is cyclical; it is not a one-way street to universality and equality. This is how culture morphs into civilization, and it occurs in all societies. It begins with the “rationalization” of spirit; the Greeks went from the Dionysian to the Platonic Apollonian, from Nietzschean celebration of life to its dissection. Art and society become vehicles for human rights and equality miasma. In this post-Enlightenment frenzy, secular righteousness has replaced the virtue of Christian proselytizing, liberalism having derived from Christianity. The schools and universities have become Jesuit driven—that is, ideology driven. This has been aided by the technological age, which pushes the human further into Heideggerian inauthenticity. Concentration spans become shorter, and technology provides quicker, faster shorter cultural forms; society becomes condensed and homogenized. The one fits the many.
Take Ukraine. It is a war nobody wants except for President Putin. It is merely disrupting liberalism. It is an annoying disturbance, but it happens anyway; it is history chugging along in an old car until it runs out of petrol.
Finally, society falls into stupefying boredom. Oswald Spengler in his seminal work The Decline of the West saw history as cyclical, with empires rising and falling. Empires have an intrinsic organic character, like a plant. This view of history differs from the liberal democratic view that sees the inexorable march of progress to the “end of history,” a liberal capitalist utopia. However, Spengler had a Copernican view of history, meaning that all cultures have their own life cycle. There is no one hegemonic culture around which others orbit. This was the mistake of thinking of the “Occident”; that it was the grand star, the sun around which others twinkled. This led to Christian missionary, colonization, and development.
Countries generally fall into one of two types: civilizational or cultural. Civilizational countries believe themselves to be “progressive”; they occupy themselves with visions of universalist humanity, which is external looking. Culture reflects homogenous countries which see their own culture as primary, essential to survival. For them, “civilization” is of secondary importance. These countries see culture as the bond that keeps the nation together. Civilizational countries are, for example, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States They share a faith in their Napoleonic post-Enlightenment mission. Cultural countries are Germany and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not civilizing or exporting bolshevism; he is reinventing Peter the Great’s empire. The problem for the West is that the global neo-liberal underpinning of civilizational society is collapsing due to scarcity, population crises, and a profound loss of “telos” or meaning.
The beginning of “modern” civilization was the emergence of Enlightenment rationalist thinking and turning Christianity into an egalitarian cult called liberalism. The driving force of history is destiny and incident. Liberal destiny provided the French Revolution as an incident. This was the cultural phase of the cycle: the spring and summer of birth and growth. There is a renaissance of ideas; technology serves as part of the community. This was Ancient Greece in its Dionysian phase, before Socrates. The Romans went from a democratic republic to an empire and ended up burning books. Civilization occurs during the autumn and winter of societies. It is when reason and analysis take over and when society makes a Faustian pact with Mephistopheles. This is our modernity, where the quest for the infinite is selling one’s soul for the secrets of science, the search for the infinite. It is the yearning for progress; money becomes commoditized, infiltrating all sectors until one has a market in abortion clinics. The individual becomes the highest value, and Kant embodies this reasoning into law. Increasingly atomized, the individual becomes the leitmotif for the civilization, rather than tradition or community. The bonds of soil and labor are cast off for the final stage of liberalism: the sanctification of globalized markets and the universalist export of the Faustian culture through globalization. However, the new stage declines when nature in the shape of the environment, viruses, and growth limits are worn out. Then the specter returns—not the specter of communism but, rather, those Teutonic jackboots. Spengler’s cycle is complete when Caesarism emerges as the final aspect of Faustian culture. President Putin is merely one example of the metamorphosis of liberal capitalism into liberal authoritarianism. The image of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the end of liberty will be the enduring image; and while the books are not burning, they are just not being published.
In the final stage of modernity, boredom reigns supreme. Arthur Schopenhauer defined boredom as a peculiarly modern affliction: “What keeps all living things busy and in motion is the striving to exist. But when existence is secured, they do not know what to do; that is why the second thing that sets them in motion is the striving to get rid of the burden of existence, not to feel it any longer, to kill time” i.e., to escape boredom. Take Ukraine. It is a war nobody wants except for President Putin. It is merely disrupting liberalism. It is an annoying disturbance, but it happens anyway; it is history chugging along in an old car until it runs out of petrol. There is no great ideological fight; Russia sold its soul to Mephistopheles and joined the Faustian chorus when Peter the Great decided speaking French was trendy. Then the intellectuals Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky imported Marxism and stuck it to the peasants of Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevsky, steeped as they are in mystical spirit and endless landscapes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s biggest enemy is not the West’s reticence to sending more drones, more weapons, and more fighter jets. President Zelenskyy’s biggest enemy is boredom. The front pages have now reverted back to articles on transsexual issues and dissecting the results of the midterm elections. Russia’s intelligentsia of the 19th century was satirized in Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov. In it, the young liberal nobleman cannot muster the energy to do anything. He cannot make decisions or commit to action. His greatest achievement in the entire novel, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, is moving from bed to chair. Oblomovism became a characteristic of the Russian “avos”: the art of ignoring present problems in the hopes that they will go away, which is different from mere slothfulness. Oblomovism has made a comeback but in the West, and it is seen in the culture of the decline of service and of duty. It is visible in the highest echelons of power, where the keyword is mediocrity: Welcome to Biden-Harris.
It is evident also in the Russian military, where corruption, theft, and “Oblomovism” remain rampant. It signals the complete rationalization of life, the end of creativity, and the victory of appearance. Nothing is left sacred or mysterious; every aspect of the human experience is deconstructed and milled through mass culture and technology. Gustave Flaubert described his lot as “merde au surplus”: “a surplus of s—.” He often complained about how dull the world is and that he was destined to experience an eternity of ennui. Flaubert attempted foreign travel as an outlet for boredom. When he arrived in Alexandria, he found—to his horror—three-foot-tall letters inscribed on the side of the Pompeii column: “THOMPSON FROM SUNDERLAND.” President Zelenskyy has the technology, the weapons, and the public relations people. What he has to face, however, is “Oblomovism.” Boredom works within a strange dialectic of attraction and repelling. Academic research has shown how boredom has been a primary driver in seminal historic events; Jorg Kustermans suggests that boredom was a major reason behind Adolf Hitler’s foray into World War II. It was a major cause of the decline of British colonialism and the reason why Adolf Eichmann joined the SS. Boredom has been held responsible for the transformation from traditional to modern art. It appears as an escape route from the ennui of the modern world. But boredom, like history, is cyclical. It ebbs and flows. For the Russians, the war in Ukraine is merely one conflict in a line of conflicts from Afghanistan to Georgia.
Perhaps it is President Putin’s solution to boredom. The warring element had been far more natural in societies with “culture” as the hegemonic aspect. They feel as if “protecting” is a homogenous traditional core. Liberalism, on the other hand, stares outward in missionary zeal. But now, in the paradox of liberalism, as a means to globalized markets, war becomes a method to extend and protect the neo-liberal world. However, the liberal West now enters the reality of a bipolar or multi-polar world instead of the end of history. President Putin’s end game is based on boredom: the petering out of interest, the rise of inflationary pressures, and the limited attention of the “Faustian” man. War, to the average soul, is hideous and boring at the same time. Boredom is at once the spur to warlike action and the cause of its demise, all set within the Spenglerian rise and fall endemic to cultures. Modern liberal culture has substituted surrogates for war from Twitter to Netflix where, in the final stages of atrophy, appearance replaces reality. For Albert Camus, war and life are the will to power pushing history along: “He had been bored, that’s all, bored like most people. Hence he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama. Something must happen—and that explains most human commitments. Something must happen, even loveless slavery, even war or death. Hurray then for funerals!”.
Brian Patrick Bolger studied at the London School of Economics. He has taught political philosophy and applied linguistics at universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in The National Interest, The Montreal Review, The European Conservative, New English Review, and others. His new book Coronavirus and the Strange Death of Truth is now available in the United Kingdom and the United States.