Shoring Against Our Ruin: An Investigation of Profound Boredom in Our Return to Normal Life
Returning to campus after what felt like a lifetime of virtual schooling, quarantining, and all the other cheerful aspects of living and studying during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was thrilled to finally return to a normal college experience. And yet, it has been anything but normal. Besides the fact that the pandemic continues to drag on indefinitely, bringing with it certain indispensable COVID prevention strategies, like mask-wearing and bi-weekly testing, there is something more obstructing my return to the normal, pre-pandemic college experience I had so eagerly anticipated. My old routines now feel empty, and my previous passions and interests have fallen flat. I trudge about daily life listlessly, keeping up with my academic and extracurricular commitments simply because I don’t want to royally screw up the rest of my life. In short, I am bored, and I’m not the only person to feel this way.
According to a recent article by Times Magazine, approximately 12 million Americans quit their jobs last summer. For Americans between the ages of 20-34, 14 million have either resigned or neglected to join the traditional workforce. While some resigned in pursuit of higher wages and better working conditions, a significant portion of Americans sought non-traditional jobs or simply reveled in “funemployment”. This phenomenon, informally termed “The Great Resignation,” is deeply connected to the pandemic and our recent quasi-return to normal. During the initial stages of the pandemic, everything came to a standstill. Going to work, walking to class, living in a dorm, and frequenting friends and family was no longer possible. Daily routines, as a result, altered substantially. We became accustomed to working, studying, and interacting through screens from the relative comfort of our homes. We developed hobbies to pass the time. Our relationships changed, for the better and also for the worse. Ultimately, everyone desperately looked toward a final return to normal, but with the semi-normal return that came, we were strikingly confronted with how much had changed within the world and within ourselves. With so much change, a return to pre-pandemic existence seems impossible. What one did then is not the same as what one does now, and, by extension, our possibilities for individual meaning-making in the world are not the same as our previous ones.
Unable to authentically recreate past forms of meaningful doing and acting in the world as they used to exist, the attempt to do so in our quasi-post-COVID life becomes pervaded with a sense of meaninglessness. Going to work a specific job because that is what one used to do is no longer a sufficient justification for working it now, especially since, with so many people quitting their jobs or taking untraditional work trajectories, the structure of a working life has substantially, perhaps even normatively, changed. Unless that work continues to generate meaningful fulfillment, reenacting old ways of performing one’s daily life can produce a diffuse sense of indifference or boredom.
In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger describes the boredom resulting from a confrontation with a sense of meaninglessness in our actions and routines as the phenomenon of “profound boredom.” Heidegger argues that in profound boredom, we are exposed to the structures of our existence and, through that exposure, can newly discover meaningful ways to project ourselves into the world.
In this paper, I will investigate the extent to which Heidegger’s profound boredom is reflective of the form of boredom playing out in contemporary society and how his solution might offer a productive remedy. In order to do this, I will reference T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” a poem which copes with widespread disillusionment in modern society following the devastation of World War I and the increased technological advancement in the Second Industrial Revolution. Examining both Eliot’s and Heidegger’s representations of boredom, I will demonstrate (1) how boredom can take on existential proportions, (2) how globally disruptive experiences can instantiate this boredom, and (3) how this boredom may be resolved by acknowledging our own facticity and our own freedom to choose how we want to act within our world by meaningfully repeating past possibilities of doing and acting.
Comportment, Dasein, and The One
According to Heidegger, all individuals have a particular style or way of interacting with the features of the world. This style, which Heidegger terms comportment, is structured by an individual’s goals and projects. In short, what they find meaningful. For instance, entertaining the ultimate goal of becoming a philosopher, I am oriented and disposed towards the world accordingly: I choose to undertake an undergraduate major in philosophy, I dedicate myself to my philosophy courses, and I choose to attend graduate school all for the sake of this goal. As I do so, I develop a particular manner of comporting myself toward (i.e., a particular way of acting in) the world.
This comportment, while it pertains uniquely to each individual, is superimposed upon the individual’s “Dasein”. According to Heidegger, human beings are a particular type of entity which he terms “Dasein” – it can be loosely translated from German to mean “being-there”. Dasein interacts with the features of the world to advance its own particular goals and projects which illuminate a certain “style” or way in which Dasein approaches the world. As Heidegger describes, Dasein performs its actions and activities (i.e., its being) according to this particular style or comportment. Reciprocally, Dasein’s actions and activities reflect the comportment through which it approaches them. For example, if I entertain the ultimate goal of becoming a philosopher, I comport myself and am disposed toward the world accordingly: I choose to major in philosophy, I dedicate myself to my philosophy courses, and I choose to attend graduate school all for the sake of this goal. In pursuing certain projects and goals, I develop a particular manner of comporting myself toward (i.e., a particular way of acting in) the world. Additionally, the way that I act and do things (my comportment) both reflects and constitutes my understanding of myself. As I perform the actions that reflect the goal of becoming a philosopher, they also inform and constitute how I understand myself to “be” or act within the world as this particular individual which finds such and such projects meaningful. Thus, by attending my philosophy classes, I reinforce my understanding of myself as someone who loves philosophy and aims to become a philosopher. Of course, I can do things that would seemingly be “out of character” or at odds with my regular comportment, but in designating such an instance as “out of character,” I directly make reference to a contradiction between how I understand myself to act and a particular action or instance. Thus, to use Heideggerian terminology, as Dasein performs its being according to a particular comportment, it relates that comportment to the understanding of itself as itself, so that the mode in which it enacts its being is synchronized with how it understands itself to be.
While, being in the world according to a particular comportment, I do, act, and choose things that reflect a particular understanding of myself, what I do, how I act, and what I choose is invariably subject to what is available to me within my world. Just as I could not build a house without the tools to do so, I could not pursue a career in philosophy if philosophy were not an established (or at least an existent) field of study. Accordingly, Dasein’s involvement in the world is structured by the features and beings present and accessible to it within that world.
Dasein’s being in the world is also a ‘being-with’ others. Being-with becomes especially apparent in the manners in which Dasein interacts with objects and other features of the world through historical and culturally contingent social norms. For Heidegger, these conventions are exemplified through “what one does.” For example, one shakes hands when meeting a new person, one places one’s napkin on one’s lap at the table prior to beginning a meal, one drinks with a glass and eats with forks, knives, and spoons. While “one” does not designate any one particular individual, it designates an abstract collection of us (in which we are all included) that Heidegger terms the “They”. Insofar as I do as “one” does, I participate in the “They”, so that my actions reflect the larger social conventions of my community rather than what is meaningful and particular to me. By adopting these social conventions and rooting the “meaningfulness” of my actions within a contingent social order, I simultaneously flee the responsibility and accountability for my actions (as things which “I” rather than “They” elect to pursue) and relinquish my inherent freedom to pursue actions that are meaningful to me. Still, doing and knowing what one does fundamentally configures my “everyday” being-in-the-world (i.e., the way I act and relate to the world). As Mark Wrathall writes in How To Read Heidegger, “in the first instance and most of the time, we relate to others in the mode of ‘the one,’ which means that we understand ourselves in terms of what one says about the way one should live, that is, in terms of what one ordinarily does in situations that confront us”. Therefore, Dasein’s everyday existence (i.e., the typical or common way in which it is, both in terms of what activities it enacts and how) is, to some extent, immediately structured by what one does. For example, I go to the grocery store or the farmers market because that is what one does to purchase food in my community. At the grocery store, I acquire ham and other meats at the deli because that is what one does. My decision to go to the grocery store and my entire experience within that grocery store is organized by what one does. And this same structure applies to most of Dasein’s other everyday activities. Because Dasein’s “everydayness” is, to some extent, fundamentally structured by what one does, Dasein is never entirely inextricable from the “They.” Still, it is important to reiterate that “what one does” is not intrinsically meaningful in and of itself but a way of acting that reflects our socio-historically contingent norms and conventions.
During our pre-pandemic existence, departing to work or school, completing errands outside of the home, and visiting and engaging with others in physically close proximity was simply what one did and, as such, characterized our “everyday” existence. In enacting these doings and activities of “what one did,” we became oriented toward and learned to relate to the world in terms of the pre-pandemic “one.” Consequently, the pre-pandemic understanding of what one did formed part of our self-understanding, or understanding of our everyday they-selves which, in turn, undergirded those particular selves we claimed to be or exist as. For example, a college student understands his everyday they-“self” as a college student (at least partially) in terms of what one does in college. In the pre-pandemic world, this meant attending classes within a classroom, studying in a library alone or amongst friends, securing internships, discovering a potential career path, perhaps occasionally partying. As he performs these things, he relates them back to his self-understanding as a “college student.”
During the seemingly interminable months of quarantine, daily life underwent a fundamental transformation. Everyone, to some extent, conducted their social, academic, and work lives on various virtual platforms. Thus, what one did and how one worked altered drastically during quarantine. For our anonymous college student, virtual schooling and socializing became integrated into his everyday existence, and thus formed part of his everyday “self,” or how he acted and understood himself to be as a college student. Now, emerging out of quarantine with our quarantine beards and unshaven legs, we are tasked with what feels like the Herculean feat of “returning-to-normal” pre-pandemic life and what one did in that life. And yet, because we established a new normal and thus a new definition of what one does during quarantine, that “return” implies reproducing a performance or rehearsal of oneness that is, after such significant change since the onset of the pandemic, no longer applicable or even existent. As a result, the prevailing expectation of a return to normalcy confronts us with a conflict of “oneness” in which what one did and how one understood oneself to be as a college student, as a software engineer, doctor, or librarian is no longer what one does or how one understands oneself to be as such in our current world. In other words, the pre-pandemic “one” no longer determines our performance of “oneness.” However, here we are confronted with another problem: what does one do now? And by extension, how does one even understand oneself to be in the world? Is our college student still a college student within the pre-pandemic social definition and understanding of the term after spending close to a year in a virtual social and academic environment? Does he even understand himself to be the same college student that he once was before the pandemic? If not, is he left without anything to refer to in order to devise meaning and intelligibility from the strange, anomalous current life-experiences he must undergo? And, what if his goals and projects changed during quarantine? Must he now rehearse, along with all of us, what one did in the pre-pandemic life with those same goals and projects despite their inability to cohere with his current way of relating to the world? What are the implications of this rehearsal of pre-pandemic one-ness for Dasein who, after so much time understanding itself, relating to the world, and, as it were, devising meaning of its existence through the social conventions and modes of being associated with quarantine, must now adopt a performance of one-ness that is no longer meaningful to it; that no longer reflects how it understands itself to “be?”
Published in 1922, six years after World War I and approximately fifty years after the onset of the Second Industrial Revolution, T.S Eliot’s modernist poem “The Waste Land” appears to cope directly with the implications of meaninglessly rehearsing “what one did.” In Part II of the poem, A Game of Chess, a man and woman are having a disjointed conversation. The woman anxiously exclaims “What shall we do? What shall we ever do?” to which the man responds cryptically: “The hot water at ten. And if it rains, a closed car at four. And we shall play a game of chess, Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.” In asking what they will do, the woman expresses an existential concern for meaningful, fulfilling “doing” or action. The man, however, suggests that no such doing is possible and that they are instead condemned to a life of listlessly repeating old routines until death or some other existential “knock upon the door” delivers them from it. The poem famously purports to diagnose the catastrophic ills and pains of modern society in the post-war period. With the unprecedented violence of World War I and the increased mechanization of modern society following the Second Industrial Revolution, the profound and diffuse listlessness that Eliot describes appears to be symptomatic of the failure of traditional values and certainties such as religion, family life, and canonical forms of art and literature to infuse human life with meaning in this new context. As the poem describes, religion, challenged by the immense loss of human life and the increase of sexual promiscuity in the war, could not save, family and domestic life could offer no sanctuary, and traditional art forms could no longer accurately depict or reflect human life. While their failure to create meaning implies a kind of fracturing between a pre-war and post-war society in which the modern individual now found itself situated, this failure also discloses the fundamental contingency of socio-cultural norms, values, and traditions. If these values and certainties were inherently meaningful in and of themselves, they would continue to be meaningful irrespective of the contexts and conditions in which they were applied. However, because these values and certainties somehow seemed to lose their meaning for those subjects in the poem and the larger modern society confronted with a sense of meaninglessness and boredom in daily life, they were forced to recognize that their presumed meaningfulness was a self-contrived illusion, or, perhaps, ask themselves “what is wrong with me that these things have lost their meaning?”. Since these traditional values and certainties structured how one (to an extent) related to the world, and by extension, what one did, their failure to create meaning likely produced a sense of boredom in those daily routines which revolved around “oneness” (which might have included, going to church, honoring traditional marriage, relationship, family, or other such dynamics in the domestic sphere, reading Shakespeare, etc.) and configured the “everyday” self.
Because what became boring and meaningless was what one did, life was not boring to Dasein as this or that particular individual, but to Dasein as “one-self,” or the everyday self that acts, understands itself, and relates itself to the world in terms of the “One” and what one does. While the “one-self” may not be the particular, subjective self, because it informs, at least in part, how that particular self acts, the boredom encountered through the meaninglessness of Dasein’s everydayness problematizes how Dasein projects both its particular “self” and its they-“self” (as two, essential prongs of one and the same self) into the world. This is distinct from other forms of boredom (such as boredom with a specific object, social setting, event, etc.) in that it overwhelms Dasein’s every action in the world. As such, it can be understood within Heidegger’s notion of “attunement.” Attunement describes a state of mind that disposes us toward the world in a particular way. In order to explain this notion, consider the following hypothetical situation: while sitting in my room, I suddenly hear sirens blaring, people shouting and running, and see smoke leaking out from under my door. I become wholly overwhelmed with fear and alertness, leading me to scour the room for the closest exit or something with which to extinguish the imminent flames. My fear has completely altered the landscape of my environment so that certain objects become alternatively relevant and irrelevant to me depending on how they could be used. The pencil, for example, becomes irrelevant to me while a blanket by my bedside and an open window are relevant insofar as they might serve me in extinguishing the fire or escaping the room. As a result, my fear, as well as any other type of attunement, discloses that I must accept the circumstances of my world as they are revealed to me and what actions may be possible within those circumstances. While I submit myself to these circumstances, they also disclose opportunities for action or ways of utilizing certain objects that “matter” to me, or are significant to me to the extent that they help me extinguish the fire or escape the room. As a result, attunement constitutes how I am disposed toward the world and reveals my disclosive submission to that world.
Like fear, profound boredom is a type of attunement in that it reveals our “disclosive submission [to the world], out of which we can encounter something that matters to us.” According to Heidegger, the confrontation with meaninglessness in Dasein’s everyday self can instantiate profound boredom (in which it is “boring for one”). In and through this confrontation Dasein is left “pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door” and is attuned to the world through profound boredom.
Let us explore what this means through Jonathan Caballero, a 27 year old software developer who decided to join millions of Americans in quitting their traditional, pre-pandemic jobs. As a software developer, we can assume that in his pre-pandemic office space, Caballero may have perceived chairs, computers, conference rooms, telephones, among other things. He also had access to the different meanings implicit in these objects and the setting as a whole; the chairs, in the context of the office, may be for clients or co-workers to sit in, the computers to conduct programming with, respond to emails, type, etc, the telephone to communicate with, the conference rooms to host important office or client meetings, etc. In addition, we can assume, insofar as Caballero worked in this office in the pre-pandemic era, he comported himself in a particular way toward this office; a comportment that was structured by and made manifest a certain self which he (1) understood himself to be and, thus, (2) projected into the world. Thus, he was invested in the office space and its equipmental totality (i.e., the telephone, the computer, the conference room) as this particular self and for the sake of the projects, interests, and passions that are, to some extent, prescribed by the “one” but also reflect his own particularity as an individual. Each object, then, is meaningful to him through what they make possible toward advancing his multiple projects as his understood self which he understands himself to be. The telephone may be meaningful as a vehicle through which Caballero secures clients who may then elect to employ his services and, in doing so, secure the promise of a paycheck, and thus, fulfill his project of acquiring financial stability, the computer may be meaningful as the site of his work-activity in which he practices and improves his craft toward fulfilling his additional project of being an exceptional software programmer, and so forth. Additionally, the way in which Caballero came into contact with these objects, and by extension, the meaningful possibilities they imply, was in a nine-to-five, traditional working time-frame and environment. In other words, Caballero’s work, for which he was paid, did not simply consist of interacting with a certain kind of equipmental totality toward doing the work (in this case, software programming), but, because that work existed in a larger socio-cultural working structure, consisted of physically going to an office and being in that office space for a set period of time. Why? Because that is what one did as a member of certain sectors of the American labor force. One went to work, one spent time at a specified working location, and one returned home after the work day. Therefore, while his multiple projects (such as securing financial stability and being an exceptional software programmer) were made possible by the fact that those objects in his setting were used, and thus, could be used by one toward advancing these projects, these projects were also made possible by what one did, or more specifically, how one (within this particular sector of the American labor force) worked. Consequently, while they were made possible by how one worked, insofar as Caballero continued to work in terms of this oneness, his projects were also constrained to it. Caballero, then, projected himself meaningfully (to the extent that these projects are meaningful to him as that particular self which he understands himself to be) into the office space in terms of how one worked. This was his “everyday self.”
Inevitably, during quarantine, Caballero began working virtually along with most other Americans. For him, this may have meant working from home, zooming into meetings fresh out of bed and still in his pajama pants, and spending what would have been his daily forty-five minute commute to and from the office by instead jumping in his pool and discovering new hobbies and interests. Assuming that the majority of his social community underwent a similar, if not identical, experience, not only did what he did change, but also what one did changed. Thus, one began to act in and relate to the world in a new way, ultimately leading each of us to understand ourselves in terms of this new, quarantine-generated way of being and relating to the world. Being a software engineer, or a college student, no longer implied physically occupying a particular location in physical proximity with others, but implied instead working, communicating, and socializing remotely.
Returning to the pre-pandemic work life in this context, Caballero is tossed suddenly back into performing certain features of what one did, such as commuting to work, leaving the comfort of the home, and engaging with people face to face. His routine is now at odds with what he did and, by extension, what one did during the quarantine months. Because quarantine introduced a new performance of oneness and, thus, a new way of relating to the world, how Caballero presently understands himself to be, not simply as a software engineer but as a member of the socio-cultural world in which he exists, conflicts with the daily routines, or performance of everydayness, imposed upon him through the collective return to regular, pre-pandemic work life. Thus, these new routines, because they do not reflect how he understands himself (both as that particular self and as the one-self- which undergirds and gives rise to his particular self) are no longer meaningful to him. In addition, while this collective return strives toward pre-pandemic normalcy, this return breaks down as remnants of the pandemic continue to structure everyday existence. His current routines, while similar to pre-pandemic work life, ultimately fail to mean to him as such because they are, in a literal sense, not the exact same. In sum, then, Caballero cannot fully relate to the re-introduction of old, pre-pandemic routines into his daily life, and the performance of oneness they imply, because (1) what one does currently in these same routines is still somewhat different from what one once did, (2) quarantine changed his community’s performance of oneness, and thus, how he relates to the world in general, and (3) he understands himself, both as a particular self and as member of socio-cultural world in which he exists, differently than he did before the pandemic. Unable to relate to his routines as he once did, they fail to create meaning for him in the way that they had in the past, and he finds himself rehearsing a set of routines and performances that are meaningless to him (i.e. do not mean to him as in the way that they once did).
Thus, he may exclaim to himself, staring at his computer in his old office space with his mask slipping beneath his nose, “What shall I do? What shall I ever do?” To which the One replies, “a lunch break at 12:00, a commute home at 4:00, and we shall try to know each other through our masks, pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.” Like Eliot’s speakers, a profound boredom may pervade his entire approach to his office setting, his social life, and his entire rehearsal of a one-ness that no longer corresponds to his particular interests, goals, and passions as a particular self or his self-understanding within the socio-cultural framework in which he exists.
Answering the phone, commuting to work, sitting in an office, these actions no longer mean to him as they once did. He feels profoundly bored. And, in feeling profoundly bored, he is attuned to his equipmental totality (i.e., the objects that are contained within his environment) and the settings in which they occur in terms of this boredom.
However, because Caballero is bored with the rehearsal of a past one-ness and a past version of himself implicit in and made possible by this one-ness, his boredom extends beyond the confines of the office. Going to lunch with friends, returning home, cooking his dinner, he is progressing listlessly through the motions of old routines. While working from home may have been a situation particular to Caballero and his social community, most Americans, to some extent, experienced fundamental changes in their routines and daily life during the quarantine periods in the peak of the pandemic. Thus, the phenomenon of profound boredom that I address in this paper, while it varies widely in its causes for each individual, remains a seemingly wide-spread experience in our “return-to-normal” life.
As Heidegger writes, in profound boredom “we are not merely relieved of our everyday personality, but elevated beyond the particular situation in each case and beyond the specific beings surrounding us there. The whole situation and we ourselves as this particular subject are thereby indifferent... Indeed this boredom does not even let it get to the point where such things are of any particular worth to us. Instead it makes everything equally great and equally little worth.” “Being relieved of our everyday personality” here means no longer going about our lives as either one does, or as the particular self (which is inevitably, to some extent, structured by “oneness”) that, through its comportment, Dasein understands. For example, instead of attentively picking up phone calls, quickly responding to emails, and meticulously conducting his work (and thus meaningfully re-enacting “how one worked” toward the realization of some particular project as that particular self), Caballero, in this boredom, is detached from and indifferent to the office environment, what one would do, and what he once did (as his past, pre-pandemic self) in that particular environment. In other words, he is indifferent to how objects in that environment may serve the realization of the projects that are meaningful to him. However, he is not only indifferent to what one does, but what one does becomes indifferent to him. The equipmental totality of his world and the beings included in that world (that designate, through “how one worked,” how that totality might or should be utilized) no longer offer him any possibility of acting out his project, which has become meaningless; they “refuse” him meaning. As Heidegger writes:
There is a telling refusal on the part of beings for a Dasein that… in the midst of these beings as a whole comports itself toward them (toward them, toward those beings as a whole and their now telling refusal) and must comport itself toward them, if it is indeed to be what it is. Dasein thus finds itself delivered over to the being's telling refusal of themselves as a whole.
As Dasein, Caballero inevitably comports himself toward the world as the particular self which he understands himself to be. However, because this “self” has fallen flat, or is no longer meaningful to him, he comports toward a world without meaning or possibilities in that comportment. Therefore, beings as a whole which once created and gave rise to new meaningful possibilities for him as that self, now “refuse” him those meaningful possibilities. This “telling refusal” by beings as a whole constitutes the first essential, structural moment of profound boredom: being-left-empty, being without meaning to be discovered in beings as whole.
However, in telling refusingly, beings as a whole also highlight the possibilities for meaning-making that Dasein has exploited and are no longer meaningful to it. Sitting in his office or his home, his computer, his clients, his pens, his telephone, his friends, and his dinner table all refuse Caballero meaning as objects and beings through which he can act out his “self-hood.” In his profound boredom, the interaction with these beings and objects signals to him that they cannot be employed toward meaningful action because they imply a commingled performance of one-ness and a particular “self-hood” that are not meaningful to him. For example, his dinner table is no longer meaningful for him as something which one now, in our quasi-post-pandemic world, uses again (and thus makes possible) to dine amongst friends, but an object, which, in his profound boredom, points to his incapacity for meaning-making by continuing to exploit the possibility of “how one now uses” a dining table. Because using the dining table as such involves rehearsing a performance of pre-pandemic oneness that no longer corresponds with how Caballero understands himself (perhaps because he has since become uncomfortable with hosting dinner parties or having people over in general), his interactions with the dining table disclose (or “point to”) his inability to find meaning by continuing to exploit the possibilities involved in what one did before the pandemic. In revealing his exploited possibilities (i.e. the doing as both one and he once did) “...there occurs the dawning of the possibilities that Dasein could have, but which are left unexploited precisely in this “it is boring for one,” and as unexploited, leaves us in the “lurch”. In other words, confronted with the meaninglessness of his own rehearsal of what one used to do before the pandemic (and consequently, the rehearsal of his particular, pre-pandemic self which understood itself in terms of a pre-pandemic oneness) and the possibilities for acting within that oneness, he becomes aware of other unexploited possibilities for acting. As a result, the telling refusal of possibilities carries, by association, a telling announcement of the possibilities he has not yet exploited. This telling announcement does not point to any one unexploited possibility for meaning-making, but rather points (arbitrarily) to the fact that there are possibilities that he has not yet explored. However, because these possibilities are left unexplored in Caballero's total and complete boredom with the world in general, he does not take up meaningful action and is thus, as Heidegger writes, “left in the lurch” or entrapped in a kind of limbo of inaction. This “being-left-in-lurch” or “being-in-limbo” in which Caballero is confronted with but does not act upon unexplored possibilities comprises the second structural moment of profound boredom: because “being-left-in-limbo” precludes a kind of meaningful moving forwards, it has a certain temporal feeling.
When beings and the possibilities they create for meaning-making (i.e., a doctor makes possible the use of a scalpel as a medical tool, and thus, a meaningful tool for particular purposes) refuse themselves to Caballero, they refuse themselves as a whole: they refuse themselves in every respect, or in every respect, retrospect, and prospect, such that every past possibility that he exploited becomes meaningless to him as the version of his “self” he enacts has fallen flat. Likewise, any future, to-be-exploited possibility toward projecting that version of himself is also meaningless to him. But to whom do these possibilities refuse themselves? Not to Caballero as Caballero the particular, subjective individual, but to Cabellero as that self which acted in and related to the world in terms of a pre-pandemic one. As such, it is not boring for Caballero as the individual person, but boring for him as “One” or insofar as he continues to rehearse a kind of oneness that is no longer meaningful to him.
But in the context of his own boredom with that pre-pandemic self that causes his possibilities as that self to recede, that pre-pandemic-self does not lose its determinacy, “but rather the reverse, for this peculiar impoverishment which sets in with respect to ourselves in this ‘it is boring for one’ first brings the self in all its to nakedness to itself as the self that is there and has taken over the being-there of Dasein. For what purpose? To be that Dasein”. In other words, in his profound boredom, as the meaningful possibilities for acting are refused to him as a pre-pandemic-self, he becomes aware of this refusal of the pre-pandemic self, and consequently, becomes aware of the self itself, or the self which he has chosen to project over his existence (i.e., “being-there” or Dasein) in the world. In becoming aware of that pre-pandemic self, he becomes aware of (1) the fact that he has chosen to be or act as that self, (2) rehearsing what one does or what one did is not inherently meaningful, and (3) that, as a result, in his existence as Dasein he has the possibility to choose other selves that do not adhere to the “one.” For example, it is possible for him to take advantage of new socio-cultural possibilities that are becoming available such as: the emergence of partially or fully virtual employment, the shift toward smaller in-person social circles, and the new, national emphasis on self-care and mental wellbeing.
Thus, his boredom discloses to him that he must accept the circumstances of his world as they are revealed to him and what actions may be possible within those circumstances. The circumstances, and by extension, the world itself, thereby determines how he can act. Since he must accept the world’s determinations as to how he can act, he necessarily submits himself to the world. Still, this submission is not entirely passive. Instead, because his boredom reveals that he is capable of enacting a self (in this case, his pre-pandemic self), he becomes consequently aware of the possibility of enacting other selves and other ways of performing “oneness” that are gradually being made possible to him and to all of us in general. As a result, his boredom reveals the originary capacity of Dasein to make-possible other selves and the fact that he can choose to make-possible other selves that are meaningful to him. Confronted with the immensity of Dasein’s capacity to make-possible, without any definite direction as to what self or possibility he should enact, he is “held-in-limbo.”
The phenomenon of “being-held-in-limbo” also involves a unique form of temporality. Refused any meaning by rehearsing the pre-pandemic one-self by beings as a whole, Caballero is refused meaning in every respect, retrospect, and prospect, or in the past, present, and future. In this way, beings-as-a-whole are no longer open to him along a temporal horizon, and the possibilities that they present along this horizon are closed off to him as himself because he is no longer interested in them as future possibilities for meaning-making nor finds his past actions and exploited possibilities meaningful. But, if beings as a whole refuse themselves in terms of a temporal horizon, such that Caballero cannot move forward meaningfully in time alongside them (or, in recollecting, conceive of past instances of action as meaningful to him), then they also make manifest those possibilities which he has not yet exploited in terms of a temporal horizon. The unexploited possibilities are things which he may have done in the past (retrospect) or can do in the future (prospect). Confronted with Dasein’s capacity for making-possible in the past and future, he is not only held-in-limbo at the immensity of the unexploited possibilities available to him, but entranced in time insofar as these possibilities remain unexploited. For example, thinking back to his past experiences in the office or in his training to become a software developer, he may discern other opportunities that he did not take up such as, perhaps, working in a satellite location in New York City or South America, working at a different corporation, or becoming a doctor, engineer, or astronaut,. Conversely, thinking toward his future, he may discern possibilities that are available to him in the here and now. And yet, insofar as he does not take up these possibilities, he remains entranced in time such that he remains indifferent to his past, present, and future and cannot move meaningfully forwards or backwards in time.
He breaks this entrancement and transcends his boredom by experiencing “the moment of vision.” As Heidegger writes in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, “the moment of vision is neither chosen as such nor reflected upon and known. It manifests itself to us as that which properly makes possible, that which is thereby intimated as such only in being entranced in the direction of the temporal horizon and from there, intimated as what could and ought to be given to be free in Dasein’s proper essence as that which makes it most intrinsically possible, yet now in the entrancement of Dasein is not thus given.” The moment of vision is not experienced as a dramatic, transcendental instance, but as a kind of realization of the fundamental, originary properties of Dasein (i.e., “what properly makes Dasein possible”). As a being-there which comports itself understandingly toward that being, Dasein’s capability to enact a self and comport itself as that self in the actions and choices it undertakes is fundamental to its existence as Dasein. Thus, the moment of vision involves a “resolute disclosure of Dasein to itself,” or an awareness of Dasein’s own freedom to choose which self it wants to enact and then enacting that self that it chooses. Because Dasein’s self-enactment occurs along a temporal horizon (i.e., Dasein understands itself to be its “self” through past actions and choices taken as that self, enacts that self in the present, and projects that self in the future), its entrancement in time during profound boredom intimates, in its being refused meaningful action and doing in every retrospect, respect, and prospect, Dasein’s capacity to engage in meaningful action and doing within a temporal horizon.
Thus, the instance in which Caballero resolutely discloses his own freedom to choose a self he wants to enact to himself, he experiences a kind of “moment of vision.” Soon after returning to his regular pre-pandemic job, Caballero quit and started looking for jobs with better remote work options. Now, we can assume that Caballero has time to jump in his pool in-between meetings and pursue those hobbies and interests that were otherwise impossible with his daily, pre-pandemic commute. By quitting his job and choosing to explore an alternate possibility of post-pandemic one-ness that is meaningful to him (in that this possibility enables him to engage with aspects of his life that became important to him during the pandemic), Caballero has exercised his essential freedom as Dasein and altered his comportment toward the world in a way that enables him to engage in meaningful doing and action in every retrospect (i.e., his past experiences have given way to his new self-enactment and are thus meaningful to him) respect (i.e., his current choices and actions now harmonize with what is meaningful to him), and prospect (i.e., his future choices will be meaningful to him insofar as he continues to enact that self which enables him to realize those projects which are meaningful to him).
In sum, by altering his comportment toward the world, Caballero enacts a new self within that world, one that authentically (insofar as this new comportment reflects what is meaningful to him) incorporates and utilizes “oneness” toward realizing and fulfilling himself meaningfully.
Importantly, this transformation in how he comports himself toward the world involves a meaningful repetition of “what one did.” While Caballero, as a member of a particular socio-cultural framework which requires some degree of financial stability in order to continue participating within that same socio-cultural framework, continues to work, he does so in a way that enables him to pursue his other interests and passions. Thus, he repeats or rehearses oneness (i.e., the socio-cultural emphasis on financial stability) in a way that is meaningful to him as a particular self. Reciprocally, how he comports himself toward the world (i.e., rehearses oneness) as that particular self manifests that which is meaningful to him (i.e., those projects, interests, and passions that comprise his “for-the-sake-of-which”) as that self.
While T.S. Eliot and Heidegger were distinct writers and thinkers, they both seem to proffer the meaningful repetition of one-ness as a solution to profound boredom. In Eliot’s work, his meaningful repetition of “oneness” is exemplified by the structural fragmentation within his poem “The Waste Land.” Throughout the poem, Eliot includes miscellaneous fragments of Dante, Shakespeare, Greek myths, as well as ancient languages such as Sanskirt. On a superficial level, these fragments produce a sense of disorientation and confusion within the reader who must now assemble these fragments toward a cohesive interpretation of the poem. While the reader’s sense of disorientation parallels modern society’s confrontation with meaninglessness and subsequent inability to ground existence in meaningful forms of doing and action in post World War I society, the fragments also illustrate how aspects of past, traditional pieces of literature can be assembled or “repeated” in a way that allows them to meaningfully reflect the modern experience.
In the final section of the poem “What The Thunder Said,” Eliot begins by describing an apocalyptic scene in which “there is no water but only rock” and Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London, all descend into “unreality.” Here, Eliot describes the literal and spiritual devastation of Western civilization. The downfall of Jerusalem, Athens, and Alexandria all represent the inability of Ancient Western religion, art, literature, and history to salvage modern society from its ruinous apocalypse of meaningful action and doing by grounding that doing and action in the traditional values and certainties that characterize them. Instead, the downfall of London and Vienna, describes the devastation of a modern society unable to meaningfully ground itself in its Western socio-historical traditions and values. Thus, London, Vienna, Alexandria, Athens, and Alexandria, become “unreal;” they no longer possess or provide a meaningful reference point for real modern life to guide itself.
Following this apocalyptic scene, Eliot writes at the end of the poem:
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih.
Sitting upon the cusp of the poem’s conclusion and fishing for meaning within the “arid plains” of the apocalypse looming behind him and before him, Eliot attempts to reinvigorate fragments of canonical pieces of literature by “organizing his lands” or assembling them together in new ways.
The line “Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina” is an allusion to Canto 26 of Dante’s “Purgatorio”, meaning “then he hid in the fire that refines them.” According to Sussex University Professor Cedric Watt’s explication of these last ten lines, “the ‘he’ is Arnaut Daniel, the medieval Provençal poet. He has just told Dante that he repents the sins of his past and looks forward to the heaven that he will eventually reach after suffering the purgatorial flames.” The following line “Quando fiam uti chelidon” from the anonymous Latin poem ''Pervigilium Veneris” means “when shall I be like the swallow.” In this poem, “the raped Philomela has undergone a healing metamorphosis into a songbird, making her complaints sound as joyous as a song. The next line, “O swallow swallow,” refers to Alfred Tennyson’s lyric in “The Princess” in which “a swallow is flying south to warm lands, away from the earthbound poet.” Finally, “Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie,” a line from Nerval’s ‘El Desdichado’, meaning “The Unfortunate or Disinherited Man,” a French poem with a Spanish title, means “The Prince of Aquitaine at the ruined tower.” According to Watts, “the gist of the poem is: ‘I’ve been through hell, but I’ve survived to tell the tale, I’ve known loss and grief, but I’ve had my dreams and can make songs of my experiences.”
Independently, each of these lines refer back to larger poetic works, and thus refer back to the traditional literary structures, styles, and modes of human experience embedded in and advanced by these works. However, by separating these fragments from their larger poetic totality and compiling them together in a new structure, Eliot alienates them from the poetic works and traditional literary structures and meanings to which they pertain. By alienating them from their original works and compiling them together, Eliot also re-appropriates them in a creative way. Through this creative re-appropriation or repetition of these fragments, they ultimately produce a new narrative, one that neither of them originally pertained to or advanced.
Essentially, this new narrative suggests that repentance or self-forgiveness will enable the grieving post-war civilization to transcend its own purgatorial limbo toward a kind of recuperation of meaningful doing and action in modern life. Because this narrative reflects and diagnoses the post-war human experience, Eliot’s creative repetition of past literary fragments enables him to meaningfully describe and reflect human life as it is, thus re-invigorating literature’s capacity to invoke human experience overall.
As a result, the fragments “shore against his ruins,” or act as a buffer against his destruction as a poet in a dying artistic field and as a modern individual confronted with the meaninglessness of the traditional values and certainties implicit in socio-cultural norms.
Eliot concludes the section ironically with “Why then Ile fit you, Hieronymo’s mad againe,” the subtitle of Thomas Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy meaning “why then I’ll fix it for you, Hieronymo’s mad again.” While the line acknowledges that his atypical poetic structure may induce readers to think him insane, Eliot’s “I’ll fix it for you” reaffirms us of his craftsmanship and ability to “fix” literature’s inability to capture and resolve modern society’s post-war sense of meaninglessness. The poem ends with the repetition of “shantih, shantih, shantih”, a Sanskrit word meaning peace or inner peace prayed at the end of the Upanishad in the Hindu religion. Pointing ambiguously toward Eastern modes of spirituality, Eliot leaves us to “fish” our own individual meaning out of his fragments.
Because the poem incorporates a creative repetition of past canonical forms of literature toward developing a form that can meaningfully reflect the modern human experience, it attempts to restructure how “one” relates to and understands these canonical forms of literature. Instead of writings that can no longer invoke what it means to be human, Eliot’s fragmentation gives them a new applicability to the modern experience. Thus, Eliot’s creative repetition of how one related to canonical works makes those works newly meaningful to the post-war reader as a compilation of fragments, both within the poem (i.e., as resolving the poem’s central conflict) and as suggesting ways to transcend their own confrontation with meaningless and profound boredom in post-war society.
Similarly, by creatively repeating and reassembling aspects of what one did in the pre-pandemic world with what one did during quarantine, we compile together a structure akin to Eliot’s fragmentation. Assembling these fragments of “oneness” in a new montage that authentically expresses how one, and how we each individually, relate to the world in the context of enormous crises, anxiety, and change, we can enact new possibilities of being and acting that are meaningful to us and, thus, shore against our own ruinous experiences with profound boredom and meaninglessness. While Heidegger’s “moment of vision” describes the instance we are disclosed to our own freedom to choose which selves we want to enact, Eliot’s fragmentation demonstrates how we can enact that self through meaningful repetitions of our oneness.
While Caballero experienced a meaninglessness rehearsal of oneness in his return to the pre-pandemic work-life structure because it invoked a self that he no longer felt or understood himself to be, by quitting his job to pursue remote working options, he creatively assembles a performance of pre-pandemic one-ness (in that he continues to work) with a performance of quarantine one-ness (in that he begins to work virtually and make time for his other interests and passions) that reflects how he understands himself to “be” in the world.
As such, the creative repetition of past possibilities seems to offer a productive solution to the post-pandemic phenomenon of profound boredom. As we each reevaluate our current rehearsal of oneness, quit our jobs, change our career or academic tracks, tighten our in-person social circles, restructure our relationships, and travel the world in pursuit of new possibilities for meaningful doing and action, we create new ways of understanding ourselves and relating to the world in general. Perhaps, a new performance of one-ness may be gradually unfolding before us.
Heidegger, Martin, and Edward Robinson. “Chapter 4, The They.” Essay. In Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie, 149–68. Harper Perennial, n.d.
Heidegger, Martin, William McNeill, and Nicholas Walker. Essay. In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, 136–52. Bloomington, Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Wrathall, Mark A. “Everydayness and The One.” Essay. In How to Read Heidegger, 47–70. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2006. Chapters 5-6
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed February 12, 2022. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land.
Watts, Cedric. “The Last Ten and A Half Lines of the Waste Land.” The Last Ten and a Half Lines of the Wasteland.
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Bruner, Raisa. “Why Young People Are Quitting Jobs-and Not Going Back.” Time, Time, 29 Oct. 2021.
Fontinelle, Amy. “The Great Resignation.” Investopedia. Investopedia, May 5, 2022. https://www.investopedia.com/the-great-resignation-5199074.