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13 mai 2004
Review of Existential Psychology & Psychiatry
1980; 17; 91-100
Boredom and the yawn
Linda Bell
Professor of philosophy
Georgia State University, USA


Yawns come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They appear at various times, and in many different places. Yawns open more than mouths; they open also the possibility of analysis. They can be elucidated aesthetically, clinically, ethically, sociologically, and probably even politically. A yawn may tell us one of a number of things: that the yawner is sleepy, that he or she is not getting enough oxygen, or that he or she is bored. While the yawn of boredom may initially not look very interesting, appearances here are deceptive. As paradoxical as it may seem, boredom is not itself boring. It is, in fact, a fascinating subject - especially to a phenomenologist.
Fortunately, the contemporary phenomenologist who undertakes to examine the yawn need not begin with an unexplored chasm. The investigative gap has been partially filled by Jean-Paul Sartre's analyses in his novel Nausea, though much more work remains to be done.
Sartre is noted for his brilliant and profound descriptions of a wide variety of human phenomena. In Being and Nothingness, for example, he has carefully and perceptively depicted the shame of the individual who, while looking through the keyhole, realizes that he in turn is being observed by another, the self-deception of the waiter in the cafe, as well as that of the woman with her would-be lover. Similarly sensitive and revealing is his analysis of the yawn of boredom.
Antoine Roquentin, the diarist of Nausea, is in Bouville, a town where little if anything ever seems to happen, studying M. de Rollebon, a somewhat shadowy figure of minor historical significance. He is bored with Bouville, with M. de Rollebon. He is even bored with his life of "eat, sleep, sleep, eat." He declares: "I am bored, that's all. From time to time I yawn so widely that tears roll down my cheek. It is a profound boredom, profound, the profound heart of existence, the very matter I am made of."
«La Nausée me laisse un court répit. Mais je sais qu'elle reviendra : c'est mon état normal. Seulement, aujourd'hui mon corps est trop épuisé pour la supporter. Les malades aussi ont d'heureuses faiblesses qui leur ôtent, quelques heures, la conscience de leur mal. Je m'ennuie, c'est tout. De temps en temps je bâille si fort que les larmes me roulent sur les joues. C'est un ennui profond, profond, le cœur profond de l'existence, la matière même dont je suis fait. Je ne me néglige pas, bien au contraire : ce matin j'ai pris un bain, je me suis rasé. Seulement, quand je repense à tous ces petits actes soigneux, je ne comprends pas comment j'ai pu les faire - ils sont si vains. Ce sont les habitudes, sans doute, qui les ont faits pour moi. Elles ne sont pas mortes, elles, elles continuent à s'affairer, à tisser tout doucement, insidieusement leurs trames, elles me lavent, m'essuient,m'habillent, comme des nourrices. Est-ce que ce sont elles, aussi. qui m'ont conduit sur cette colline ? Je ne me rappelle plus comment je suis venu. Par l'escalier Dautry, sans doute : est-ce que j'ai gravi vraiment une à une ses cent dix marches ? Ce qui est peut-être encore plus difficile à imaginer, c'est que, tout à l'heure, je vais les redescendre. Pourtant, je le sais : je me retrouverai dans un moment au bas du Coteau Vert, je pourrai, en levant la tête, voir s'éclairer au loin les fenêtres de ces maisons qui sont si proches. Au loin. Au-dessus de ma tête; et cet instant-ci, dont je ne puis sortir, qui m'enferme et me borne de tout côté, cet instant dont je suis fait ne sera plus qu'un songe brouillé.» (p221-222)
This is not simple, everyday boredom; it is, Sartre tells us "profound boredom." And it is profound not only in its intensity, as indicated by tears running down Roquentin's cheeks, but also in revealing a deep and seldom noticed aspect of things. It is precisely this awareness, profoundly felt, which constitutes nausea, an experience which provides a unique access to an existence which usually hides itself: as the "veneer" of diversity-the individuality of the root, the park gates, the bench, the grass-vanishes, existence unveils itself as "the very paste of things ... soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder-naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness."
This experience of nausea is closely connected, in Sartre's thought, with the yawn. Like Camus' feeling of unfamiliarity, it signifies a breaking-down of the normal way of seeing things in their familiar individuality. Unlike Camus' feeling of unfamiliarity, however, Sartre's nausea is not merely an awareness of the inhuman aspect of things, other persons, and one's self: an experience of "nature without humanity." It is also an actual experience of, a privileged access to, the very being of things, the in-itself of Being and Nothingness. In nausea, one feels the unbearable "touch" of objects, one's unbearable connection with them.
Admittedly nausea is a unique boredom-as Sartre says, a "profound boredom." It provides access to the very being of things and thereby may lead us to an awareness of ourselves as the source of meaning and value in the world. Nausea is primarily an experience of the initself. Is this truc of ail boredom?
I realize that such a question may seem strange to anyone familiar with Sartre's accounts of our bad faith flights from freedom and responsibility and of our reactions in shame, arrogance, love, language, masochism, indifference, desire, hate, and sadism to the looks of others. Given these analyses, it may seem obvious that boredom, and hence the bored yawn, must always be connected ultimately with the in-itself -the being of things - and not with the for-itself - the nothingness of consciousness. Or, to formulate the issue with respect to ourselves and others, it may appear self-evident that boredom must be connected with facticity-that aspect of ourselves most closely connected with the being of things- and not with freedom and transcendence.
Given these analyses, it seems that one can be bored with oneself and with others only in certain restricted ways, that is, only with the facticity, past, and object-side of each. Accordingly, one could become bored with one's own or another's situation, with either's body, class, and economic status, or with what. either has managed to make of himself, with past and prescrit accomplishments, or with the way each sees or is seen by the other. What appears impossible is that one could be bored with the freedom and transcendence of oneself or of another. It is just this that I want to challenge.
With respect to one's own freedom, Sartre proposes that one may respond with despair, anguish, and a sense of abandonment. Unwilling to recognize and accept the extent of one's freedom and responsibility, an individual may flee in bad faith from the recognition of his freedom, hiding behind excuses which he himself in some sense knows to be illegitimate. He may become, for example, a "serious man," a man who regards his values as given and ready-made and his imperatives as unquestioned and even unquestionable. Surely Sartre is right that boredom is possible here. The serious individual is almost certainly bound to be boring to others, if not to himself.
One may, however, flee one's freedom in a radically different way. Sartre's examples of the woman with her would-be lover and of the homosexual are examples of individuals who try to escape their freedom and its consequent responsibility by emphasizing freedom itself, but in a very restricted sense. They try to treat themselves as abstract freedom and thus to deny the concrete freedoms that they are. Wanting to postpone the moment of decision, the woman refuses to recognize the implicit commitment she makes as she leaves her hand "between the warm hands of her companion." She divorces herself from her body by drawing her companion into a lofty and sentimental discussion of "Life" and of her life in particular. Thus, her hand does not commit her; as a mere thing, it can neither consent to nor resist the man's advances.
Similarly, Sartre's homosexual refuses, in spite of the urging by his critic (the "champion of sincerity"), to admit that he is a homosexual. Refusing to acknowledge a past of homosexual activities, he affirms his freedom. In ignoring his past, this affirmation is at best an affirmation of an abstract freedom.
These individuals who paradoxically flee their freedom and responsibility by fleeing into their freedom and transcendence, away from their facticity, thereby resemble Kierkegaard's aesthete. And it is significant that it is the aesthete who, in Kierkegaard's presentation, is plagued by boredom. The aesthete does everything in his power to avoid commitment: lie guards against friendship, avoids marriage, never accepts appointment to official positions, and engages in all sorts of improductive activities to keep himself active in a way that is compatible with his leisure. Yet he is bored: he cares for nothing; his view of life is "utterly meaningless;" "life has become a bitter drink." He says, "How terrible tedium is - terribly tedious. ...[T]he only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I move about in is emptiness. The aesthete finds himself and others boring: "all men are bores." Boredom entered the world with Adam and only increased proportionately as the population increased.
I find it significant that Kierkegaard recognizes boredom as a problem for the aesthete but not for Judge William, the "moral man" of Volume II of Either/Or. The moral man, like Sartre's serious man, flees from his freedom to his facticity and hides behind what he is, his status in the community, what he has been, what is expected of him, his marriage, and the comfortable conformity with the status quo which is encouraged by the moral imperative's demand of universalizability. At best only slightly troubled by the country pastor's affirmation that "against God we are always in the wrong," Judge William is certainly not troubled by boredom in spite of the fact that his self-righteousness and myopically moral advice make him, for many of us, "an intolerable bore."
This seems to be exactly the opposite of what we would expect. The individual who flees into abstract freedom and becomes "fantastic" is the one who may become the more bored. He spends his time entertaining himself, existing in the abstract, languishing in his weightlessness. Of course, his is really not a genuine sense and utilization of freedom inasmuch as he uses his freedom as a way to avoid confronting himself and acknowledging the necessity of choosing. Still, though, the mere fact that Kierkegaard recognizes such a threat of boredom in this level of existence suggests that the connection of boredom with facticity far from exhausts the phenomenon of boredom.
Of greater importance is the question of what happens if an individual does not flee his freedom and transcendence but rather confronts them authentically. Many see problems at this point, fearing that one must choose between the serious and what Kierkegaard calls the "hypothetical. self": a self which "... does not for an instant stand firm ... [since it] exercises quite as much the power of loosing as of binding, every instant it can quite arbitrarily begin all over again..." A hypothetical person is, like Dostoevsky's Underground Man, always so painfully and explicitly aware that he and he alone must choose and thereby create his own foundations for acting that he can never act. Since, before acting, he must always first question his earlier decision to act, he cannot escape from this never-ending need to reaffirm his previous choice. He knows all too well that he can tear down as arbitrarily as he has built, that he remains free to reject what he has previously accepted and to accept what he has rejected.
It seems possible, however, for Sartre to escape this alleged dilemma of the ready-made values of the serious, on the one hand, and the paralysis of the constant reevaluation of the hypothetical, on the other. Sartre's reasons for rejecting the serious have already been examined. In addition, Sartre could deal with the hypothetical man's infinite postponement of action in much the same way that a utilitarian such as Bentham deals with the alleged need to calculate the pleasurable and painful consequences of every possible action in a given situation. Like Bentham, Sartre could point out that we are responsible for our postponement of decision and our inaction, which is just to say that we choose to postpone, to requestion, and to calculate, rather than to act in some other way.
Although Sartre would thus reject both horns of this dilemma, a question nevertheless remains as to what the third (and authentic) alternative would be. Clearly, the authentic individual must recognize and affirm his or her freedom. Initially, this accepting recognition would no doubt be as exhilarating as the rejecting recognition of freedom was terrifying for the individual in bad faith. In recognizing one's freedom in this authentic way, an individual may be enormously elated. He or she may spin dizzily with the awareness that one is not just one's facticity: one's class, what one has been, one's body, etc. One may be brought out of this vertigo to some degree by a sense of responsibility as one recognizes the extent of one's freedom and that one is without excuse. He or she must not, however, allow this sense of responsibility to pull him, or her back into the serious. In particular, he or she must resist the temptation to take his own past decisions as irrevocably binding him or her in the present.
To avoid the extremes of the serious and the hypothetical, a certain combination of playfulness and boredom seems necessary. An individual needs to be able to regard past choices with a detachment that always enables one to question and to reexamine them, and one even needs to encourage oneself constantly to do so. At the same time, one must be able to carry through on at least some of one's projects, even though he or she may realize that he or she has the freedom (and often may choose) not to do so.
Repetition has its proper place in the sphere of the ethical, and Kierkegaard's Judge William recognizes this. If the serious is to be avoided, though, this repetition must be undertaken with an attitude less serious than that of Judge William: it must involve something like the spirit of play, though not frivolity. In a game, one always-at least as long as one is playing and not seriously involved (in what is no longer a game) - retains an awareness that one could stop the game or at any rate get out at any point. The sense of free involvement is paramount in play; and to the extent that it is lacking, we are doing something other than playing, for example, trying to win, to impress, to gain a scholarship, to convince ourselves of our ability. This does not mean that one cannot play a spirited and vigorous game. Nor does it mean that one cannot get bored and yet carry on the game. In fact, many a game is finished in boredom for no better reason than that it was begun. Many a project is completed in boredom for no better reason than that it was undertaken.
We may indeed find good and compelling reasons to end a game or to discontinue a project. But must we always have good reasons for carrying through what we previously judged to be right or even obligatory? For every "Why?" there is a"Why not?" which may be just as difficult to answer. Unlike the endlessly questioning "Why?" of the Underground Man, play and boredom do not paralyze but may allow us not only to initiate action but also to follow it through to completion.
To play, then, is to freely engage in an activity. Play is neither serious nor agonizingly hypothetical. It involves both the recognition that one is free and an affirmation of one's subjectivity. Some sort of distance from the activity is necessary for play. Those who are too intimately identified with their tasks do not play. Neither do they become bored since it is also distance which allows the individual to becorne bored. Given the requisite distance, it seems impossible to rule out the possibility of boredom wherever there is play. Why, then, may not an authentic individual occasionally become bored with the use of freedom just as the aesthete becomes bored with abstract freedom?
Why should not the initial exhilaration of the awareness of freedom seule down into the humdrum? Everything else does; why should this be an exception? Camus concludes that we must imagine Sisyphus as happy as he descends to retrieve his stone. Surely it is just as necessary to imagine Sisyphus as at least occasionally bored. Cannot Sisyphus yawn from boredom as he descends to retrieve his stone at the foot of the hill, even though he knows that he and he alone chooses thus to resist the meaninglessness of the universe, attempting in his rebellion to impose a human stamp on what is and will remain alien and inhuman? Cannot an individual occasionally be bored as he pours water through sieves, although he may choose this and may deem it in the circumstances the most important thing to do? Surely in such cases of boredom one is bored with one's freedom and not just with the contingency of the particular choice (that it need not have been) nor with the necessity of making some choice or other (in the sense of being condemned to frecdom).
There is some indication that Sartre recognized this possibilîty in authenticity. In Being and Nothingness, he is very clear about the connection between play and authenticity, noting that a special study of play belongs to an ethics. Moreover, in Saint Genet, Sartre presents a dialectic of authenticity at the end of which, as he so dramatically asserts, Genet "becomes a man" What happens to Genet at this point, though, is revealing. He seules down into a rather humdrum existence; Genet the homosexual and thief marries and takes on the responsibilities of a family. In one sense, little remains to be said about him; he is no longer so interesting. But in another sense, much remains to be said, for he has become a man, an authentic human being.
There is also the possibility- as yet unexamined - of the bored yawn as a response to the other. Again, Sartre's analyses suggest that such boredom is a response to the facticity, past, and object-side of the other. Thus, Roquentin is bored with M. de Rollebon who, being dead, is pure facticity, past, and object-side. Roquentin experiences nausea, for example, as he becomes aware of another as having "barely a face" with "his hand like a fat white worm in my own hand" or as he imagines the flesh of a womans husband as "defenceless, bloated, slobbering, vaguely obscene." Once again, though, the completeness of Sartre's analyses needs to be questioned. Is this all there is to the yawn as a response to another? Again, I think not.
Surely we cannot deny that we often respond to others as Sartre has suggested. One may indeed experience the inhuman and alien in another. One may feel the superfluity of the other. One may become bored with another's facticity, past, and object-side. For the most part, individuals may react in bad faith to the look of another. They may not want to assume their responsibility for the object-sides the other in some sense gives them. As they flee frorn this recognition, they rnay very well not be bored. They may be much too serious about their undertakings.
But what if someone does not flee in such seriousness? What if he accepts his freedom and his responsibility even for the way others see him? Does he not then react rather differently to the look of the other? As Sartre recognizes in Being and Nothingness, to react in indifference, in effect pretending that one is not looked at, is a reaction of flight, of bad faith. Surely, however, boredom is a very different and often appropriate response. Sartre considers instances of the look in which an individual has been seen in a way he does not wish to be seen. Even without turning to a consideration of authentic response to the other, we might suggest cases in which the look of the other is not particularly threatening. For example, even this kind of bad faith is unmoved when the look of the other is particularly distorting. For example, a look will not be particularly threatening, bad faith notwithstanding, if the one who looks is notoriously insensitive and imperceptive and if it is quite clear that what he or she thinks is seen bears no resemblance whatsoever to what is actually going on.
If an indivîdual is authentic and not fleeing freedom and responsibility, the situation is somewhat similar. One's interest in the other's look would be in direct proportion to the latter's sensitivity and perceptiveness. One must, after all, minimally recognize oneself in what the other sees; and in the effort fully to assume responsibility for his or her object-side, the authentic individual has little if anything to learn about himself or herself frorn someone who so distorts those seen that they are simply unable to recognize these views of thern as in any way their objectsides.
Here a response of boredorn seerns not only expected but even most appropriate. This fact might explain why, even in bad faith, we are so uninterested in and unthreatened by some, even by some who try so hard to interest or to threaten us. Sartre himself allows that what is threatening about the look is that the other thercin discloses to the one scen the latter's object-side. If one's object-side is not disclosed by what one originally might have taken as a look, then it no doubt was not a real look. Although it may disclose one's object-side in the same way as a rustling leaf, taken as an other-looking-at-one, nevertheless the actual look of the other may turn out to be itself no more threatening or enticing than the leaf.
Perhaps we can carry Sartre's analysis a step further. Not only may we not be interested in the way the other sees us, but also we may even not be at all interested in the other's freedom and transcendence. It may be true that he or she organizes the world around himself or herself just as we each organize it around ourselves. It may very well be that the other in some sense usurps our possibilities by subsuming them under his or her projects. But the question is, must we be threatened or even moderately interested in this? May we not be bored with the freedom and transcendence of the other?
Is it just that we feel that we know in advance what the other is going to do? That may be a part of it, in which case boredom results from others' predictability. This looks once again like we are bored with something resembling or closely connected with others' facticity, their past, and the way we see them, rather than with their freedom and transcendence. But others may truly do the unexpected, and we may still be bored with them. They may be reeling about with the anxiety of facing their own freedom; a world as it were of possibilities may be confronting them; and we may nevertheless be bored with them. Whereas we may be fascinated with the cyclical patterns in nature, the repetitions in animal life, and even the spinning of a top, we may be bored to tears by a human freedom, unpredictable though it may be.
A final point needs to be made in connection with boredom as a response to another, especially in its physical manifestation of the yawn. Sartre has a great deal to say in general about holes. Man himself, according to Sartre, is a hole in being, and this accounts for the all too human fascination with holes and for man's constant striving to fill them. In a philosophy so concerned with the significance of holes, it is remarkable that we do not find any mention of the yawn - particularly the yawn as a response to another - as a hole. This is even more remarkable when one attends to the actual role a yawn may play in the encounter between the self and another.
Here indeed is an interesting hole, one that, as we have seen, can in a sense swallow the look of the other. Someone looks at another. The latter yawns. The look of the first is lost: where he or she had tried to objectify the other, there is no other to be objectified. The other has removed himself or herself; he or she is no longer there at all. What remains are tongue, lips, and tonsils. The yawner has removed himself or herself from the antagonism directed toward him or her, from the circle into which the look might have precipitated the two of them. Thus, the yawn enables one to break out of the circle of relations described by Sartre in Being and Nothingness. To be bored is to enjoy a distance from both the threat and the temptation of the look. In boredom, one realizes one's own free involvement in the situation, and this realization releases the magical hold of the other.
Thus, it seems, the yawn is a hole with a difference, for it can swallow the subjectivity of the look. At the same time, it does not invite filling the way that other holes do. There is something empty and yet full about the yawn. It is indeed a hole but one that is full and expressive: it is a hole that overflows itself. Sartre indicates this, I believe, by frequently connecting the bored yawn with tears: "I give such a big yawn that tears come into my eyes," and "From time to time I yawn so widely that tears roll down my cheeks."
I conclude, then, that the examined life of an existentialist may not and need not always be as exciting as those of us threatened by the recognition of freedom might think. This does not, however, mean that an authentic life is not worth living. It only means that we can become bored with our own freedom and with that of others and that boredom, or at least the constant possibility thereof, must play an important role in an ethics of authenticity developing out of the thought of Sartre.