Bedeviled by boredom: a Voegelinian reading of Dostoevsky's Possessed.

Author:Avramenko, Richard G.


This article is about boredom. It does not concern boredom as a problem of analytical philosophy, nor does it concern boredom as a specific political problem. While boredom can, and often does, give rise to issues philosophical and political, here it is analyzed as a problem of human existence. Simply put, this article is concerned not only with how human existence becomes boring, but more importantly with how humans respond and cope with profound boredom. It is for precisely this reason that two so-called existential thinkers are invoked: Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). (1) Of course, a more typical invocation of Voegelin would be to shed theoretical light on the deformation of consciousness that begot the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century. With Dostoevsky, it would be to illuminate the abiding problem of evil. Here, however, Voegelin is invoked because his theory of consciousness also sheds light on what I consider to be a central twenty-first century problem--boredom. This is not to say that boredom is a new problem, but merely that it did not hold center stage amidst the excitement of the twentieth century. To be sure, Dostoevsky is not a twenty-first century man, but in his thought we find a striking portrayal not only of a problem mirroring the ideological fanaticism Voegelin calls Gnosticism, but also recognition that boredom itself is prior to such a pneumopathology--and thus that Gnosticism is but one possible way human existence can be bedeviled by boredom. In short, Dostoevsky understood well the threat to civilizational order engendered by the deformation of consciousness Voegelin describes, but his unique experiences and his vivid imagination give us a resume of symptoms, that will here be described as folly, error, and sin. By interpreting these symptoms in light of Voegelin's theory of consciousness, not only will the importance of revisiting the problem of boredom be brought to the fore, but they will each suggest that it is perhaps boredom itself that spawned the excitement of the twentieth century.

Boredom and Perplexity in Hegel

Voegelin's most sustained comments on boredom appear in his discussions of Hegel and Pascal. From Pascal, he invokes the twin categories of ennui and divertissement, to which we will return presently. (2) In his essay on Hegel he opens with the problem of boredom but after the first few paragraphs leaves it behind to elaborate on Hegel's prestidigitatious attack on reality. (3) This is, of course, quite understandable: Voegelin's explicit concern is with the problems of the twentieth century; boredom is the uncanny visitor returning to knock on our twenty-first century door. But nevertheless, when Voegelin alerts us to the problem of boredom, he is alerting us to the fundamental origin of Gnosticism. The Hegel essay itself begins with the theme from a lost manuscript: "When the gods are expelled from the cosmos, the world they have left becomes boring." (4) According to Hegel, this boredom of the world has occurred twice before, once "in the wake of Roman imperial conquest; and a second time in modernity, in the wake of the Reformation." (5) In the Roman case, imperial expansion not only destroyed the political structures of the free states of antiquity, it also destroyed the potency of the conquered peoples' gods. In the case of the Reformation, Protestantism "abolished 'the poetry of sacrality' by tearing the new fatherland of man asunder into the inwardness (Innerlichkeit) of spiritual life and 'an undisturbed engagement (Versenken) in the commonness (Gemeinheit) of empirical existence and everyday necessity.'" (6) In both instances a new historical development emerged that effaced the pre-existing pillars of sacrality. The result, as Hegel calls it, is die Langeweile der Welt--the boredom of the world. Voegelin then goes to great lengths describing how exactly Hegel tries to free himself from the bonds of this new boredom. In short, he argues that Hegel resorts to Gnostic "sorcery" to reconcile not only his, but the age's, diremption from the sacrality of the world.

From Voegelin's analysis of Hegel not only are we provided with a remarkable commentary on Hegel's thought, we can also deduce a further refinement of his philosophy of history--a refinement in need of some consideration. Voegelin holds that in the course of human affairs it so happens that political events (e.g., imperial conquests) can disrupt the order of consciousness. He makes this point quite clear in his Ecumenic Age. (7) The problem is that readers of Voegelin usually leap from this disruption directly to a particular symptom. This is premature: the disruption does not necessarily result in Gnosticism; instead it results in one of two things: boredom or perplexity. In the case of Hegel, the perplexed Hegel is the "sensitive philosopher and spiritualist, a noetically and pneumatically competent critic of the age, and intellectual force of the first rank." The bored Hegel "cannot quite gain the stature of his true self as a man under God. From the darkness of this existential deficiency, then, rises the libido dominandi and forces him into the imaginative construction of a false self as the messiah of the new age." (8) Thus whereas Voegelin correctly recognizes that boredom is "the spiritual state of a society for whom its gods have died," (9) we must bear in mind that perplexity has the same origin. Put succinctly, the murder of God begets both boredom and perplexity. Here we are concerned with boredom because we must understand Gnosticism, Hegelian sorcery, or whatever we choose to call it, as merely one possible way to be free of boredom. The point here is straightforward: boredom is enslaving and this enslavement may beget Gnosticism. But Gnosticism is not the only possible progeny of boredom. One can imagine a catalogue of expressions of, and cures for, profound boredom. These manifold cures will, of course, vary from society to society and, importantly, from generation to generation.

Voegelin's Theory of Consciousness

Having stated that profound boredom results from a deformation of consciousness, a few words concerning Voegelin's theory of consciousness are in order. First, that Voegelin begins his political science with a theory of consciousness is quite clear. In Anamnesis he asserts that it is "clear beyond a doubt that the center of a philosophy of politics [has] to be a theory of consciousness." (10) That is to say, it is only from a theory of consciousness that the analyst can acquire an adequate idea of man. This idea of man--this philosophical anthropology--will then guide the analyst in his search for man's creation of order. The problem with this position, however, lies in the fact that the study of consciousness is, to say the least, a rather difficult endeavor. Unlike the study of institutions or systems as a source of order, the study of consciousness is not amenable to the usual methods of scientific investigation. Voegelin recognizes this difficulty and points to the analyst's tools as the primary problem. The difficulty, he claims, is that when beginning a study of a political community with a study of consciousness, the analyst has no other instrument than his own "concrete consciousness." As such, the

quality of this instrument, then, and consequently the quality of the results, will depend on what [he calls] the horizon of consciousness; and the quality of the horizon will depend on the analyst's willingness to reach out into all the dimensions of the reality in which his conscious existence is an event, it will depend on his desire to know. (11) Thus a successful study of both existential and political order depends on the analyst's own consciousness and the quality of this tool lies in the analyst's ability and willingness to remain constantly open and responsive to the pull of all reality. In part, Voegelin is claiming this method of investigation will never be successful if one insists on the Procrustean use of scientific methodology or ideology. (12) Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he is claiming that the challenge for the political philosopher is to find a theory of consciousness that fits the facts of the world rather than the other way around--rather than trying to find (or force) facts to fit the theory. (13)

Voegelin therefore begins his theory of consciousness with Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, agreeing with Alfred Schuetz that it was "the most thorough and competent analysis of certain phenomena of consciousness that was available at that time." (14) However, by 1943 he concluded that Husserl, like others before him, was attempting to put an end to a former history of mankind with his own new understanding. Voegelin found this to reek of the sort of arrogance one finds in other "final philosophies like those of Hegel or Marx, and also of the conviction of National Socialists that theirs was the ultimate truth." (15) Husserl's attempt to banish history was unacceptable because, in Voegelin's understanding, history is a "permanent presence of the process of reality in which man participates with his conscious existence." (16) History cannot be eradicated in a study of order.

His theory of consciousness is therefore predicated on the following three points: first, human consciousness must exist in reality; second, humans are aware of this existence in reality and thus express it in symbols; and finally, within this world of consciousness, man is necessarily drawn to questioning, seeking, and wondering. In short, "man's conscious existence is an event within reality, and man's consciousness is quite conscious of being constituted by the reality of which it is conscious." (17) If a theory of consciousness is to be accepted, it must express concrete experiences by real people who are able to express these experiences. This, then, is to say that the cornerstone of the theory is found...

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