Friday, July 28, 2017

What is Interesting?

The question, "What is interesting?" is one which interests me. It doesn't only interest me. It fascinates me, baffles me, perplexes me, preoccupies me, and often even causes me considerable angst.

Here is a question which haunts me. Why should anything be interesting? I can imagine (not in reality, but as a thought experiment) waking up one morning and suddenly finding that nothing in the world was of interest to me. Who could help me, in such a situation? How could anyone induce me to take an interest in anything? The quality of being interesting doesn't seem to exist objectively in things, but only subjectively in the intellect and emotions. There's something mystical about it.

Once upon a time, I had a dreadful nightmare where everything around me was fading (visibly fading), and in which everybody in the world had lost interest in everything. In the first novel I wrote, The Black Feather, one of the few half-decent passages concerned an encounter between the protagonist and a being whose intellect had become morbidly developed, to the extent that it could no longer find the intellectual stimulation it craved and was preparing to commit suicide, as the rest of its species had done. The whole novel was a protest against rationalism, against the dead-end of rationalism. I still see rationalism as a dead end, although I'm less alarmist about it now.

Every now and again I have a confident crisis about whether my own thoughts and preoccupations are interesting. This blog has a readership, and people have made kind comments, so to some extent I suppose they must be interesting. However, this anxiety never seems to be entirely vanquished, and flares up periodically. (Earlier this morning, I was listening to an interview in which Paul McCartney discussed the break-up of the Beatles. He said that, for weeks afterwards, his self-esteem was completely flattened and he felt useless, not shaving or getting out of bed. It's fascinating to me that even a member of the most successful musical group of all time could be a prey to such insecurities.)

This whole subject has been on my mind recently, but this afternoon I had a conversation which focused my mind upon it to an even greater degree. I reminded one of my colleagues about a story she'd told me many months ago, one which was so interesting to me that I told it to several other people. I'd been asking her if she had any interesting photographs, and she told me about an odd picture of a girl sitting in an armchair, which she found in her attic. She told me that she didn't want to get rid of this picture, as it seemed to belong to the house, but that she didn't like having it either. I'd asked her to take a picture of it with her phone, and show it to me, but she said she didn't even want to have it on her phone. More recently, when I raised the subject after a long interval, she told me she had got rid of it, but she was rather vague about it and didn't seem entirely sure if she had.

A story like this, to me, is enormously interesting. And the conversation got me thinking; why do I so rarely find other peoples' stories that interesting? Because, when I say I often feel insecure about my own thoughts and how interesting they are, that's only half the truth. The full truth is that I often find other peoples' conversation uninteresting. The conversational obsession with the practicalities of getting about, for instance-- routes, time spent in transit, traffic, etc. etc.-- is something that baffles me. I've lost count of the amount of times people have asked me how long it took me to get to such-and-such a place, or how long it takes me usually, and I reply (honestly): "I don't know."

Small-talk is something that bothers me. Once, I even made a badge with the words: "No small talk, please". (I sent it to a reader of this blog, actually, on request!) I'm an introvert, and introverts' dislike of small-talk is famous. There are many articles about it on the internet. For my own part, it's not that I don't see the value of small-talk. It's better than awkward silence. My loathing of small-talk, indeed my dread of small-talk, is something that I no longer try to defend. I accept that it's irrational. But it doesn't make small-talk any less irksome, or intimidating.

This question of what's interesting and what's not interesting doesn't only concern me for my own sake. It's also something that influences my view of the world. As I wrote in this series of blog posts, I'm greatly preoccupied with the question of keeping society interesting. I've always been preoccupied with this. One of the reasons I'm a conservative and a traditionalist is because I think conservative, traditional societies are more interesting. Superficially, they seem less interesting. But ultimately I think they are more interesting, for many reasons. Cosmopolitan liberal secularism is the lowest common denominator, a vacuum, a nothing-- dreary tolerance, grey "diversity", utilitarian reasoning. Liberalization may be exciting, but the excitement is all in the transition, in the battle against tradition.

Finally, let me say a few words about boredom, because this is (if you'll pardon the expression), where it gets interesting-- at least, where I think it gets interesting...

For somebody who frets constantly about whether something is interesting or not, you might imagine that I would consider boredom to be an unalloyed evil, the great Satan. But I don't. In fact, it's almost the opposite-- boredom acccompanies and hedges everything that's really interesting. I said earlier that conservative societies seem dull on the surface, but are ultimately more interesting. I think this is true of many other aspects of life.

Take sex and gender. Society is now infatuated with the idea that gender-bending, the defiance of gender roles, and sexual liberation are interesting. But all these things are really deadly dull-- once the novelty wears off. You can't go deeper into them. And besides, they are entirely parasitic on what they subvert. Gender-bending is simply endless "subversion" of the masculine-feminine dichotomy, and has no meaning without reference to that dichotomy. But the masculine-feminine dichtomy is inexhaustibly fascinating and fruitful in itself. Humankind spun stories and songs and sagas out of it for millennia. Gender-bending, on the other hand, is a dead end.

This is true of art, as well. Post-modernism seems like an exciting new departure, but it's not a departure at all, because there's nowhere to go once you've made your rather trivial point. Classical artistic conventions, on the other hand, never grow old.

But my fondness for boredom goes deeper than that. It seems that boredom is a kind of fog through which we must pass, in order to discover a new country beyond it-- and it often seems to me as though everything really interesting likes on the far side of that fog. Here I can't help quoting one of my favourite Chesterton passages, which I quote so often because I find it so endlessly relevant:

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender. 

John Ruskin said something similar in The Stones of Venice:

The endurance of monotony has about the same place in a healthy mind that the endurance of darkness has: that is to say, as a strong intellect will have pleasure in the solemnities of storm and twilight, and in the broken and mysterious lights that gleam among them, rather than in mere brilliancy and glare, while a frivolous mind will dread the shadow and the storm; is not that the noble nature loves monotony, any more than it loves darkness or pain. But it can bear with it, and receive a high pleasure in the endurance or patience, a pleasure necessary to the well-being of this world; while those who will not submit to the temporary sameness, but rush from one change to another, gradually dull the edge of change itself, and bring a shadow and weariness over the whole world from which there is no more escape.

The "train spotter" is often taken as the type par excellence of the boring person. But the idea of train spotting seems terribly exciting to me. It must be great fun to be a train spotter-- to feast on the daily comings and goings of trains.

It must be great fun to be a politics nerd-- every week, an election is happening somewhere in the world. It's a bottomless sea.

Only a few days ago, I was listening to a sports broadcast on the radio, and I suddenly thought how wonderful it would be to know all the rules, vocabulary, and history of a wide range of sports-- it would be something to feast on.

It's not people fascinated by an obscure subject who I find boring. It's people with a perfectly ordinary interest in perfectly ordinary subjects. The bore is a character-- he has personality. It's the "basic bitch" I find boring. (Sorry to use the word "bitch", but it's an allusion to a popular comedy sketch. I'm happy to apply the term to men, too.) 

I've written a couple of other posts on the strange appeal of boredom, here and here. I hope you don't find them too boring.

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