“Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.”
–Susan Sontag, “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly.” On Photography
I often consider leaving Columbia. I imagine:
My advisor is concerned at first but glad I came to see her. “Are you unhappy? Are you failing any classes? This doesn’t seem like you. Is someone in your family sick?” Assuaged by my responses—an emphatic “no!” to each of her questions on my potential maladies—she eventually consents. “One year?” “One year.” I walk out of her office feeling elated but terrified. What if I am wrong? But the year that follows shows me I am not. I do not travel, save for a car trip from Washington D.C. to Telluride, Colorado—and that lonely and rough ride can hardly be romanticized the way movies, or college students considering years off, might try to. Instead, I am idle. I get bored. Finally.
That is what I am looking for. “Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination,” wrote Susan Sontag. That line fascinates me. It hits home somewhere inside of me the way only true words do, or words that are so disturbing in their falsehood that they approach a reflection or illumination of truth. Fascination is all I know at Columbia. I hurl myself into my classes, my reading, my teaching, my lectures—even my relationships—in a desperate sort of search for learning. Am I missing a kind of Montaignian idleness that would free me “like a horse that has broke from his rider”?
I go to find Sontag’s book, On Photography, in Butler Library. I am focused. I am fascinated. I am searching for TR183 S65 1977b in the Edward Said Reading Room. But half an hour later I find myself sitting on the black and white tiled floor of that same room, 616, with a pile of other books in my lap. The first is The Loser, by Thomas Bernhard; I recognize his name from my reading of Kaddish for an Unborn Child. The second is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; I pick it out like an old love in a crowd. The third is The Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the fourth Illness as Metaphor… and the list goes on. PT 2662 E7 U5513 1991 through Z 8310.8 C57 1982—eventually every book within a shelf of my original object of inquiry is on the floor. Is this fascination? Or is this boredom?
Sontag’s quotation seems to mock me. “Both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other,” she chides. One leads to the other… The obvious first thought is that boredom leads to fascination, Montaigne’s great discovery. The sentence directly after Sontag’s quotation, in On Photography, begins “the Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination.” Perhaps that is the root of my fantasy of leaving; I believe that through idle time I will discover what I want to explore, rather than what I am asked to. I will happen upon learning that will thrill and excite me—and I will be fascinated by it. At Columbia I am never idle nor alone and I believe, contrary to what the mission of the liberal arts education would have me think, that the constant activity and company is inhibiting my ability to self-discover and find a purpose for and direction to my education.
But fascination may instead be what leads to boredom. Is it then that my experience at Columbia, so filled with academic excitement, will eventually and inevitably turn to a type of endless tedium? Is that what is happening now? But if that were true, would my fascination outside of higher education not do the same if I were to leave Columbia? My resolve crumbles.
I consider if it may be a cycle—boredom to fascination and fascination back again, endlessly continuing, heartbreaking but fulfilling. One could see it as flames of fascination born out of idle contemplation or damp patches of reflection amidst a flurry of activity. Fascination would only get you so far; you would need to sustain interest, dedication, and motivation through periods of self-examination and quiet introspection. It is much harder to deceive yourself, to mask barefaced ambition with seemingly sincere interest, when it is quiet inside you.
I have missed something. “Both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation,” Sontag wrote. That is how I feel, wherever I am and whether fascinated or bored. I am a child with my face pressed up against the window, desperately wanting to know what is happening inside but only fogging up the glass. Where am I going? What do I want to learn about?
Sontag refers throughout her book to the work of Diane Arbus, who she proclaims to be anti-humanist and committed to portraying only the strangeness of the world. “She had no intention of entering into the horror” experienced by her subjects. Her view, therefore, “is always from the outside”—my problem exactly. Diane Arbus is a privileged and educated woman, who “came from a verbally skilled, compulsively health-minded, indignation-prone, well-to-do Jewish family, for whom minority sexual tastes lived way below the threshold of awareness and risk-taking was despised as another goyish craziness.” The description, with the exception of religious orientation, might be one I would give in a nicer tone about my own family. Sontag continues: Arbus’ interest in the deformed and mutilated, she says, was only “a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe.” In other words, she was also a child scratching at the window, eternally outside it.
Arbus writes, “they fascinate me” about her subjects and I cringe. I have used that language before about something foreign to me. “Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies fascinate me.” Since, to Sontag, those who are fascinated are merely fighting against boredom, it follows that if I can understand the deep discomfort I now feel, I can also grasp the relationship between boredom and fascination. I can perhaps even make a more clearheaded decision about leaving or remaining at Columbia.
“Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.” After long and earnest self-reflection, neither boredom nor fascination is my answer. It is not that I need to leave Columbia and become bored to find fascination. It is not that being fascinated at Columbia inevitably leads to boredom. A cycle of the two together leads me nowhere as well. Instead, I must find a way to be inside my subject. I have the intention, but now I must enter into my studies the way Sontag shows Arbus never to have done. That is what moves us beyond fascination or boredom into dedication and purpose.
I need to talk to someone.
My advisor is concerned at first but glad I came to see her.
De Montaigne, Michel. “On Idleness.” Essays. London: Penguin, 1958. 26-28. Print.
Sontag, Susan. “On Photography.” Google Books. Macmillan, Aug. 2001. Web. 04 Dec. 2012. <https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=_lN7UtRmsQwC> 40