Boredom, Distraction and Beauty

Rabbi Richard Borah

Rabbi Soloveitchik (“The Rav”) identifies the source of human sin as the decision to place the pursuit of beauty and pleasure over that of cognitive and ethical considerations. He states in the essay “The Human Condition and Prayer” in the text “Worship of the Heart”: “The aesthetic orientation, when it overcomes the ethical, is at the root of sin, with all of its distressful features” (p. 38-39). The Rav explains that at the core of this struggle is the person’s discomfort with boredom. He identifies the battle against boredom as being modern society’s core objective:

Let us begin our discussion of crisis and the human condition with an analysis of the feeling boredom, which has become the great disease of our modern society. Man is bored. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on his entertainment and amusement. He pays enormous sums to anyone who can elicit a smile from him and make him forget his daily worries.

The Rav goes on to clarify that the source of this desperate desire for distraction is due to the repetitive, routine nature of human existence. He explains that, unfortunately, man’s quest to escape from this routine will always results in failure, as man is destined to this existence from God’s curse of Adam.

The Rav continues:

Basically, this boredom is the consequence of the primal curse with which paradisiacal man was burdened when he rebelled against his Master: “In the sweat of you brow you will eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). These words convey the idea of a life that is not only hated but joyless, the idea of work from which there is no escape, the curse of uniformity and boredom. Man is engaged in a steady rebellion against monotony and strives for change and renewal.

Since the Rav wrote these words we have seen the rapid development of entertainment-based technology with its previously unimaginable level of meaningless, empty media distractions which are available at all times, all places and with almost infinite variety. This development has confirmed the accuracy of the Rav’s analysis. Never before in human history has distraction-driven entertainment taken on such a central place in the human experience. It has come to define our lives. In contrast to this aesthetic, pleasure-driven approach to human life stands the cognitive, ethical path. This approach is one that has man engaged in fixed, consistent and repetitive activities that lack the newness, excitement and stimulation sought by those desperately seeking to escape boredom.

The Rav explains in this same essay regarding the scientist:

The man engaged in the search for truth is always aware of the fixity of the natural law and of his intellectual capacity to conceive it. He employs methods that are basically unalterable and seeks to arrive at an eternal truth. His thoughts move along definite and clear-cut lines. There is no daemonic element of adventure, and there is no illusion of boundlessness and of a wealth of experience that he can reach out with both hands. The scientist makes his way slowly and painstakingly; what is needed is perseverance and extraordinary patience… The scientifically constructed world, purged of color and sound and qualitative content, empty, uniform, dark and cold in its majestic mathematical terms, is hardly a place for a hero of adventure and change. Science has accepted a philosophy of identity for nature. (pgs. 40-41)

The ethical person shares the scientist’s embrace of the repetitive and consistent in his quest to live a moral life aligned with eternal truths. He too endures the repetitiveness that is a necessary dimension of this pursuit. The Rav states:

The moral person believes in some deontic (obligatory) principles, in strict duties, which are not subject to change and transformation. The ethical law, unaltered, persists in her majestic dignity forever. It is binding at all times, without taking into account the peculiar mind of the individual or the temper of the community. The infinite moral will is not affected by the whimsical turn of events. It pursues just one goal- its realization. The ethical person decides in favor of the norm many times a day and does not become bored or tired of repeating the same act hundreds of times, whenever his conscience commands him to do so. When I come across a burning house where a helpless child has been trapped, I must hasten to rescue the victim, and it would be a criminal folly on my part to desist on the grounds that I have already saved five other children the dame day, and I am bored with the continued climbing and carrying of the children overcome by fire. The crux of the ethical norm exhausts itself in the awareness of continuity and constancy, of a life which is a stead engagement in one kind of performance- that of doing good. (p. 41)

Although the Rav is presenting the cognitive and moral path in something of a unpleasant light, I believe that this is done to express the fact that it lacks the excitement and titillation that is at the core of the aesthetic, pleasure seeking adventurer who has dedicated his life to battling boredom. In truth, the Rav has made clear in numerous writings that the pursuit of truth is its own exciting quest and profound joy. However, in spite of the happiness it brings, one who chooses to pursue a life of understanding and morality must have the strength to endure the monotony and repetitiveness that comes along with it.

The Rav terms the boredom-hating person as the aesthetic personality, who is more than simply a sensualist, but someone who sees life’s meaning and purpose in the immediate tangible experience as opposed to the intellectual and moral understanding that derives from this experience. He explains:

Beauty is apprehended, not comprehended; the harmonious form is perceived, not conceived. In the aesthetic world, unlike the intellectual world, there are no abstractions. Everything is tangible and approachable to man in aesthetic terms. (p. 42)

The Rav then suggests that there is a narcissistic, self-love at the core of the aesthetic persona:

There is something of the narcissist in every aesthete, not excluding the genius. He is selfish, egocentric, many a time vain and capricious. Form exhausts every creative fiber in his personality; the content is of little significance. There word is everything-the meaning is not relevant. The harmony of perception fascinates the aesthete, the synthesis of thought or action does not intrigue him. He works to fill the world; he does not intend to understand or to redeem it. (p. 43)

But in this particular conflict the thesis (cognitive/ethical personality) and antithesis (aesthetic personality) can achieve a synthesis by which the aesthetic is redeemed through its being subjugated to the cognitive and ethical. The aesthetic pursuit of beauty and pleasant experience cannot be redeemed as long as it exists as a good in itself. It must be reborn as another dimension of that which is true and good. Regarding nature of this transformation he writes:

What is required is the awakening of the skeptic, the rise of a critique of the aesthetic judgment and beauty-appreciation. Through the emergence of doubt-the thought that everything experienced as beautiful is perhaps not beautiful at all-the catharsis of beauty is made possible. When the aesthete begins to wonder whether everything which is apprehended as beauty and as pleasant expresses indeed genuine beauty, when he thinks that the aesthetic act can be critically examined and its worth objectively ascertained, in a manner similar to our critical attitude toward the cognitive and ethical gestures, then beauty is redeemed. (page 56)

Once redeemed, beauty and the aesthetic experience not only loses their demonic quality, but becomes a uniquely powerful and sanctioned manner of exalting God, as man understands that God is not only the source of all knowledge but that “absolute beauty rests in God” (page 60).

He writes:

Thus beauty has been linked up with transcendental and absolute Being and freed from the contingency of a volatile, passing and conditional world arrangement. God sanctions not only the true and the good but also the beautiful. It is delightful and fair because it reflects eternal glory and majesty. In beautiful things, the transcendental hint (to something beyond) is inherent. Beauty is not hemmed in on all sides by the boundaries of finitude (page 60).

The artists and the scholar both carry out their creative destinies within a bounded landscape. The scholar who seeks creative insights into the understanding of the Torah or the scientist who applies his or her genius to understand the creation is not creating realities with their source in his own imagination. Man’s role is not “yaysh ma-ayin” (creation from nothing). He must work creatively within the parameters of that God has provided for him to fulfill his creative essence without becoming demonic in seeking to operate outside of sanctioned area or in the development of a delusional self-worshipping of his own creativity and production.

In this week’s Torah reading we see the appointment of Betzalel and Oliahav by Moshe to the position of master artisans of the mishkan (tabernacle). The Torah states in Vayakhel (36:2):

And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every wise hearted man into whose heart the Lord had given wisdom, everyone whose heart lifted him up to approach the work to do it.

Bezalel and Oholiab’s creation the mishkan (sanctuary) was a divinely, sanctioned creation of beauty. The mishkan is the vehicle the draws man closer to God and create a “home” for the Divine presence. But what was the “wisdom of the heart” (chacham lave) that God gave to Bezalel and Oholiab’s and those who participated in the creation of the mishkan? I do not believe that this was simply technical craft. Just as in the performance of Talmud Torah the scholar pursues the discovery of God’s truth, even though this discovery is filtered through each scholar’s unique mind and perspective, so too the redeemed artists seeks a beauty that has its source in God, though each artist will express this in a unique way. Had people other than Bazalel and Oholiab led the effort to construct the mishkan it would have been done according to command, but with a different, unique outcome. Objective truth has its source in God as does objective beauty. Both the sanctioned, redeemed artist or scholar “channel” this truth through the uniqueness of his or her individual and unique soul and personality.