By Matteo de Donato
At the end of To the Reader, the opening poem of Flowers of Evil, Charles Baudelaire examines the horrors of nineteenth-century life. Baudelaire desribes, “aswarm, like million maggots, so/Demons carouse in us with fetid breath,/And, when we breathe, the unseen stream of death/Flows down our lungs with muffled wads of woe.” In spite of these grotesqueries, the poet contends there is a horror even more horrible which would “willingly annihilate the earth.” This overwhelming horror, the poem claims, is “boredom.”
This alignment of horror with boredom seems paradoxical. Indeed, we normally experience fear as inciting anxiety and perhaps morbid curiosity. We usually experience boredom, conversely, as a lack of worry or interest. Nevertheless, it seems that Baudelaire suggests something true about boredom in associating it with horror. Indeed, the term “ennui” comes from Latin in odio, from mihi in odio est, meaning “it is hateful to me.” What is it about boredom, then, that is so repulsive?
Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection illuminates the similarity between the experience of horror and of boredom. In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva locates in horror the destruction of metaphysical boundaries. Western philosophy is built upon the distinction between subject and object, self and other. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes theorized that while he could reasonably doubt the existence of the outside world (the object), he could not doubt the existence of his own mind (the subject), because it is that mind that is doing the thinking. From this he formulated his famous “I think therefore I am.” Descartes introduces the distinction between subject and object that served as a framework for understanding human experience for centuries to come.
Whereas Descartes saw the distinction between subject and object as fundamental, Kristeva recognizes the distinction’s instability. Kristeva, developing on the insights of poststructuralist philosophy and psychoanalysis, regarded subjectivity as a condition of society, rather than an inherent property of the mind. The subject develops to make the individual intelligible within pre-existing social norms, laws, and language. The subject, then, is not self-evident; it requires work to be constructed.
Kristeva’s abject lies beyond the subject-object binary. The abject is the taboo element of the subject which the ego “casts off” to reestablish its sovereignty. The subject rejects ambiguity and embraces unequivocal borders to understand itself. However, the abject–the ambiguity the subject attempted to reject–remains as a trace in the subject. Film theorist Barbara Creed notes the breakdown of the autonomous subject as the central horror of the 1979 film Alien: the aliens literally burst through the protagonists’ chest. The scene disturbs us because it illuminates the frailty of subjectivity: the alien–the abject–ruptures the boundary between internal and external. Kristeva defines the abject not as “what disturbs identity, system, and order. […] The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” Horror originates in that which undermines the stability of the concepts we use to understand ourselves and the world. The abject threatens our subjectivity.
Kristeva claims that an individual seeks out the abject to reaffirm her boundaries of her subjectivity. Through the experience of controlled abjection–whether that be watching a horror movie or reading a modernist novel–the individual is given a taste of what she must combat. Experiencing the breakdown of the subject-object distinction, Kristeva argues, paradoxically reinforces that distinction’s sovereignty. Abjection rituals are essential in the creation and continual reaffirmation of the subject. Boredom shares the metaphysically destructive potential of horror. In her book Experience Without Qualities, historian Elizabeth Goodstein identifies boredom as a distinctly modern phenomenon. The “disenchantment of the world,” engendered by unprecedented development of life-altering technologies, has led to a crisis of meaning. As centuries of tradition and custom become irrelevant, the modern subject finds herself without the categories that had provided structure to her existence. With scientific rationality replacing long-held religious doctrines, morality comes under question. This distrust of previously inviolate categories came to its fruition following modernity, in the “postmodern era.” Even the seemingly fundamental metaphysical categories of time and space have been eroded away by new technologies such as the telephone, television, and internet. The bored postmodern individual, then, seeks the horror of abjection because she already exists in a state of ambiguity.
David Lynch’s 1986 mystery-horror film Blue Velvet reveals the boredom–and consequent horror–of postmodern American suburbia. The movie centers on college student Jeffrey Beaumont who returns home to Lumberton, North Carolina after his father suffers a near-fatal stroke. The severed ear that Jeffrey discovers shortly thereafter represents the protrusion of the abject–the town’s horrifying criminal underbelly–into that which rejected it. The violence perpetrated by Frank Booth–the gangster responsible for the severed ear–horrifies Jeffrey, but he is nonetheless intrigued. The abject, Kristeva maintains, “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” Frank’s world is as bizarre as it is horrifying: the dialogue of the gangster and his underlings borders on nonsense, and his sadism surpasses any explanation. Lumberton’s underbelly defies signification. The film reaches its climax when the abject–symbolized by a naked and traumatized Dorothy–appears on Jeffrey’s front porch. Ultimately, Jeffrey decides that he must shoot Frank to end the gangster’s terror; he uses the revolver of another criminal to do so. Thus, Jeffrey embraces abjection to reject the abjection Frank embodies.
The movie ends by repeating the opening shots of an idyllic suburbia: roses before a white picket fence, a smiling fireman riding the back of a firetruck, a crossing guard helping children on their way to school. With Jeffrey’s father’s recovery from his stroke, it seems that order has been restored. These are the same images that preceded Jeffrey’s father’s stroke, however; this raises the question of whether Jeffrey’s experience with the abject–Lumberton’s sadistic underbelly–is destined to be repeated. In postmodern suburbia’s crisis of meaning, it is only the perpetual confrontation of abjection that can temporarily alleviate the horror–that is, the meaninglessness–of boredom.