In one of his essays, poet Joseph Brodsky wrote that boredom is the genre of life. I believe, there isn’t a single person in the world who has not experienced the above genre on his/her own hide.
Unless we happen to be constituted of the most refined spiritual make-up, this feeling of boredom proves to be stronger than we are. Most of us are not equipped with the absolute indifference to disregard the all-enveloping boredom, which is nothing but a product of repetition. Days, weeks, months go by and we are surrounded by the same circumstances: same jobs, same husbands and wives, same children, same sounds and places. Some of us make several attempts during our lifetimes to change the external surroundings but after some time the result is inevitably the same: once again, we are overtaken by the all-too-familiar state of boredom.
The essential clue to boredom lies in the term “after some time”, because boredom is accumulation of time. It is one of the manifestations of time being victorious over space. That is precisely why only saints can withstand it since only saints are able to look the notion of time in its very eye and accept their own insignificance which that notion will inevitably dictate.
The rest of us will find our methods to escape from it. These escapes differ from culture to culture but most likely, they will involve alcohol, drugs, sex, sports, art or a combination of the aforementioned. If the saints of the past can teach us the lesson of humble acceptance and compliance with the eternal, then we can also teach them the lesson of passion and sensitivity which, in their true grandiosity, they have overlooked. Passion is tool that the lesser of us use to escape from boredom, from time, or timelessness, if you will, and it is manifested in everything that human beings have built or destroyed: revolutions, television, alcoholism, art, drug-addiction, technology etc. Someone who is embarking on an European vacation is essentially doing the same thing as someone who is having a seventh drink in a neighborhood bar: escaping or altering reality.
That is why from the purely ethical point of view an artist and a drug-addict are committing the same sin of evading boredom.
A man who is spraying graffiti in a New York subway is basically doing the same as Robert Hanssen who was recently accused and arrested for espionage in the United States: modifying existence. Hanssen’s case is interesting not from the political point of view and its implications but from the purely psychological standpoint. Here is a man who has had a very successful career in the FBI and was one of the Bureau’s trusted agents, a typical American middle-class family man with a wife and six children all of whom he gave the strictest Catholic upbringing. Among his colleagues, Hanssen was also known as the man of utmost intelligence who taught himself several languages (including computer languages) in his spare time which he had a lot of, since being considerably more gifted then his co-workers, Hanssen accomplished his tasks faster. When he reached the top of his profession, it must have seemed to him that he had more time on his hands then tasks to fill it with and he became increasingly bored.
His own life became too limited for him, too one-dimensional and he decided to add one more to his load: that of a spy. Spying involves lying, and a prerequisite of a good liar is imagination, which Hanssen was dealt with more than generously. Thanks to his imagination, he managed to outsmart the top officials for more than fifteen years and delivered secret materials to the Russians without ever revealing his identity to them. I believe that it was not the ideological or financial reasons that drove Hanssen to don the mask of a spy. In fact, when he was offered more money by the Russians for his services, he declined, stating that “what he is given is more than enough to cover his needs”.
What Hanssen was interested in was the process of playing the game and winning it on both fronts: Russian and American. He resembles a champion chess-player that goes around the circle, playing multiple games and wins them all. In his second incarnation, Hanssen wanted to out-lie everyone that crossed his path and the risk that was involved only made the game that more interesting. Man-made mores aside, Hannsen was wise and intelligent enough not to blindly hold allegiance to any flag including that of his own country. Hanssen’s critics in the US are being near-sighted when they say that the reason he spied was because he was of a low moral character.
If I were Hanssen, I’d argue that existence itself is of low moral character if only because it involves institutions like the FBI or the KGB and there is absolutely no evidence that the former is morally better than the latter or vice versa. His critics are overlooking one of the most important keys to the character of Robert Hanssen that was revealed during the investigation: according the FBI officials, Hanssen did more damage to the nation’s counter intelligence than to the US security itself. In other words, he was hunting after the likes of himself. He was being self-entertainingly competitive. And he was winning until he lost. Lie detector tests which according to the present attorney general, are to become standard will work as good on the likes of Hanssen as butterfly nets for catching crocodiles.
All that someone like Hanssen will need to do in order to pass them is switch off into the appropriate incarnation. Which is, I suppose, what he is doing right now: Hanssen resumes his life as an exemplary family man and is said to plead not guilty to the charges of espionage. The courts in any country, though are not known for multi-dimensional thinking and will inevitably find him guilty even though in Hanssen’s complex intellect, it is reality the deprived reality that is to blame.
to the main page
to the content of essays page