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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Russian Roulette–Graham Greene, Boredom, And The Jubilation Of Cheating Death

George Sanders, film star who played the role of Jack Favell in the 1940 movie Rebecca, committed suicide at the age of 65.  His suicide note read:
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.  I feel I have lived long enough...
When Graham Greene was a young man, he found boredom intolerable.  So much so that he turned to Russian Roulette, the ultimate adrenaline rush and the final, absolute, and necessary act to challenge a life which had become meaningless because of its same dull, and meaningless routines.  He writes about the experience in the first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life.
One forgets emotions easily. If I were dealing with an imaginary character, i might feel it necessary for verisimilitude  to make him hesitate, put the revolver back into the cupboard, return to it again after an interval reluctantly and fearfully, when the burden of boredom and despair became too great.  but in fact there was no hesitation at all. I slipped the revolver into my pocket and the next thing I can remember is crossing Berkhamsted Common towards the Ashridge beeches. Perhaps before I had opened the cupboard, boredom had reached an intolerable depth. The boredom was as deep as the love and more enduring – indeed in descends on me too often today…
Now with the revolver in my pocket I had stumbled on the perfect cure.  I was going to escape in one way or another…Deliberately I chose my ground, I believe without real fear…I slipped a bullet into a chamber, and holding the revolver behind my back, spun the chambers round…The discovery that it was possible to enjoy again the visible world by risking its total loss was one I was bound to make sooner or later.
I put the muzzle of the revolver into my right ear and pulled the trigger. there was a minute click, and looking down at the chamber I could see that the charge had moved into the firing position, I was out by one. I remember an extraordinary sense of jubilation as if carnival lights had been switched on in a dark drab street…
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He insisted that he was not attempting suicide, although if that were to happen, it would not be because of the mental illness usually ascribed to it.  He played Russian Roulette without any real fear “perhaps because so many semi-suicidal acts which my elders would have regarded as neurotic, but which I still consider to have been done under the circumstances highly reasonable, lay in the background of this more dangerous venture”.

The rush – like from any other drug (as he called Russian Roulette) – began to wear off.  “I lost the sense of jubilation, I began to receive from the experience only the crude kick of excitement.  It was the difference between love and lust.  Yet his perennial battle against boredom was by no means over. “One campaign was over”, he wrote, “but the war against boredom had to go on.  I put the revolver back in the corner-cupboard…”

Although he left the revolver behind, the impulse behind Russian Roulette was never left behind.
A kind of Russian Roulette remained too a factor in my later life, so that without previous experience of Africa I went on an absurd and reckless trek through Liberia; it was the fear of boredom which took me to Tabasco during the religious persecution, to a leprosarium in the Congo, to the Kikuyu reserve during the Mau Mau insurrection, to the emergency in Malaya and to the French war in Vietnam. There in those last three regions of clandestine war, the fear of ambush served me just as effectively as the revolver from the corner cupboard in the lifelong war against boredom. 
Thornton Wilder in Our Town wrote about the tragedy of routine.  Before you know it your life is over, he said, and you go to your grave remembering only the letters you sorted at the post office or the joints of meat you cut for Mrs.Thompson. Few of us, said Wilder, ever look around us let alone glimpse the eternal.  His characters are not bored, but they are living boring lives.  If only they could look up from their newspapers, peonies, and stews, they could slow time, filling space with all the out-of-the-ordinary perceptions that give texture and diversity to life.

Boredom is not a word in the lexicon of the faithful.  A reflection on the immensity of the universe, on God’s supreme reign, and on the eternity of blissful companionship with Him is more than enough in one’s later years.  Or younger years, for that matter.  If the good people of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners all had religion, then  routine would be turned into devotion, work into penance.  There would be no such thing as boredom.

Giles Fraser, writing in The Guardian (6.29.13) notes that our fear of boredom is simply a fear of coming face to face with ourselves
Indeed, the interesting thing here is the panic that boredom seems to evoke in some people, as if their lives require the intervention of continual entertainment in order to be meaningful. This seems just a bit too much like an admission that life without the Xbox is indeed not meaningful. Ultimately, this subterranean anxiety is profoundly diminishing.
At the same time boredom is an ironic twist for the wealthy.  For most of the world, life is little more than métro, boulot, dodo – but accepted as a social legacy, a necessary routine, a piece of a larger puzzle, and for many it is unremittingly harsh, and in Hobbes’ words, short, poor, nasty and brutish. There is no time to be bored.  One may resent the routine of the assembly line, but its demands make boredom impossible.  Workers may be dispirited and despairing, but they are not bored.

Boredom is a disease of the privileged but no less debilitating because of it.  Greene, son of a modestly well-to-do family,  student at a private English boarding school, and graduate of Oxford, found his predictable, ordained life insupportable.
I think it may have been the interminable repetitions of my life which finally broke me down…Sundays always came every seven days with terrible regularity, like Lazarus with his drop of water; there were no Saints Days to vary the week, and once a week came the dreaded O.T.C. parade.
I tried out other forms of escape…Once at home on the eve of term I went into the dark room by the linen cupboard and in that red Mephistophelean glare drank a quantity of hypo on the false impression that it was poisonous.  on another occasion i drained my blue glass bottle of hay fever drops which, as they contained a small quantity of cocaine, were probably good from y despair a bunch of deadly  nightshade, picked and eaten on the Common,had only a slightly narcotic effect, and once toward the end of one holiday i swallowed twenty aspirins before swimming in the empty school baths…
Greene mentions in This Sort Of Life that Andre Breton once wrote to Cocteau:
All my efforts are for the moment directed along one line: conquer boredom. I think of nothing else day or night. Is it an impossible task for someone who gives himself to do it wholeheartedly? Do understand that I insist on seeing what likes on the other side of boredom.  
Despite Greene’s demurrals, these seem to be less adolescent adventures than suicidal attempts.  He writes of his psycho-therapy but makes no reference to suicide.  “In any case, as Freud wrote,  ‘much is won if we succeed in transforming hysterical misery into common unhappiness’”.  The psychiatrist, like most, ‘patiently waited for me to discover the long road back for myself.  I too began to feel the excitement of the search…”, and one feels that psychotherapy was more akin to his adventures in Africa – unknown territory, adventure, challenge – than it was a process of discovery and treatment.

Joseph Conrad, not unlike Greene in his preoccupation with moral dilemmas made more acute by physical remoteness and unfamiliarity, was suicidal for most of his life. 
As is usual in many attempted suicides, witness Sylvia Plath, Conrad hoped his self-injury would not prove fatal. He did not shoot himself in the head, and he arranged for a friend to arrive soon afterwards. The self-wounding represents a cry for help. Was there a woman in the case? We shall probably never know.  Conrad’s uncle, Thaddeus Bobrowski, mentions no such person, and there is psycho- logical evidence that Conrad's amorous adventures in Marseilles had more existence in his imagination than in fact. It seems certain, therefore, that Conrad lied to his family and friends about his career in Marseilles, just as in his early days he lied to Bobrowski to obtain additional advances of money.
After the attempted suicide in Marseilles, Conrad suffered from fits of depression and nervous breakdowns, of varying importance, for the rest of his life. In letters to friends Conrad continually deplored his mental condition, using powerful language that on occasions must have thrown the recipients into consternation. In 1896 he wrote to Edward Garnett, his publisher's reader: "I have long fits of depression, that in a lunatic asylum would be called madness. I do not know what it is. It springs from nothing. It is ghastly. It lasts an hour or a day ; and when it departs it leaves a fear." And in 1898 to Garnett again : '* I feel suicidal."
Words such as weariness , depression , paralysis and suicide crop up again and again, giving evidence to his continual struggle against the urge to self-destruction. At times, his letters breed, as from a dunghill, images of disgust and horror at his own mental condition. Literary composition in particular turned his brain into a quagmire, in which he struggled heroically against paralysis of the imagination… In 1903 he told John Galsworthy: " I am trying to keep despair under. Nevertheless I feel myself losing my footing in deep waters. They are lapping about my hips." (C.B.Cox, University of Manchester)
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Suicide features in Conrad’s fiction.  Cox writes:
With Conrad’s history of suicide it is not surprising that in his fiction suicide and thoughts of suicide repeatedly occur. There are fourteen actual suicides in the fiction, among others:  Kayerts (" An Outpost of Progress "), Decoud (Nostromo), Captain Whalley ("The End of the Tether"), Renouard ("The Planter of Malata"), Heyst (Victory), Susan (" The Idiots"), Brierly (Lord Jim), Winnie Verloc (The Secret Agent), Erminia (" Caspar Ruiz "), Sevrin (" The Informer "), De Barral (Chance) and Jorgensen (The Rescue)
Suicide is less common in Greene, but notable. Scobie (The Heart of the Matter)  wrestles with his idea of God, but ultimately believes that he must kill himself because he cannot keep living a life of adultery on without repenting. He takes the medication with a glass of whiskey and dies.

Conrad by his own admission was troubled, psychologically tormented, and nearly incapacitated by his feelings of hopelessness.  Greene wrote that he never seriously considered suicide; and that his attempts in adolescence expressed a defiance of boredom, routine, and the ordinary.  His deliberate confrontation of death was more a Nietzschean resolve to ‘ride above the herd’ and refuse to obey the predictable, petty, and pervasive moral suppositions of a bourgeois society than any Conradian pathological depression.

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Was Greene, then, courageously defiant a la Nietzsche? Persistently and romantically adolescent?  Neurotic? Can his episodes of Russian Roulette and adventuresome and half-hearted suicide attempts be taken as integral parts of the creative whole and left alone?  It is impossible to judge whether disabling neurosis fueled the creativity of Conrad, Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh and others; without which their art would have been tame and unremarkable; whether their psychological instability inhibited their creativity and limited their art; or whether there is no coincidence whatsoever. 

For most of us who enjoy the privilege of free time and free choice, boredom comes with the territory.  For few of us it is existential, only annoying and frustrating.  Yet having read Greene and Nietzsche, we cannot dismiss their conclusions; and perhaps clinging to ordinariness is as soul-numbing as they suggest.  We would like to think that the best possible validation of human life is its usefulness.  Our contributions mean something – they have to mean something – but if we are honest, we are clingers on to an unexplainable and directionless life.  Are not the daredevils and Russian Roulette players the Supermen among us?

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