Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Bore

So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?

Portnoy's Complaint

By way of Arts and Letters Daily, I enjoyed Mark Edmundson's reflections in The American Scholar on his great personal aversion to the bore, that dreaded figure who--oblivious to his hapless auditor--expatiates endlessly on his personal doings or philosophy of life. He memorably invokes the helpless frustration of having to listen to someone drone on for ten minutes about himself without even a polite inquiry in return.

Edmundson speculates about the psychology of the bore--about whether he is actually lonely and particularly needy for the adoration of others--without mentioning what should be obvious, that the bore and the narcissist, if not always the same creature, have a great deal in common. Describing the feeling one gets with the bore, he quotes Robert Greene: "There is no more infuriating feeling than having your individuality ignored, your own psychology unacknowleged. It makes you feel lifeless and resentful." That is exactly how one feels with a narcissist, who is by definition unable to fully acknowledge another's personhood.

Undergoing psychotherapy is such a peculiar experience because, among other things, it requires that one simulate being a bore, that is, to talk about oneself for fifty minutes without the inquiry of the other that non-bores take for granted in social exchange. Most people find this awkward at some level, and endure it only in the hope of eventual self-knowledge. However, some patients take to this so much like a fish to water that the therapist, feeling both talked at and ignored for an hour, may find the n-word come spontaneously to mind as diagnosis.

In his essay Edmundson wonders that while he is exquisitely sensitive to the bore in person, it may be puzzling that he himself is an indefatigable reader. For the book--and one may emphatically add, the blog--is the venue in which the writing bore is able to indulge his worst impulses. And yet in the deliciously available option of putting down the book in disgust, one is able to accomplish the otherwise impossible: to walk away from the bore in mid-sentence.

Inasmuch as I have long abhorred the prospect of the bore, I see in Edmundson a kindred spirit. I rarely attend lectures unless the subject is so interesting to me that it can hardly go wrong. Some professions, like academia and medicine, seem to attract more than their share of bores and narcissists. So over the years there have been a lot of talks to avoid.

Yet I am a passionate reader, because reading affords the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, true authority from the pseudo-authority of the bore. Edmundson touches on the fact of our actual ambivalence with the bore, whether in person or in print--in his glib self-assurance, the bore evokes in us the hope that he may actually have access to a Truth that we crave. That is, the bore awakens an aspiration for the human prophet. Edmundson describes this experience wonderfully:

Perhaps my allergy to bores--along with an attraction to reading that can border on addiction (hell for me is being caught in a strange place with nothing to read)--is at the center of a paradox: we want to be told authoritatively, once and for all, what's what--and we want nothing of the kind. We love the character that therapists call the Subject Who Is Supposed to Know--he (and it almost always is a he) promises Truth. But we're sickened at the thought of taking our truth from another--it's belittling. And maybe we're dismayed, too, at the idea that the world, so rich in appearances, with its strangeness, beauty, horror, and the rest, should give way and open to one golden key. What a shrinking of the manifold! What a bringing down of the angels to dance minuets on the head of a pin.

In other words, as part of our normal, as opposed to pathological, narcissism, we feel a need to idealize an authoritative other, but an authority that also mirrors--and thereby accepts and validates--our own complicated imperfection. I remember reading somewhere in Harold Bloom's vast oeuvre that we do not read Shakespeare--he reads us. That is the experience one is always looking for in the next book: an experience of understanding in which one also feels understood.

The greatest reading experiences I have had have involved a kind of pleasurable paranoia--this writer, centuries before I was born perhaps, knew me. There is no escaping his or her gaze of recognition. But before the bore, I am invisible, as nothing.

The bore does not--cannot--understand his auditor or reader. That is why, as one grows older and time grows more precious, few things are more urgent than the need for real prophets--the wise--as opposed to the false prophets--the bores.


Retriever said...

Good post on an interesting article. But I think Edmundson is rather unkind. He accurately describes many varieties of people who bore him, with little sympathy. Personally, I rarely find people boring as even the weirdest monologue intrigues when one mulsl over why the person is droning on, what it means to them to tell you this, what is going on in their heads, etc.

One exception to this is most political debate, which is usually so cliched, insincere and stupid that I nod off or start looking for a pitchfork...

I've always told my kids that if you pay attention, you will find something positive in common with almost every person you meet, no matter how different the externals. Likewise, I agree more with Sophocles' assertion that "Wonders are many, and none so wondrous as man..." than with Edmundson's typically catty academic tone. I grew up around people who dismissed others in just such witty, dismissive and intelligent ways. I prefer chilling with more average people who are kinder...

Towards the end, he gets it that there are autistic elements to some boring monologues. I live with a third generation male monologuer with Asperger's, and tho we tell him he is boring and to shut up (his sisters are more blunt and say "No one will ever marry you if you don't zip that lip!") one is only bored if one is expecting a turn. If one just settles in for a good listen, what one learns about the preoccupations, loves, hates, feelings are fascinating.

Edmundson also gets the aspect of the bore as desperately lonely, and bursting out, like a person with PE.

IMHO, many bores (perhaps the narcissists?) feel that they do not truly exist, and by talking and talking endlessly remind themselves that they are real, like someone throwing out lines to a hot air balloon with many ropes to keep it anchored and not floating away.

One needs an audience for this. Why else would all of us blog, as opposed to keeping moleskin journals??

I agree with your remark about how " as part of our normal, as opposed to pathological narcissism, we feel a need to idealize an authoritative other, but an authority that also mirrors--and thereby accepts and validates--our own complicated imperfection."

Personally, I love lectures. I talk and write and brood so much, feel so starved intellectually most of the time in a mindless job, that I relish hearing someone else theorize and describe and tell stories. I also love long sermons for the same reason. However, I can imagine that in your profession, where you primarily listen to people all day, it might be unpalatable?

Probably like most of us who write a lot, I also love to read, and obsessively carry libraries of books on ipod, blackberry, netbook, and Kindle so that even if I can't carry lots of real books, I won't be stuck somewhere with nothing to read...

Now I am being a frantic bore....

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have known bores...I have disowned bores...I know bores. Actually, I came across one today; and I'm not a violent person, but...if carrots could stab, much blood would've ensued. Good thing I'm passive....agggressive...

On first suffering, the bore can actually be quite entertaining; but beware the bore that becomes drunk on the endless echoes of its well honed formulaic monologue, so much so, that its victims are able to quote said monologue verbatim.....much nausea and pain...pain...PAIN!....must give pain back...(I'm over bore encounter, roiling hard feelings....much peace)

Same themes replotted, same plots rethemed over and over and OVER! - within the same gush of BREATH! Much name dropping also....the NAMES! enough, already..

The bore is its own circus.

The bore, at best, functions as a space filler.

The bore is the homuncular director of your psyche...endlessly fascinating/boring to yourself.

I am a bore.

Dr X said...

So, there might be subtypes of bores: the more narcissistic type and the more autistic type.

The more autistic type seems unable to read verbal and non-verbal cues indicating that we wish to speak, or change the subject, or exit the conversation. This type is, indeed, socially oblivious. They will talk endlessly about some preoccupation or "special interest," to use the diagnostic language of Asperger’s Syndrome. But unlike the narcissistic monologue arising from an intense need for admiration, the autistic monologue has nothing to do with gaining admiration. And while there is some controversy about the notion of an autistic spectrum, I do wonder if there might be something to the idea of a bore who represents a kind of subclinical autism. I’ve known some academics who might fit this explanation.

My experience with boring narcissists is that they do read social cues, but there is an element of willfulness in the way they ignore social cues, even intensifying their conversational monopoly in response to our signals. We've all been trapped by the narcissistic bore who cuts off our escape when we glance at the conversational exits. It seems to me that the narcissistic type has, at least, a fleeting recognition that we would like to speak or end the conversation. There isn’t a total psychological merger; we are separate, but part objects, real insofar as we affirm the narcissist’s sense of grandiosity and leave our own needs and desires out of the interaction. We are there, but feel a grinding pressure to surrender our individual needs and identities. The upshot is that we feel like imprisoned, partially murdered objects rather than whole persons.

The more autistic type is boring, but in a way that seems more benign in its effects on our own psychological integrity. They might put us to sleep, but they don’t steal our oxygen. They’re more like white noise. That’s my experience, at least.
There are also more sophisticated narcissists who are not particularly boring. Since the psychic aim is admiration and narcissistic inflation, they can be quite adept at courting rapt admirers. They don’t hold everyone under their spell, but they know how to cultivate a following that will hang on their every word. And they probably give lectures you would want to avoid.