Complaining about Existential Ennui is Self-Contradictory

April 8, 2014

In my last post, I suggested there are two different kinds of boredom. Now I’d like to make a finer distinction relating to the concept of existential ennui.

Amphitheater at the station in Yoga - Oct. 22, 2013

Amphitheater at the station in Yoga – Oct. 22, 2013 (Enlarge)

First, here are the two kinds of boredom I’m talking about:

  1. Wanting to do something different than what you’re doing (which you consider a static condition)
  2. Existential ennui – not wanting anything at all

But I suspect that when people talk about existential ennui, they are mostly referring to a special case of type 1 boredom, and they aren’t understanding what existential ennui really is.

Consider this scenario:

A man ponders life and the universe, and he comes to the conclusion that everything is meaningless. Life is absurd! There is absolutely no point to it all! Therefore, the man gets very agitated, and he starts running around complaining to his friends and neighbors. He explains to them his insight about the meaningless of everything, but they don’t take him seriously. That makes the man all the more frustrated!

This man doesn’t really have existential ennui. He doesn’t seem bored at all. Perhaps it’s true that he doesn’t want anything, or that he doesn’t have a goal he can believe in. On the other hand, he is clearly full of wanting. He is full of restless energy and frustrated desire. If he is bored, therefore, he must have type 1 boredom. He wants to do something different with his life. He wants there to be meaning in his life.

So this is the fine distinction I want to make, because true existential ennui means having no desire at all. Existential ennui is more than just not knowing what you want to do; it means not even wanting.

Two possible caveats:

  1. Can there be desire with no object?
    Some people might suppose that desire can’t exist unless it’s pointed at something, but this is a misunderstanding. It’s true that we identify and talk about our desires in terms of their objects, but we must not confuse the name of something for the thing itself. We must not confuse the symbol for the thing symbolized.

    Are there stars with no names in our universe? Of course there are. The stars don’t begin to exist when we name them, and they don’t cease to exist when we totally ignore them.

    The essence of wanting is the flow of neural-electric energy through our brains and bodies. In a certain sense, our wanting is always without object – until that neural energy flow actually arrives at its destination out there in the world. Similarly, a river doesn’t actually have a mouth – until it actually reaches the sea.

  2. If existential ennui means lack of wanting, it must not be painful.
    Yes, I think it’s self-contradictory for someone to complain of existential ennui. Why do they care? Real existential ennui must be like death. And once a person is finally dead, they stop complaining, right?

    From the computer AI point of view, existential ennui is like being turned off. Computers have desires insofar as the electricity flows through their circuits, let’s say, and if a computer can have existential ennui, that suggests the electrical flow stops. Shut down and power off.


  1. Taylor says:

    It’s true: The complainer may have a desire for connection or love or sympathy and is using the conversation about life’s meaninglessness as a vehicle, consciously or not.

    But what if a different hypothetical man isn’t complaining, but is merely grappling with the desire, as you call it?

    Isn’t there a possibility of pain or desire, as you call it, separate from the response?

    I believe that this “middle ground” might also be considered as existential ennui, if only to imbue the term with a practical meaning, one that is germane to the human condition.

    In a sense boredom is defined by the experience of pain, so can you really have a whole category of boredom devoid of caring?

    What do you think?

  2. Wm Jas says:

    I’ve seen ennui defined as “the desire for desires.”