Black Vellum [excerpt] — Ansgar Allen

The priest told us it was his sickness at work in the making of the machine. It was, as he put it, the sickness of his divinely instructed consciousness which made him do what he did. It was his ministry employed as it was expressed in his gut. It was the pain of monastic servitude transmitted to his office—a kind of pain accumulated, dripped into all places that will pool it together, turned sour in confinement, rendered in vapours which further befoul the mind—these vapours, he added, can only be produced as a concentrated fog in monasteries. They infect their teachings with every minor privation, curdled, misperceived as virtue, and thrown out for the priesthood to enact. It was the scabbed over denials of the church fathers, he went on, their flesh mortified as their hypocrisies grew, finally venting themselves in the making of something fittingly grotesque. It was the New Testament soaked over the Old, corrupting its fire with its own, greater lie. It was all of that, he suspected, or was it merely fatigue, a kind of mechanical exhaustion, if not a little priestly boredom too, he was always bored, he said. Have I mentioned the fact of my boredom, he asked us.

Boredom suggests the emptiness of existence, the priest explained. No, there is something more, he added. Boredom proves human beings cannot face up to their own emptiness. —It became apparent we were in for another of the priest’s digressions. Human beings approach that realisation of their basic emptiness, he went on, and then become bored in the face of it. They very nearly perceive their emptiness and then retreat to a declaration of boredom. Or, at least, they can only experience the emptiness of their lives as such. This declaration of boredom seems to be, on the whole, the very best and most reliable response they can muster before the most abysmal realisation, before the worst thought possible, that nothing, not even this sense of dread, gives human life any kind of value. We must picture these generations of bored spectators, the priest said to us, as they repeatedly confront that abyss, and upon the very precipice declare, I’m bored. Those words, he said, are among the most symptomatic utterances of the human animal.

We shuffled a bit and the priest looked at us slyly, asking us which part of his analysis was allowing us to fidget.

Surely you find it extraordinary, he said, that human beings are free of want at last, and then face that state of calm by complaining it bores them to exist that way. The sated condition is one in which the universe has nothing else to offer after the satisfaction of their wants, and they cannot bear it. Here, surely, is no better proof that human life must be some kind of mistake. To suffer with such certainty, and to have been given this respite, only to discover there is nothing but emptiness beyond it, and then, and here is the worst bit, he said, and then to find that emptiness dimly repellent, this is the crowning moment of human absurdity. To yearn for a moment of relief, and then to find that moment faintly unendurable, this really is the consummate glory of an absurd being. It seems the human organism cannot exist at all without suffering for something—and that, he said, precisely that, is its weakness and the origin of its wickedness. It would be better to live for suffering, to strive only for more suffering, he said making these words heavy in his mouth. Or at least to live in suffering and never wish for existence without it. Only that would be less absurd. I am speaking here, he said, of the lowest form of boredom, of course. Only the lowest form of boredom abuts the emptiness of existence. This is the boredom of those who are warm enough but not too warm, sheltered but not imprisoned, and well fed but not overstuffed. For we can become bored in other ways too, he told us. We may be bored with our anger, bored in our pain, but this is only because our anger or our pain has become too familiar, or too predictable, or too often returning, and each has ceased to surprise us. This is not true boredom and only tedium at work. The proper lesson of existence—of the stupidity of human existence—arrives with the boredom of a temporarily sated self. Here listen to me, he said, because I can see you are not yet horrified as you should be. Listen closely now and reckon again with what I am telling you. We suffer for want of food, or water, or security, and find ourselves finally satisfied. We attain, at last, some moments without need or want, and we find that our sated selves are suddenly tired with their lives. We strive for satisfaction and yet when we finally arrive there, we discover there is nothing left to do. We cannot endure this condition where there is nothing immediate making demands upon us, and find that the only way to escape boredom, the priest said, is to begin yearning again, to return from this unendurable pause to the condition of common suffering and ordinary want which propels and distracts us. Can we bring ourselves to any other conclusion regarding the great stupidity of the human animal, he told us. Is there any other reading of the strange pain we feel when we are bored, that yearning after yearning stops. I surely cannot see one.

One of us shifted again, perhaps the taxidermist, and the priest said, but I am not finished yet, rest yourself back on your skins.

Once our ancestors scratched the earth for each bit of food it might give them, he went on. Now we pile the stuff up in granaries. As we are better provided for, we must find new ways to suffer. I foresee a day, he said, when harvests are so regular, and houses so well built, that specialists in human suffering will flog their wares and find willing customers. Meanwhile, the church must take on this growing burden. Why else do we enforce church attendance and inflict its sermons on congregations. And on each Sunday in particular. This so-called day of rest would be the most dangerous day of the week, he added, if we permitted it to remain unfilled by expectation and moral duty, if we allowed it to become a day of true rest, which nobody could endure because it would be a day of true boredom. Without the suffering inflicted by our pews and our sermons and our singing, our people would find other ways to suffer, he said. They would do anything to avoid confronting their own boredom as a weekly event. This boredom would be an argument against existence no philosopher could deliver with equal force. They would rather tear into themselves, or one another, than sit squarely in that day with nothing to distract them from themselves. Rebounding from their boredom, crimes of self-distraction would amass and overflow. Prisons would be filled and break apart as all the horrors of Sunday gone were reckoned. If brought at last to the judge for sentencing, none would manage to reason their violence. That is the potential danger of a Sunday. Its threat of mutinous, anarchic, and dysfunctional revolt against boredom is what necessitates all of the artificial, ordered, and assured suffering of the church. There can be no day of rest otherwise. The church must vitiate the boredom of the day by enforcing suffering of its own. It is a curious fact, he said, that our religion, our religious ancestors, invented the day of rest to justify itself in this way. The priest spoke, nonetheless, of a higher state of boredom. He said that he suffered from the regularity of his duties, from the repetition at work within scripture—can you imagine how painful it is, he said, to study a book which contains the same story told multiple times. He suffered too from its endless retelling to others, the annual cycle of staid and regulated festivities—no other religion had lacked imagination in this respect so much as his—the yearly re-enactments of the birth and the death of its god all bored him, and the effort he had to make each year to deliver the story of his birth, and the story of his death, with due emetic force, often felt more than he could give. All of which he could not recount without thinking the message of the church, the message he would again discharge, must be intentionally defunct, that it must always at some level fail to heal the existential rift it identified, the suffering it pinpointed, and fail deliberately and by design. The church would fail by worsening the plight of those who listened, for if it did not worsen, if it actually delivered more than minor consolations and moments of respite, it would do itself out of business. This was a crude analysis, he admitted, but too often a crude analysis is rejected for being crude rather than for being false.

Black Vellum is available now from Schism 2.

Ansgar Allen is the author of books including a short history of Cynicism, and the novels, Black Vellum, Plague Theatre, Wretch, The Wake and the Manuscript, and The Sick List. Twitter: @ansgarallen