Interviewer: That seems like an important distinction, between ‘the meaning’ and the ‘meaningfulness’ of a thing. Yet, why is meaningfulness necessarily important at all? I can imagine a life in which pleasure, or satisfaction, or kindness – a whole array of dispositions – could be practised irrespective of their meaningfulness. Do you think meaningfulness is an essential part of a life?
Patrick: I think most people would claim that they live meaningful lives. I guess that the figure who claims that nothing has meaning and therefore there can be no such this as meaningfulness is the nihilist, a popular figure in Russian literature towards the end of the 19th century. I am not sure a true nihilist has ever existed, or at least I have certainly not met one! Like the solipsist, the nihilist seems more like a thought experiment than a realistic way of being in the world. Maybe the nihilist rejects meaning because she cares about meaning too much? So I guess the question is more to do with degrees of meaning or meaningfulness. You get people like Tolstoy, who in his autobiographical text A Confession,struggles to find anything meaningful in his life. For him, pleasure, fame, philosophy and so on were not meaningful enough to prevent him from contemplating suicide. Then you get, for example, the main character in Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz, who finds all the meaning he needs in his collection of porcelain. Anything else, such as living ethically, cultivating meaningful relationships with other people, and so on, were largely irrelevant to him. I agree that we can live an essentially good life, built around cultivating kindness and pleasure for example, without ever engaging in these acts because they are intrinsically meaningful (perhaps being kind is simply a way to make life easier for oneself). But my feeling is that as humans we require a much deeper sense of meaning in our lives than we may be comfortable to admit. My recent interest in the mood of boredom was motivated largely by the fact that it would appear to be on the ascendancy (as manifested, for example, in various forms of addictions and compulsive behaviours as well as the frenetic speed with which most of us live our lives, as if constantly running away from something), and boredom, at least in its more profound forms, is intrinsically connected to meaning, or lack thereof. As a mood, it appears to offer an insight into some of the ambiguities and tensions of reason, secularism and so on, that seem to be part and parcel of our lives in the (post-)modern era. It is no coincidence that boredom is a mood so closely connected with religions, a mood that seems to require something like faith to persist through it and discover what it had to teach us. The fact that so few secular thinkers are seriously engaging in the value of boredom as a mood, or even of suffering in general, seems to be something like an act of denial.