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The Dream of Avaris

[I was terribly disappointed when I learned that the dreams of Avaris were not a third with the riches of Croesus and the touch of Midas.]

From Abbas Cucaniensis Historia Regum Orientium.

Avaris, King of Egypt, lord of uncountable riches, dreamt that the god came to him, and told him that he was to possess the whole wealth of the earth, in his palace to be rowed between islands of gems on seas of gold coins. The doors to his palace would be of yellow gold, its windows of white diamonds, its floors of black onyx. His feet would never touch aught but silk carpets. His water would never flow but into golden pots.

Awakening from his dream, Avaris called together his counselors to ask how the god’s decree could be hastened. One after another, his counselors told him that the only way to possess the whole wealth of the world was to conquer the world – all his counselors but one, the youngest and most learned. This counselor said that he could bring Avaris all he desired, if he was but given command over all the merchants of Egypt.

Once the King had given him command over the merchants he called them all together and held forth upon the excellence of the dung beetle. The beetle could be obtained only from Egypt; the beetle was sacred and good luck to possess. Thus as the kingdom grew in prosperity and numbers under the wise and just rule of Avaris, everyone would want to possess a dung beetle. But the more who wanted to possess a dung beetle, the costlier dung beetles would become. Thus the merchants should purchase as many dung beetles as possible while they were reasonably priced, for their worth was sure to increase.

The merchants heeded his advice, which was given in the presence of armed men. Soon all the beetles in Egypt had been bought up, and the cost of a single dung beetle rose to a king’s ransom.

The counselor, proud with his achievement, ordered the merchants to bring their beetles to the court of Avaris. Over the noise of thousands of beetles scratching in their cages the counselor explained to Avaris that since each beetle was now worth a fortune, all together the beetles were now worth more gold than there was gold to spend in the world. Here before Avaris were all the world’s riches, just as he had dreamt, just as the god had promised him. Was he not pleased? Would there not be a reward for his devoted counselor?

Avaris, it is said, regarded his counselor in silence for a space, then told him to order the merchants to open their cages and scatter their beetles upon the floor. This the counselor did proudly, for each merchant had adorned his stock of beetles with his mark. Was his King not delighted?

Whereupon Avaris descended from his throne, awful in resplendent silk and gold, his feet shod with sandals of gold. And with sandals of gold he began to stomp upon the beetles. Horror overcame the merchants, who fell to their knees weeping. Some sought with their prostrate bodies to cover their beetles, but the King’s guards struck them aside with staves bound in iron. The patient and tireless King stomped every beetle in the hall.

All the beetles having been stomped, and all the merchants put in chains, Avaris, his shining greaves still slick with the gore of the beetles, ordered the young counselor to be enslaved in the sewers of the palace, there to roll dung for the rest of his life.

Afterwards he called his counselors together to plan world conquest. But all the merchants’ gold had been spent buying dung beetles, and no levy could be made to hire soldiers. Thus ended the lives of the counselors of Avaris; and thus ended the dream of Avaris, cursing the god who destroyed him.


Advice has a doubtful reputation. Giving advice seems pretentious; taking advice seems weak. This attitude is foolish, but no more foolish than mistaking advice for an afterthought or pleasantry. Advice is dangerous. Giving advice is dangerous: a small observation, a fine distinction, a tentative suggestion, can change someone’s life. Nothing will impress on you more how uncertain and unstable life is than to see your advice taken, to see words you have given an hour’s, a minute’s thought – to see these words lever someone’s life out of one course and into another. Taking advice is dangerous: there is no pleasure that you can give another human being greater than the pleasure of taking their advice; nothing that makes a person more grateful, nothing that binds a person to you more loyally. Advice is so dangerous that to avoid it the platitude was invented. Remember that to have advisers and projects worth advising is among the privileges of kings. Giving advice is a way to serve; taking advice is a way to rule.


Dividing people into two kinds is usually futile; but one useful division is by theories of boredom. Some people think of boredom as a sin; they are ashamed to be bored. Some people think of boredom as a symptom; they are afraid to be bored.

The sin theory of boredom begins with the observation that life is so far from being a pleasure in itself that we would rather do anything at all than simply live. We seek preoccupation above all other ends. Boredom, like original sin, is an inherited debt that we are always working to discharge, that begins to compound again the moment we relax.

The symptom theory of boredom begins with the observation of animals and tribesmen, who are often still, but never bored. Boredom, then, is a symptom – a symptom of the disease of civilization, of the way civilization warps and overstimulates the mind. Boredom is a sign of bad living, a signal that you are taking life too seriously, thinking too much. The proper treatment is to seek distraction and stupefaction, to shut the mind off.

In most places, for most of history, both alternatives to boredom – preoccupation and distraction – were beyond control. Things had to be made when someone needed them, and things broke when they broke, and wars. Feasts, bouts, holidays, followed the seasons. To be aware of boredom as a remediable condition belonged to the few: to warriors, priests, scholars, rulers. While not a luxury itself, like luxury, it depends on general prosperity. (Look at Prince Hamlet, whose boredom was to a sixteenth century audience a sign of his greatness, a princely attribute lifting him above common men.)

Boredom was always there, but it went unnoticed because it could not be changed. That innocence is lost to us; we are cursed not only to be bored, but to know we are bored. Because we are mortal, we must theorize mortality; because we are modern, we must theorize boredom.

I subscribe to the sin theory of boredom. I have been bored, but I heartily repent both occasions. I would find them interesting now. Being this kind of person places me on a losing side – one losing so badly that the winning side has forgotten that there is another side. The sin theory and the symptom theory are not equally matched. The sin theory makes converts where boredom reigns and must be consciously resisted; the symptom theory makes converts where remedies for boredom are easy and cheap. And remedies for boredom surround us.

I think the sin theory was once predominant; I think TV defeated it. But even as TV fades, its victory grows. You may have heard the thesis that the edifices of Web 2.0 represent the liberation of a cognitive surplus previously absorbed by TV. But it would be silly to expect that the culture, the habits, the state of mind of TV watching would disappear because the TVs are shutting off. TV has had generations to train us to fear being bored. The TV watchers turned from screen to monitor, moved from sofa to desk chair, but they remained what TV had made them, afraid of boredom, not ashamed of it, and they remade the net accordingly, turned everything interactive social and turned everything social trivial. And because the net is destined to absorb all other media, out to the limits of culture, the TV watchers, in shaping the net, are performing all that earlier generations feared about the effects of TV on culture, catabolizing the achievements of centuries in a space of years, all so rapidly that it seems like a natural phenomenon.

Note that I do not condemn any of the possibilities and powers of the web. I would neither propose nor assent to abolish or withdraw from them. I want it to go on; I want everything to be tried. But I reserve the right to condemn the results.

The notion that the medium is the message, that new media compel new habits of thought – this slogan of progress is itself obsolete. It holds only when new media are spaced out generation to generation and can raise their own. But when new media arise and displace the old from decade to decade or from year to year, we carry over the habits and attitudes of each into the next, in a way that warps its development and frustrates its potential.

But this is not an apocalypse. There are still two kinds of people, those who are ashamed of being bored, who think boredom a sin, and those who are afraid of being bored, who think boredom a symptom; and there always will be. The present victory is too absolute. Generations grow up taking the accomplishments of previous generations for granted. Absolute success is the most precarious kind. Not too long from now, to swoon over collaboration and community will sound absurd as it now sounds absurd to swoon over industry and mass transit.

No trend goes on forever; nothing stays cool forever. Here is one reason I regard the future with disquiet and doubt. It is obvious how institutions based on salaries and hierarchies can continue to function after they cease to be cool. But institutions based on collaboration and community – what happens when they cease to be cool?

Count over utopias, dystopias. Do you live in Butler’s Erewhon, in the nameless utopia of Bellamy, in Skinner’s Walden Two? Do you live in Zamyatin’s One State, in Huxley’s World State, in Orwell’s Oceania? All of these were reasonable extrapolations of existing social trends; but social trends do not extrapolate. The face of the future is like one of those optical illusions where the outline of a vase is also the profile of an old woman or the portrait of a young woman is also the shadow of a skull. Foreground and background always change places. The two theories of boredom are the limits of a pendulum; and the pendulum is swinging still.