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Duh, Bor-ing

Somewhere I have read that boredom is the torment of hell that Dante forgot.–Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries

Unrequited love, as Lorenz Hart instructed us, is a bore, but then so are a great many other things: old friends gone somewhat dotty from whom it is too late to disengage, the important social-science-based book of the month, 95 percent of the items on the evening news, discussions about the Internet, arguments against the existence of God, people who overestimate their charm, all talk about wine, New York Times editorials, lengthy lists (like this one), and, not least, oneself.

Some people claim never to have been bored. They lie. One cannot be human without at some time or other having known boredom. Even animals know boredom, we are told, though they are deprived of the ability to complain directly about it. Some of us are more afflicted with boredom than others. Psychologists make the distinction between ordinary and pathological boredom; the latter doesn’t cause serious mental problems but is associated with them. Another distinction is that between situational boredom and existential boredom. Situational boredom is caused by the temporary tedium everyone at one time or another encounters: the dull sermon, the longueur-laden novel, the pompous gent extolling his prowess at the used-tire business. Existential boredom is thought to be the result of existence itself, caused by modern culture and therefore inescapable. Boredom even has some class standing, and was once felt to be an aristocratic attribute. Ennui, it has been said, is the reigning emotion of the dandy.

When bored, time slows drastically, the world seems logy and without promise, and reality itself can grow shadowy and vague. Truman Capote once described the novels of James Baldwin as “balls-achingly boring,” which conveys something of the agony of boredom yet is inaccurate—not about Baldwin’s novels, which are no stroll around the Louvre, but about the effect of boredom itself. Boredom is never so clearly localized. The vagueness of boredom, its vaporousness and its torpor, is part of its mild but genuine torment.

Boredom is often less pervasive in simpler cultures. One hears little of boredom among the pygmies or the Trobriand Islanders, whose energies are taken up with the problems of mere existence. Ironically, it can be most pervasive where a great deal of stimulation is available. Boredom can also apparently be aided by overstimulation, or so we are all learning through the current generation of children, who, despite their vast arsenal of electronic toys, their many hours spent before screens of one kind or another, more often than any previous generation register cries of boredom. Rare is the contemporary parent or grandparent who has not heard these kids, when presented with a project for relief of their boredom—go outside, read a book—reply, with a heavy accent on each syllable, “Bor-ing.”

My own experience of boredom has been intermittent, never chronic. As a boy of six or seven, I recall one day reporting to my mother that I was bored. A highly intelligent woman of even temperament, she calmly replied: “Really? May I suggest that you knock your head against the wall. It’ll take your mind off your boredom.” I never again told my mother that I was bored.

For true boredom, few things top life in a peacetime army. For the first eight weeks there, life consists of being screamed at while being put to tedious tasks: KP, guard duty, barracks cleanup, calisthenics, endless drilling. After those first two months, the screaming lets up but the tedium of the tasks continues. In my case, these included marching off in helmet liner and fatigues to learn to touch-type to the strains of “The Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge Over the River Kwai; later writing up cultural news (of which there wasn’t any) at Fort Hood, Texas; in the evening, walking the streets of the nearby town of Kileen, where the entertainment on offer was a beer drunk, a hamburger, a tattoo, or an auto loan; and, later, typing up physical exams in an old bank building used as a recruiting station in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. Was I bored? Yes, out of my gourd. But, then, so heavy is boredom in peacetime armies that, from the Roman Empire on, relief from it has often been a serious enticement on its own to war.

But, ah, the sweetness, the luxuriousness of boredom when the details of quotidian life threaten to plough one under through sheer aggravation, or real troubles (medical, familial, financial) are visited upon one, and supply, as Tacitus has it, “ample proof that the gods are indifferent to our tranquility but eager for our punishment.” Except that most people cannot stand even gentle boredom for long.

“I have discovered that all evil comes from this,” wrote Pascal, “man’s being unable to sit still in a room.” Failing precisely this test, that of the ability to sit quietly alone in a room, brought about acedia, a Greek word meaning “apathy,” or “indifference,” among hermit monks in North Africa in the fourth century c.e.

I come to this historical tidbit through reading Boredom, A Lively History (Yale University Press, 224 pages) by Peter Toohey, who teaches classics at Calgary University. His book and A Philosophy of Boredom (Reaktion Books, 124 pages) by Lars Svendsen are the two best contemporary works on the subject. Noteworthy that men living, respectively, in western Canada and Norway should be attracted to the subject of boredom; obviously their geography and occupations as academics qualify them eminently for the subject. A teacher, as I myself discovered after three chalk-filled decades, is someone who never says anything once—or, for that matter, never says anything a mere 9 or 10 times.

The radical difference between Toohey and Svendsen is that the former thinks boredom has its uses, while the latter is confident that boredom is the major spiritual problem of our day. “Is modern life,” Svendsen asks, “first and foremost an attempt to escape boredom?” He believes it is, and also believes, I surmise, that this escape cannot be achieved. He holds that boredom is not merely an individual but a social, a cultural, finally a philosophical problem. He quotes Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, saying that the traditional philosophical problem used to be “why is there anything at all rather than nothing?” but that today the real question is “why is there just nothing, rather than something?” With Svendsen, we arrive at the exposition of existential boredom.

Svendsen remarks on the difficulty of portraying  boredom in literature. (In The Pale King, the unfinished novel that David Foster Wallace left at his desk after suicide at the age of 46, Wallace set out to explore all the facets of boredom, which, if reviewers are to be believed, he was, alas, unable to bring off.) Toohey would not quite agree and includes in the literature of boredom Ivan Goncharov’s great novel Oblomov, whose first 100 pages are about the inability of its title character to get out of bed and get dressed and do something, anything. But Oblomov is less about boredom than about sloth.

The difference is a reminder that boredom presents a semantic problem. One must discriminate and make distinctions when trying to define it. Ennui, apathy, depression, accidie, melancholia, mal de vivre—these are all aspects of boredom, but they do not quite define it. Perhaps the most serious distinction that needs to be made is that between boredom and depression. Toohey is correct when he argues that chronic boredom can bring about agitation, anger, and depression, but that boredom and depression are not the same. Boredom is chiefly an emotion of a secondary kind, like shame, guilt, envy, admiration, embarrassment, contempt, and others. Depression is a mental illness, and much more serious.

“Suicide,” Toohey claims, “has no clear relationship with boredom,” while it can have everything to do with depression. Perhaps. An exception is the actor George Sanders, who in 1972, at the age of 65, checked into a hotel near Barcelona and was found dead two days later, having taken five bottles of Nembutal. He left behind a suicide note that read:

Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.

If boredom isn’t easily defined—“a bestial and indefinable affliction,” Dostoyevsky called it—it can be  described. A “psychological Sahara,” the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky called it. If one wants to experience it directly, I know no more efficient way than reading Martin Heidegger on the subject, specifically the sections on boredom in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, World, Finitude, Solitude. Boredom, for Heidegger, is valuable in that it rubs clear the slate of our mind and is, as Svendsen has it, “a privileged fundamental mood because it leads us directly into the very problem of time and being.” Boredom, in this reading, readies the mind for profound vision. I could attempt to explain how, in Heidegger, this comes about, but your eyes, in reading it, would soon take on the glaze of a franchise donut. Besides, I don’t believe it.

Neither does Toohey, who is excellent on drawing the line of the existentialist tradition of boredom that runs from the acedia of the early monks through Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre to the present day. Toohey holds that existentialist boredom is neither an emotion nor a feeling but a concept, one “constructed from a union of boredom, chronic boredom, depression, a sense of superfluity, frustration, surfeit, disgust, indifference, apathy, and feelings of entrapment.” As such, existential boredom has become a philosophical sickness, not part of the human condition at all, but available exclusively to intellectuals given to moodiness and dark views.

The most notable novel in the existentialist boredom tradition is Sartre’s Nausea (1938), whose main character, Antoine Roquentin, lives in a condition of overpowering indifference that Sartre calls “contingency,” in which the universe is uncaring and one’s existence is without necessity. After reading the philosophers taken up with the problems of being and existence, I cheer myself up by recalling the anecdote about the student in one of his philosophy courses at CCNY who asked Morris Raphael Cohen to prove that he, the student, existed. “Ah,” replied Cohen in his Yiddish-accented English, “who’s eskin’?”

In France, boredom is given a philosophical tincture; in England, an aristocratic one: Lord Byron, having seen and done it all, is the perfect type of the bored English aristocrat. George Santayana, travelling on a student fellowship from Harvard, made the discovery that the Germans had no conception of boredom whatsoever, which explains their tolerance for the Ring cycle and the novels of Hermann Broch, and for so many other lengthy productions in German high culture. In Italy, boredom can take on the coloration and tone of amusing decadence, an emotion perfectly embodied in several movies by Marcello Mastroianni.

Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom (1960) plays the subject for darkish laughs. A man in his thirties, a failed painter with a rich mother, hounded by boredom all his days, takes up with a young painter’s model. He has regular and uncomplicated sex with her, but off the couch she bores him blue, until she begins cheating on him with another man, which arouses his interest in her. Preferring not to be interested, he concludes that his only solution is to marry her and give her a large number of children; Once she is his wife and he can insure her fidelity, he can lapse back into comfortable boredom. “In this lack of all roots and responsibilities,” he thinks, “in this utter void created by boredom, marriage, for me, was something dead and meaningless, and in this way it would at least serve some purpose.” To “divorce, Italian style” Moravia adds “marriage, Italian style,” though in the novel the painter does not finally marry the young woman.

Moravia’s novel is also a reminder that perhaps as many marriages fail out of boredom as out of anything else. “Of all the primary relations,” Robert Nisbet writes in Prejudices, A Philosophical Dictionary, “marriage is probably the most fertile in its yield of boredom, to a wife perhaps more than to a husband if only because prior to recent times, her opportunities to forestall or relieve boredom were fewer.” In Nisbet’s view, the changing nature of marriage, from an institution with an economic foundation designed primarily for procreation to one that has become an almost “purely personal relationship,” has rendered it all the more susceptible to the incursions of boredom. Nisbet speculates that, had God permitted Adam and Eve to remain in the Garden of Eden, their marriage, too, might have foundered on boredom.

Sameness and repetition are among the chief causes of boredom. If they haunt marriages, they are even more powerfully at work in the realm of vocation. Once work went beyond the artisanal state, where farmers and craftsman had a personal hand in their productions, once the assembly line and its white-collar equivalent, the large bureaucratic office, came into being, work, owing to its repetitious nature, became one of the chief sources of boredom in the modern world.

Views on boredom and work alter with changing economic conditions. For my father’s generation, arriving at maturity with the onset of the Depression, the notion of “interesting” in connection with work didn’t come into play. Making a good living did. Unless the work was utterly degrading, my father could not understand leaving one job for another at a lesser salary. How different from today when a friend in California recently told me that he thought he might cease hiring young college graduates for jobs in his financial firm. “Their minds aren’t in it,” he said. “They all want to write screenplays.”

One can also tell a great deal about a person by what bores him. Certainly this is so in my own case. After perhaps an hour of driving along the coast between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, encountering one dazzling landscape after another, I thought enough was enough; Mae West was wrong, you can get too much of a good thing; and I longed for the sight of a delicatessen stocked with febrile Jews.

Tolerance for boredom differs vastly from person to person. Some might argue that a strong intolerance for boredom suggests, with its need for constant action, impressive ambition. Others longing to be always in play, have, as the old saying goes, ants in their pants, or, to use the good Yiddish word, schplikes.

No one longs to be bored, but, if I am a useful example, as one grows older, one often finds oneself more patient with boredom. Pressureless, dull patches in life—bring them on. I recently read two very well-written but extremely boring novels by Barbara Pym—A Glassful of Blessings and A Few Green Leaves. She is a writer I much admire, and I found myself quietly amused by how little happens in these novels. A Few Green Leaves contains the following sentence: “‘It is an art all too seldom met with,’ Adam declared, ‘the correct slicing of cucumber.’”

Toohey suggests that boredom is good for us. We should, he feels, be less put off by it. For one thing, boredom can function as a warning sign, as angina warns of heart attack and gout of stroke, telling those who suffer unduly from it that they need to change their lives. For another, “boredom intensifies self-perception,” by which I gather he means that it allows time for introspection of a kind not available to those who live in a state of continuous agitation and excitation. Boredom can also in itself function as a stimulant; boredom with old arguments and ideas can, in this view, presumably lead to freshened thought and creativity.

In the last chapter of Boredom, A Lively History, Toohey veers into a discussion of what brain science has to tell us about boredom. I almost wrote a “compulsory discussion,” for with-it-ness now calls for checking in with what the neuroscientists have to say about your subject, whatever it might be. What they have to say is usually speculative, generally turns out to be based on studies of mice or chimps, and is never very persuasive. Boredom, neuroscientists believe, is thought to be experienced in the part of the brain called the “insula,” where other secondary emotions are experienced, and which a neurologist named Arthur D. Craig calls the region of the brain that stands at “a crossroad of time and desire.”

Having said this, one hasn’t said much. Brain studies, critics of them argue, are still roughly at the stage that physiology was before William Harvey in the 17th century discovered the circulatory system. Boredom is after all part of consciousness, and about consciousness the neurologists still have much less to tell us than do the poets and the philosophers.

Boredom, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s at a much higher level of seriousness, is a disease with no known cure, but Professor Toohey feels the need to supply possible ameliorations, or palliatives, for it. Among these are aerobic exercise (good, some say, for the restoration of brain cells), music (Mozart, it has been discovered, calms agitated elephants in captivity), and social activity (along with crossword puzzles, a recipe for aging well from Toohey’s Aunt Madge). Even Toohey has to admit that these sound “corny,” which they do. Worse, they sound boring. He does not dwell on those more expensive and dangerous palliatives for boredom: alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery, divorce, skydiving, bungee-jumping, and psychotherapy.

Isaac Bashevis Singer once told an interviewer that the purpose of art was to eliminate boredom, at least temporarily, for he held that boredom was the natural condition of men and women. Not artists alone but vast industries have long been at work to eliminate boredom permanently. Think of 24-hour-a-day cable television. Think of Steve Jobs, one of the current heroes of contemporary culture, who may be a genius, and just possibly an evil genius. With his ever more sophisticated iPhones and iPads, he is aiding people to distract themselves from boredom and allowing them to live nearly full-time in a world of games and information and communication with no time out for thought.

In 1989 Joseph Brodsky gave a commencement address at Dartmouth College on the subject of boredom that has a higher truth quotient than any such address I have ever heard (or, for that matter, have myself given). Brodsky told the 1,100 Dartmouth graduates that, although they may have had some splendid samples of boredom supplied by their teachers, these would be as nothing compared with what awaits them in the years ahead. Neither originality nor inventiveness on their part will suffice to defeat the endless repetition that life will serve up to them, as it has served up to us all. Evading boredom, he pointed out, is a full-time job, entailing endless change—of jobs, geography, wives and lovers, interests—and in the end a self-defeating one. Brodksy therefore advises: “When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom.”

The lesson boredom teaches, according to Brodsky, is that of one’s own insignificance, an insignificance brought about by one’s own finitude. We are all here a short while, and then—poof!—gone and, sooner or later, usually sooner, forgotten. Boredom “puts your existence into perspective, the net result of which is precision and humility.” Brodsky advised the students to try “to stay passionate,” for passion, whatever its object, is the closest thing to a remedy for boredom. But about one’s insignificance boredom does not deceive. Brodsky, who served 18 months of hard labor in the Soviet Union and had to have known what true boredom is, closes by telling the students that “if you find this gloomy, you don’t know what gloom is.”

“Boredom,” as Peter Toohey writes, “is a normal, useful, and incredibly common part of human experience.” Boredom is also part of the human condition, always has been, and, if we are lucky, always will be.

Live with it.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein, proprietor of our “Enter Laughing” column, has been writing for Commentary for 48 years. His new book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, will be published later this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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