Boredom is not just a state of mind
Boredom is an integral part of the human condition that has vexed philosophers since the Enlightenment. But why is Britain one of Europe’s most bored nations, and has boredom been given a bad press? Yes, says a new book, which argues that lying around staring at the ceiling can be a vital spur to creativity
It may not be the most heart-pounding news of the moment, but boredom is coming back into fashion. Not boredom in the sense of lying around blank-faced in a brown study, a practice which in my experience has never really gone out of style, but boredom as a subject (rather than a product) of academic study. In recent years several scholarly books have reanimated a topic that had fallen into analytical torpor, the latest being Boredom: A Lively History by Peter Toohey, an Australian professor of classics who now lives and works in Canada – a country, alas, that bears an unfortunate reputation for being boring.
What is boredom? Is it a mood, an emotion, an affliction, a form of social protection, a gateway to the essence of the self, the human condition, or a modern affectation? These are questions that have concerned philosophers and thinkers dating back to the Enlightenment, not least because boredom occupies territory that overlaps with capital letter concepts like Being and Time.
I can’t pretend that my own interest in the matter has always been quite so elevated. Mostly when I think about boredom it is out of base self-interest, as a state that I’m very keen to avoid. Ever since I was a child, I have held an extreme aversion to situations that have the potential to be boring.
Those interminable summer Sunday afternoons that seemed to lead from the end of The Big Match all the way to still-bright bedtime haunt my memory with Proustian insistence. The dead-end evenings of adolescence, the dutiful visits to relations, the no less dreary work meetings that came later, the awful social obligations of adulthood and all the many non-event events: I can’t help thinking of them as bits of lifetime that have been irreplaceably stolen, interludes or premonitions of death.
My apprehension, therefore, has been focused on what has been called by the German psychologist Martin Doehlemann “situational boredom”. This is the kind of boredom associated with watching paint dry, and it’s as old as paint. There is graffiti from the first century at Pompeii that refers to boredom with the ironic sensibility of an ancient Banksy: “Wall!” it exclaims in Latin. “I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.”
Doehlemann drew a distinction between this long-standing situational boredom and its newer intellectual cousin, “existential boredom”, the type that goes to the very core of post-Enlightenment modernity (incidentally, the verb “to bore” didn’t arrive in English until the second half of the 18th century). It refers to the affectless despondency resulting from the death of God, the Romantic search for personal meaning, and the metaphysical encounter with nothingness over which legions of writers from Flaubert to Ballard have wept buckets of ink.
Although existential boredom is not tied to a temporary situation, such as a wearisome domestic chore, it is no less the fruit of circumstance, insofar as it stems from a certain degree of wealth and leisure. By and large, illiterate peasants working all day in the field don’t have the luxury to despair at the ceaseless collapse of culturally generated meaning in a godless universe.
Leaving aside these classifications for a moment, it’s reasonable to say that boredom is no simple issue. For a start, is there a straightforward relationship between the bored and the boring? It’s perhaps telling that we have a name for the latter – a “bore” – but none for the former.
Of course it’s not possible to identify a bore without in some sense being bored, yet being bored is hardly more acceptable these days than being a bore. Traditionally boredom, as Kierkegaard noted, was an expression of nobility, and that doesn’t sit well in our democratic age. To show that you are bored suggests rudeness, superiority, even contempt, none of which are endearing qualities.
In a sense, then, boredom is a secret or solitary vice, yet the bored are clearly not alone. The average Briton, according to a 2009 online survey, endures six hours of boredom a week. This curiously precise yet ill-defined piece of information prompts two questions: is there anything more boring – apart from waiting three hours at Gatwick for a delayed easyJet flight; conspiracy theorists; cookery programmes; articles about Glastonbury; health spas; book festivals; car boot sales; homeopathy; insomnia; Thought for the Day; tattoos; jogging; county cricket; neo-conceptual art; contemporary pop music; marijuana; 95% of theatre(including all of Beckett); and Twitter – than a survey about boredom? And, second, only six hours?
What about the 30 hours of TV viewing the same average Briton is supposed to run up in a week? As someone who moonlights as a TV critic, I find it hard to accept that there is at least 24 hours of non-boring scheduling that I miss. Which brings us to another vexed question: is there any greater virtue in being exposed to an experience and not perceiving it as boring than knowing that you are bored and complaining of the boredom?
Yet another report – this time by the New Economics Foundation thinktank(a phrase that comes pre-packed with a stifled yawn) – found that Britain is the fourth most bored nation in Europe. On the surface, it’s an unenviable statistic. Who wants to be among one of the most bored nations in the western world? But then who wants to be among the least bored? Surely rarely being bored demonstrates a fatal lack of discrimination or at least a limited appreciation of life’s pleasures. For how can one scale the heights of exhilaration without at least catching sight of the deserts of dullness.
I came across the aforementioned surveys on the British in Boredom: A Lively History. Toohey also includes a test devised by two psychologists, Norman D Sundberg and Richard F Farmer (can I quickly add here to my earlier list of boring things the use of middle initials by American academics?), known as the Boredom Proneness Scale, which is made up of 28 statements, such as “I have projects in mind all the time, things to do” and “Much of the time I just sit around doing nothing”.
The respondent is asked to number the statements using a seven-point scale: 1 signifying strong disagreement; 4 neutrality; and 7 strong agreement. The average range of scores is 81-117. Above 117 on the Boredom Proneness Scale, you are practically lying prone with boredom. Below 81 and you barely know the meaning of the word. I completed the test and got a score in the 90s – ie utterly average.
Normally with personality tests, the participant has some idea of a preferred result– one that shows you are outgoing, for example, or intelligent. In this case I was struck by the fact that none of the options seemed appealing. I didn’t want to be easily bored or never bored or averagely bored.
Regarding the statement “Much of the time I just sit around doing nothing”, I found that I could respond with all numbers from one to seven. The fact is that much of the time I do just sit around doing nothing. It’s called writing or, what it mostly comes down to, not writing. Just now, for instance, while awaiting the next sentence, I was looking out the window at workmen unloading bags of cement from a truck. They were not sitting around doing nothing. But I wouldn’t like to say which activity – thinking in lieu of writing or unloading cement – is most susceptible to boredom.
In any case, although I hate the prospect of being bored, I’m no stranger to boredom, be it of desperation or satiation, tedium, ennui, apathy, monotony, lassitude, restlessness, dreariness or aching dissatisfaction – I’ve known them all. And in this instance familiarity does indeed breed contempt. As a consequence, I approach the threat of boredom much like a claustrophobe greets a cramped lift.
The analogy is not entirely fanciful. One definition of boredom is a kind of confinement. As Lars Svendsen writes in his slim but essential volume A Philosophy of Boredom: “Boredom always contains an awareness of being trapped, either in a particular situation or in the world as a whole.” Reading those words instantly transports me to a boxed-in chair at an insufferable dinner party or the middle of the stalls at an excruciating play.
All phobias are at root a fear of death, and the fear of boredom is the fear of being, in the familiar phrase, bored to death. Each of us probably has a vision of what that particular fate would entail. At the end of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, for example, the hapless hero, Tony Last, is condemned to spend the rest of his life deep in the Amazon jungle endlessly reading Dickens to his sinister bore of a captor, Mr Todd (Tod is the German for death).
I once lived through my own version of that ending. When I was 18, I worked two floors beneath the ground making cardboard boxes eight hours a day while being force-fed Radio 1 in all its 1980s banality. I was stationed in a tight alcove with my co-worker, a devoted plane spotter who felt about his Heathrow logbook, from which he’d often quote aircraft serial numbers to me, the way Mr Todd felt about Dickens. The clock didn’t move for hours at a time.
Waugh took his title from a line in TS Eliot’s signature text of modernism The Waste Land: “I’ll show you fear in a handful of dust”. Although Eliot’s poetry is notoriously open to interpretation, one reading of that line might be an image of existential boredom, the sense that the world is random and therefore frighteningly meaningless. This is the sentiment that Jean-Paul Sartre explored in his novel Nausea, wherein the anti-hero, Antoine Roquentin, finds reality turning to dust as he realises that he is imprisoned by freedom, that everything is futile because existence is arbitrary.
The novel rehearses many of the ideas of existentialism that Sartre would later enlarge upon in his philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness. It also romanticised the idea of total alienation, the lone individual at war with the stultifying complacency of bourgeois society. Svendsen describes boredom as an absence of meaning, and in this sense Nausea made being bored an act of rebellion. To be stupefied by the meaninglessness of it all seemed suddenly cool, if only to bookish adolescents.
No one can match the capacity for boredom of the adolescent, although in my memory the lack that the bored teenager feels so powerfully and personally is that of experience, not meaning. I vividly recall the stretched waiting during those years, made more unbearable by not knowing what I was waiting for. If existential boredom is the knowledge that anything can happen, and therefore nothing has meaning, adolescent boredom is the awareness that anything can happen and the conviction that nothing ever does.
To break this feeling of impotence, it’s typical for adolescents to enact small defiances – smoking pot or hanging out with the wrong crowd. Nowadays it’s often said that adults themselves have become marooned in an arrested adolescence. We – by which obviously I mean “I” – can often find ourselves caught in a cycle of transgression or the socialised alternative, consumption, in which each new experience swiftly loses its appeal and demands replacing by the next distraction.
Boredom, in other words, is inflationary; it begets itself. Svendsen argues that we are becoming rapidly more bored. “While there are reasons for believing that joy and anger have remained fairly constant throughout history,” he writes, “the amount of boredom seems to have increased dramatically.”
It’s a claim that sounds convincing – how else to explain the success of Coldplay or Come Dine With Me? – but can we know that we’re more bored than the Pompeii graffitists or, come to that, a peasant in a field? Presumably only if it can be established that the nebulous malaise diagnosed by so many writers is a genuinely distinctive and widespread feature of western modernity.
But Toohey doubts the existence of existential boredom – a condition, he writes with an Australian’s suspicion of pretension, that’s “more read about and discussed than actually experienced”, a literary myth or a malady that should rightly be recognised as depression.
There are nonetheless several things to be said in defence of the idea of a boredom that goes beyond a situation, but is overwhelming rather than depressing. In its most trying incarnation, situational boredom has the potential to develop into something like existential boredom, in which one is forced to question not just the point of an event but of life itself. I’m thinking here of a particular dinner party– the crucible of boredom as Heideggeracknowledged – where the first hour was spent discussing the various road routes the guests had taken to get there. In the midst of such an ordeal neither time nor space can contain the numbing void that attacks the soul. And no amount of grilled monkfish or chilled sauvignon can fill it.
Furthermore, if there is a crisis of modernity, it encompasses not just ontology but also aesthetics. Throughout the course of the 20th century it grew progressively more difficult to make value judgments about art and sustain them with anything more substantial than personal opinion. “Good” and “bad” became discredited categories and were supplanted, as Svendsen notes, by “interesting” and “boring”. Who knew or cared whether something was good; what mattered was that it was interesting.
The problem, as has been well documented, is that the shocks of the new delivered diminishing returns. What was fresh and provocative soon became tired and commonplace. Boredom reasserted itself with entropic inevitability. In 1997, I attended the first night of Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, which featured the works of the feted group of Young British Artists, including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers. I remember the disconnected sensation I felt, of a future that had already passed, an immediacy fast fading into the distance.
It would be too severe to say that I was bored – for one thing there were far too many interesting people to look at – but I did experience a vertiginous sense of insignificance, of cultural meaning collapsing before my very eyes. Toohey’s book contains a number of illustrations of artworks in which characters appear in various displays of boredom – yawning, stretching, and so on. What it doesn’t include is the glazed-eyed expression worn by so many gallery visitors when called upon to appreciate an artwork in a context not unlike that of a supermarket shopper standing in front of an aisle full of brightly packaged washing detergents.Despite their own struggles with boredom, both Toohey and Svendsen present positive sides of the argument, suggesting that we might, so to speak, be bored to life. For Toohey, boredom is an adaptive characteristic in the Darwinian sense. The ability to be bored, which he describes as a form of mild disgust, is beneficial to humanity. Just as it’s been shown that disgust enables us to steer clear of disease-bearing environments, so does boredom guide us away from situations that might be detrimental to our mental health. Toohey goes on to argue that boredom is not merely a negative function. It’s often, he says, the precondition for creativity.
Svendsen elegantly outlines, and then dismisses, Heidegger’s dense and some might say boring thesis on boredom, which is not easily condensed into brief summary. But here goes. In the normal run of events, time kills us; in boredom, we kill time. Needless to say, that’s not quite how Svendsen or the great German philosopher put it, but Heidegger did believe that what he termed “profound boredom” was a radical means of accessing the essence of being. He also believed, or so he once wrote, in the “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazi party. Boredom in its political guise – apathy – has a tendency to incubate extremism.
Ultimately boredom, whether it’s inspiring, disheartening, annihilating or transcendent, just is. Perhaps like the weather, it’s something that we have little choice but to live with. Svendsen reaches a similar stoical conclusion. “To become mature,” he writes, “is to accept that life cannot remain in the enchanted realm of childhood, that life to a certain extent is boring, but at the same time to realise that this does not make life unliveable.”
This more evolved understanding is unlikely to curb my own fear of boredom but it may help stiffen my resolve when it arrives. And in that same spirit of forbearance, I feel obliged to recall an uncomfortable memory.
Some years ago, I attended a friend’s party, where I was reintroduced to the sharp-tongued Scottish TV presenter, Muriel Gray, whom I’d helped in some minor way a few months previously. She thanked me for whatever inconsequential action I’d performed and I began to explain, too fully as it turned out, that it was really nothing. She stopped me after a few seconds. “Och,” she said, her face contorted in existential pain, “you’re so boring.” And with that she abruptly turned and walked off to look for more entertaining company. I wasn’t boring, by the way. Honestly. No, really, let me explain…