A funny thing about boredom: it’s interesting.
There’s a lot that boredom can do to a person. You can be bored silly, bored out of your mind, bored to distraction, bored to tears (this has actually happened to me), bored stiff and mind-numbingly bored. It is a thorough moral indictment of one’s character to be described as a boring person or one who induces boredom in others. The public outcry that greeted the publication of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) may well have had as much to do with Madame Bovary’s statement that her adulterous affairs were too much like her boring marriage, as the (fictional) facts of her extra-marital liaisons.
There’s a scene in the movie The Guard where Brendan Gleeson turns to his partner and says in his Irish accent, “You bore the whole of me.” I don’t think you have to be Irish to appreciate the world of humour in that one simple line, but it helps.
We all avoid the crashing bore. Dickens, according to my research, may have coined the expression “bored to death” in Bleak House (1852-’53), an expression which now exists in many languages. I like the Dutch version: Ik verveel me dood (it bores me dead). Boredom, it seems, is universal.
Some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries not only wrote about boredom, directly or indirectly, but also used it for mood as part of their writing style. In his volume of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) Charles Baudelaire writes of “this bored world,” “the boredom… of our foggy lives,” “the black boredom of snowy evenings,” and “the boredom of the vulgar herd.” The poems in this book are, in general, suffused with an air of languid boredom, the disdain of the new modern “man” struggling with the changing values brought into sharp relief by the speedy evolution from what sociologists (especially German ones) would call a Gemeinschaft to a Gessellschaft existence.
Taking ourselves – and others — too seriously is usually boring too.
Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1952), a two-volume doorstopper of a novel, depicts bourgeois life in the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian capital and asks what kind of relationship is possible to our experience in modernity? Unfortunately I cannot tell you his answer both because the novel was never finished, and because I have never been able to finish the novel.
In Alberto Moravio’s novel Boredom (1960), a prolonged, everyday boredom is the source of the internal struggle that leads the wealthy, failed artist, Dino, to fall obsessively in love with a young woman. Dino treats us to no less than a 14 page discussion of boredom. It reminds me of Goncharov’s novel Oblamov (1859), whose eponymous main character takes the first 50 pages to get himself out of bed. I must confess, it has some days taken me 51.
Eartha Kitt, famous for her voice and not her choreography, remember, singing “Monotonous” (1954). I want one of those lime green chaise lounges:
Samuel Beckett deals with themes of existential despair, alienation, meaning and boredom, perhaps most famously in his play Waiting for Godot. I had an opportunity to see this play the way Beckett recommended: in a jail, performed by inmates. The waiting of their own lives, as a result of the punishment meted out to them through the courts, underscored all their lines as characters in the play. The idea of boredom as a punitive measure of social control was not simply metaphorical there; it was palpable. And the ushers were armed, so that was weird.
Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s 1967 cult classic album, Gorilla, “I’m Bored” (“like mortar, bored!”):
Henry James said he was bored reading Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu (1871-1922). Yes, that Henry James. Ironic, I know (unless you are a James’ fan, in which case I beg your pardon… though my fingers are crossed behind my back). The charge of boring has also been levelled at James Joyce’s experimental novel, Ulysses, considered by many (especially those who have not read it) to be one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
In Against Interpretation Susan Sontag, argues against the charge that difficult-to-read books are boring and says that “there is no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration.” She challenges readers (and moviegoers) to work through or rise above their frustration with a particularly difficult narrative or film, implying that boredom is only a first-level response.
Academic advice-giving is often boring. Mansplaining is always boring.
Iggy Pop, in one of the worst videos ever made, “I’m Bored.” I include it here because sometimes bad is interesting. Though not always.
But Sontag is right that boredom is not just the “are we there yet?” whine of backseat toddlers. It isn’t a feeling; it’s more an absence of feeling, or, more precisely, an absence of meaning and the ability to make meaning. Since humans are meaning-makers (this is how we get, and why we cling to, culture, religion and so on), the threat of the absence of meaning is – dehumanizing? Think of Kafka’s hunger artist and his refusal to eat, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked.” Like Kierkegaard’s jaded aesthete who said, “my eyes are surfeited and bored with everything and yet I hunger.”
“Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of life? Is it possible that even this surface, which might still have been something, has been covered with an incredibly tedious material, which makes it look like living-room furniture during the summer vacation?” ~ Rilke
The word boredom doesn’t have a clear etymology, and first appears in the mid 1700s. Before “bored,” writers used words like tedium, vacuity and monotony to describe their indifference, disinterest, weariness and the apparently slow passage of time. Historically it can be linked to the acedia (the spiritual blahs) experienced by early monks in the deserts of Egypt, the ones who lived in caves, had no phones, intermittent wi-fi (with God) and had a hard time living on only dread and water. Acedia was considered the gateway sin for more serious, venal wrongdoings: “the devil makes work of idle hands.”
The French word ennui goes further back, to the twelfth century, and was used in a similar way as acedia. Ennui is often considered to be a deeper state of boredom, a malaise of meaning, rather than the temporary state we call boredom.
Calgary-based poet Christian Bök, contributor to Descant 125: Sub/Urbia (2004), wrote in that issue:
“ENNUI IS THE EXHAUSTION of the mind caught in the riot cell of its own thoughts. While poets always strive in vain to escape this oubliette, their tedium forces them to find in the workings of the padlocks, evidence of a more beautiful reasoning—a kind of eunoia. Never forget that which makes us weary also makes us
This reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s words, another nod to the often productive nature of everyday boredom and perhaps some inspiration for the writers and artists who long to harness its strange powers:
“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”
Note: To lessen the boredom effects of this blog post for some, I didn’t include specific reference information. If you’re interested in the academic sources I used, let me know via the comment section below.