The perils of boredom;
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 August 2008)

Men complain of boredom more often than women, a point I recently noticed in A Philosophy of Boredom (Reaktion Books), by Lars Svendsen of the University of Bergen in Norway. Women, on the other hand, more often complain of depression. Is it possible both are describing the same feeling but that women find it easier to confess that they are "depressed."

Boredom as an idea is less than three centuries old. Presumably our distant ancestors were bored from time to time but didn't think about it or talk about it. Most languages, including English, invented the word and the concept in the 18th century. It didn't make its English literary debut until 1852, when Dickens described a character in Bleak House who suffered from the "chronic malady of boredom." Dickens considered it a sickness, but medicine has never given it the dignity of its own category. It's just one more sign of neurosis.

Its appearance as a complaint accompanied the rise of individualism, a new way of thinking that, as Svendsen puts it, demands that each of us must find a unique meaning for our life rather than accepting a religious explanation for existence. Those who find themselves defeated in this attempt experience a feeling of emptiness they may call boredom.

No trivial matter, boredom deserves the attention of thinkers like Svendsen, just as it attracted earlier thinkers from Schopenhauer to Heidegger. It's a powerful force that wrecks lives, careers and much else. A bored truck driver can destroy a dozen people; a bored pilot can destroy hundreds. Bored populations can create wars. In 1914, people rushed to enlist at least partly because they found their civilian lives boring. Consider the German general who was told in the summer of 1914 that war might not occur --and immediately burst into tears, a victim of the pent-up ennui that soldiers endure in peacetime.

More often, boredom indicates a lack of desire, a blank space where we normally store our hopes, needs and wants.

Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst, says that when there's nothing we want, nothing to look forward to, our story grinds to a stop and we cease to think about what comes next -- which, as novelists and filmmakers know, is what drives narrative. Our own private novels, the ones we live rather than read, lose their urgency and their structure.

In the 1990s, Patricia Meyer Spacks wrote an admired study, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, on how it afflicts characters in novels from the 18th century on. Literature usually tries to resist boredom's effect on readers, rightly treating it as the author's ultimate enemy. But writers, while struggling to avoid it, nevertheless often succumb to its attraction. Certain writers believe that being boring is their duty, a sign of seriousness. An academic book that avoids boring its readers will be tolerated but viewed with suspicion. On the stage or in books, boredom as a theme does not necessarily produce boring material, as Chekhov supremely demonstrates in Uncle Vanya and elsewhere. In many novels, Spacks notes, truly proper female characters accept boredom, but the less inhibited risk everything to escape it: "Only by violating decorum might a young woman avoid tedium." Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray contains the sentence, "The only horrible thing in the world is ennui, Dorian. That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness." Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, imagines even robots can be bored: The strongest feeling of Marvin the Paranoid Android is boredom.

Spacks breaks boredom as a syndrome into categories. Post-Christian ennui allows boredom to fill the space left by the absent God. The intense concern with individual rights, notably the right to happiness, sends millions in search of distraction through drugs and gambling. (Boredom often seems at the root of obsessive gambling.) Meanwhile, the modern world focuses on the expectation of a rich inner life. We suffer boredom when we realize there's only emptiness where we look for riches.

Boredom may be in essence a failure of energy and curiosity -- boredom's chief antagonist. Any subject becomes interesting if we pay it sufficient attention. Boredom results when we can't summon the intensity and enthusiasm to look beyond surfaces.

James Boswell demonstrates the point. His desire to learn all he could about his hero Samuel Johnson produced his famous biography, but even on this favourite subject his enthusiasm could flag. Travelling in Scotland with Johnson in 1773, he felt so lethargic that, perhaps for the first time, he didn't encourage Johnson to talk because that would have meant having to write down his conversation.

A Buddhist saying claims, "When you are bored, you have drawn a curtain between yourself and the potential of the moment." Boswell couldn't pierce that curtain. In his book, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Boswell blamed his lassitude on country life. He was so filled with ennui that "I was happy when tea came." He decided country people were so bored that they waited for meals to occupy their vacant minds. Still, he accepted some of the blame. Always a self-improver (at least by intention), he chastised himself for failing to be a "robust wise man who is sufficient for his own happiness." He lacked the inner resources that would have kept boredom at bay.

But is that the way to deal with it? Those who analyze this subject often insist that boredom is a potentially creative state if properly understood and, yes, cherished. Dig deep in your boredom, they say, and eventually you will be changed, for the better. I recently came across a quote from Diane Arbus, the photographer: "The Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination." If something is boring for two minutes, do it for four minutes. If it's still boring, do it for eight minutes, then 16 and so on. "Eventually you discover that it's not boring at all."

Svendsen, picking up a notion from Nietzsche, claims that if we flee from boredom we are fleeing from ourselves. Boredom feels like a timeless, endless hell, but it can turn into an ecstatic meditative state that will help us know ourselves, maybe for the first time. It's not just a technique, though. Learning to love boredom sounds like a lifelong project.

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