Returning to Boredom

All man’s troubles come from not knowing how to sit still in one room. Pascal said that back in 1670, but Pascal is boring. The whole of the seventeenth century is boring. And Kierkegaard said this a few hundred years later – “Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, it is no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.”

Ah, that’s the problem. We were an afterthought, something to amuse the gods in their idle hours, and thus boredom itself is the problem.

It always is. But C. Northcote Parkinson said that “the chief product of an automated society is a widespread and deepening sense of boredom.” So we’re stuck with being bored. Society is set up to assure that we are bored to tears almost all the time. That may be the whole point, or something. But Eugene Ionesco put it a bit differently, maintaining that boredom flourishes when you feel safe. It’s a symptom of security, you see. But people have said lots of things about boredom. Here’s a collection of them – including Paul Tillich saying that boredom “is rage spread thin.” That rings true, although you might not know why.

But we’ve been here before, with this 2006 item on the usefulness of boredom:

Psychology lecturer Dr Richard Ralley of Edge Hill College in Lancashire has embarked on a study of boredom – and says that a little thumb twiddling might be a good thing. Dr Ralley said that boredom could be useful because, at times when nothing is happening, humans conserve their energy for when they are able to re-engage. He advised that children should be left to their own devices to recover from a school term – or parents could involve them in their own activities in a challenging way, instead of “overwhelming” them with children’s activities during the holidays. He began to collect case studies in 1999, and to date has received information from more than 300 young adults who have written about boredom. He hopes to present his findings this summer. He warned against parents “overcompensating” their children for having so much free time during holidays. Dr Ralley says boredom is associated with guilt about not having anything productive to do, but is a “natural” emotion and exists for a reason.

Riazat Butt in The Guardian (UK) had more detail on Thursday, April 13, 2006, with Boredom Could Be Good for Children – and Riazat Butt, not a boring name at all, gives us quotes from the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire:

Boredom can be a good thing. In psychology we think of emotions as being functional. Fear, anger and jealousy all serve a purpose but they’re painted in a bad light even though they exist for a reason. It’s the same with boredom, which also has a bad name.

We get bored because we get fed up when we have nothing to do and feel the need to be productive. We feel bad when we’re not productive and that’s what boredom is associated with.

Boredom is something – it’s not just switching off. It can be useful. When there’s nothing rewarding going on we conserve energy, so that when we want to re-engage we can. There’s a balance between doing something that’s rewarding and doing something that’s rewarding but not being happy about doing it.

And there was Caitlin Moran in the Times (London) on April 21 with this:

Lack of purpose leads to boredom; boredom leads to the discovery of new purpose. Boredom is therefore a mechanism (which, like most mechanisms, doesn’t work always but does work sometimes) for turning no-purpose into purpose.

Ah, that was the year of the great controversy about boredom, and its usefulness. And then there was 2010, and in Philosophy Now – there really is such a thing – Colin Bisset with La Vie D’Ennui (the Boring Life). And he defends boredom, as a good thing. And with an anecdote – he wanders through the lush gardens of a grand country home, as he puts it, with a friend, and gushes that it would be wonderful to live somewhere like this, lazing about, idly rich, being wonderfully bored. And his friend bristles. How could you be bored in such a place? But Colin Bisset would like that:

I have always fancied being bored on a huge and stylish scale. I’m talking Great Gatsby boredom, with everyone lying around in white clothes and floppy hats, sipping long drinks with cooling names, and being utterly and divinely bored. How sophisticated can one get, goes my thinking, that even when surrounded by the best things in life, it’s not enough? Boredom wins through.

He simply maintains that there is something exquisite about boredom:

Like melancholy and its darker cousin sadness, boredom is related to emptiness and meaninglessness, but in a perfectly enjoyable way. It’s like wandering through the National Gallery, being surrounded by all those great works of art, and deciding not to look at them because it’s a pleasure just walking from room to room enjoying the squeak of your soles on the polished floor. Boredom is the no-signal sound on a blank television, the closed-down monotone of a radio in the middle of the night. It’s an uninterrupted straight line.

And this has to do with a certain mindset:

Perfect boredom is the enjoyment of the moment of stasis that comes between slowing down and speeding up – like sitting at a traffic light for a particularly long time. It’s at the cusp of action, because however enjoyable it may be, boredom is really not a long-term aspiration. It’s for an afternoon before a sociable evening. It marks that point in a holiday when you’ve shrugged off all the concerns of work and home, explored the hotel and got used to the swimming pool, and everything has become totally familiar.

But Bisset understands this is an adult thing, and no kid can manage this:

Like everyone, I’ve been bored in the way often linked with death, but that was mainly as a child, and as you get older you become more resilient in dealing with it. As an adult, you can choose between luxuriating in your boredom or eliminating it by getting up and doing something. The choice is yours.

But kids don’t have that choice. You know what happens if you look bored, and you’re just doing nothing much, and getting to like it. Parents and teachers ask the same question – “Haven’t you got anything better to do?”

It’s best not to answer no:

Do they expect the truth? That you do have nothing better to do than lie around listening to music, but that you’re also perfectly happy doing this? And when did being told to tidy your room constitute an interesting alternative?

And he remembers his idle time as a kid at school:

At other times my thoughts took more perplexing turns. I would wonder if everything I was looking at wasn’t actually there, that it was just an illusion. Or what if everything was pitch black but only I thought it was light and colorful? Or what if what I heard didn’t match what I thought I was seeing? These were not the sort of thoughts I felt able to own up to at the afternoon tea table, and so I ended up for quite some time believing that nothing could be trusted because my eyes were certainly being deceived. I’m not sure why a ten year old boy was experiencing philosophical angst, but it certainly shows that I had an awful lot of time on my hands.

And that’s the point of boredom, isn’t it? Wasn’t Newton sitting underneath an apple tree staring into space, and Archimedes wallowing in the bath, when clarity struck?

So doing nothing is the key to getting somewhere in an odd sort of way – but again, context is everything, as boredom in the workplace, where time is money, doesn’t allow for such moments of clarity:

This kind of boredom sucks the life from you. It has none of the hallmarks of the grand boredom that I’m after – the sort with a rousing soundtrack as you emerge from the darkness of sloth into the light of inspiration. The sort that illuminates new questions: Why not go and live in another country? Why shouldn’t I write a novel? That sort of boredom is the equivalent of a long bath with French soap and frangipani flowers floating on the surface; something so relaxing and pleasurable that you really don’t want it to end. And yet, when the bathwater has cooled and the flowers have gone mushy, you’re happy to lift your glowing self from the tub and move forward into the stream of life with renewed vigor. Such is la vie d’ennui. …

But that’s how boredom works. Eventually you will step out into the brave new world. You have to move. That’s what boredom is for, and perhaps why God invented cramp and bed sores.

So boredom is a good thing, and there’s a full discussion of that here – which you might want to read if you’re bored and have nothing better to do.

And this year it was this:

France is the latest country to move beyond Gross Domestic Product – or GDP – to measure economic success. And unlike many countries these days, the French are not switching to measures of well-being and happiness. Instead, the French Office of Economic Analysis has announced plans to systematically measure ennui.

And the details:

In addition to new measures of well-being in his country, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said today there must be balance, calling for new, regular government surveys of public levels of “ennui,” or boredom. Sarkozy said the intention is to “Keep France French” by insuring that Anglo-American-style happiness does not get out of hand.

And from their government statistics office:

Ennui correlates with a lack of social engagement; a bored worker is not a productive worker. That said, ennui can drive the creative process and, therefore, drive innovation.

And this:

Joanna Keynes at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington says researchers in the U.S. are watching the French project closely.

Joanna Keynes: This is a really key development in the emerging field of “idleness studies.” Official statistics are very good at tracking economic activity. But economic inactivity is equally important.

A challenge for statisticians, experts say, is finding a way to distinguish between a run-of-the-mill sense of tedium and the more general world-weariness so prevalent in France.

And this news story was from David Brancaccio on American Public Radio’s “Marketplace” – on April Fools’ Day. It was a joke.

But there was this NPR segment – Celebrating Boredom – lighthearted, but not a joke. It featured Peter Toohey, a professor of classics in the Department of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Calgary – given his new book Boredom: A Lively History – and A. O. Scott, chief film critic of the New York Times, who had just written an article titled In Defense of the Slow and Boring – so the idea was we all should slow down and step back from all the crises about just about everything and savor the moment, even at the cost of being bored. Scott did, however, confess his fatigue with attempting to enjoy long, slow movies.

And now Troy Patterson, Slate’s television critic, tries to pull it all together in The Year of Boredom – as again this was a year when we had to confront boredom, again. People had liked a thought that the late Steve Jobs had once shared with Steven Levy of Wired – “I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity.”

That was thought of as profound, and Patterson also notes, regarding Occupy Wall Street, that one of the back issues of Adbusters, the magazine that played a part in getting that started, had a headline APOCALYPTIC BOREDOM – which Patterson suspects might have been “describing a condition necessary for a certain sort of youth revolt” – or maybe not. But it certainly has been a fascinating year for boredom:

The Wall Street Journal set the monotone late in December with reporter Gautam Naik’s dispatch from Boredom 2010 – a London conference where speakers delivered papers including “Like Listening to Paint Dry” and “The Draw in Test Match Cricket.” The piece noted that boredom “has become a serious subject for scientific inquiry.” Indeed, take a look at recent academic studies indebted to the Boredom Proneness Scale and the legitimate nutritionists advocating “meal monotony” as a way to get thinner. Surely such topics will be much in the fetid air later this month when Boredom 2011 unfolds at a snail’s pace.

Follow the links if you dare. And Patterson notes that after Hurricane Irene, on the blog of the New York Review of Books, Charles Simic wrote of experiencing “a kind of high school reunion with boredom” while his power was out for three days. Simic was bored. And that took Simic back to his own exquisite teenage boredom:

Drowning in it, I came face to face with myself as if in a mirror. I became a spectator of my own existence, which by turns struck me as being either too real or totally unreal. I recall one day being absolutely sure that time had stopped, despite the loud ticking of the clock in my room.

The man is a connoisseur of boredom:

Do people still suffer from periods of boredom even with computers, smart phones and tablets to occupy them endlessly? There’s also television, of course, which in homes of many Americans is on twenty-four hours a day, making it harder and harder to find a quiet place to sit and think. Even neighborhood bars, the old refuge of introspective loners, now have huge TV screens alternating between sports and chatter to divert them from their thoughts. As soon as college students are out of class, cell phones, and iPods materialize in their hands, requiring full concentration and making them instantly oblivious of their surroundings. I imagine Romeo and Juliet would send text messages to each other today as they strolled around Verona, though I find it hard to picture Hamlet advising Ophelia to betake herself to a nunnery.

Ah, the good old days. Ah, to be, like some moony late Romantic poet, half in love with easeful… boredom.

But Patterson will have nothing to do with it:

There are a few ways to respond to this: A) You can perk up. B) You can zone out. C) You can compare it with one’s own Irene experience. For instance, we unsatisfied customers of New York City’s Time Warner Cable have a channel called City Drive Live, which airs static black-and-white live footage of major arteries across the five boroughs, and there was a sublime dullness, during the Irene, to watching rain drum on empty grey roadways. It was like watching paint not dry. D) You can pose Simic the impertinent question that one commentator did when the Guardian reposted his piece: “Have you tried class-A drugs?”

And Peter Toohey in Boredom: A Lively History also suggests that – “Drugs and their comforting spirituous oblivion have always been one of the most efficient means for ridding a person of a bad dose of boredom.”

But Patterson likes the Toohey tome:

This was quite a thoughtful book, one which took care to distinguish “common boredom” (“the result of predictable circumstances that are very hard to escape”) from “existential boredom” while tracking the field of boredom studies out to the endless horizon. Fans of the Royal Wedding’s “frowning flower girl” should check out Toohey’s riff on the commonest visual signs of boredom, chief among them being “elbows that rest on flat surfaces” and “hands that support heavy heads”: “If you are having a cup of tea with someone who has slowly sunk into this posture, then don’t ask them what’s wrong. Stop talking about yourself.”

That’s good advice, and here is that frowning flower girl – priceless, as they say. But Patterson gets to the heart of the matter:

Boredom is none too dull, despite Toohey’s occasional attempt to give his subject a mimetic treatment. For instance, he takes the position that boredom is, like disgust, an adaptive emotion designed to warn us away from poisonous situations. Thus, on Page 15, he writes, “disgust is an inherent aspect of the boredom brought on by predictability and repetition.” And later he writes that boredom “protects us in the same way that disgust does.” And later he writes “disgust and simple boredom both keep people clear of toxins.” And later he writes, “Boredom, as has been seen, is an emotion connected to the primary emotion of disgust.” And later he writes that boredom, “like disgust” is “an adaptive emotion.” And so on, ad nauseam.

But Toohey is right. Paul Tillich did say that boredom is rage spread thin. That’s what Tillich was getting at – disgust.

But Patterson says that the biggest event in the world of boredom this year was the publication of The Pale King – the uncompleted David Foster Wallace novel. And according to a note left with the manuscript a major theme was to be that bliss “lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

Okay, you don’t believe that. But Patterson ends with this:

I will observe that leaving comments on the Internet has an aspect of graffiti-writing to it, and that according to Toohey, one important early mention of boredom occurs in a graffito scratched on the walls of Pompeii: “Wall! I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.”

Yes, the chief product of an automated society is a widespread and deepening sense of boredom. Who said that? Someone did, and the actor George Sanders, so pleasant and deadpan-ironic in A Shot in the Dark – the pool game with Inspector Clouseau is a classic – left that famous suicide note – “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.”

He’d had enough. Have you? Since Just Above Sunset launched in May 2003, this is perhaps the third or fourth item extended item on boredom. Maybe enough is enough.

But there are also the words of John Cage:

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.

But maybe that’s just not true.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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