Saturday, 16 January 2010

Banging the drum for boredom

The big thaw has begun, which is fine by me because being stuck in the house when you can’t move about in the snow is really … boring. I shouldn’t really admit that, because this blog should naturally be banging the drum for boredom.

Boredom is a modern notion: if our ancestors suffered from it, they didn’t call it boredom. The verb “to bore” was first used in the late 18th century, while the noun “boredom” dates only from the mid-19th century. By then, it was often seen as an illness: in Bleak House, Charles Dickens refers to it as a “chronic malady”. The literary critic Patricia Meyer Spacks traces a shift from 18th-century notions of boredom, which saw it as an individual’s personal responsibility or moral failing, to more modern notions which situated the sources of boredom outside the self. Spacks argues that this “reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power”.

Boredom was one way of making sense of modernity: the repetitiveness of work, the monotony of bureaucracy, the regimented time of clocks and timetables. Boredom was also the luxury of people whose lives had become relatively comfortable. That more glamorous subset of boredom, ennui, was a generalised angst or world-weariness - likely to be experienced by those upper-middle-class men who could delegate tedious tasks to their minions, and dwell on life’s futility at their leisure.

Boredom has a lowly status in modern philosophy, which tends to stress the hidden potency of our inner lives or some other, deeper reality beneath the veneer of mundane experience. Boredom denigrates whole areas of our lives, often ones that we share with others - such as office life or commuting - but in which we have little personal investment. If we took time out to be bored occasionally, we might begin to notice this commonplace, everyday world that we normally regard as unworthy of our attention. We might even find boredom quite interesting.

But for now, I’m just glad to be out of the house.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘If you want to see the world in its true light, watch old episodes of Crossroads. The dullness is the dullness of real life – observe how the camera records a character silently and slowly pouring tea into six or maybe sixteen cups, then the milk, then the sugar; be mesmerised by Meg Richardson dialling a twenty-digit long-distance number on the big white phone, only to have to hang up; marvel at the look of growing incredulity on Sandy’s face as he taps at a pocket calculator for minutes on end and then announces, “Have you seen how the price of tinned coffee has gone up three times this quarter alone!” We are watching time being deliberately killed … Pinter and his famous pauses were I always felt as nothing when put side-by-side with the reception desk hoop-la at a Midlands motel, and Crossroads to this day can be said to symbolise the blithe indifference of an unbalanced, random cosmos, where nothing is finally knowable.’ – Roger Lewis, Seasonal Suicide Notes


  1. I understand the gratitude of a thaw which finally allows me to get out of the house without freezing.

    And to me, boredom can also be wonderfully therapeutic. It is an invitation to accept simplicity in life. It is an invitation to value the miracle of commonplace occurances.

    In the modern world we can get so addicted to constant stimulation, constant adrenaline. When that happens we start to live in chronic stress which wears us down needlessly.

    Boredom challenges me to tune into my authentic self. And from there real joy is possible.

  2. Amen to that. 'Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience' - Walter Benjamin.