Margaret Talbot of the New Yorker Magazine –
Humans have been getting bored for centuries, if not millennia. Now there’s a whole field to study the sensation, at a time when it may be more rampant than ever.
Quick inventory: Among the many things you might be feeling more of these days, is boredom one of them? It might seem like something to disavow, automatically, when the country is roiling. The American plot thickens by the hour. We need to be paying attention. But boredom, like many an inconvenient human sensation, can steal over a person at unseemly moments. And, in some ways, the psychic limbo of the pandemic has been a breeding ground for it—or at least for a restless, buzzing frustration that can feel a lot like it.
Fundamentally, boredom is, as Tolstoy defined it, “a desire for desires.” The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, describing the feeling that sometimes drops over children like a scratchy blanket, elaborated on this notion: boredom is “that state of suspended animation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” In a new book, “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” James Danckert, a neuroscientist, and John D. Eastwood, a psychologist, nicely describe it as a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.
Danckert and Eastwood are hardly alone in their inquiries. In the past couple of decades, a whole field of boredom studies has flourished, complete with conferences, seminars, symposiums, workshops, and a succession of papers with such titles as “In Search of Meaningfulness: Nostalgia as an Antidote to Boredom” (been there) and “Eaten Up by Boredom: Consuming Food to Escape Awareness of the Bored Self” (definitely been there). And, of course, there’s a “Boredom Studies Reader,” which bears the suitably stolid subtitle “Frameworks and Perspectives.”
Boredom, it’s become clear, has a history, a set of social determinants, and, in particular, a pungent association with modernity. Leisure was one precondition: enough people had to be free of the demands of subsistence to have time on their hands that required filling. Modern capitalism multiplied amusements and consumables, while undermining spiritual sources of meaning that had once been conferred more or less automatically. Expectations grew that life would be, at least some of the time, amusing, and people, including oneself, interesting—and so did the disappointment when they weren’t. In the industrial city, work and leisure were cleaved in a way that they had not been in traditional communities, and work itself was often more monotonous and regimented. Moreover, as the political scientist Erik Ringmar points out in his contribution to the “Boredom Studies Reader,” boredom often comes about when we are constrained to pay attention, and in modern, urban society there was simply so much more that human beings were expected to pay attention to—factory whistles, school bells, traffic signals, office rules, bureaucratic procedures, chalk-and-talk lectures. (Zoom meetings.)
Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard considered boredom a particular scourge of modern life. The nineteenth-century novel arose in part as an antidote to the experience of tedium, and tedium often propelled its plots. What was Emma Bovary, who arrived in 1856, if not bored—by her plodding husband, by provincial existence, by life itself when it failed to show the glittering colors of fiction? Oblomov (the eponymous novel by Ivan Goncharov appeared three years after Gustave Flaubert’s) is a superfluous man on a superannuated feudal estate who passes the time with his family in thick silence and bouts of helplessly contagious yawning. Though it was possible in the English language to be “a bore” in the eighteenth century, one of the first documented instances of the noun boredom’s being invoked to describe a subjective feeling did not appear until 1852, in Dickens’s “Bleak House,” afflicting the aptly named Lady Dedlock.
Heidegger, one of the preeminent theorists of boredom, classified it into three kinds: the mundane boredom of, say, waiting for a train; a profound malaise he associated not with modernity or any specific experience but with the human condition itself; and an ineffable deficit of some unnameable something that sounds thoroughly familiar to us. (This third kind might have made a good additional verse for Peggy Lee in her languid “Is That All There Is?”) We are invited to a dinner party. “There we find the usual food and the usual table conversation,” Heidegger writes. “Everything is not only tasty, but very tasteful as well.” There was nothing unsatisfactory about the occasion at all, and yet, once home, the realization arrives unbidden: “I was bored after all this evening.”
One does find intimations of boredom long before its mid-nineteenth-century flowering. Seneca, in the first century, evoked taedium vitae, a mood akin to nausea, set off by contemplating the relentless cyclicality of life: “How long will things be the same? Surely I will be awake, I will sleep, I will be hungry, I will be cold, I will be hot. Is there no end? Do all things go in a circle?” Medieval monks were prone to something called acedia—a “kind of unreasonable confusion of mind,” as the ascetic John Cassian wrote in the fifth century, in which they couldn’t do much of anything but go in and out of their cells, sighing that “none of the brethren” came to see them, and looking up at the sun “as if it was too slow in setting.” As scholars have pointed out, acedia sounds a lot like boredom (depression, too), although a particular judgment was attached to it: acedia was sinful because it rendered a monk “idle and useless for every spiritual work.” Still, these were exceptional harbingers of a feeling that would later be distributed far more democratically. In these earlier incarnations, boredom was “a marginal phenomenon, reserved for monks and the nobility,” Lars Svendsen writes in “A Philosophy of Boredom”; indeed, it was something of a “status symbol,” since it seemed to plague only “the upper echelons of society.”
This is persuasive, though I suspect that some subjective sense of monotony is a more fundamental affect—like joy or fear or anger. Surely even medieval peasants sometimes stared into the middle distance and sighed over their barley pottage, longing for the next village fête day and a bit of carnivalesque mayhem. In recent years, something like boredom has been studied and documented in understimulated animals, which would seem to argue against its being an entirely social construction. (It certainly seems to be boredom that gets into my workaholic dog when he drags a magazine off the coffee table, always checking first that some human has seen him, and runs around the house with it so we’ll chase him.) The classicist Peter Toohey, in his book “Boredom: A Lively History,” offers a helpful resolution for the debate between those who say that boredom is a basic feature (or bug) of humanness and those who say that it’s a by-product of modernity. He argues that we need to distinguish between simple boredom—which people (and animals) have probably always experienced on occasion—and “existential boredom,” a sense of emptiness and alienation that extends beyond momentary mental weariness, and that perhaps did not come into many people’s emotional lexicon until the past couple of centuries, when philosophers, novelists, and social critics helped define it.