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The Necessity of Boredom


ISSUE:  Autumn 1989

To ward off boredom at any cost is vulgar.
Nietzche
A certain power of enduring boredom is . . . essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.
Bertrand Russell

About nine o’clock most nights, when I’m reading, my cat leaps to the top of a small chest of drawers and begins with deliberation to knock the objects on it—perfume bottles, framed photographs—one by one to the floor. “He’s bored,” I say. “He wants attention.”

“Fly the Concorde Around the World,” an advertisement urges. “The future way to fly—NOW. Everything else is boring.”

Such unlikely attributions of boredom, to an animal manifestly incapable of this particular form of psychic distress, implicitly to billions deprived of Concorde luxury, call attention to the concept’s late-20th-century value as an all-purpose index of dissatisfaction. Advertisers could hardly do without it. A sexy woman lolls on a Directoire chaise. “I gave up chocolates,” the copy reads. “I gave up espresso. I gave up the Count (that naughty man). And his little house in Cap Ferrat. The Waterman, however, is not negotiable. I must have something thrilling with which to record my boredom.” Transgression and boredom: the only alternatives. The sphere of transgression enlarges: not just adultery and cocaine, but coffee and the sedentary life as well. So does that of boredom. We gaze at television to forestall boredom, and television generates more of it. The church socials and bingo games that contented previous generations strike contemporary intellectuals as ludicrously tedious. Watching football bores some people, baseball unaccountably bores others. A National Review ad during the election campaign read, “Is Mike Dukakis boring? Let’s put it this way: if you loved Móndale, you’ll like Dukakis.” But the Reagan administration has also been declared boring, and so has George Bush. Cities, regions (Switzerland, the Middle West), occupations (tolltaker, file clerk): vast categories fall by assertion into limbo. On the other hand, when I tell someone that I plan to write a book on boredom, the immediate response—with what I can only call boring predictability—tends to be, “Oh, I’m never bored.”

Never bored, finding a great deal boring, attributing boredom to others: what are we, collectively, up to?

One thing seems fairly clear: we need boredom, as concept and as experience. Boredom in other people serves the purposes of sociologists, philosophers, advertisers, psychologists, novelists, anthropologists. As cultural or personal sign or symptom, as metaphor, as window of opportunity (the bored person is almost by definition open to exploitation), boredom—object of observation or tool of manipulation— fuels various industries that use language as instrument. Boredom as a subjective experience possesses subtler kinds of value. Bertrand Russell recommended it; others have also discovered its charms. But in the self as in others, boredom acquires its positive valence by its function as a way station to something else: to wit or insight in its observer, to calm or wisdom, or at least a sense of superiority, in its sufferer.

The notion of boredom can serve diverse psychological and social purposes perhaps partly because its definition remains vague and inclusive. The word itself has only a modern history. It came out of nowhere, the OED suggests, with no traceable etymology, some time in the middle of the 18th century. Attempts to discover its linguistic origins have suggested a linkage with the reiterative action of the bore as drill or with the French bourrée, meaning stuffing. These associations appropriately call attention to the repetitiveness and the smothering effect we connect with boredom, but the dictionary endorses neither, although Eric Partridge accepts the tool as etymological source for the psychological condition.

In its nature, boredom opposes desire. More precisely than repulsion, the negative form of desire, it constitutes desire’s antithesis, assuring its victim of the utter impossibility of wishing for anything at all. The sufferer from boredom finds it impossible to involve him or herself fully with any action, to believe any action worth the effort of involvement. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl. 1: 9)—why bother? The hope of something new may dimly remain: one can always go round the world in the Concorde. But a sense of futility precedes and forestalls endeavor. As the protagonist of Maria Edgeworth’s 1809 novel Ennui observes, “had I known how to enjoy the goods of life, I might have been happy”. No bored person possesses that vital knowledge. A state of profound limitation, boredom appears—to put the point in the mildest terms—a condition to be avoided.

Pope saw boredom (in the guise of “dullness”) as the potential destroyer of civilization. The yawn of the goddess Dullness concludes The Dunciad by bringing an end to culture. Conversely, the anthropologist Ralph Linton has argued that all cultural advance derives from the human capacity for being bored. The victim of boredom acts in order to escape his condition—thus generating, in Linton’s version of things, “cultural advance.” More than one great writer has testified that his or her work originated in the experienced need to escape boredom. And if boredom entails literature as consequence, why not bicycles, electric lights, and laser printers?

II

Boredom, then, if not responsible for all cultural advance, may yet provide a stimulus for creativity. It can also function as a rhetorical and psychological principle of meaning. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s crypto-autobiography published in 1933, and Edith Wharton’s A Backward Glance, her 1934 autobiography, alike provide plots of self-invention in opposition to conventional expectations. Both use boredom as initiating pretext in narratives of literary careers. In effect Stein and Wharton apologize for their presumption as professional writers by insisting that they have participated, despite their unusual individual circumstances, in a psychological situation familiar to generations of women.

The theme of boredom explicitly emerges roughly a third of the way through The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, to inaugurate Stein’s existence as someone whose life holds intense interest—for herself and presumably for any reader. The autobiographer explains that her first two years of medical school were all right because “She always liked knowing a lot of people and being mixed up in a lot of stories and she was not awfully interested but she was not too bored with what she was doing,” but “The last two years at the medical school she was bored, frankly openly bored.” Boredom thus becomes a figure for the impossibility of narrative. Only lots of people and lots of stories—the two sources of delight closely related to one another, as Eudora Welty for one has frequently pointed out—can avert it; as commitment to medicine begins to interfere with Stein’s interest in both, it becomes intolerable.

Or so, at any rate, she says. “Gertrude Gertrude remember the cause of women,” a friend pleads, and Stein reports herself as replying, “you don’t know what it is to be bored.” She gives up her proposed career and goes to Europe. She also, The Autobiography suggests, reinterprets her past. Retrospectively, she understands the pleasures of medical school as those of story. She thereupon dedicates her life to such pleasure.

Wharton’s autobiography, too, thematizes boredom, although less explicitly than Stein’s. In her prefatory remarks, Wharton observes that “habit,” not time, produces old age. She defines habit as “the deathly process of doing the same thing in the same way at the same hour day after day.” The story she goes on to tell indicates clearly (although politely) that the life expected of her gender and class depended upon habit in exactly this sense of the word. The deathly boredom she manifestly suffered in her own society declared her unlikeness to those around her. It forced her to discover, or to invent, a new way of life. That she could find such a life without blatantly violating social expectation testifies to the urgency of her need and the cleverness of her expedients.

In both autobiographies, then, boredom provides a form of retrospective interpretation. It also supplies a mode of self-justification. Boredom for Stein means the absence of available story; for Wharton, the impossibility of respectably telling stories. Her relatives ignored her writing, her cousins avoiding the subject “as though it were a kind of family disgrace, which might be condoned but could not be forgotten.” The society of her heritage and of her marriage allowed no room for the storyteller. Asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, the child Edith responded, “The best-dressed woman in New York”: her mother had filled the role before her. The stultification of an existence devoted to such aims justifies her choice of career.

Although both books employ boredom as a principle of causality, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas makes no attempt to render the imaginative dimensions of boredom as experience. It simply asserts the fact. Wharton, on the other hand, evokes the texture of tedium in upper-class life. But each autobiographer apparently takes for granted in the reader the sense of distaste aroused by even an allusion to boredom. Everyone understands the need to escape; Stein and Wharton, by choosing writing as their careers, demonstrate their capacity to find acceptable modes of evasion.

Boredom fulfills benign purposes in these autobiographies because of its immediate literary consequences in the story each writer makes of her life. The claimed experience promptly converts itself into protective compensatory activity. Looking back, two women who believe themselves to have suffered boredom declare their suffering the instrument of change. They function more distinctly as analysts than as victims of the condition. Analysts who separate themselves from the evil they diagnose, on the other hand, typically understand boredom as cause of more sinister effects, an index of moral and psychological danger. Constituting, from some points of view, sin as well as suffering, boredom may provide an inlet for evils worse than itself. Medieval commentators on the sin of accidia (or acedia), a complicated condition that eventually simplified itself into sloth but that in its origins implied specifically disaffection from the life of religious commitment, recognized boredom as a symptom of spiritual malaise. To the acute observer, its presence in a monk revealed a complex syndrome with dire potential consequences. The 5th-century commentator John Cassian describes a monk in an ominous state of weakness:

he looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work.

Surely we all recognize the condition, although we may not assume, as Cassian did, its necessary connection with sin.

From Cassian’s point of view, the marked symptoms of boredom implied a necessary and sinister aftermath. Twentieth-century diagnosticians also understand boredom as rich in consequences, but its asserted effects cover a wider spectrum. Boredom fills our emergency rooms, a surgeon told me. People ride motorcycles, race cars, take drugs, shoot each other, as a result of being bored. More than a quarter century ago, Arthur Miller argued, in Harper’s, that juvenile delinquency derives from boredom. “Other people, of course, have known boredom,” Miller writes.

To get out of it, they go to the movies, or to a bar, or read a book, or go to sleep, or turn on TV or a girl, or make a resolution, or quit a job. Younger persons who are not delinquents may go to their room and weep, or write a poem, or call up a friend until they get tired talking. But note that each of these escapes can only work if the victim is sure somewhere in his mind, or reasonably hopeful, that by so doing he will overthrow his boredom and with luck may come out on the other side where something hopeful or interesting waits. But the delinquent has no such sense of an imminent improvement.

The results of boredom, in other words, depend on social and psychological context. One young man buys cocaine, another wrecks his motorcycle, another writes a poem: disparate actions demonstrating that boredom generates the need to elude it. Its dependable predictive value perhaps extends only so far. It can provide a cause for almost any effect.

But the meanings of boredom do not inhere only in its consequences. As a condition in itself, it may signal (though it also conceals) the simultaneous presence of depression and its antecedent, rage. Its utility thus manifests itself to members of the “helping professions.” (Medieval commentators knew of these connections too. Cassian writes that “Acedia springs from sadness, which in its turn arises from wrath, and so forth.”) If boredom disguises depression, the symptoms of depression may obscure the presence of boredom. The psychoanalyst Robert Seidenberg has suggested that women in particular often suffer misdiagnosis by professionals who fail to take seriously the psychological effects of social limitation. Reporting a case history of a housewife bored by her life’s triviality, he observes that she endures real, external psychic dangers which “may not be apparent except to the observer who has thought about them”. The distinction between depression and boredom, in other words, hinges on causality. At least in the 20th century, we typically attribute the causes of boredom to conditions outside ourselves: the tedious meetings we must attend, the dreary classrooms we inhabit.

Thus high school students, convinced of their oppression by an uncomprehending world of adults, respond with unyielding, often highly dramatized, boredom. “Schools prepare us for nine-to-five jobs,” a student maintains. “They prepare us for boredom. They make our existences as restrictive and as boring as possible.” Teachers may label such statements, and the state of mind underlying them, evidence of passive aggression, but labels do not make boredom go away. The students continue to believe in an adult conspiracy dooming them to tedium. “My life has been one big bore from the beginning!” complains Calvin in the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” He has been asked to fulfill a “dumb assignment,” to write about an adventure he has had. His perception of his own experience as boring quickly leads to a paranoid conviction of deprivation: “I never get to have adventures!” Grown-ups, presumably, are responsible.

From a middle-aged point of view, however, one may discern inner as well as outer causes for adolescent boredom. During eras when boredom was perceived as sin rather than sickness, there could have been no doubt about this point. The victim’s insistence on external causes, typically unremovable causes, guarantees his or her continued suffering— and the continuing possibility of exploiting the state of victimization. The young display their symptomatic boredom as disturbing testimony of something wrong; but what is wrong may be their anger at the state of the world, not only the failings of secondary school curricula.

Sociologists as well as psychiatrists know the diagnostic power of boredom. What we proclaim boring reveals our values: what we consider it O. K. to reject and, implicitly, what we believe important or glamorous. Those who find oat bran boring announce their allegiance to other causes than good health. Or perhaps they only declare their superiority to undue anxiety. Despite the misery of true boredom, whether internally or externally caused (the Turkish phrase for the state of being bored translates literally, “My soul is squeezed”), self-presentation as bored implies a stance of superiority to a world unable to rise to one’s demands. Byron pioneered, in Anglo-Saxon tradition, in exploiting this posture; Oscar Wilde refined it. Less artful practitioners use it, at least fleetingly, all the time. The anniversary cover of The New Yorker, with Eustace Tilley superciliously examining a butterfly through his magnifying glass, reminds readers annually of boredom as high style; Les Liaisons Dangereuses exposes moral costs of the boredom-style equation.

III

My sketch of boredom’s utility thus far, concentrating on the kinds of statement people who do not consider themselves bored make about people who are bored, may seem hardly more than a rhetorical trick. Certainly nothing about these forms of asserted utility suggests that anyone would wish to embrace the state itself. Its putative capacity to generate civilization, its possibilities for advertisers, its diagnostic usefulness to psychiatrists or sociologists or anthropologists, its conceivable function as rhetorical or psychological defense, its association with a position of social superiority: not even the last of these possibilities makes it sound altogether pleasant for the person who endures it. After all, somebody or other (who makes these decisions?) designated July 15 to 21, 1978, “National Avoid Boredom Week.” No one wants to be bored.

Wrong.

An old Jewish curse goes, “May you never be bored!” It implied the doom of constant stimulating activity, with no space for reflection, rejuvenation.

An unknown woman approached me at a cocktail party. She wished to know what I was writing these days. When I told her, she exclaimed “Oh, I love to be bored!” Pressed to elaborate, she maintained that she always sought out boring movies, she looked for the most boring person at every party (“Thanks a lot,” I said), she treasured boring books. Boredom, she insisted, was the best escape from anxiety. It filled the mind, it kept worse things away.

A Buddhist writes about the practice of meditation:

It is a good feeling to be bored, constantly sitting and sitting. First gong, second gong, third gong, more gongs yet to come. Sit, sit, sit, sit. If we are to save ourselves from spiritual materialism . . .the introduction of boredom and repetitiousness is extremely important. Without it we have no hope. . . .

Boredom has many aspects: there is the sense that nothing is happening, that something might happen, or even that what we would like to happen might replace what is not happening. Or, one might appreciate boredom as a delight. . . . It refreshes because we do not have to do anything or expect anything. But there must be some sense of discipline if we are to get beyond the frivolity of trying to replace boredom.

Boredom here figures as a form of discipline and as the antithesis of “spiritual materialism”—whatever that is. Buddhists believe boredom a state to be actively sought, a stage on the road to Nirvana, not a condition to be resented and avoided. It brings hope rather than despair.

Walter Benjamin: “If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”

Enthusiasts of boredom find the state desirable for the lack of desire it embodies. Opposed to anxiety, by the interpretations of Walter Benjamin and the Buddhist and my cocktail party acquaintance, it implies a kind of suspended attention comparable, perhaps, to that of a listening psychoanalyst. It “hatches the egg of experience” by allowing the semi-conscious brooding that integrates and interprets past happenings. Avoiding distraction, it makes space for creativity. In Benjamin’s view, it constitutes creativity’s necessary pre-condition.

Such a description hardly corresponds to the resentment-loaded endurance with which most people survive a two-hour meeting about nothing, or a companion compelled to report minutiae of his gall bladder surgery. And such meetings, such companions, are clichés of our culture. We assume the inevitability of suffering them. The hypothetical 5th-century monk who found the sun too slow may seem more immediately recognizable than the hypothetical 20th-century meditator who happily sits and sits and sits. We must posit two distinct versions of boredom: one marked by its tension (the midpoint between depression and rage, a psychoanalyst suggested to me), the other, for some at least, a form of serenity. Russell calls attention to a contrast between “fructifying” and “stultifying” boredom, the distinction dependent on whether the state derives from lack of excitement (this is the potentially fructifying kind) or “from the absence of vital activities.” My division does not entirely correspond to his, but it implies the same point.

The kind of boredom conceivably valuable to its victim may feel every bit as irritating as the destructive variety. The child’s familiar, maddening complaint, “I don’t have anything to do,” epitomizes its form. Although empty time holds terrors for everyone, it contains the potential for discovery. It calls to mind Josef Pieper’s definition of leisure: “an attitude of nonactivity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being “busy,” but letting things happen.” Such is the emptiness that Walter Benjamin considers essential to the storyteller, that the Buddhist values as the path to meditation. However much we fear and deny the seduction of the lotus eaters, we may covertly long for the boredom that comes from lack of occupation, and we may profit from it: relief from the pressures of highly-constructed, over-committed lives.

Unfortunately more familiar to 20th-century man and woman is the boredom with no redeeming social value: the kind that depends on excess rather than deficiency of stimulation. The tedium of required activity, of compulsory contact, of repetitive demand: these generate the tension we readily associate with boredom, leaving no room for creativity. This variety of boredom amounts to a tic of civilization. It figures important ways in which human beings impinge on one another in crowded, anxiety-ridden societies. The medieval monk suffered from solitude, from the temptation to invent distraction rather than abide by the routines of his faith. His late-20th-century secular counterpart more probably suffers from the need to listen to a tedious boss, a wife who fails to interest him, children who seem to say the same thing night after night.

Boredom of this kind possesses no manifest utility for its sufferer, only for its observer or analyst. Advertisers profit from it because those who endure it yearn for an alternative. Copywriters promise ways out for the woman who spends her time driving children from soccer practice to music lesson— ways in which she can imagine herself, if not her life, as interesting. Commercial messages of hope, rapidly converted into cultural clichés, sources of boredom themselves, give way to ever more extravagant promises.

IV

Boredom’s indispensability as a 20th-century novelistic subject reminds us as dramatically as advertisements do, as definitively as do the many enterprises dedicated to inventing distractions for those afflicted with life’s tedium, that boredom has become, perhaps for new reasons, a paradigmatic ailment of our time. The ennui that afflicted characters in 19th-century fiction—Werther, Raskolnikov—or defined the pose of such poets as Byron and Baudelaire typically declared the sufferer’s specialness, his or her awareness of society’s intractable corruption and of alienation as its consequence for the sensitive spirit. Boredom possesses new forms of utility for the fiction-writers of our own era. Although the bored character still often makes at least formal gestures of superiority, he or she less frequently calls attention to the evils of “society” conceived as something outside the self. Instead, the bored man or woman in fiction may embody the conflicts of necessary involvement in a society so organized that its members grate on one another’s nerves.

Two disparate examples come to mind: Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, first published in 1934, which concludes its narrative with an episode of purgatorial boredom, and Saul Bellow’s 1975 novel, Humboldt’s Gift, in which the subject of boredom preoccupies a protagonist only dimly aware of his own massive involvement in the problem about which he plans to write a definitive book. To glance at meanings assigned to boredom in these fictions may suggest how this psychic state has become essential to 20th-century imaginings of self and other.

One could say with equal plausibility that the term boredom has become for Waugh’s upper-class English characters an empty social counter or that it defines the essence of their experience. They use it lightly, conventionally. When John Beaver, idle young-man-about-town, asks his mother about Brenda Last, his maternal mentor in her social wisdom responds, “I should say it was time she began to be bored. They’ve been married five or six years.” Husbands and wives easily get bored with one another; both feel bored with the house guests they compulsively invite to stay with them and accordingly apologize for the likelihood that the guests themselves will find the visit boring; people readily dismiss one another as bores or boring. Out of boredom, Brenda embarks on a love affair with unattractive, unpopular Beaver, challenged by her initial belief that he feels “terribly puzzled, and rather bored in bits” with her, only to find herself victimized by her own unanticipated passionate feeling. The affair, in its unexpectedness, alleviates boredom for Brenda’s social set. Her husband, Tony, bemused by her assertions that she must spend more time in London in order to study economics, decides that she must have been bored at home. Then, drunk, he confides that Brenda’s new friends think him “a bore.” Correspondingly, Brenda herself, plagued by at least vestigial guilt, decides that Tony must find it “pretty boring” on his estate without her and produces a young woman to entertain him.

The hypothesis of boredom, in other words, serves as satisfactory social explanation for every form and level of discomfort. Novelty, ever harder to find, is assumed to alleviate it. The reiterated, virtually automatic complaint of boredom betrays the limited imaginations of complainers who understand the social universe as monotonous in its principles of causality. Their paucity of analytic terms, as they dichotomize experience into “boring” and “amusing,” condemns them to the tedium they hate and fear. But their inadequacy is more than verbal. Limitation of vocabulary reflects conceptual constriction, the impossibility, for Waugh’s characters, of understanding what happens to them. They live desperately, failing to know their desperation, in a fog of unawareness, encased in social confidence that protects them from consciousness of realities larger than those of their privileged world.

The thematic of boredom in A Handful of Dust reiterates the pattern controlling the novel as a whole, whereby trivia reveal profundity. The threat of boredom adumbrates larger, vaguer threats. Men and women who know not what they fear declare their own and others’ boredom and work to forestall it. They thus assert, among other things, their discomfort in relationship with their fellows. Although the Lasts posit one another’s boredom as a function of lack of companionship, more typically the novels’ characters understand boredom as resulting from the company of bores. Everyone at every minute risks relegation to that dread category.

To find the cause of boredom consistently in other people implies alienation that does not know itself as such. A friend once remarked to me that she considered it a sin to call someone a bore. Such dismissal denies the uniqueness— which implies the necessary interest—of every human being. Emily Post, in the 1945 version of her curiously mixed recommendations about manners and morals, makes the same point immediately after offering some harsh words about bores. “On the other hand,” she concludes,

to be bored is a bad habit, and one only too easy to fall into. As a matter of fact, it is impossible, almost, to meet anyone who has not something of interest to tell you if you are but clever enough yourself to find out what it is. Also you might remember that in every conversation with a “dull” person, half of the dullness is your own.

Waugh’s characters, obviously, remember nothing of the sort. Assessing one another on the basis of entertainment value, they keep finding their companions inadequate. The novel’s narrator does not take sides among them. If he suggests Brenda’s moral inadequacy in her flight into adultery, he also uncovers in Tony a failure of discrimination and nerve that amounts to something almost comparable.

We last encounter Brenda in the noval burying her face in a pillow, “in an agony of resentment and self-pity,” deprived alike of money and of what passes for love. Tony, also devoid of money and love, also suffering understandable resentment and self-pity, ends more luridly, condemned to spend the rest of his life reading Dickens aloud to an old white man he has encountered in the jungles of Brazil. Dickens, most immediately compelling of novelists, thus becomes the center of a parable of social boredom. Tony must endure, without intimacy, the endless intimate company of a man who does not interest—much less entertain—him. Doomed to Dickens (if he refuses to read, he does not eat), he discovers the tedium of repetition. His sadistically narcissistic companion, Mr. Todd, experiences no boredom in the situation. For him, Dickens remains endlessly interesting. Moreover, he possesses the power to control every aspect of his society. The natives, like Tony, do his will. The contrast between his condition and Tony’s enables one to understand boredom as partly a function of powerlessness.

In the light of that understanding, the novel’s earlier allusions to boredom take on new meaning. Characters’ reiterated complaints about the tedium of their companions or their condition may reflect their painful experience of essential impotence, regardless of the amount of money or “love,” most powerful of social counters, they possess. Boredom, then, is not a trivial complaint. On the contrary, it epitomizes the impossibility of effective action or knowledge in a world dedicated to the dulling of consciousness by meaningless activity, meaningless talk. At London parties, on their country estates, in bed, Waugh’s personages find it impossible even briefly to change. They have no control over their real situations. Brenda may leap into implausible adultery, but only superficially does she alter her condition. Tony’s jungle doom reiterates his earlier social fate. The complaint of boredom reflects the experience of futility at the center of a secular, frivolous society.

Waugh’s narrator makes no direct claims of significance for the story he tells, and certainly none for boredom as literary subject or as personal emotion. Bellow’s first-person narrator of Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine, on the other hand, loudly asserts the importance of boredom as subject and as contemporary condition. He plans to write a book about it, about “the chronic war between sleep and consciousness that goes on in human nature.” His subject, he says, is boredom. Before long, however, that subject has transmuted itself into “great bores of the world”: a significant change.

The characters of A Handful of Dust inhabit a glittering social world and live mainly to entertain themselves. (Tony Last feels a serious interest in his estate, but circumstances— and his wife—soon conspire to deprive him of the opportunity to indulge it.) The world of Humboldt’s Gift appears both more sordid (it contains crooked lawyers and incompetent ones, gangsters, women eager to sell themselves) and more serious, with higher stakes involved in most of its transactions. Charlie is in some sense an intellectual, not just a frivolous exemplar of self-indulgence. Yet his notion of boredom bears some relation to Brenda’s. He, too, suffers resentment and self-pity; he, too, finally locates the causes of boredom in other people: the subject of boredom becomes for him the subject of bores. He generalizes, politicizes, distances his concern.

Suppose . . . that you began with the proposition that boredom was a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents, and was accompanied by expectations of the optimum utilization of capacities. . . . Nothing actual ever suits pure expectation and such purity of expectation is a great source of tedium. People rich in abilities, in sexual feeling, rich in mind and in invention— all the highly gifted see themselves shunted for decades onto dull sidings, banished exiled nailed up in chicken coops.

[Post-revolutionary Russia is] the most boring society in history. Dowdiness shabbiness dullness dull goods boring buildings boring discomfort boring supervision a dull press dull education boring bureaucracy forced labor perpetual police presence penal presence, boring party congresses, et cetera. What was permanent was the defeat of interest.

Humboldt had become boring in the vesture of a superior person, in the style of high culture, with all of his conforming abstractions. Many hundreds of thousands of people were now wearing this costume of the higher misery. A terrible breed, the educated nits, mental bores of the heaviest caliber.

Such pronouncements alleviate Charlie’s plight by providing the illusion of saving intellectual activity and by implying his superiority to the state he describes. He locates boredom elsewhere, condemns others as bores. If he has ever read Emily Post, he has not taken her seriously. Yet he himself suffers from the disease he purports to analyze. (It is even possible that he is himself a bore.) He worries a lot about “the boredom of the grave”; he experiences, inexorably, the boredom of the study, the courtroom, the couch, the car, the restaurant, the nightclub: the educated urban man’s environment.

Like Waugh’s characters, Charlie Citrine flees to sexual indulgence as escape. (In his world as in Brenda Last’s, money and “love” constitute power.) He keeps a young, glamorous, sexy mistress whose presence at his side testifies to his vitality. She exploits him, and he knows it. He even knows that his need for such a mistress betrays his fear of the boring grave, of declining force, of his own intellectual and moral inadequacy. But knowledge brings no salvation. Like the Lasts, Charlie and his kind are doomed—to boredom and to what boredom means.

What it means, here too, is the failure of intimacy, the impossibility of power (in a society grown too complex and too dangerous to allow persons within it the sustained experience of power), the incapacity of individuals to take responsibility for themselves. Charlie is a more appealing character than even Tony Last, partly because the reader can know him more fully, more inwardly, partly because his environment bears a closer relation to ours, partly because he tries harder, tries constantly to understand and articulate his plight. Yet the effort at understanding and articulation only complicates that plight. Waugh’s characters rely on a superficial and limited vocabulary to convey and to reflect their straitened experience; Charlie appears to possess endless verbal resources. But he, too, employs language as defense against the intolerable; he, too, finds change impossible. Tony Last reading Dickens novels aloud over and over, chapter after chapter; Charlie Citrine speculating repetitively about Humboldt—both supply figures of inescapable tedium.

If the story of Tony in his jungle captivity constitutes a parable of boredom, so does the novel that contains it. And so does Humboldt’s Gift. In both works, the idea of boredom— through Charlie’s exegeses and his experience, through the Lasts’ life in and out of “society”—focuses an indictment of 20th-century failure. It calls attention to pervasive lassitude, to a malaise of futility. It summarizes something wrong with the response of contemporary men and women to their circumstances. The novelist, in short, locates boredom’s utility in its very vagueness and inclusiveness as well as in the discomfort it embodies.

Those of us who are not novelists may likewise find the concept and the word indispensable for expressing levels of discontent too poorly defined, because too inclusive, for sharper articulation. For most people, boredom’s utility as a state of mind resides not in its function as a means to serenity or creativity but in the signal it offers of disharmony between self and environment—a signal which, unfortunately, it also makes it difficult to respond to. The impossibilities of desire reflect themselves in the vocabulary of boredom that pervades our culture: a vocabulary that appears essential to advertisers, to novelists, to social scientists, and to the rest of us.

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