Observations from Literature
When answering broad ranging questions submitted by listeners to ‘The Brain’s Trust’ radio programme on the BBC in the 1940s the philosopher C.E.M. Joad was known to respond with the words “It depends on what you mean by . . . “
These words are the type of opening salvo that you might still expect in response to a question on the topic of boredom. Considering that there is no universally accepted definition of boredom its meaning and indeed its cause can vary from situation to situation. For example, Cheyne et al. (2006) suggested that boredom can occur in circumstances where we are prevented from engaging in an activity that we want to engage in; where we are forced to engage in an activity that we do not want to engage in; or where we are simply unable to maintain engagement in an activity. Three different situations, three different causes. As such C.E.M. Joad’s response may be as good a response to queries about boredom and its elimination as you can expect to get. Or maybe not.
Whereas there is nothing more boring than a boring article about boredom it should be noted that boredom is not a recent phenomenon, nor did it start when Covid-19 lockdowns did. It is an existential condition that one can only presume has been present for the history of humankind and perhaps since the advent of sentient life. As a theme it has cropped up in literature through the centuries, sometimes starkly, sometimes irreverently, sometimes humorously. The ways in which it has been described and the situations in which it has been referenced are as interesting as they are perennial.
For example, in his novel Tropic of Cancer (1934) Henry Miller said so much using so few words about the falsity and sense of duty that so many of us decide to endure in so many different settings. ‘Even before the music begins there is that bored look on people’s faces., A polite form of self-imposed torture, the concert.’
In the previous century this cause-and-effect element of boredom that Miller refered to, the two-way relationship that can be so torturous, was captured very colonially by the English poet Lord Byron in Don Juan (1819) where he wrote that ‘Society is now one polished horde, Formed by two mighty tribes, the Bores and the Bored.’
The latter tribe caught the attention of novelist Evelyn Waugh who noted that in his experience ‘punctuality is the virtue of the bored’ whereas our friend C.E.M. Joad admitted card carrying membership of the bored tribe, at least sometimes, when he wrote in The Observer in 1948 that ‘my life is spent in perpetual alternation between two rhythms, the rhythm of attracting people for fear I may be lonely and the rhythm of trying to get rid of them because I know that I am bored.’
And why wouldn’t he? John Updike, the American novelist, felt the pain of this rhythm. ‘A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience’ he wrote in Assorted Prose (1965). Chips with that? I hear myself ask.
It gets serious too. Not just boredom, its interpretation, and its perceived consequences beyond the level of the experiencer.
‘Boredom is . . . a vital problem for the moralist, since half the sins of mankind are caused by a fear of it’ wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness (1930). Relatedly and also at a meta level ‘the effect of boredom on a large scale in history is underestimated. It is a main cause of revolutions and would soon bring to an end all the static utopias and the farmyard civilisation of the Fabians’ wrote William Ralph Inge the English writer and Dean of St. Pauls in his culturally significant book of essays End of an age (1948).
Whereas the history of the Fabians, or the Fabian Society to give them their proper title is far from boring John Berryman, the American poet, in his compilation book Dream Songs, threw a cat among any socially democratic leaning Fabian pigeons that may have been around in 1964 by dramatically proclaiming that ‘Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so . . . And moreover, my mother taught me as a boy (repeatedly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.’
Really? Sounds austere but maybe she was right. I mean the poet Philip Larkin’s take on boredom from Dokery and Son (1964) sounds austere also but for some if not all of us it may well be true ‘life is first boredom then fear’ he claimed. Could be a great essay option in an exam by the way.
To continue on the theme of felt experience the novelist Aldous Huxley entices us to use our intellect to conceptually merge a feeling with an emotion. ‘There is something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness’ he wrote in his 1920 collection of short fictional stories called Limbo. And maybe he was on to something as ‘every hero becomes a bore at last’ according to Ralph Waldo Emerson the American philosopher and poet from Representative Men (1850) so yes maybe one person’s heroism inspired happiness ultimately becomes another person’s existential angst.
Although boredom, bores and the bored are present and experienced at all stages of life the English actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1920 appears to have been addled by a senior citizen of the time. ‘He is an old bore’ Sir Herbert wrote, ‘Even the grave yawns for him.’ Humorous? Harsh? Harbinger?
I wonder if the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge ever bumped into a descendent of Sir Herbert’s tormentor. He certainly appears to have crossed paths with someone of that ilk. ‘He was not only a bore; he bored for England’ Muggeridge wrote in 1966 in what appears to be a W.B. Yeats inspired book title Tread Softly, For You Tread On My Jokes.
But it seems that there is a knack to being a bore. In case you might want to know how. That it is not just accidental or coincidental. That there is perhaps even a skill involved, a secret actually, and that this has been the case for centuries. At least that is what the French writer and philosopher Voltaire would lead us to believe from his 1737 work Discourse en vers sur I’homme (Speech in Verse on Man) where he revealed that of all things ‘the secret of being a bore . . . is to tell everything.’
In conclusion, stepping out of the shadow of the literature of the past where boredom was accepted as being a complex but normal part of the human experience and returning to 21st century lockdown land it seems that the complexity of boredom is regrettably nowadays sacrificed at the altar of quick fix soundbites and simplistic solutions on radio, television and online. All against the backdrop of recent research showing record levels of pandemic-related boredom.
Whereas it does depend on what you mean by boredom, as Mr. Joad might say, and whereas boredom does not have a universally accepted definition, boredom does appear to comprise a perception of tediousness and a resultant lack of interest in an activity or perhaps an absence of stimulation. A problem of sorts with experiencing time or with the experience of time.
Considering that perception becomes our reality, that boredom appears to be a perception and that perception can be changed, perhaps therein lies a solution to boredom?
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