The desire for desires
Why reports of the death of boredom have been greatly exaggerated
"Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, 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."
Have things changed so very much since Kierkegaard's time? His portrayal of boredom echoes the tagline of a recent mobile phone advertisement — "The devil finds work for idle thumbs". The boredom of the supermarket checkout queue, the launderette, the long haul bus trip, is anathema to most of us, and the current plethora of portable amusement gadgets — camera phones, i-pods, portable games consoles — stands as a testament to general fear of what the hermits of 4th century Lower Egypt called 'the noonday demon'.
Our frantic attempts to avoid boredom uphold a lucrative corner of the entertainment industry, while the variety of books, websites, tv programmes and videos aimed at children and called "Boredom Busters" suggests that ennui has no age restriction. This is no new development – obsessive texting is hardly on a level with watching lions rip gladiators to shreds for entertainment, and, as the British public seem to be moving on to a stage where fox-hunting is no longer seen as a justifiable, fun diversion, we must be doing something right. However, some pundits have recently pointed out that obsessive avoidance of boredom (apart from being quite dull in itself – have you ever tried to have a decent conversation with an extreme sports enthusiast?) denies access to the certain kind of mental space which boredom brings and in doing so leaves us creatively and spiritually malnourished. In other words, boredom is becoming "a lost art form".
It would be simple to dismiss such statements as (boring?) bourgeois nostalgia, of the "times were better when we had to make our own entertainment" genre. But, as Steven Winn of the San Francisco chronicle puts it in a recent article:
"As more and more people seem to recognise, the universal experience of being bored – unengaged, detached, afloat in some private torpor – may be far more precious, fruitful and even profound than a surface apprehension might suggest. As ordinary as grey skies and equally pervasive, boredom deserves its own sun-splashed attention and celebration."
This is a very particular understanding of what boredom is, and perhaps this very problem of definition is what lies at the root of the supposed debate. On the one hand, boredom can be defined as a state of listlessness, a lack of interest in that which surrounds us and a general sense of ennui. Of this particular definition, Saul Steinberg wrote, "The life of the creative man is led, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes." So in this case, boredom is something we flee from in horror – even Kierkegaard's gods existed in perpetual fear of this kind of boredom, a fear which, if Kierkegaard's thesis is to be followed to the letter, we can apparently thank for our own existence.
Another conception of boredom is of a blank, private mental space, invaluable for relaxing and for the fermentation of creative juices. Steven Winn quotes US poet Billy Collins on this conception of boredom, saying that:
"Boredom is paradise.it is the blessed absence of what the world offers as 'interesting', i.e., the lures of fashion, media and other people, which, you may recall, Sartre considered Hell."
It is this type of boredom which is considered by some to be a lost art form. Informational overload from all quarters means that there can often be very little time for personal thought, reflection, or even just 'zoning out'. With a mobile that is constantly switched on and a plethora of entertainments available to distract the naked eye, it is understandable that some people find it difficult to actually get bored in that particular fidgety, introspective kind of way.
Yet if we look more closely at these two different ideas of boredom, it is fair to say that they are the same phenomenon witnessed from two different perspectives. To the man who lives in a constant whirl of advertising, lights, noise, pollution and general urban overstimulation, the comparative boredom of a white room or a four-hour chanting session may be the epitome of peace and clarity. On the other hand, to the frustrated teenager with limited control over his/her circumstances, living under a 'regime' of parentally enforced sensible peace and quiet, the noise, lights, stink and confusion of a rave or a commercial music festival bring joy unbounded. To say that boredom is a lost art form in this context is therefore a bit like saying "I don't have time to think anymore" or "I don't like computer games, they are distracting and noisy" — entirely subjective opinions that have nothing to do with our definition of ennui. Peach or poison is what this supposed distinction comes down to, and so one can only conclude that boredom as an art form is alive and kicking. Or rather, alive and listlessly dangling its legs.
The essential role of boredom in the creative process is part of a dialectic between activity and inactivity which characterises all human life. Perhaps best expressed in the form of the "Get out of bed today? Don't get out of bed today?" dilemma, movement between rest and thought, flurries of activity and spells of relaxation, characterises the creative process and indeed working life in general, for many people. As Graham Greene's protagonist Bendrix, from the novel "The End of the Affair" puts it:
"So much of a novelist's writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious: in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them."
Perhaps the boredom that the creative type rails against through music-making or book-writing is the most effective impetus towards work. (Except for poverty, although I suppose it could be argued that poverty is in itself a kind of boredom).
So-called 'boring' things often act as welcome release from overload of one kind or another. A plain fast after the overindulgence of the festive season, for example, or the freshness of minimalist art or music after an overload of baroque. Nowhere is this phenomenon more prevalent than in the pornography trade. After the first five minutes of visual shock, most pornography descends into the utter banality of a broken record, which perhaps explains the almost ludicrous variety of 'harder', specifically fetishistic pornographic material — the basic stuff simply doesn't cut it after a while.
Fashion matriarch Muiccia Prada acknowledges this paradox of sexual availability in a recent interview with "The Observer":
"Sometimes I think that the obsession with fashion is just about the desperation of being sexy. My young assistants come to work and they wear these amazing things. Very provocative. And they are so obsessed about being beautiful and sexy, and they are always alone. And I tell them that the more they dress for sex, the less sex they will have. It's so basic, but they don't seem to understand me."
Wise words indeed from a woman who has turned dressing like David Bowie in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' into an acceptable activity for wannabe starlets. Anyone who can sell a million brown bowling bags at £300 a pop has to know something about the subversive power of the plain and the boring in an overloaded, overstimulated market.
From a religious perspective, the capacity for handling 'boring' scenarios is seen as a powerful tool for concentrating the mind and as an aid to spiritual development. Rather than frantically attempting to escape from the fidgety numbness of one's own thoughts, the Buddhist monk and the Christian contemplative alike find strength in facing the unquiet mind, facing the lack of understanding and ultimate fear of death which drives the mind so frantic in the quieter moments of life. As Michael Raposa, author of 'Boredom and the Religious Imagination' points out:
"Trying or even excruciating as it may be, boredom offers an elevated awareness of time's conquering, expansive enormity. It's an intimation of death, a glimpse into the nothingness that lurks behind and threatens each person, each project, each moment."
So, the state of boredom has a role not just as a dialectical opposition to the state of creative activity, but also as an entity to be explored in search of a deeper understanding of thought and fear.
Reports of the death of boredom, then, have been greatly exaggerated. But before we all run off to buy Steve Reich records and grey woolly jumpers, it is perhaps best to remember that boredom's value is as part of a dialectic between activity and inactivity. A potential spur for the creative impulse, excessive boredom can also drive us barmy if not acted upon quickly enough. On that note, I shall leave you with words of the US president George Bush:
"What's wrong with being a boring kind of a guy?"
Potentially, George, one hell of a lot.