Boredom In The Modern Age
"Man is bored not only when there is nothing to do, but also when there is too much, or when everything waiting to be done has lost its luster." -- Geoffrey Clive
"...how ruinous boredom is for humanity...Boredom is the root of all evil." -- Soren Kierkegaard
"...the feeling of boredom originates...in a sense of the absurdity of a reality which is insufficient, or anyhow unable to convince me of its effective existence."
-- Alberto Moravia, The Empty Canvas
"It grieved and hurt him to think that he was undeveloped, that his spiritual forces had stopped growing...he felt as though a heavy stone had been thrown on to the narrow and pitiful path of his existence...Something hindered him from flinging himself into the arena of life and using his will and intellect to go full speed forward. It was as though some secret enemy had laid a heavy hand on him."
-- Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
"There is no center round which [society] revolves, there is nothing deep, nothing vital. All these society people are dead men, men fast asleep, they are worse than I am! What is their aim in life?...all their life they are asleep as they sit there...they are bored."
-- Goncharov, Oblomov
The passages above and throughout most of this article have been excerpted from Sean Desmond Healy's rich historical study of boredom, Boredom, Self, And Culture (Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 1984). Healy's thesis is that boredom ceased being a rare, relatively harmless affliction some three centuries ago and since then has grown in severity and intensity, hounding all peoples but particularly western culture at large. The aim here is not to recapitulate Healy's argument or offer a critical assessment of it but to present a few ideas both about the nature of boredom and its possible causes:
Gustave Flaubert, Healy tells us, was the first "to distinguish explicitly between what one might call 'simple' boredom (ennui commun, banal) and 'hyperboredom,' what he styles 'modern boredom'."
The distinction, Healy says, is "between feelings of tedium that are at least in principle conscious responses to specific irritants that tend to goad one into escape ('simple' boredom), and a deep-seated agony...which is brought on by an all-inclusive, persisting perception of what is taken to be one's existential situation ('hyperboredom'). In the simple type, there is a temporary discomfort in the midst of an existence that is usually congenial, or at least possessed of meaning; in hyperboredom, there is a more or less complete withholding of assent to existence, positively or negatively. The former one might liken to seasickness: acutely distressing and all-encompassing while the cause persists, almost immediately and quite harmlessly ended with the removal of the cause. The latter would be comparable to an agonizing and chronically painful disease, possibly incurable, in some cases ending in death." (Healy, p.28)
It is "hyperboredom" that philosophers such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and many other thinkers have in mind when they analyze boredom; that is to say, they are concerned with chronic, deep-seated boredom rather than occasional bouts of boredom linked to a specific, identifiable cause.
With hyperboredom, Healy says, the issue is not "merely that people at a particular time lack a sense of purpose and drift around in a state of psychic doldrums waiting for a wind to come up to give them propulsion toward a destination that they themselves cannot identify, but that nonetheless exists." The issue, rather, is "the whole question of the point of human existence. Possible destinations and objectives abound, but that very fact seems to cast doubt on the primacy of any, and even on the validity of all, giving rise to what Karl Mannheim called 'the crisis in valuation,' arising from the 'chaos of competing and unreconciled valuations.'" (Healy, pp. 74-75)
"...boredom is the equivalent not of nonhunger, but of antihunger, indeed of a revulsion against the very idea of eating, a psychic anorexia. To many an Irishman, pasta does not mean food and is actively distasteful, while to Neapolitans in general, potatoes do not count as part of a meal (a real meal, at any rate) and are no less lacking in appeal. Upon a little reflection, it is not difficult to recognize that 'taste' and 'distaste' for particular foods are not qualities that inhere in the foodstuffs themselves; they are qualities projected upon them by individuals and groups.
"So it is with interest and with its opposite, boredom...Each individual will have a distaste for this, that, or the other food, and each may be bored by something different. However, just as an involuntary distaste for all food whatsoever is a certain sign of disorder, since appetite is a natural and obviously essential aspect of being human (or even animal), so would boredom with things in general, for to seek out and to attribute meaning to people, objects, relationships, processes, and states are human characteristics, all the more remarkable for being largely limited to the species.
"Because they have no intrinsic meaning or interest by and in themselves, things are boring. It is to this emptiness of things that Walker Percy is pointing when he writes of the landscape through which a commuter in New Jersey passes for the thousandth time that it 'has all the traits of the en soi, it is dense, sodden, impenetrable, and full of itself; it is exactly what it is, no more, no less, and as such it is boring in the original sense of the word.' It seems to be a source of active irritation for human beings to be confronted by what has no meaning or interest for them, to the extent that they may respond like the infant in the high chair who has something distasteful put on his plate..." (Healy, pp.60-61)
The problem of boredom -- or hyperboredom -- can become so severe that nothing brings relief. "The problem," Healy observes, "then becomes not just the absence of a desired outlet for an impulse, or the presence of undesired ones, as in the 'normal' state, but the nagging desire for something, the nature of which is forever hidden." (p.48)
Healy quotes the Freudian analyst Ralph Greenson:
At the behest of the superego, certain instinctual aims and/or objects have to be repressed. This step results in a feeling of tension. At this point, if the ego has to inhibit fantasies and thought derivatives of these impulses because they are also too threatening, we have as a consequence a feeling of emptiness...as a kind of hunger...since the individual does not know for what he is hungry, he now turns to the external world with the hope that it will provide the missing aim and/or object. I believe that it is this state of affairs which is characteristic for all boredom. (p.49)
"A particular application of this theory," Healy continues, "is made by Leites in his analysis of Mersault, the central character of Camus' novel, The Stranger. The hero is in the grip of such profound boredom that his behavior has moved into a state referred to by Leites as 'affectlessness,' the result of an indifference so great that to the magistrate's inquiry whether he regrets the murder he has committed he answers that 'what I felt was less regret than a vague boredom'...The text abounds in numbed expressions of indifference...In the Freudian perspective, it is not actually boredom from which Mersault is suffering, but depersonalization, a state described by Edward Bibring as one in which people complain of 'not having any feelings, of being blocked emotionally, being frozen, of feeling the self to be unreal, in a word, apathy.' He puts apathy, boredom, and depression in the same category, insofar as all are 'affective states and states of mental inhibition.' In depression, so much energy is needed to inhibit the aggressive (but forbidden) drive that the whole organism is drained of vitality. In boredom, the drive remains energetic but, as it were, anonymous, so that while its effect is felt, it cannot be gratified because its real objective, being forbidden and repressed, forever eludes identification...
"Dino, the leading character in The Empty Canvas, is a good example of 'Freudian' boredom at work. He is portrayed as subject to a radical, boredom-producing, ambivalence -- one that comes out in his relations with his mistress, whose image overlaps equivocally with that of his mother. Going through his mind as he waits for his mistress to appear is the thought that
out of that door...would soon issue something which I desired at the same time to know and not to know, something for which I felt at the same time both appetite and disgust -- Cecilia, or in other words, reality.
"'Appetite' stands for the oedipal desire that must be repressed; 'disgust,' for the emotion that powers the repression barring the way to the forbidden consummation. This love/hate relationship with reality is a note that is struck at the very beginning of the novel and is linked throughout with boredom...Moravia [the author of The Empty Canvas -- ed.] makes it clear later on that 'reality' is exactly what boredom is a shield against: 'Boredom is the suspension of all relationship with reality.' Even the suffering of boredom is preferable to the reality that has been repressed. If he finds anyone he loves, he must reject her: 'I wanted to become bored with Cecilia.' Reality (that is to say, truth) must be denied because it is too horrible, and reality is therefore attenuated by repression. This explains why Dino considers that 'the feeling of boredom originates...in a sense of the absurdity of a reality which is insufficient, or anyone unable to convince me of its effective existence.'
"In Freudian terms, boredom is contingent, the result of a repression that bars the way to the discharge of tension, of a return to the nonpleasurable noninterest of the real and desirable emptiness; one is, in Milton's words, 'calm of mind, all passion spent.'" (Healy, pp.48-50)
2. Boredom is not just a subjective state. "A mood assails us. It comes from neither 'inside' nor 'outside,' but arises out of Being-in-the-world, as a way of such Being" (Heidegger).
"Since man's being," Healy notes, "is simply unthinkable apart from his Being-in-the-world (or put another way, since man and the world are not independently specifiable), boredom and all other profound moods are not just 'subjective states,' contingent feelings telling one solely about an internality. Naturally, if we are detached, thinking substances, our mood must be on the subect side of the assumed subject/object dichotomy, but in that case we are left without any explanation of the source of what Heidegger calls 'real boredom,' to distinguish it from a situation in which it is a particular something -- a book, a movie, a person -- that, as he says, 'merely bores us.' If it is not this object or that activity which can be identified as the source of our experience of measureless, indefinite indifference, then what is the datum that gives rise to it? Is there in fact any such datum, or is the very quest based on a premise that diverts one from the true origin?" (Healy, p.64)
Healy takes the Heideggerian view that the self/world dichotomy is untenable: to gain insight into the prevalence of boredom over the last few centuries one has to turn a reflective eye to Being itself. For Heidegger, there has been a gradual "darkening of the world" over time. The human mind, he contends, has turned its attention away from theoretical insight and a philosophical understanding of life toward a more specialized, technized, engineering kind of knowledge. How-to questions -- how to do this or make that -- have superseded why and wherefore questions, and inquiry generally has lost the dimension of mystery and of the sublime. Quotidian tasks require inventiveness rather than wisdom; managers, technicians, and engineers populate and govern the world rather than poets and philosophers. Societies while away time collecting gadgets, proliferating technologies, and being ceaselessly busy. As Marjorie Grene observes in an article on Heidegger, "We are more concerned with beings, from genes to space ships, than with our true calling, which is to be shepherds and watchers of Being. So it is that we are lost, and Being itself has become a haze and an error -- nothing."
Healy notes that in the last couple hundred years there has been a process "first of dedivinizing man, then of dehumanizing things, and finally of derealizing things." (p.69) Objects have been "to a considerable degree stripped of their humanized, domesticated quality." There is no longer a spiritual or intimate connection with our surroundings. He offers a fine passage from one of Rainer Maria Rilke's letters:
Even for our grandparents a "House," a "Well," a familiar tower, their very dress, their cloak, was infinitely more, infinitely more intimate: almost everything a vessel in which they found and stored humanity. Now there came crowding over from America empty, indifferent things, pseudo-things, dummy-life...A house, in the American understanding, an American apple or vine, has nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into which the hope and meditation of our forefathers had entered. The animated, experienced things that share our lives are coming to an end and cannot be replaced.
And not only "animated, experienced things" but meaning too: in a world in which the overarching societal concern is merely to keep producing and consuming and selling things, in which products are just as easily discarded as they are made, in which objects of all kinds are present at hand without any apparent raison d'etre, in which all questions of value -- and thus of Being -- have been renounced, then the conditions have been laid for the onset of an irremediable acedia and ennui. The question, Heidegger said, "is upon us in boredom, when we are equally removed from despair and joy, and everything about us seems so hopelessly commonplace that we no longer care whether anything is, or is not."
Joseph Campbell once remarked that it is not a meaning that we seek in life but "an experience of being alive," that is, "experiences on the purely physical plane that will have resonances within our innermost being and reality." The bored state might arise when no such resonances exist for a protracted period of time, when one's environment feels more dead than alive, more remote than near.
Faces, locales, and objects can give off a bloodless vibe and even strike somebody as not being substantially real. Stucco-suburban houses; vacant city blocks; plastic TV personalities; advertising-saturated broadcasts; the aloofness of strangers; chain-store-lined streets; hideous strip malls; communication striking the eye or ear as one interminable sales pitch; screens and monitors in public places transmitting an endless stream of noise and visual distractions -- all such contemporary things bespeak a certain absence, an absence of presence, an absence of what Martin Buber described as an I-thou relation. The world comes at us rapidly, unrelentingly, but at the same time from afar: there is violence but no contact, impulses and sensations but no encounter with the individual soul.
In the film Eraserhead David Lynch offers a chilling illustration of a world without vibrancy and relatedness. We see an odd-looking man with a bizarre haircut amble about streets that are lifeless and gray. Nobody is around. People are missing. Buildings look drab and dreary. We hear sounds of machines running, and it is not clear what these machines are doing or what connection to life they have. The atmosphere inside the man's apartment building is sterile; the only neighbor we see is a woman with the eyes of a gorgon, an eerie and distant figure. There is very little conversation between the man and his wife, between him and his in-laws; the longest conversation occurs when his mother-in-law is scolding him for having gotten her daughter pregnant. And to top it off, his baby, born prematurely, is a grotesque creature who cries and screams all the time, preventing him from sleep and testing his sanity. What Lynch shows us is a world without any animating principle, any elan or relevance or love, bodies without a spirit. A more striking depiction of nothingness is hard to imagine, yet the film's poignancy lies in the suggestion that this is not merely parody or noir but a grueling reflection of our own life-situation.
Andre Breton, in his Manifesto of Surrealism, bemoaned the matter-of-fact, realist, positivist approach to thinking that he traced back to Aquinas and which he saw running all the way through twentieth-century literature, journalism, and scholarship. “Under the pretense of civilization and progress,” he wrote, “we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices.” Breton was put off by endless descriptions of scenes and characters in novels and plays, by stock phrases and ready-made points of view. The realistic attitude, he said, "clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity, a dog’s life."
Other thinkers have criticized the modern educational system for being arid, lifeless, and unambitious, for prizing a sterilized, specialized learning over a more spirited engagement with the world. This is how Aldous Huxley summed it up in The Doors of Perception:
Literary or scientific, liberal or specialist, all our education is predominantly verbal and therefore fails to accomplish what it is supposed to do. Instead of transforming children into fully developed adults, it turns out students of the natural sciences who are completely unaware of Nature as the primary fact of experience, it inflicts upon the world students of the humanities who know nothing of humanity, their own or anyone else's...There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: who influenced whom to say what when?...A catalogue, a bibliography, a definitive edition of a third-rate versifier's ipsissima verba, a stupendous index to end all indexes -- any genuinely Alexandrian project is sure of approval and financial support. But when it comes to finding out how you and I...may become more perceptive, more intensely aware of inward and outward reality, more open to the Spirit...when it comes to any form of non-verbal education more fundamental (and more likely to be of some practical use) than swedish drill, no really respectable university or church will do anything about it.
Nietzsche registers a similar protest in Zarathustra:
For this is the truth: I have moved from the house of the scholars and I even banged the door behind me. My soul sat hungry at their table too long; I am not, like them, trained to pursue knowledge as if it were nutcracking. I love freedom and the air over the fresh earth; rather would I sleep on ox hides than on their decorums and respectabilities.
most experiences, perhaps, it can be said that there are stages of
feeling and vitality through which the experiencer passes, and usually
it is in the direction of exhaustion and depletion, and after that, of
A child's first experience with baseball is engaging and replete: the smell of grass, the feel of a mitt on his hand, hitting and catching the ball, running around the bases, belonging to a team, winning and losing, keeping track of game scores and statistics -- all absorbs his attention and being for a while; all is new, a curiosity, pristine. After so many months and years familiarity sets in. Something of the original experiencing and feeling is lost. And many years after that, the game becomes an abstract noun, a mere concept, something shorn of vitality, something that no longer speaks to the person’s depths. The novelist Thomas Bernhard describes this dulling process as a “tormenting reference mechanism”:
As you get older, thinking becomes a tormenting reference mechanism. No merit to it. I say 'tree,' and I see huge forests. I say 'river,' and I see every river. I say 'house,' and I see cities with their seas of roofs. I say 'snow,' and I see oceans of it. A thought sets off the whole thing.
With the accumlation of so many experiences in which keen interest gives way invariably to exhaustion, a person can come to grow suspicous of all experiencing. Every new activity, however different from the preceding ones, will be seen in light of the transition from enthusiasm to spiritlessness, from engagement to disengagement, and the worth or value of the activity will be judged according to how it ends, not by the sporadic joy it might bring.
rational, calculating mind ends up getting the upper hand on volition:
the latter follows the orders of the former; a person finds it difficult
simply to let go and give in to experience. It may be precisely at this
point that hyperboredom, or chronic boredom -- acedia, affectlessness,
anhedonia, ennui -- sets in, and a person feels utterly frozen in place.
The prognosis is not good, Healy suggests (pp.111-112):
In seeking to reinstate meaning and to eliminate hyperboredom, man is thus up against a twofold difficulty: he cannot, on the one hand, depend for guidance about the nature of reality on anything in his own culture, befuddled as he is by a plethora of guides (and Guides) who clamor for his acceptance; and on the other, such doubts have been cast on the possibility of discerning it through introspection that the individual lacks any real confidence in the existence of any reality at all beyond that which appears to present itself to his senses, the reliability of which has also been progressively undermined. There is additionally the fact that man is to an unknown, but certainly large, extent the creator of the very 'reality' that he generally supposes himself merely to be observing and recording, which gives rise to the fundamentally subversive suspicion that it may be, as Auden wrote, that 'mirror in mirror, mirrored is all the show.'
(ed. by Tim Ruggiero, 4/8/11)