A short screed against boredom

I don’t know where @LeeRourke was yesterday when he tweeted ‘Photographs of writers’ rooms are boring.’ but I know where I was when I read it. I was on the train, absolutely the best place for Twitter – and the worst. (I wonder how many of those quickly-regretted footballer tweets we’re continually reading about are made on the coach home after the match, adrenaline still pumping, forced to sit still?)

I joined in the enjoyable flurry of tweets which followed, and which included, from @badaude, ‘boring is best’ and, again from Rourke, ‘I heart boring :-)’. Which were perhaps meant, if not exactly ironically, then at least lightheartedly. But they still got my goat.

Boring is not good. Boredom is the enemy, and I get antsy when I see it raised up as some kind of goal in life.

It is a very modern theme. Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, was blurbed as “a shocking tale about… boredom”, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, too, takes boredom as one of its subjects, with its now, I suppose, famous quote:

It turns out that bliss –a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

Then there’s the Boring Conference, which last year gave us talks on hand dryers, public toilets, health and safety, and the organisation of supermarkets. All of which are, yes, ‘boring’ subjects, but all that tells us is that an interesting person can make trivia interesting. (Boring Conference = Hipster QI?)

The problem with boredom is that although at first glance it seems monolithic, describing one state, in fact it is used to for all manner of very different things. Hand dryers may be a ‘boring’ subject, but when a teenager mopes about the house, saying, ‘I’m booored’, is that the same thing? No.

Boredom is experiential. It is an emotional state, not an external predicate. The bored teenager is bored because they can’t do what they want, or don’t know what they want to do. They are frustrated. And true boredom surely includes an element of frustration (remember the French term, ennuyant, means both ‘boring’ and ‘annoying’). And the one thing in the world that it is impossible to enjoy is frustration.

What Rourke describes in The Canal is closer to anomie, or perhaps accidie, than boredom, in which his character becomes disaffected, disassociated from social norms, and slips happily off the radar to drift in the open-ended monotony of the unlived life. He achieves, almost without realising it, that quasi-Buddhist bliss of which Wallace wrote.

There is no indication that Bartleby, in Melville’s story, is bored.

Boredom is never a choice. If you choose it, it’s not boredom.

If you purposely go to dentists’ waiting rooms to leaf through old copies of the Mail on Sunday Magazine, while the second hand drags itself around the clockface, then that is not boredom. (And god knows, we’ve all wanted to do that at some time in our life.) It is something like quietude.

I’ve been known to do Suduko – the most pointless activity known to man – but only when I’m tired, and my brain close to overload, unable to process the babble of data the world throws at it. I choose something that, most of the time, I would consider utterly tedious, but when I choose it, it’s not.

Suduko, and the Mail on Sunday Magazine, in these instances, are ways to step out of time.

Boredom is the enforced marching in step with time, at time’s own pace.

Rourke, in The Guardian, chose his top ten books about boredom, and I’m thrilled to see some of my favourite books in there (Homo Faber: such a great novel; The Book of Disquiet: a book to set against The Pale King:

The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.

And I’m thrilled too, to see, books I’ve recently bought but haven’t started: Michael Bracewell’s Present Tense, and Jon Fosse’s Melancholy).

But what these books depict isn’t what I think of boredom.

Boredom has got caught up in ideas of existential rebellion, of rejection of what society calls ‘interesting’, and in literature that slides into the canonisation of anti-heroes, like Mersault, and the narrator of Houellebecq’s Extension de la Domaine de la Lutte, who personify our hatred of the mediocrity around us, but whose lives, when it comes down to it, we would most of us rather not live.

In fact, on reflection, there is one literary character who truly embraces boredom as I understand it – and seeing as I’ve just argued that this is a logically impossible stance to take, it’s just as well that this is in that greatest of all books of paradoxes, Catch-22: Yossarian’s friend Dunbar, who actively seeks out boring activities because they make time go slow, and so extend his life. No hip anomie, no grey bliss, just the statistician’s bald assertion that every second of frustration and agony is worth two of joy. (Remember the German term langweilig, literally longlasting – but somehow giving that sense of experience, that something is not longlasting from the outside, but from the inside.*)

This has gone on long enough.

(*Does that make  Kurt Weil the least boring person in the history of the world?)

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