A Brief Defense of Boredom
What boredom means, on Voltaire and tedium.
Martin in particular concluded that man was born to live either in the convulsions of misery, or in the lethargy of boredom.
- Voltaire, Candide
This piece is perhaps an indulgence, but it is also a reflection on an experience I suspect I am not alone in having, coming out of lockdown and the ineffable and impossible to define new normal. An experience of being too much in haste, distracting myself. Nor is the experience unrelated to the subject of writing and editing, because that way of being, distracted, is not conducive to the kind of work I most enjoy: penning fiction, something I have not done in a while.
I miss boredom. A strange thing to say. Lars Svendsen in A Philosophy of Boredom argues that it is an essentially modern thing. He contends that Romanticism (including under the guise of Existentialism) ideologically characterises the present epoch and its tensions, coalesced in boredom as a basically Romantic problem to do with how we consider time. (That is, despite having some premodern theological antecedents.) Its an involved and subtle thesis I won’t explicate fully (I do recommend his book though), but missing boredom when it is so historically omnipresent, and so disliked, is certainly a peculiar admission.
And perhaps it is not even the correct one. I do not miss the frustration of boredom, after all. But rather, the attendant sense of protracted time, of more time than can be easily filled up with relentless activity. Voltaire’s conception of boredom as existing in a necessary pairing with misery is, Svendsen would insist, quite a modern way of looking at the world. Marxists should agree; that is, given the historicity of our perspective, we should be inclined to insist that Voltaire is naturalising the historical condition of alienation (or estrangement) in his ahistorical coupling of misery and boredom. And indeed many Marxist have pointed to that reading of boredom more generally.
In both the Freudian and Marxist traditions … ‘boredom’ is taken not so much as an objective property of things and works but rather as a reason to the blockage of energies (whether those be grasped in terms of desire or of praxis).
- Elizabeth S. Goodstein, quoted in Boredom (ed, Tom McDonough)
Boredom here is not the problem, then. It is, rather, for Svendsen as for Goodstein’s Marxists and Freudians, a symptom. And symptoms are useful, they point to problems. Misery, however, is maybe not a symptom. Misery is the problem. The lethargy of boredom is a deep lack, and that lack is often experienced directly as misery. But confronted in that form, in the form of anxiety and pain, misery is incomprehensible and overwhelming. Boredom can also be experienced as a certain estrangement at a useful remove from pain.
What if it is only by understanding boredom that we can understand the very historically rooted misery Voltaire mentions? In the harmful relationships to time class society’s inculcate in us. And what if the tilting back and forth between these conditions, rather than an inevitable human state, is the result of a historical estrangement that can in fact be overcome? Marxists are cautious, rightly, at predicting the kinds of subjectivities possible in future post-class social forms.
Such a transition to a post-class society with material plenty would make the movement from the premodern to the modern world seem inconsequential, and we would not expect a late medieval mind to grasp the twenty-first century. However, even if Marxists are right to be cautious at making exact predictions, we should be ambitious in charting the scale of likely change, even to our very subjectivity. And we should be precisely because of the unprecedented nature of the changes we propose.
Ernst Bloch’s careful charting of a futural psychology contends that regret is ‘a feeling that persists in the bourgeois world’, bound up to a backwards-looking consciousness, trapped in just that cycle of pain and tedium Voltaire evokes. He gives some historical specificity to Voltaire’s dyad. But he also endeavors to argue that thought, the most human activity, is always projected in the other direction, forward. ‘Thinking means venturing beyond’. He therefore does not see the cycle of tedium and boredom as inevitable, and argues eloquently that it is not.
Lately, I have not personally taken enough advantage of the remove provided by boredom. It is a useful way to deal with estrangement. Bored time is slow, it allows us a pause, even if it is a difficult and fraught one. Estranged time is so overwrought it is barely experienced as time at all. It is a departure from time as just one thing to the next, time counted in tasks. This is not even clock time, chronos, which is often how bored time is experienced; a counting of time’s endless, meaningless passage. And not even being that much, estranged time is as far from meaningful time as it is possible to be.
Chronos is the ticking of seconds on a clock, chronological. But kairos is ‘the right time’; it is ripeness, the moment of truth.
- Jan Fortune, Writing Down Deep
It is not at all a bad thing to have too much time. I have given myself too few moments to pause, avoided just sitting and doing nothing. Failed to create gaps in the day in which that can happen. That is, to experience estrangement from a distance, to study lethargy, and to come away from that study with the right time, with a moment of truth. This, I feel, is needed to create anything, to do anything outside of a mechanised routine. The truth of the understanding revealed by boredom is the stuff of art, at least so long as we are estranged. The denial of even the possibility of such an experience to many is a great injustice.
Boredom, after all, is not the problem, but perhaps it can be an uncovering of the problem.
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