Just Above Sunset
March 20, 2005 - Another Invention from the Eighteenth Century?

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Back in the seventies when the editor of Just Above Sunset was an English teacher at a private school for the children of the rich or otherwise successful – those kids stopping on their way to the Ivy League – now and then one would protest, “I don’t want to read Shakespeare – he’s boring!”  Sometimes it was Dickens, or Homer, or whatever was long and complex.  I would always reply, “No, this is not inherently boring – things are not boring in and of themselves - and what you are really saying is you are bored.”  The idea was the issue was not in the nature of the text at hand, but the reaction of the reader.  What some find boring others do not.  What to make of that?  The kid usually just looked at me, dumbfounded.  I must have been a really irritating teacher.


Still, boredom has at times fascinated me, when I think of it – usually when I’m bored.  So what is it?


If we are to believe the research from the University of Chicago Press here Schopenhauer describes boredom as a "tame longing without any particular object" and Dostoevsky calls it "a bestial and indefinable affliction" - and Joseph Brodsky calls it "time's invasion of your world system."  Yes, no one is really sure what Brodsky meant by that.  But it sure is clever, isn’t it?


All this came to mind as in this last week there have been a number of reviews of a new book on the whole matter of boredom.  Really! 


A Philosophy of Boredom
Lars Fredrik Svendsen; translation by John Irons - Reaktion Books, 192 pages
ISBN 1861892179  Paper CUSA $24.95  UK 14.95 


Now you might not run out and buy this book, as it could be in and of itself boring, or, more precisely, you are bored by the whole topic.  But according to Tom Hodgkinson in his review in the New Statesman it does contain some fascinating information.


No, to be more precise, Hodgkinson was fascinated – and you may not be.  The idea he finds interesting is that boredom is a fairly recent concept -


… I was fascinated to learn that boredom was invented in 1760; the word is not found in English prior to this, though related concepts such as melancholy and acedia did exist.  Acedia is from the Greek akedia, meaning "not to care".  Usually translated as sloth, it meant not so much laziness as a betrayal of your duty to observe God.  The monk who gave up, who didn't care, was committing possibly the most grievous sin of all, because not caring about God implied not caring about being lustful, avaricious or proud.

Svendsen does not really go into the historical circumstances surrounding the emergence of boredom.  The date 1760 is surely tremendously significant, because it connects the beginning of boredom with the beginning of the industrial revolution.  It was in 1764 that James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny and James Watt invented the steam engine.  These two dastardly machines - Blake's "cogs tyrannic" - tore the peasant from his creative self-sufficiency and substituted machine-work for handiwork.

Work in the 19th century duly became unbelievably boring and tedious, and has remained so ever since. 


Ah, what to make of that?  Boredom came into being – at least as a precise term – just about the time craftsmen starting disappearing and factory work emerged, and when, one presumes, large bureaucratic organizations were formed for getting big things done.  The self-employed and self-directed craftsman had no use for such a term, as he (or she) was, essentially, never bored?  Questionable, put perhaps so.  And the cartoon character Dilbert toiling away in the bowels of the never-named large corporation is then the apotheosis of the new “bored man” – except when he is dumbfounded (much different form being bored) by the random madness of the organization in which he find himself, working for the dim pointy-haired boss and abused by the evil HR cat. 


Note also Svendsen says the term boredom was invented, or so it seems, to differentiate boredom from laziness (sloth).  Two different things.  Anyone of us can attest it is quite possible to work hard, with extreme diligence, and simultaneously be bored to tears.  Happens all the time.  Yes, much different.


Hodgkinson in his review also points out that modern consumerism “provides an arsenal of weapons to alleviate boredom.”  He mentions that advertisements for Virgin Megastores explicitly claim that their products will make you less bored.  And if you’re bored and switch on your television you will find, on this side of the pond, lots of similar advertising.  And Hodgkinson also adds that “we seek solace from the tedium of toil in manufactured entertainment, and fill our leisure time with ever more lunatic activities (extreme sports spring to mind).” 


Well, we do.  We cannot be bored, or boring.  That’s important to us.  (Thus this website.)  Who wants to be called boring?  And who wants to be bored?


And that bring up the opposite concept – to be interesting or find something interesting.  And that also seems to be an invention from the same period.


I was also fascinated to learn that the concept of "interesting" emerged at roughly the same time.  Before 1760, we neither categorised [sic] things as being "boring" nor "interesting"; they just were.  Perhaps the concept of individualism was not sufficiently developed for man to presume to judge one way or the other.  For me, however, this splitting mirrors the modern division between "work" and "leisure".  Before the industrial revolution, as E P Thompson argues in The Making of the English Working Class, work and leisure were much more intertwined.


Ah, work is the problem.  The rise of that concept – work and career and all that goes with it – led us to this pretty pass.


And that leads to blaming capitalism for it all.  Really.


At one point, Svendsen quotes Karl Rosenkranz, who wrote in 1853: "The boring is ugly, or rather: Ugliness to the point of the dead, empty tautological awakens a feeling of boredom in us."  But he does not then, like William Morris, relate the rise of ugliness to the rise of capitalism.  It is surely the inexorable progress of capitalism towards an ideal of quantity rather than quality that leads to its stifling homogeneity, ugliness and boredom.  To become less bored, shouldn't we attempt to reclaim our lives from work, and live them freely and creatively?


Yes, of course we should attempt to reclaim our lives from work, and live them freely and creatively.  But you have to pay the bills.


Harry Mount in the Telegraph (UK) has a slightly different take (here with registration and here for free) -


Boredom can literally kill you, according to a book published this week.


Norwegian professor Lars Svendsen wrote A Philosophy of Boredom after a friend killed himself out of boredom. The book shows how boredom, or the escape from it, is a greater incitement to action than excitement.


People get drunk out of boredom; people give up reading newspaper articles such as this out of boredom; people have unwise sexual encounters out of boredom. But the dreadful thing is that even sex ends up boring, according to Professor Svendsen.


He says there is a psychological term for it: taedium sexualitatis. Humans seem to be unfairly picked out for boredom, as we are for drunkenness and suicide. Animals, studies apparently show, can be understimulated but not bored. Even worse, modern humans seem to be particularly prey to boredom.


Ah, what are we to do?  What a fate….


But Mount also gives us details of categorization -


… Nowadays, it is hard to think of a time when one is not subject to at least one of the four types of boredom that Professor Svendsen comes up with.


They are: boredom of situation, such as being on a train without a book; boredom of satiety, when you have too much; existential boredom, where you've just had enough; and creative boredom, when you're forced to come up with something new, such as an interesting newspaper article.


So I’ll stop now, as this is boring, or I am bored, or perhaps you are bored.  For you it probably the second category.  For me it is, of course, the fourth.



Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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