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Friday 30 March 2012

So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away


So the Wind Won't Blow it all AwayThere are only two authors whose complete published works I’ve read: Samuel Beckett and Richard Brautigan. By ‘complete’ I mean of course those that are still generally available. And I would also have to exclude works of non-fiction. Those scraps aside I’ve read everything else and certainly every major work, in most cases several times. And most of what I’ve read I own, although, strictly speaking, my wife does own some of the Brautigan which if she dies before me I fully expect to inherit. All I’m saying is that I’ve got dibs on it.

I first came across Richard Brautigan in Saltcoats about twenty years ago in an Ayrshire Cancer Support charity shop on Chapelwell Street. I mean his books and not the man since he’d been dead about seven years by then. I can’t be more precise and a greater degree of precision wouldn’t alter the basic facts. I found four novels by him and purchased three of them purely because I liked the covers, all of which featured a photo of him; I’d never heard of him before that day. The three I bought were In Watermelon Sugar, Willard and his Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery and The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. They were the Picador editions from the seventies. Since then I’ve bought A Confederate General From Big Sur in that edition but I don’t think that was the fourth book. I remember it as Trout Fishing in America but who’s to say I’m remembering correctly? I probably paid less than a pound for all three. Why I didn’t take all four I can’t tell you. Perhaps the cover to the fourth paperback was damaged. Suffice to say whatever book it was I’ve now acquired a copy and read it.

The fourth-to-last book I read by him was So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away. After that I read my own copy of An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey and then Steve Kane lent me his omnibus edition which contained Dreaming of Babylon: A Detective Novel 1942 and The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Romance along with a third novel I’d already read. Those were the last two books I needed to read to be able to say that I’d read all his novels, short stories and poems taking into account the provisos mentioned in my second paragraph.

I’ve just reread So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away. I expect I’ll read it again before I die. In fact I expect I’ll reread all his books before I die (unless I die sooner than expected) although I might not reread Dreaming of Babylon and The Hawkline Monster because I’d have to locate fresh copies to do so. But you never know. It kinda bothers me that I don’t own all his novels.

When So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away was published it was not exactly an occasion. It sold but only a modest 15,000 copies. This is what the review in Playboy opens with:

If you came of age in the late Sixties, Richard Brautigan was one of the staples in your pop-culture diet. He was the good angel on your shoulder, the counterculture's answer to Walter Cronkite. Today, we tend to greet the arrival of a new Brautigan work the way we greet the announcement of our 11th class reunion: nothing historic but nice enough if you can fit it into your calendar.[1]

Symphony No 3If I were to compare Brautigan’s book to a musical work I’d probably go with Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, a late-flowering essay suffused with a deep yearning, penetrative soulfulness and, in the finale, infectious high spirits – that’s the symphony I’m talking about here not the novel. Most of Rachmaninoff’s popular works had been written thirty years earlier and his Third Symphony is never going to be played more than his Second and Third Piano Concertos or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini of even his Prelude in C♯ Minor and that is a shame. I came to it late having listened to just about everything else he had composed and after a long break. And I suspect that will be the case for those who discover So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away eventually. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

It is unmistakably Brautigan. And I’ll be honest a little Brautigan can go a long way; he is like Beckett in that respect. His style is laconic, repetitive and expressed in the simple, straightforward language that poor people living on Welfare in any one of a thousand small towns will use happily turning nouns into verbs whenever it suits their needs. The setting in this book is a succession of dreary towns in Oregon but you could shift the action to Louisiana or South Dakota and not bat an eye.

The story is told by a forty-four-year-old man writing on 1st August 1979 looking back to when he was a boy. Most of the story concentrates on when he was twelve and thirteen but he does jump about a bit in fact the narrator’s quirky perception of time is one of the delights to this piece. The story itself – a fictionalised memoir – is quite straightforward but he tells the story as he remembers things and this necessitates leaps in time and breaks in the narrative. What he’s really doing is putting off saying what he has to say because no amount of context is going to change it or the effect what is going to happen / has happened has had / will have on his life. If you can picture a forty-four-year-old man looking back to when he was a twelve-year-old who’s looking forward to when he’ll be thirteen you’ve probably got the right kind of mindset for this book. Of course we remember things differently as we age. Here’s a good example:

[L]ooking back down upon that long-ago past now from the 1979 mountainside of this August afternoon, I think the ‘old man’ was younger than I am now. He was maybe thirty-five, nine years younger than I am now. To the marshy level of my human experience back then, he seemed to be very old, probably the equivalent of an eighty-year-old man to me now.

Also, drinking beer all the time didn’t make him look any younger.

It’s easy to read that, get the gist and pass on by but there is real poetry here; he’s describing life as a hill that we have to climb.

The ‘old man’ is just one of a number of characters that our narrator encounters between 1940 and 1948 but mostly in 1947. His days don’t amount to much, fishing in a manmade lake (created when they were building the overpass), cycling around on a bike so filthy you could no longer tell what colour it used to be or surveying his kingdom looking for beer bottles or worms – a penny apiece deposit for the bottles and the same per worm from the man who ostensibly ran the filling station but who seemed more interesting in procuring worms to sell to the fishermen who had to pass his premises on the way to fish than selling petrol. The area is surrounded by sawmills and agricultural land which the boy enjoys investigating including two “domesticated orchards that had been totally ignored, abandoned for reasons unknown and had reverted to the wild.” In one of these the apples are mostly rotten and the local boys like to go there and shoot them with their .22 rifles.

Needless to say, America has changed from those days of 1948. If you saw a twelve-year-old kid with a rifle standing in front of a filling station today, you’d call out the National Guard and probably with good provocation. The kid would be standing in the middle of a pile of bodies.

Aguila_22SSS_box_nam_lgBack in the summer of 1947 he doesn’t have any bullets for his rifle. He doesn’t even have his rifle yet. He acquires it a few months later from a fourteen-year-old boy “with a reputation as a well-known masturbator” whose parents had decided he could no longer sleep in the house:

From now on … he was to sleep out in the garage. He could take his meals in the house and bathe and go to the toilet there, but those were the only times they wanted him in there.

To make sure that he got the point of their dislike, they did not provide him with a bed when they exiled him to the garage. That’s where I come in and the gun comes in.

The boy had a .22 calibre pump rifle. I had for some unknown reason, I can’t remember why, a mattress.

Following a brief discussion on how inclement a winter it was expected to be, the exchange is made. It is the first step in a sequence that climaxes on 17th February 1948. The next link in the chain takes place on 16th February 1948, a rainy Friday afternoon as it happens. In fact our narrator interrupts the story he’s been telling us up to this point (he’s drifted back to 1947 and is awaiting the imminent arrival at his pond of an overweight husband and wife team of fishers) and the action literally freezes in his head; he can’t not tell his tale any more. No, suddenly his mind has rewound the approximately “3,983,421 hours of film” in his head and he finds himself on a street faced with a decision:

I had a friend who liked to shoot apples … but he didn’t like to go to the junkyard to practice the little decisions of destruction that a .22 rifle can provide a kid. But I couldn’t shoot anything one way or another if I didn’t have any bullets.

Some bullets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . or a burger, a burger . . . . . . . . . . . . or some bullets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . paddled back and forth in my brain like a Ping-Pong ball.

The door to the restaurant opened just then and a satisfied customer came out with a burger-pleased smile on his face. The open door also allowed a gust of burger perfume to escape right into my nose.

I took a step toward the restaurant but then I heard in my mind the sound of a .22 bullet turning a rotten apple into instant rotten apple juice. It was a lot more dramatic than eating a burger. The door to the restaurant closed escorting the smell of cooking hamburgers back inside like an usher.

What will I do?

Needless to say he makes the wrong decision. And while his story remains frozen – the story of the pond, the old men and the couple who brought their whole living room in a truck to keep them company while they fished – he finally lets us know what happened in that orchard in 1948 before returning to 1979 where he has been sitting with his “ear pressed up against the past as if it was the wall of a house that no longer exists” and where he finally gets to finish reliving the previous memory and let it run on to its end. Is it the twelve-year-old boy that the couple find waiting for them or does he house the consciousness of the man full of regret and remorse that he will become? I couldn’t say. The couple set up their living room beside the lake, begin to cook their meal and the next thing they notice he’s vanished:

‘I don’t see him anywhere.’

‘I guess he’s gone.’

‘Maybe he went home.’

Who am I to say where ‘home’ was, the past or the present? Of course they’re all past now.

IantheThese are actually the words Brautigan’s daughter, Ianthe, chose to end her memoir of her father with. “The prevailing sentiment when he died,” she wrote, “was that he was outdated and broken.”[2] There is no argument about the latter – he shot himself with a .44 in 1984 – but he was only outdated in that the society that he found himself in was starting to move away from the world of his novels – this was the world of their parents and they’d already rejected most of their values anyway and so how could they possibly connect with the books or music or films they cherished? Now thirty-odd years on we’re more secure in the society we have carved out for ourselves and are open to reassess the works of the seventies. Okay, maybe prog rock is never going to come back in a big way but there will be people out there who buy In The Court Of The Crimson King purely for the mad cover art and then go, “Wow!” when they finally think to play the ruddy thing. I think I had those Brautigan books for about three years before I actually read them, do you know that?

I was twelve in 1971. T-Rex and Slade had their first number ones. I didn’t have a .22 rifle and, if memory serves me right, my bike was blue. I probably did fire my first air pistol back then; before that it was water pistols and spud guns. Looking back on the history of that time it wasn’t that grand. The UK’s economy was in decline: there were constant strikes, the three-day week, electricity blackouts. My dad was never out of work but times were tough. And yet I do look back on that time and regret its passing because there was a lot lost back then that I don’t see us getting back. What I’m saying is that I can relate to what Brautigan’s getting at in this book. It’s not just about a mistake that a boy makes that affects the rest of his life because we all have those. We know from page one pretty much what’s going to happen. Brautigan drip feeds us details but if you’ve read the blurb on the back you’ll already know.

The book really isn’t in chapters but it is in sections and each one is divided by this:

So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away
Dust . . . American . . . Dust

in italics.

The boy first realises his own mortality when he’s five and witnesses a child-sized casket being carried from the mortuary his family then lived over and this morbid preoccupation stays with him for several years. Later he learns about a boy who is killed in a car accident which both his parents survive. And a little while after this one of three daughters, a girl of about eight dies. He never sees her die – she dies of pneumonia – but the boy witnesses loss through the disappearance of toys from once-littered lawns and porches:

Her living sisters were afraid of their own toys because they didn’t know what toys had belonged to the dead girl and they didn’t want to play with the toys of somebody who was dead. They had played so freely and intensely that they could not separate the toys of the living from the toys of the dead.

These events foreshadow the climactic event of the boy’s life, the death that marks the end of his childhood. Symbolically, Brautigan is also looking back on what he sees as America's age of innocence. The adults that he talks about – with perhaps the singular example of his mother and her obsessive fear of gas leaks – may have been impoverished but nevertheless they seemed content with simple pleasures:

In those days people made their own imagination, like homecooking. Now our dreams are just any street in America lined with franchise restaurants, I sometimes think that even our digestion is a soundtrack recorded by Hollywood by the television networks.

I can draw an English comparison: Pooh Bear. Yes, I know it’s a children’s story but it’s set in a very real childhood. There’s a scene in Brautigan’s book where the guy who looks after the filling station asks one of the boys if he wants a bottle of pop:

‘No, I’ll wait for summer,’ David said.

‘OK,’ the old man said. ‘Suit yourself.’

He went back into the filling station to wait for summer.

Is that really any different to Pooh:

Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.

That world has vanished too. As has the world of The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons. But the books remain and it’ll be a while before they turn to dust.

Although he never confirmed or denied the connection, the story was thought to be autobiographical, built on an incident that happened to Brautigan at age thirteen.

Actually, the story was created from two separate incidents. The first involved Brautigan, his best friend Pete Webster, and Pete's brother, Danny. The three were duck hunting in the Fern Ridge wetlands, near Eugene, Oregon. Brautigan was separated from the other two. Brautigan fired at a duck and a pellet from his shot struck Danny in the ear, injuring him only slightly. About the same time, Donald Husband, 14-year-old son of a prominent Eugene attorney, was shot and killed in a hunting accident off Bailey Hill Road. Brautigan's incident and that involving Husband became one in this novel (Bob Keefer and Quail Dawning 2H).[3]

Richard BrautiganIf you’ve never read Brautigan, do. If you have but you’ve never quite got round to this one, do. If you’ve already read it and it’s been a while, do read it again. No one writes like him. And if you’ve never heard Rachmaninoff’s Third well that’s worth a listen to too.





Richard Brautigan, my mum and I



[1] Playboy, October 1982, p.30
[2] Ianthe Brautigan, You Can’t Catch Death – A Daughter’s Memoir, p.viii

Sunday 25 March 2012

This is Life

this-is-life1Google Analytics says 85% of my readers will only stay here long enough to read about forty words so, for their benefit, let me cut to the chase: this is a great book—you should buy it. If only for the cover.

Now for the rest of you let me explain myself. This is the fourth book by Dan Rhodes that I’ve reviewed on this site. The other three are, in order: Gold, Timoleon Vieta Come Home and Little Hands Clapping. I have also read but not reviewed Anthropology and Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love and I own a copy of The Little White Car which he wrote under the pseudonym Danuta de Rhodes but I’ve not got round to reading it. This puts Rhodes in a rare position because there is only one other author whose collected works I own—discounting those one-hit-wonders I might have—and that is Samuel Beckett. He is certainly one of the few living authors whose books I would consider reading based purely on his name who’s not a literary novelist.

I’ve sat and looked at that last sentence for quite a while. I find I’m not altogether comfortable with it because I suspect in his heart of hearts Dan Rhodes is a literary novelist but as soon as he puts pen to paper he ends up writing funny stuff. And that tends to distract one from the fact that he’s actually quite a decent writer. In the same way that Wodehouse was arguably the finest craftsman of the English language in the 20th Century, Rhodes is without a doubt a notch or two up from your average comic novelist because at the core of each book he generally has a very serious point to make.

This is Life is a very typical Dan Rhodes book in that respect. It contains the slightly-offbeat characters we have become used to and they struggle through the same fangled plotlines we’ve become used to, all of which is resolved neatly—but not terribly neatly—at the end. The thing is, as with the other books, although you’ve spent the previous 422 pages smiling, grinning, chuckling out loud quite possibly, once you’ve read the 423rd page he wipes that smile off your face and leaves you with something to think about and I like how he does this.


So what’s the book about? Life. It’s also about Life. If there is any topic that might make a novelist—comic, literary or something-in-between—think twice before starting it would have to be squaring up to the meaning of life. Monty Python had a decent stab at it though never quite pulled it off, but what about Dan Rhodes? This is where he earns that extra notch because he manages to build up the reader’s expectations—I won’t say it was the only thing that kept me reading but it was the main thing (I wanted to see his answer to the meaning of life)—and yet he somehow manages to wriggle out of it leaving the momentum he’s created to carry the reader to his own definition. Which is what art should be all about. As Professor Papavoine says to the young art student, Aurélie Renard:

‘There are far too many words in the art world, anyway; all they do is create an unnecessary fog.’

‘So you think people shouldn’t talk about art?’

‘No, if people stop talking about it we’ll be in big trouble. We need to keep critics in business for a start. What if they all lost their jobs and had to work elsewhere? It would be chaos. Would you feel safe travelling in a train driven by a redundant arts correspondent?’

Aurélie laughed. Professor Papavoine had a knack for snapping her out of a bad mood.

‘It’s the artists themselves who need to learn to keep their mouths shut and leave all the chatter to everyone else.’

There is certainly a lot of chatter in Paris at this time, which is where the book is set. Life has come to Paris and Jean-Didier Delacroix, the chief arts correspondent for L’Univers, is looking forward to adding his not-insubstantial voice to all this babble:

[H]e, Jean-Didier Delacroix, was the only person from the entire media to have been granted access to Le Machine in the run-up to the opening of Life. This was the biggest event of the year in the art world. Everybody was talking about it, and everybody was going to want to read Jean-Didier Delacroix’s take on it. […] He had already had a long conversation with the arts editor about it, and they were in full agreement on their opinions of Le Machine. It was as much as they could do to stop themselves from rubbing their hands together and cackling with glee.

Okay, some clarification is needed. I mentioned that Aurélie is a student and her professor is Professor Papavoine who, a few days earlier, had endured the one day in the academic calendar that he found himself dreading the most:

The students had been given free rein to come up with a personal project, and it was his job to listen to their ideas and either sanction them or not.

For the most part he, despite his best efforts, zones out when they start wittering on about “recontextualising found objects, of blurring the boundary between art and the everyday, and of provoking extreme reactions. One of the students, Sébastien, [even said] something about subverting the zeitgeist.” Irrespective of what twaddle they present him he invariably nods and wishes them well in their endeavour. And that’s always been the case. With one exception some years earlier:

[One] student had proposed a project in which he would publicly collect, categorise and display everything that came out of his body over a twelve week period. A big glass vat would contain his urine, another would house his excrement, and small demijohns and specimen jars would hold snot, earwax, semen and sweat. He had planned on presenting this an exhibition called, simply, Life, during which he would be on display himself twenty-four hours a day, naked and publicly topping-up the exhibits as the weeks went by, while microphones picked up the sound of his bodily functions and a series of speakers amplified them around the room in near-deafening surround sound.

Professor Papavoine had pulled a slightly quizzical face and said he wasn’t quite sure about this idea, at which the student had turned white with rage and stormed out, vowing to leave the college, turn his back on Paris and make his name in London, which he had promptly done with this very concept.

The student has also now changed his name to Le Machine and, after much international acclaim, has decided it is time to return to his home town and face the music as it were.

Aurélie Renard is, of course, conscious of the kerfuffle concerning Life but she is ignorant of the fact that Le Machine was once a student at the same college in which she is currently enrolled and that he once sat were she found herself sitting only a few days earlier waiting to present her proposal to the good professor. She had nothing nearly as radical in mind but she is very much the exception and the Sébastiens have got her all in a tizzy. All she really wants to do is draw but she feels there needs to be an edge. And it is that edge that sets things in motion:

She told him her plans to blindly throw a dart into a map, and how the nearest suitable public space to where it landed would be the starting point of the project. Then she started saying something about small stones, and strangers, and random selection but he lost the thread.

The thread involved Aurélie chucking a pebble into the air and then basically approaching who it hits and asking them to be her art project. The one thing she had not considered—okay, there were actually many things she hadn’t considered but this is the one that makes all the difference—was what if it hit a baby? Which it does. Needless to say the mother is not happy.

‘If there is anything I can do to make it up to you and the baby,’ said Aurélie, ‘just tell me.’

‘Anything? Really?’

The next thing she knows the mother is breezing off into the distance telling her that she’d see her back there, at that very spot, at nine twenty-two the following Wednesday at which point she would collect the baby, a boy, called Herbert, from Aurélie.

Citroen-2CV-1963Once she has gathered her thoughts Aurélie texts her best friend, Sylvie Dupont, for moral support (a “gun-toting heartbreaker” according the blurb on the back of the book) and here the book’s positively Shakespearean subplot unfolds involving a 1963 Citroën 2CV, the Akiyamas, a retired Japanese couple on a week’s vacation, photographs of their two children, an “aggressive and disdainful” cat called Makoto and a Franco-Japanese translator named Lucien with a penchant for the Oriental physiognomy. Oh, and a monastery. It all gets very complicated.

Not that Aurélie’s storyline is that straightforward especially when she goes around telling her neighbours that Herbert is actually made out of rubber:

‘I know. It’s quite incredible really. It’s a wonder of modern science.’

You’d also think that being lumbered with a baby would put men off and yet, in the middle of everything, Aurélie finds herself drawn to a certain Léandre Martin and it really does look as if it’s love at first sight until the second date when he insists on holding his breath for two minutes on the dot of one o’clock:

‘I have a reason for it,’ he said, his eyes closed, ‘but it’s always been something I haven’t talked about.’

She isn’t willing to listen though and it looks as if that’s that, but by this point we’ve read the chapter which tells us why he’s holding his breath and there’s no way this character is just going to fade into the background. Just where exactly his place in Goldthis complex web is I’m not going to say but the strange thing is it’s he who holds the key to the meaning of Life if only we realised that at the time.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not my personal favourite of his books—that would go to Gold actually—but it holds its own well. At 108,000 words it’s longer than his first three books put together (and his longest to date) and that’s part of the reason I wasn’t as fond of it but regular readers will know to shrug off my personal dislike for longer texts. It was apparently written, according to his blog, “in a frenzied twelve and a half week sitting.” I mention this without passing comment but reading between the lines I get the feeling he thinks this was a good thing. The book will be available as an e-book but if you appreciate good book design you should really check out the paperback with its whopping six-panel wraparound cover (including the spine). Most impressive.


Rhodes was named one of Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists 2003, his novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home won the Authors' Club First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.

Born in 1972 he has worked in various jobs including stockroom assistant in a bookshop and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City. He says that 1980's band The Smiths are "still the soundtrack to my life—I can't work out if they saved it or ruined it"—and is, from all accounts, a huge fan of Ken Dodd.

At the moment, as far as I’m aware, he lives in Buxton with his wife and son but since his website isn’t actually maintained by him, he’s not on Facebook and has somehow managed to keep his private life pretty much offline (all credit to him in this day and age) that’s as much as I know.

You can read my other reviews of his books here:

Tuesday 20 March 2012

The tinnitus of existence (part two)


The word aerobics comes from two Greek words: aero, meaning "ability to," and bics, meaning "withstand tremendous boredom – Dave Barry

The boredom epidemic

Boredom, as we learned in part one, came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century but…

Orrin Klapp documents an enormous increase in the use of the word boredom between 1931 and 1961, calls attention to "the large vocabulary of English words connoting boredom," and hypothesises that this lexicon "not only registers the prevalence of boredom but helps create it."[1]

Modern-day boredom is another beast entirely. It attacks the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the known and the completely unknown. And it’s getting worse:

Fifty years ago, the onset of boredom might have followed a two-hour stretch of nothing to do. In contrast, boys today can feel bored after thirty seconds with nothing specific to do; the threshold has been drastically lowered.

The choices of adolescents, in particular, are prone to inverse intuition. The adolescent mind is nowadays so hyper-stimulated that the absence of stimulation — boredom — is unsettling, while the chaos of constant connection is soothingly familiar. A languishing teenager feels irritable and instinctively knows how to rev up: go online, turn on the TV, call someone, text. Continuous stimulation and communication comprise the new normal. It is a state of being that conflates sensory pleasure with happiness.[2]

Perhaps here though we “need to draw an important distinction between a constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind.”[3] No one can possibly be bored after thirty seconds. What they are doing is anticipating boredom.

[T]echnology contributes directly to boredom by bombarding us with a constant barrage of intense stimuli, habituating our brains to a high level of stimulation. When it is removed, we suffer withdrawal. We are addicted to the artificial human realm we have created with technology. Now we are condemned to maintain it.[4]

“The brain is always adjusting to new stimuli,” says Augustin de la Peña, a psychophysiologist who has studied boredom for 30 years. “Once the brain has seen something new a few times, it no longer finds it interesting. The brain’s ante for stimulation is always being upped, just as a drug addict needs larger and larger doses to get high.”[5]

It’s easy to blame the up and coming generation for the change in the world’s perception of boredom but, before we do, think on this:

It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one's time.[6]

I’m not saying that that attitude can’t be blamed on technology just not digital technology. The prevalence of labour-saving devices especially from the fifties on has inculcated in us the expectation that we can get what we want at the flick of a switch, be it the clothes washed, the dinner cooked or the kids entertained. Boredom is not the problem; boredom is a symptom of the problem.

Kids throw temper tantrums, write on walls, run around naked. They need to be told these things are wrong under most circumstances. Being unstimulated is wrong. We need constant stimulation. If we don’t get it we might become bored and bored is BAD:

A few years ago, cellphone maker Motorola even began using the word "microboredom" to describe the ever-smaller slices of free time from which new mobile technology offers an escape. "Mobisodes," two-minute long television episodes of everything from Lost to Prison Break made for the cellphone screen, are perfectly tailored for the microbored. Cellphone games are often designed to last just minutes -- simple, snack-sized diversions like Snake, solitaire, and Tetris. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook turn every mundane moment between activities into a chance to broadcast feelings and thoughts; even if it is just to triple-tap a keypad with the words "I am bored."[7]

A boring conference

Might boredom be something you’d actively seek out? If you had an opportunity to be bored would you jump at it? In 2010 many did when they learned of an event called ‘Boring 2010’:

Boring 2010Boring 2010 sprang to life when [James] Ward [who edits a blog called I Like Boring Things.] heard that an event called the Interesting Conference had been cancelled, and he sent out a joke tweet about the need to have a Boring Conference instead. He was taken aback when dozens of people responded enthusiastically.

Soon, he was hatching plans for the first-ever meet-up of the like-mindedly mundane. The first 50 tickets for Boring 2010 sold in seven minutes.[8]

Some of the talks included: ‘Like Listening to Paint Dry’ during which William Barrett listed the names of every single one of 415 colours listed in a paint catalogue; others discussed ‘The Intangible Beauty of Car Park Roofs’ and "Personal Reflections on the English Breakfast; Ward himself gave a PowerPoint presentation about his ties.

Journalist and author Naomi Alderman spoke about the difficulty of having to observe the Jewish Sabbath as a child. Her talk, ‘What It's Like to Do Almost Nothing Interesting for 25 Hours a Week,’ ended on an unexpected, touching note. "When we learn to tolerate boredom," she said, "we find out who we really are."[9]

I’m not sure I would go to a conference like this but I have listened to a guy describing the joys of watching paint dry . . . or it might have been wood warp.

Another quote from Huxley:

Your true traveller finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty – his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.[10]

I don’t usually jump to provide quotes from Yahoo! Answers but when someone asked what the above quote meant this was one of the answers:

What I think it means is that one can find pleasure in boredom because it is a luxury; you can only be bored if you have the time and freedom to do what you please. The corollary is that those who are never bored probably don't get a chance to have any time to themselves or to consider what they want to do with their time: they're too busy doing what they have to do to survive.[11]

What struck me about this is that is very much how boredom was once viewed as evidence that you were someone if you could afford to be bored. The king could be bored and be boring but woe betide you if you let on you were bored in his presence.

Boring art

Bleak HouseThe thing is there is something attractive about boredom. I’m not drawn to boredom as much as I am to sadness but I cannot pretend there is not a strong pull. Here are a few lists of boring books (according to the opinion of the authors of these lists at least): Lee Rourke's top 10 books about boredom, The Best Boring Books, The 15 most boring books, Most Boring Books of All Time (Bleak House makes that one). They are all completely subjective of course.

Why write a boring book though? I make no apology: every idea I get for a new book is boring. In my third novel almost the entire action takes place in a park and much of that simply sitting on a bench for forty years. I read a review today of With the Flow by J.K. Huysmans which is described as follows:

Huysmans' story is of a government employee battling against, and finally resigning himself to, the all-powerful ebb and flow of social forces. It describes the minutiae of misery and boredom in a day in the life of a man who – for a moment – refuses to go with the flow.[12]

and I would have ordered it there and then if I didn’t have so many unread books already. I like empty photographs and paintings – Hopper is a great favourite. I find them calming. There is enough stuff happening in my head without asking it to compete with busy pictures. I enjoy minimalist music: give me Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina over Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie any day of the week. Andy Warhol said, “I like boring things.”[13] I like boring things too as long as they don’t bore me in a negative way.

[I]n Brian O'Doherty's 1967 Object and Idea [he talks about] "high-boredom and low-boredom art." High-boredom art relies heavily on exhaustible optical effect, such as with op and Pop art. Low boredom art, the realm of artists like Donald Judd and Robert Smithson, does not force itself onto viewers and outside of the gallery. In fact, the sculptor and critic (a.k.a sculptor Patrick Ireland) writes, "It tends to fade into the environment with a modesty so extreme that it is hard not to read it as ostentatious."[14]

Samuel Beckett is boring. He would not deny it if he was alive today. Martin Amis blames him for the modern trend in “unenjoyable” novels:

It all started with Beckett, I think. It was a kind of reasonable response to the horrors of the 20th century – you know, 'No poetry after Auschwitz'.[15]

Ironically perhaps the word ‘boredom’ is not used very often in Beckett’s literary works, the main exception being in Company in which there is a long discussion regarding which position of the body is the least boring. To understand Beckett though you have to understand Beckett’s view as to what the opposite of boredom is. In his study of Proust he wrote this:

Suffering represents the omission of that duty [habit], whether through negligence or inefficiency, and boredom its adequate performance. The pendulum oscillates between these two terms: Suffering – that opens a window in the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom – with its host of top-hatted and hygienic ministers – must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.[16]

For Beckett being bored is the best it gets. Boredom is meaninglessness, ergo life, at its best, is meaningless; the rest is suffering. He wasn’t the first to come up with that idea though. Germaine de Staël is quoted as saying, “One must choose in life between boredom and suffering,” but as she died in 1817, and spoke French, I doubt she used the word ‘boredom’.

[Beckett’s] ‘theory of meaning’ is essentially this: There is no personal meaning, and all other meaning only becomes paler and paler until it is a nothing. What else is there to do than to wait or hope for a new meaning? The problem is that the waiting for meaning, for the moment, is endless. A real understanding of human existence has to be based on a fundamental absence of meaning.[17]

Didi and Gogo wait for Godot to give their lives Meaning-with-a-capital-m and extract as such meaning-with-a-small-m as they can from the process of waiting for him. So many of us look outside ourselves for meaning: to God, to relationships, to jobs, to everyday events, tasks and routines.

HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!

Did and Gogo, and Hamm and Clov, don’t lie down to boredom, not without a fight anyway. That struggle is often painful to watch – particularly in Endgame­ – but that is the point. And throughout both plays there are lulls when it looks like boredom is going to take control – transition vacuums – when, even if they don’t say the words, you know they’re thinking: What are we going to do now? We all hit these after bouts of activity. You spend four years writing a novel and then it’s done and then what are you going to do with your life? The term for this is transition boredom. The cause of the boredom is academic – it could just as easily be impatience – the sensation is always the same. Just like a drowning man will struggle against the waters that are engulfing him so a bored man will struggle to fight boredom – imagine being at a boring lecture: you sit up straight, take notes, try to stop your mind from wandering – but eventually he will enter the second phase:

In this state, all contents disappear, internal and external as well, all reality disappears, all everydayness and the man, according to Heidegger, touches pure existence. For a single moment, boredom reveals the true being, taken outside any categorical, substantial or subjective levels. Everydayness steps asunder, presenting the being itself.[18]

SSC 2007 production of End GameBeckett found Heidegger’s language “too philosophical for”[19] him. He was, after all, by his own admission “not a philosopher”[20] and so I don’t think that where we leave Didi and Gogo, at the end of Waiting for Godot, and Hamm and Clov, at the end of Endgame, is perched on a moment of insight, rather they are – metaphorically at least – unalive (in the sense used by Erich Fromm when he wrote: “[B]oredom is nothing but the experience of a paralysis of our productive powers and the sense of un-aliveness”[21]) not that, when you look at Beckett’s later plays, death necessarily means the end of suffering.

This is not so hard to grasp. People say that they have no lives when obviously they are alive and moaning at us. When we say that what we mean is that we don’t know what to do, or are unable to do, anything without lives which ties in with what Fromm said above. Think about your life as some kind of mechanism that you can hold in your hand. You can pick it up, poke around with it, take it to bits, put it back together again, but it doesn’t mean anything until you figure out what it’s purpose is or assign a purpose to it: an Enigma machine would make a perfectly good doorstop, for example.

I have talked before about how I believe meaning to be the province of the reader (or, in the case of art, the viewer). It is the responsibility of an artist or a writer to create the right conditions to enable the right reader or viewer to make contact with that meaning. Talking mainly about photography Agnė Narušytė had this to say:

The spectator’s role is crucial in the aesthetics of boredom. Only an intentional and competent spectator can penetrate the initial effects of monotony and banality and reach other, more profound, layers of meaning. Firstly, he or she has to read the signs of opposition to the tradition of representation which offers new models for understanding art. The indeterminacy of meaning encourages intuitive perception, involvement in the process of creating meaning, and tarrying in front of the work of art.[22]

A great many artists have exploited this. In fact, in 1949, John Cage made it an imperative:

The responsibility of the artist consists in perfecting his work so that it may become attractively disinteresting.[23] (italics mine)

So, if something is not interesting, if it does not hold our interest, does it mean it’s boring?

Unfortunately, interest is a short-lived phenomenon. It is quickly exhausted. The interesting becomes boring. As soon as it is no longer topical, as soon as the brief, orgasmic instant during which it disguises boredom is over, it too enters the realm of the boring, making way for boredom in all its unpasteurized purity.[24]

Attaining is exciting. Maintaining is boring. Does that mean that “boredom is simply the shed skin of interest?”[25] I think perhaps that novelty is something that needs to be worked through too. Take sexual attraction as a metaphor. When you’re young and horny and all you want to do is have sex with something and pretty much every member of the opposite sex (or the same sex if that’s your predilection), as long as they’re about your age, is a viable candidate and for a while sex is enough, it can fill the void for years, and then one day you take a step back, look at who you’re with, and go, “Eh?” A lot of people might define boring as “no longer novel” and in a world where technology is perpetually offering something newer (and, they tell us, better) I imagine a lot of time we misdiagnose familiarity and think we’re bored when we’re not.

Do you need to be cold to appreciate warmth? Do you need to be lonely to welcome company? Do you need to experience boredom to be able to distinguish between the merely distracting and the truly interesting things in life? Cold is not necessarily bad unless you’re swimming with whales in the Arctic, solitude is not bad unless you’re Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks and boredom is not bad unless you’re Kaspar Hauser.

The positive effects of boredom

Colin Bisset draws a distinction between good boredom and bad boredom:

Perfect boredom is the enjoyment of the moment of stasis that comes between slowing down and speeding up – like sitting at a traffic light for a particularly long time. It's at the cusp of action, because however enjoyable it may be, boredom is really not a long-term aspiration.[26]

I like the idea of boredom as a liminal state, a moment of potentiality. It ties in with how I feel about the search for meaning very much. Bisset continues:

Wasn’t Newton sitting underneath an apple tree staring into space, and Archimedes wallowing in the bath, when clarity struck? In my own insignificant way, I think I have always understood that doing nothing is the key to getting somewhere. As a writer, it takes a while to convince others that you are working hard whilst appearing to be lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling, but once this is accomplished it can be very useful, especially if you are enjoying staring at the ceiling and hear, “I’m sorry, he can’t come to the phone at the moment, he’s working” – which suggests a genius on the cusp of a plot breakthrough rather than someone deciding whether to have poached or scrambled eggs for lunch.[27]

Or as Walter Benjamin put it, a little more poetically:

If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.[28]

Why is this?

In recent years, scientists have begun to identify a neural circuit called the default network, which is turned on when we're not preoccupied with something in our external environment. (That's another way of saying we're bored. Perhaps we're staring out a train window, or driving our car along a familiar route, or reading a tedious text.) At first glance, these boring moments might seem like a great time for the brain to go quiet, to reduce metabolic activity and save some glucose for later. But that isn't what happens. The bored brain is actually incredibly active[29]

Bored people are more prone to daydreaming and when you daydream your brain goes into problem-solving mode. Research shows that daydreaming is one of the most effective ways to turn on your right brain which is the part responsible for creative insight. Ah, if only it were that simple.

There are those who report positive benefits from allowing themselves to be bored:

Those athletes who run or swim or bike in ultramarathons for eight hours at a time … also testify to what endless repetition can teach in terms of focus and self-discipline. While we are bored, there is time to “strip away our character armour, shed layer after layer of imposed motivations and values and circle closer to our unique essence.”[30] It is a time to stand naked and confront one’s pain without distractions and diversions.[31]

One of the statements Lars Svendsen makes in his excellent book on the subject is:

Boredom is immanence in its purest form. The antidote must be transcendence.[32]

It is a statement that I have struggled to understand. He’s writing that because he’s trying to understand something Roland Barthes wrote, that…

Boredom is not far removed from desire: it is desire seen from the shores of pleasure.[33]

The word ‘pleasure’ has connotations – though to be fair what word hasn’t? – and I find it hard to believe that the purpose of life is simply to experience pleasure but I can’t pretend that what I’m doing this very minute is not pleasurable in its own way. I am trying to turn ignorance into understanding, to go from knowing nothing to ca_eurekaknowing something. That Eureka! moment was so enjoyable that Archimedes streaked (literally) down Syracuse’s high street shouting out, “I’ve found it!” I think that boredom is our natural state and life is all about rising above it: getting out of the tub.

Pleasure is the opposite of pain, even if it’s not necessarily the solution to all kinds of pain. If we’re not experiencing pleasure the fear may well be that we will experience pain. And we may well do:

That we have unprocessed pain inside us, waiting for any empty moment so that it may assert itself and be felt, is not so surprising given that a main imperative of technology is to maximise pleasure, comfort, and security, and to prevent pain. […] Today we go to the pharmacy cabinet to apply technology to the alleviation of any discomfort, no matter how minor. Have a hangover? Take an aspirin. Have a runny nose? Take a cold medicine. Depressed? Have a drink. The underlying assumption is that pain is something that need not be felt.[34] (italics his)

I get a lot of aches and pains. My wife tells me to take a couple of ibuprofen. I do. The pain subsides and I can work. The source of the pain is still there though. The pill is only a palliative. It fixes nothing.

Even the gods get bored…

Did you ever wonder why God created the universe? If you don’t believe in God this is a moot point because who knows why the Big Bang banged but I do remember asking my Dad (when I was interested in such things) why God, who was perfect and therefore complete in himself and in need of no one else, would go to the bother of creating others. There are plenty of scriptures that explain what his purpose was but none that I know of that supports the answer I was given which was: It was God's pleasure that the universe and everything in it be created. Does that mean that God was bored? (Kierkegaard certainly believed so.[35]) If God was, then that implies that boredom is not a bad thing, God being the embodiment of goodness. I don’t know and I don’t really care but what I do know is that as a writer I like the idea of starting with a boring, blank sheet of paper – literally nothing – and, after in this case about 9000 words, having created something. Better yet when the thing created has meaning.

What is the opposite of pleasure? One might have thought ‘pain’ was the obvious answer, but it seems more reasonable to assume, excepting physical pains and pleasures (where most people would simply settle for not hurting as the opposite of pain anyway), that it is boredom “the condition which most thoroughly inverts that more desirable feeling’s modes of existence.”[36]

What do you look for in a mate, whether a marriage mate of just someone to pal around with? You want someone who is like you. I know they say opposites attract but unless you’re magnetic I’m not buying it. I get bored around people who just want to talk about drinking and football and chasing women. Now think on this:

Most people are bored. Why? You asked how to get rid of boredom. Now find out. When you are by yourself for half an hour, you are bored. So you pick up a book, chatter, look at a magazine, go to a cinema, talk, do something. You occupy your mind with something. This is an escape from yourself. You have asked a question. Now, pay attention to what is being said. You get bored because you find yourself with yourself; and you have never found yourself with yourself. Therefore you get bored.[37]

Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself.[38]

It’s an interesting way of looking at boredom. But then again why wouldn’t you be bored with yourself: he’s been everywhere you’ve been, done everything you’ve done, made the same mistakes as you and has learned nothing more than you have from all that. Yeah, I’d be bored with me too. That would be the normal thing to be, the natural thing to do. Now pain is not very nice but it is natural. And your natural response is to get away from it. You fling yourself out of the road or you curl up in a ball or you yank your hand out of the flame. So too with boredom. Boredom is natural but our increasing response to it these days has to be to do something about it. Distractions provide temporary relief – for some reason I can’t help think what the Bible says about the “temporary enjoyment of sin”[39] here – but whatever that temporary relief is, be it a sin or not, it is not the answer to boredom. I believe that meaning is the answer and, as Dorothy Parker put it, curiosity is the means. If we are created in God’s image and out of boredom he created us then it’s only natural for us to want to create things too but we need to be in the right frame of mind, one that has let go of distractions.

If he hadn't been locked up with himself, Martin Luther King would never have written ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ Oscar Wilde wouldn’t have composed his ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and O. Henry wouldn't have turned out his famous short stories (after being sent to prison for embezzlement). Then again, Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf while imprisoned for what he considered to be "political crimes" after his failed Putsch in Munich in November 1923 and Jeffrey Archer wrote the three-volume memoir A Prison Diary, a novel and a collection of short stories. Boredom has a lot to answer for too.

What is the meaning of life? It is one of the great unanswerable questions. After pondering it for years most of us get bored with it and go off and look to solve questions that actually might have answers. Life may not have any Meaning-with-a-capital-m in the grand Beckettian sense but that doesn’t mean there are not lots of other meanings-with-small-ms to be found on the way. I get what-I-call-bored with my writing a lot of the time because it lacks what-I-call-meaning. Boredom is life’s gravity. I cannot fly but I can jump.


umbrellaThe title for this article by the way is a quote from Simon Critchley talking about Samuel Beckett’s use of the term “the buzzing” in his play Not I: “This is what I call the tinnitus of existence, the background noise of the world that underlies the diurnal hubbub, returning at nightfall as the body tries to rest.”[40] It seemed appropriate.

And in case you never worked it out: What goes up a chimney down but not down a chimney up? An umbrella.


A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen – the complete book is available online
The Boring Institute


[1] Orrin Klapp, Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society, pp.32,33

[2] Adam J. Cox, ‘The Case for Boredom: Stimulation, Civility, and Modern Boyhood’, Atlantis, Spring 2010

[3] Richard Louv, ‘The Benefits of Boredom’, Spark Action

[4] Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

[5] John D. Spalding, ‘Ah, Boredom!’, The Society of Mutual Autopsy, 13 November 2004

[6] Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, p.69

[7] Carolyn Y. Johnson, ‘The Joy of Boredom’, The Boston Globe, 9 March 2008

[8] Gautam Naik, ‘Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation’, The Wall Street Journal, 28 December 2010

[9] Ibid

[10] Aldous Huxley, Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist, p.17

[11] What is this quote saying? Best Answer

[12] Book Trust

[13] Andy Warhol, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up,p31

[14] A brief history of boredom,, 31 August 2007

[15] Martin Amis, ‘Awards only go to boring books, says Martin Amis’, The Telegraph, 10 July 2011 (The quote is by Theodor Adorno who famously declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric and then later recanted what he regarded as a knee-jerk reaction.)

[16] Samuel Beckett, Proust, p.28

[17] Dr Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, p.98

[18] Joanna Hańderek, 'The Problem of Authenticity and Everydayness in Existential Philosophy' in Ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, Phenomenology and Existentialism in the Twentieth Century: New waves of Philosophical Inspiration, p.194

[19] An interview with Tom Driver in Graver, L. and Ferderman, R., (Eds.) Samuel Beckett: the Critical Heritage, p 219

[20] Ibid

[21] Eric Fromm, The Sane Society, p.179

[22] Agnė Narušytė, The Aesthetics of Boredom: Lithuanian Photography 1980 – 1990, p.17

[23] John Cage, Silence, pp. 64, 88

[24] Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to modernity: twelve preludes, September 1959-May 1961, p.260

[25] Matt Nelson, ‘Good Writing is Boring’, Splice Today, 25 May 2011

[26] Colin Bisset, ‘La Vie D’Ennui’, Philosophy Now, July/August 2011

[27] Ibid

[28] Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov, p.5

[29] Jonah Lehrer, Boredom,, 24 March 2009

[30] S Keen, ‘Boredom and How to Beat It’, Psychology Today, May 1977, p.80

[31] Jeffrey A. Kottler, On Being a Therapist, p.171

[32] Dr Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, p.47

[33] Roland Barthes, Das perfekte Verbrechen, p.12

[34] Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

[35] “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” ‘Rotation of Crops’, Either/Or

[36] Joseph Brooker, ‘What Tedium: Boredom in Malone Dies, Journal of Beckett Studies, Vol. 10, nos. 1-2, p.2

[37] Jiddu Krishnamurti, Krishnamurti on Education, p.59

[38] Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos, p.74

[39] Hebrews 11:25

[40] Simon Critchley, Very Little... Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy and Literature, p.xxv

Thursday 15 March 2012

The tinnitus of existence (part one)


The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity – Dorothy Parker

Life is full of ups and downs. Upness is a concept. It’s one we get fairly early on in life and usually about the same time we grasp the notion of downness (and also neither-up-nor-downness) and we get jokes like, “What goes up a chimney down but not down a chimney up?” It’s hard to imagine someone grasping the idea of ‘up’ and yet struggling to understand ‘down’. And the same goes for lots of other things: an understanding of happiness results in an awareness of unhappiness; if you can comprehend ‘counterfeit’ then ‘genuine’ makes sense. These things form a 'conceptual polarity'. Not everything has an opposite though. Slow is not the opposite of fast – they simply indicate degrees of velocity. So what about boredom? What is the opposite of boredom? Is there one?

Bored to death

Boredom is a serious subject. People joke about being bored to death but it’s no joking matter:

For example, a 25-year study of British civil servants published [in 2010] found that some people really can be bored to death: People who complain about "high levels" of boredom in their lives are at double the risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease, the study concluded.


[Also] a survey of more than 1,500 U.S. Marines, published in September in the journal Aggressive Behaviour, suggests that being bored may be a bigger risk factor for such behaviour than war trauma is.[1]

I decided to write about boredom because, as a reader and a writer, I encounter boredom every day. It’s unavoidable. At least I can’t avoid it. I regard it as a thing I need to break through. I’m sent books to review that are not the kind of things I would have bought myself and my friends write posts that say nothing especially new but I feel duty bound to read them and I have to write descriptive passage or expositions for the sake of my readers – stuff that I know already but they don’t – and that can be boring. Sitting hour after hour in front of a computer screen can be boring. But is boredom necessarily a bad thing? The saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention. I’d like to propose that boredom is her sister and she had twins: creation and destruction. The Mail Online reports:

A Filipino teenager has sparked outrage after pegging his puppy out on a clothesline and posting pictures of the helpless animal on Facebook.

Jerzon Senador, from Calamba, Laguna, is likely to face animal cruelty charges after deciding to carry out the stunt because he was bored.

The teenager suspended the struggling puppy from the skin on its back as he took photographs from different angles.[2]


And yet when I typed in “I was bored and so I” into Google I got the following responses:

… made my bloggy BFF a header for her blog
… made some more kaleidoscope images, just for fun
… decided to write an algorithm to find all the numbers possible in the Fibonacci series
… decided to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
… drew Taemin from SHINee as an anime character!
… got ordained, and now I'm a Reverend

An article commenting on the rise of comfort eating refers to a “survey of 2,000 people [which] showed 47% of adolescents aged 16-24 and 40% of those aged 35-44 had eaten because they were bored.”[3] That said a recent study has shown that bored people are just as likely to engage in prosocial activities such as donating blood as they are to pin puppies to clotheslines or down whole cartons of rocky road ice cream. More so I would hope:

Through a series of seven studies, researchers found that boredom increases prosocial motivations that impact on positive behaviours that last far beyond the length of time of the boring activity itself.

"Boredom makes people long for different and purposeful activities, and as a result they turn towards more challenging and meaningful activities, turning towards what they perceive to be really meaningful in life," said [Wijnand] van Tilburg [from the University of Limerick, co-author of the paper, ‘Bored George Helps Others: A Pragmatic Meaning-Regulation Hypothesis on Boredom and Prosocial Behaviour’].

"Donating to charity or signing up for blood donations could not have increased the level of stimulation, interest, arousal, novelty, fun, or challenge experienced during the boring activity, simply because the boring activity finished before prosocial behaviour was assessed," he said. "Therefore, we show that boredom affects attitudes and behaviour even after the boring activity, if people have not had the chance to re-establish meaningfulness."[4] (italics mine)

Boredom is something that everyone reading this article will have experienced. You may even be experiencing it now. You may have been bored before you began reading this or reading this might be boring you. If the former is the case then I imagine a part of your reason for reading this is an attempt to free yourself from boredom. If the latter is the case then I apologise, but bear with me; it gets dead good later. Perhaps you think that simply being occupied doing something is the answer and this is just what you have happened to opt to do or perhaps you’re looking for something specific here, something interesting possibly, distracting at least and meaningful if you’re really lucky.

The science bit

Boredom is not idleness. It can be a symptom of idleness but it can also be a boring as hell doing the same mundane task over and over again, day in and day out, week on week, year by year. Erich Fromm said that "one of the worst forms of mental sufferings is boredom," which he defines simply as, "not knowing what to do with one's self and one's life."[5] Kierkegaard went even further: “Boredom is the root of all evil.”[6] Bertrand Russell, hedging his bets, believed that “at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.”[7] For most people, at least some of the time, work is boring. That goes for the concert pianist practicing his scales to the IT guy asking someone, "Have you tried turning it off and on again?"

According to an article in The Daily Mail:

Scientists (inevitably) have conducted their surveys and apparently the average person spends six hours a week being bored.[8]


Medical research has found that bored workers have three to five times the usual incidence of cardiovascular disease; four to seven times the incidence of neurological disorders; twice the incidence of gastrointestinal disorders; and two to three times the incidence of musculo-skeletal disorders.[9]

I would love to see how they came to those figures because how do you measure something essentially abstract like boredom? Additionally, according to The New York Times:

[T]he British are particularly bored. According to an analysis of survey data in 2009 by the London-based New Economics Foundation, they are the fourth-most-bored out of 22 European nations.[10]

Bath, Bristol, Nottingham and Swindon, which have been identified as the four most depressingly godawful places in the country.[11]

What happened to Hull then?[12]

HULL smaller

There are actually a variety of tests for measuring boredom:

All of these prove if we are bored (and how bored we are) but why do we get bored in the first place?

If we’re not sufficiently occupied and stimulated, dopamine depletion makes us listless but is listlessness the same as boredom? If we don’t get enough sunlight this disrupts the body’s circadian rhythms – simply stated, the circadian rhythm is your body's natural clock – and this creates a malfunction in the normal distribution of hormones which results in a loss of alertness (selective attention, vigilance, and attentional control) and an increase in levels of fatigue (subjective reports of loss of desire or ability to continue performing); boredom inevitably follows. But, again, is that boredom or just something we’re calling ‘boredom’ because we can’t think of a better word for it?

Now I’m not saying that these aren’t factors – the growth of the fast food industry is a factor is the increase in obese children – but the reason is they’re eating too much of the wrong stuff and not exercising enough. It’s easy to allow ourselves to look to blame others for our own failings. I’m bored because…

… sitting in traffic is never fun
… I’m on Facebook, I’m on Facebook because I’m bored.
… is closed
… I have no weed
… I have no life

Yes, all these things may be contributory factors but what is the common factor? What is missing in our lives that boredom rushes in to fill the gap when it’s gone? Schopenhauer developed a theory of boredom, suggesting that if people failed to meet their desires they felt unfulfilled, and if they did meet them they became bored. In other words a vicious circle. Personally I think not getting something is often more enjoyable than actually getting it. Beforehand you have whatever you can imagine and if you have a good imagination then no reality can ever live up to it and not getting something can keep you entertained if not exactly happy for a long time before boredom sets in. In my experience. But nothing is boredom-proof. Not even happiness.

Overcompensating for misery

“If I was happy I wouldn’t be bored.” Sounds reasonable enough. This is one of my all time favourite quotes. It’s from Brave New World:

Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.[13]

Huxley could just as easily have written that actual happiness looks pretty squalid in comparison with our overcompensations for boredom. In his fascinating book-length study, A Philosophy of Boredom, Dr Lars Svendsen had this to say:

philosophy of boredom[A]ll sorts of diversions have to create a substitute [meaning] – an ersatz meaning. […] Boredom is not connected with actual needs but with desire. And this desire is a desire for sensory stimuli. Stimuli are the only ‘interesting’ things.

The word ‘boring’ is bound up with the word ‘interesting’; the words become widespread at roughly the same time and they increase in frequency at roughly the same rate. […] The ‘interesting’ always has a brief shelf-life, and really no other function than to be consumed, in order that boredom can be kept at arm’s length. The prime commodity of the media is ‘interesting information’– signs that are pure consumer goods, nothing else.[14]

Boredom can make us miserable but what’s the cure? There can only be so many ‘interesting’ things out there for us to buy or try. Dr Richard Ralley, of Edge Hill University, is currently researching how boredom affects people, to determine whether some personality types cope better than others:

People assume that the opposite of boredom is excitement, so parents take their children to a theme park. Similarly, the information contained on the internet was what everyone expected to relieve people's boredom.

But quite obviously what humans want is social interactivity – so parents would be better off taking their children on a picnic than to a theme park. And with the internet, people want to engage with each other – that's where the blogs and the chatrooms came from. The other stuff is seen as nerdy now.[15]

Now that is all fine and well if you’re suffering from situational boredom:

Situational boredom is defined by the presence or absence of something in a situation. This can be listening to a boring lecture, or waiting for a plane in an airport. Then there is repetitive boredom, where something that in itself is fun becomes boring through repetition.[16]

but that is not always the cause and even where it is, you can’t (or at least society says you shouldn’t) simply saunter out of your office or factory when your job starts to bore you. Running away is never the answer unless you have somewhere to run to, i.e. another, better (less boring) job.

Many boredoms

Adam Phillips, a psychotherapist, has this to say about boredom:

Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.[17]

Others believe the same, that there are different kinds of boredom, and some have tried to produce a typology of it:

Most psychological and sociological commentators on boredom distinguish two varieties: “One is a responsive feeling and the other is a malaise.”[18]

yawn[T]here are three kinds of boredom: passive boredom: the girl dancing and yawning; active boredom: kite-lovers; and rebellious boredom: young people burning cars and smashing shop windows.[19] (bold mine)

There seems to be two forms of today's boredom: one is temporary, while the other is more ongoing and settled. The temporary form is what we all experience when talking with someone at a party who only speaks of themselves, or in a tedious sermon, or during a long afternoon meeting. This form is easily remedied by moving on to something of interest. The longer-term form of boredom, however, settles into one's life and becomes a vapour carried with us, regardless of the current activity; a lens through which everything is viewed, until nothing is interesting. Life begins to annoy and irritate such a person. Life appears futile and purposeless.[20] (bold mine)

I think boredom has three sources … “I just don’t belong here” … “I’ve become invisible” … “I need more space”[21]

Boredom is something of a catch-all term. It is used for simple boredom (the product of temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstances—being stuck in one of my lectures, for example!) as well as for “existential” boredom (an unrelieved sense of isolation, emptiness, alienation and even helplessness). The main relationship between these two conditions is probably the loose use of the term “boredom”. The third term, chronic boredom, is, I guess, rather like simple boredom, but it is not temporary. If simple boredom is the result of the circumstances we find ourselves in (stuck in a traffic jam, for example), chronic boredom is a symptom of a lower than normal level in the system of the neurotransmitter dopamine.[22] (bold mine)

Martin Doehlmann’s typology … distinguishes between four types of boredom: situative boredom, as when one is waiting for someone, is listening to a lecture or taking the train; the boredom of satiety, when one gets too much of the same thing and everything becomes banal; existential boredom, where the soul is without content and the world is neutral; and creative boredom, which is not so much characterised by its content as its result: that one is forced to do something new.[23] (bold mine)

The one I feel the greatest affinity to is Lars Svendsen who says:

Boredom is practically indefinable because it lacks the positiveness of most other phenomena. It is basically to be understood as an absence – an absence of personal meaning. […] Meaninglessness is boring. And boredom can be described metaphorically as a meaning withdrawal.[24] (italics mine)

Many writers analyse boredom in relation to time and the subject’s perceptions thereof and often link the concept to monotony and repetition. Specifically, boredom is discussed as a state of being where the experience of time dissolves or stops being of relevance. In some respects though boredom brings about an acute awareness of time – the German word for boredom is langeweile (literally ‘long while’) – even if, as in the case of someone undergoing sensory deprivation, their perception of that time is way off.

In his 1969 Ph.D. thesis On the Experience of Time that became his first best-selling book, Robert Ornstein … maintained that whether time passes slowly, or worse, drags for us (and by implication, whether it is boring or not) depends on two things:

  1. Whether it is experienced immediately and in the short term, or retrospectively in the long term;
  2. How much recallable data, detail and information was packed into the time and its experiences—with implications for the associated information storage and (subsequent) processing requirements.[25]

Heidegger said that “we pass the time in order to master it, because time becomes long in boredom. Time becomes long for us. Is it supposed to be short? Does not each of us wish for a truly long time with ourselves? … Boredom, long time: especially in Alemannic usage, it is no accident that 'to have long time' means the same as 'to be homesick'.”[26]

No word for ‘bored’

australia-aborigines-460If there is one place in the world where you might imagine people would be bored out of their skulls it would be Australia, specifically the Australian outback, and yet, the concept of boredom was not known to the indigenous people until fairly recently. It was something Westerners brought with them along with measles, smallpox and TB. To illustrate, in a study entitled ‘Boredom, Time and Modernity: An Example from Aboriginal Australia’, the writer looked at a community of some 800 aborigines in the settlement of Yuendumu located about 300 kilometres northwest of the town of Alice Springs in central Australia. The language spoken there is Warlpiri and they have no word for boredom. The closest is jukuru but that denotes an active disinterest in something:

When Warlpiri people referred to boredom, they used the English word, usually embedded in otherwise Warlpiri sentences, for example: “Nyampurla punku, boring, junganyiarniyi” (this [place] is bad, boring, very true). Exclusively, boring was the term used; I never heard mention of boredom; and bored was only used in all-English conversations between young Warlpiri and nonindigenous persons.[27]

Apparently the lost tribes of Borneo, have no word for boredom either. The same goes for the Nepali, the Inuit, most Native American tribes and the Danes it appears. Language both influences what we think and what we think influences language. In an INReview comment thread I ran across, someone called tangybutsweet had this to say:

In my first language there is no word for boredom. But as I became fluent in English, I started to complain "I'm bored" a lot. And, I'm pretty sure I've never felt bored before. Or perhaps I did and I never paid attention to it and just found something better to do with my time, because I didn’t realize that’s a valid feeling. Does that make any sense?

Like all words ‘boredom’ is a made-up-word like ‘pescetarianism,’ for example. Before 1993 no one ever used that word but plenty of people did it, i.e. survived off a diet that includes seafood, and excludes other animals. Now that the word exists people can go around saying they’re pescetarians and the same obviously has happened with boredom. I’m not saying that no one ever suffered from angst before Kierkegaard – the word had been around since the 8th century – but he made it fashionable. More on fashion in a bit.

Boredom is so endemic to our culture, particularly among youth, that we imagine it to be a near-universal default state of human existence. In the absence of outside stimuli we are bored. Yet, as Ziauddin Sardar observes, boredom is virtually unique to Western culture (and by extension to the global culture it increasingly dominates). "Bedouins," he writes, "can sit for hours in the desert, feeling the ripples of time, without being bored.”[28]

The origins of boredom

I was surprised to learn that boredom is a fairly new concept. Dickens invented – or perhaps discovered? – it whilst writing the 800-page long Bleak House; it appears six times in the 1852 novel. The Online Etymological Dictionary attributes the sentence, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything,” to Voltaire saying it appeared in a poem by him dating from 1734 but when you look at the poem in the original French the line is, “Le secret d'ennuyer est celui de tout dire,” and the root word that’s being translated is actually ennui. Before the nineteenth century no one knew what it was to be bored. Let me illustrate:

On the Isle of Skye, during his tour of the Hebrides (7 Sept 1773), James Boswell found existence temporarily burdensome. He reports in the Life of Johnson as well as in the journal of his travels:

I was happy when tea came. Such, I take it, is the state of those who live in the country. Meals are wished for from the cravings of vacuity of mind, as well as from the desire of eating. I was hurt to find even such a temporary feebleness, and that I was so far away from being that robust wise man who is sufficient for his own happiness.

A twentieth-century reader has no trouble understanding Boswell’s condition. He was, we might say, bored[29]

Before this the Early Fathers of the Church considered acedia to be the worst sin, since, they asserted, all others derived from it. If you thought there were only seven deadly sins then think of acedia as a kind of sloth.

A crucial difference is that acedia is first and foremost a moral concept, whereas ‘boredom’, in the normal sense of the word, more describes a psychological state. Another difference is that acedia was for the few, whereas boredom affects the masses.[30]

The sin of acedia is a failing to tackle spiritual boredom.[31]

(See Art Durkee's comment below however.)

The general idea here is that God is perfect and therefore cannot be boring. If you are a bored cleric then you have lost touch with God. Without God, man is nothing and boredom is an awareness of this nothingness. There is another way to look at this which gives us a clue to what modern-day boredom is. It is God who gives the lives of the faithful meaning: he tells them what to do, how to do it, when to do it and just how bad you should feel if you don’t do it or do it in the wrong spirit. In other words God, if you allow him, gives life meaning. I will come back to this.

In the Renaissance the concept of acedia was superseded by something new: melancholia which Wikipedia has this to say about:

The name "melancholia" comes from the old medical belief of the four humours: disease or ailment being caused by an imbalance in one or other of the four basic bodily liquids, or humours. Personality types were similarly determined by the dominant humour in a particular person. According to Hippocrates, melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile, hence the name, which means 'black bile'…

dowlandIn other words it was a disease with causes, symptoms (both mental and physical) and cures – supposedly. By the seventeenth century, however, melancholia had been romanticised and it became fashionable to be seen as experiencing melancholy. In music, for example, the post-Elizabethan cult of melancholia is associated with John Dowland, whose motto was Semper Dowland, semper dolens. ("Always Dowland, always mourning"). What is amusing is that new fashions are often seen as an escape from boredom. Hence the rise of retail therapy. I’m bored with my…

… car
… furniture
… hairstyle
… LR throw pillows
… tried and true brands
… pink and marigold living room

So even back then boredom was not something one really associated with the man in the street. Arty-types came down with it; poets in particular were particularly susceptible.


In part two: ‘The boredom epidemic’, ‘A boring conference’, ‘Boring art’, ‘The positive effects of boredom’ and ‘Even the gods get bored...’


A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen – the complete book is available online
The Boring Institute


[1] Gautam Naik, ‘Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation’, The Wall Street Journal, 28 December 2010

[2] Mail Online, 15 June 2011

[3] Comfort and 'boredom'-eating rife, BBC News Channel, 23 August 2004

[4] Amelia Hill, ‘Boredom is good for you, study claims’, The Guardian, 6 May 2011

[5] Eric Fromm, The Sane Society, p.253

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, p.59

[7] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, p.47

[8] Roger Lewis, ‘Are we all being bored to death?’, Mail Online, 15 April 2011

[9] Ben Agger, Understanding Human Motivation: What Makes People Tick?, p.97

[10] Anthony Gottlieb, ‘Why Life is So Boring’, The New York Times, 27 May 2011

[11] ‘Britain Now So Unremittingly Awful You Need Therapy Just To Live Here, The New Filter, 24 January 2009

[12] Research, for B&Q's Brighten Up Britain bid in 2008 found Hull to be the most boring place in the UK with 17% of the vote.

[13] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

[14] Dr Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, pp.27,28

[15] Joe Boyle, ‘Surviving Boredom’, BBC News Channel, 21 June 2007

[16] Dr Lars Svendsen quoted in Joe Boyle, ‘Surviving Boredom’, BBC News, 21 June 2007

[17] Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, p.82

[18] Patricia Meyer Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, p.27

[19] Milan Kundera, Identity, p.15

[20] Richard Winter, ‘Boredom and Beauty’, Evangelical Now, May 1999

[21] Douglas LaBier, Three Kinds of Boredom at Work, Progressive Impact, 28 January 2010

[22] Anthony Gottlieb quoted in, Alan Caruba, ‘A New Book About Boredom’, The Boring Institute, 10 May 2011

[23] Dr Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, pp.41,42

[24] Ibid, pp.45,30

[25] Michael Moffa, Time Illusions and Workplace Boredom’,

[26] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, p.80

[27] Yasmine Musharbash, ‘Boredom, Time and Modernity: An Example from Aboriginal Australia’, American Anthropologist, Vol. 109, No. 2, June 2007

[28] Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

[29] Patricia Meyer Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, p.31

[30] Dr Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, pp.49,50

[31] Erica Brown, Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism, p.18

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