Beyond Boredom

Commonplace Newsletter #002

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‘The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population.’

~ Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Modern life is boring. I’m sorry to be the one to have to break it to you. The boring future that J G Ballard- the great chronicler of the suburbanisation of the soul- predicted has not only arrived but it has been with us for at least a couple of centuries now. Again, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.

‘But how can this be?’ You might ask. ‘We have more time and wealth and tech and sports and diversions and freedoms and pass-times than at any other point in human history. You can find anything online. So how can boredom exist?’

Well, boredom is the *price* of these privileges. It is the toll of prosperity. Because nothing in this world fails quite like success.

I sense resistance. I sense the muttering of the matriarch wisdom that only boring people are bored, which is a circular argument if ever I heard one.

So let me put it to you like this: All of literature and scripture show us that joy and anger and grief have been in fairly consistent supply since the dawn of the written word. The oral histories concur. Common sense affirms it.

And though those great themes are perennial to the human condition they remain constant. Only boredom, the young upstart, is in the ascendant. Once the preserve of  wigged and buckle-booted aristocrats, boredom has been democratised and available to all.

And it’s a problem. And as television dramas have taught us the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Modernity Is Boring

One of the major tells of a sophomoric essay is a preoccupation with definitions. Yet etymology is always enlightening and rewards scrutiny. The changing of the times is measured in the changing of words, like geological scales or redwood rings. So if you’ll indulge me...

The word boredom was first used in English in the 1760s, making it exactly contemporaneous with the Spinning Jenny, the machine that birthed The Industrial Revolution and the division of labour and the dark, satanic mills and all the rest of it. The nativising of the French word ‘ennui’ dates from the same period.

Yes, it makes sense to me that the coining of the word boredom coincided with the beginning of the greatest collective unmooring in history. Because profound boredom, if you’ve felt it, is an unmooring; it’s an insomniac-like state of lying in the metaphorical dark, the self having lost it’s grip on itself as it is pressed on by seemingly infinite time. 

Industry-fuelled modernity is a great incubator for this state. It brings a great awareness of time which then becomes a thing to be disposed of, if not outright killed. 

A cursory glance at how many hours a day the average person spends on their smartphone tells you how skilled we now are at doing this. And why would you spend a third or more of your waking day looking at a timeline or a YouTube video or a Netflix original if you were not profoundly bored?

A Boring Individual

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T. S. Eliot, The Rock.

Boredom is Romantic in the truest sense. And Romanticism above all is about the assertion of *individualism*. Again, check the date of that etymology. Now check the dates of the German Romantic movement and it’s English counterpart. See?

So what we have in the Romantic late 18th and early 19th century is a set of circumstances that begin to remove the things that help engender personal meaning which lead, in reaction, to an aesthetic movement that championed individualism, a substitute for this meaning.

But when you Romantically see yourself as an individual who must *realize* himself, everyday life with its limitations becomes a prison. 

You become filled with the desire for exciting and unique and stimulating and interesting things. You become fascinated by celebrity as a proxy and blueprint for your own nascent self-realisation. You crave escape from the everyday. 

This is why everyone consumes ‘just be yourself’ self improvement content. This is why the Andy Dufresne shit-tunnel that everyone is trying to build to escape the 9-5 takes the form of a ‘personal brand’ that boringly tells other bored people to boringly be themselves.

You keep feeding the hand that bites.

And all of these technology-driven hits of interesting information turn you evermore into a consumer of information, a spectator, passive. 

In a word: bored.

The Other Side Of Boredom

It’s a bind all of this, a real negative feedback loop. The often boring nature of our conditions leads to a an entertainment and stimulation hungry public which leads to the creation of technologies that feed us these things which lead to an evermore solipsistic and surface level culture which leads to boredom which leads to...

Of course, the problem is that every palliative designed to alleviate boredom (Instagram, alcohol, television, you name it) soon end up *causing* boredom.

‘The drugs don’t work, they just make it worse’ as the song tells us.

Simply put, most people never transcend beyond boredom because they always try to escape *from* boredom. But the only way out is through.

As David Foster Wallace famously said:

“Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

And that’s as close as I can give you to a solution to tackling this philosophical problem of existential boredom. Only reality itself, pure, uncut and mundane can cure boredom. 

In defiance of Grandma’s wisdom only people too preoccupied with the interesting become bored. 

Boredom itself, when embraced and accepted for what it is has a way of eradicating self-centredness. Maybe that’s what it’s for. 

The self-centred person thinks ‘it isn’t easy being me’ but the person who has made it to the other side of boredom thinks ‘it isn’t easy for anyone’

And that hard won level of acceptance of the human condition has a way, in a final irony, of making life pretty interesting.

Until next time,

Tom.


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