• On the Uses of Boredom: Philosophical, Scientific, Literary

    Martha Cooley Considers the Sociological Significance of Utter Ennui

    On a damp afternoon a few years ago, descending a stone ramp adjacent to a cobblestone lane, I slipped on a slick patch. Landing on my seat, I bounced upward and sideways off the ramp, rather like a cartoon character. After somehow revolving in midair, I descended to the lane beneath the ramp, where I went splat on my stomach, arms outspread.

    This mishap broke nothing but a tooth, yet for days afterward I was still mentally reviewing the event. In my memory the interval during which I’d been airborne—a matter of a few seconds—had seemed at once fleeting and endless. I’d encountered time as neither infinite nor finite but both at once. And that wasn’t all: I didn’t get tired of recalling that moment. The ineffability of my experience tugged at me; I kept trying to re-conjure the fleeting-yet-endless sensation before I hit the ground. The recollection never bored me. It still doesn’t.


    What exactly is boredom?

    Often associated with anger, fear, desire, and anxiety, it can result in anything from near-immobility to spasmodic bursts of action. Boredom lacks consistent signals, codes, or trademarks. Children do all sorts of things when bored: moan, make mischief, stare into space, giggle, sleep. Adults do some of those things as well, though we’re trained to stifle our yawns.

    Boredom arises when we want to attend to or engage in an activity yet can’t find a good way to do so. Situations that are objectively tedious lead to boredom, of course; repetition is another notable instigator. Patterns and predictability confer a sense of security up to a point, then leave us at once lethargic and restless.

    Seneca described boredom as a kind of nausea or sickness. Picking up Seneca’s notion, Jean-Paul Sartre titled one of his novels Nausea, exploring in it certain feelings of extreme dissatisfaction with daily experience. That dissatisfaction’s inescapability makes it even heavier. During a commencement speech given nearly three decades ago at Dartmouth College, Joseph Brodsky spoke of boredom’s inevitability and omnipresence. “A substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom,” he warned. “The worst monotonous drone coming from a lectern…is nothing in comparison to the psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and spurns the horizon.”

    Often associated with anger, fear, desire, and anxiety, boredom can result in anything from near-immobility to spasmodic bursts of action.

    In a poem entitled “To Boredom,” Charles Simic describes watching time “crawl over the ceiling / like a wounded fly.” And John Berryman, in “Dream Song 14,” begins with “Life, friends, is boring”—and ends mordantly: “And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag / and somehow a dog / has taken itself & its tail considerably away / into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving / behind: me, wag.”


    Thus contemplated, boredom sounds like nothing but a heap of trouble. But it’s not so simple.

    Psychologists suggest boredom may actually be a useful evolutionary response, part of the mind’s early-warning system for situations or states of being that might lead to harm—much as our sense of smell warns us of bad things to avoid eating. What’s more, without some measure of boredom there’d be little incentive for invention, or even for modest trial-and-error.

    Our brains need boredom, as it happens. They lack a single, central hub dictating our actions; instead, billions of neurons make trillions of connections on the fly, and information gets transmitted from node to node (our brains’ senders and receivers) as the nodes team up temporarily to accomplish particular information-transmitting tasks, then separate to form new teams. All that running-around makes our brains effective, but some down-time for crucial internal surveillance and reorganization is essential. Brains can’t do that back-office work while we’re concentrating and multi-tasking, so they put the work on hold, waiting for a more opportune time—when we’re spacing out, taking it easy, not attending to anything in particular. This resting accounts for most of a brain’s total consumption of energy. And we often do it while bored.

    Boredom gets even more intriguing when it’s not only aiding our brains but also assuming a zesty perverseness. Kierkegaard described boredom as “the despairing refusal to be oneself,” Tolstoy as “the desire for desires,” Paul Tillich as “rage spread thin.” The brain’s nodes may appreciate our taking a break, but there’s a down-side to that idleness which helps our brains regroup. “Idle people,” wrote Renata Adler, “are often bored, and bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel.” Her words bring to mind Shakespeare’s: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.” We can only suppose that if the gods exist, we should do our best to keep them happily occupied, sans sport.


    At the start of the twentieth century, various European commentators began noting that rapid urban growth and modernization were prompting a rise in anxiety, restlessness, and other symptoms equated with boredom.

    Boredom gets even more intriguing when it’s not only aiding our brains but also assuming a zesty perverseness.

    In his 2013 essay “Only Disconnect” in The New Yorker, Evgeny Morozov noted the intriguing contributions of two early-twentieth-century Germans—sociologist Georg Simmel and architect Siegfried Kracauer—to our current thinking about boredom. Simmel observed in 1903 that the incessant over-stimulations of city life tended to produce what he termed a blasé attitude, a cloak of self-protective indifference. Twenty years later, Kracauer took Simmel’s observation further, stating that a city dweller thrust ever more deeply into “the hustle and bustle… eventually no longer knows where [his] head is.” Kracauer didn’t demonize blasé attitudes. Instead, he lobbied for “extraordinary, radical boredom” as the best antidote to the problem of urban hustle-and-bustle—advising people to “stay at home, draw the curtains, and surrender” to boredom, so as to become “content to do nothing other than be with [themselves], without knowing what [they] actually should be doing.”

    That advice was remarkably prescient. As Morozov points out, four decades after Kracauer’s prescription the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre noted that in his own time (and this will sound familiar now, yet another four decades ahead), “everything comes to an end virtually as soon as it begins, and vanishes almost as soon as it appears. But everything repeats itself and starts over again…” Saturated, we require more and more stimulation.

    If we combine Kracauer’s and Lefebvre’s descriptions, we’ve pretty much summed up the state of things in our own pandemic-rocked times. Forced since the spring of 2020 to surrender to a physically circumscribed existence, many of us now stay home much of the time, riveted by our phones/computers and hooked on an endless experience of now-ness—a perpetual stuttering of time, rather like that of an old-fashioned record player whose needle keeps skipping. Starting in late summer, we began checking the news with increasing frequency—not just to see how the virus infection rates were trending, but also to see how the presidential race was shaping up. Our anxious news-checking accelerated as November 3 approached, and our exhaustion grew as we listened to politicians and pundits repeat themselves ad nauseum.

    Now that Biden is President-elect, we continue checking the news in hopes of release. We long for clear resolutions—to the political standoff/stand-still, to the widening public-health crisis—and we wait in disbelief as our putative leader rants like some bloated wind-up doll that never winds down. This collective experience of waiting continually re-stimulates us even as it induces a continuous dissatisfaction; it gives no opportunity for true rest, only restlessness. Thus boredom is laced with dread.


    David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished novel The Pale King paints a meticulously detailed picture of the routine labors of U.S. Internal Revenue Service agents. The agents are deeply bored, and the reader can’t fail to notice that certain aspects of their boredom resemble our own.

    Forced since the spring of 2020 to surrender to a physically circumscribed existence, many of us now stay home much of the time, riveted by our phones/computers and hooked on an endless experience of now-ness.

    Most of The Pale King is set in an IRS tax-processing center in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985. In an “author’s foreword” placed not at the start but well into the novel, the narrator (a stand-in for the author, as the character makes sure to tell us) addresses the question of dullness: “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull…fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling…” Since dullness doesn’t fully tamp down pain, it is a serious impediment to attention, according to the “author”—and attention is precisely what an IRS employee is supposed to be paying while at work.

    Later in the novel, a fictive IRS examiner is interviewed about his activity at the processing center. He has this to say about what he calls being “in a stare”: “You are not really looking at this thing you are seeming to stare at, you are not even really noticing it—however, neither are you thinking of something else. You in truth are not doing anything, mentally, but you are doing it fixedly, with what appears to be intense concentration.” At one grimly funny moment, an agent who’s been dead at his desk for days is finally discovered. He’d gone unnoticed by his colleagues, who assumed from his posture that he was focused on his work.

    In The Pale King Wallace attacks the conundrum of boredom with long sentences, syntactical rigor, and a numbing articulation of the minutiae of income-tax processing. His humor is dry as a blanched stone. Partway through the novel, a substitute professor of Advanced Tax lectures his students about the need to fight boredom—a hero’s mandate, according to this professor: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is…. [T]he less conventionally heroic or exciting or adverting or even interesting or engaging a labor appears to be, the greater its potential as an arena for actual heroism, and therefore as a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.” Celebrating the unsung heroes of the IRS, the lecturer makes this claim: “Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui—these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”

    The professor adds that while the heroes of yesterday’s society “shaped, made, brought things into being,” we now live in and with an agglomeration of facts. And since “most significant facts have been generated…the heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts. Classification, organization, presentation…the pie has been made—the contest now is in the slicing.” What this professor from the mid-1980s couldn’t imagine, of course, is that a few decades later, Americans would be mired in “alternate” facts and, goaded by a president who spews lies as a whale spouts water, would be taking endless dumpster-dives into disinformation. Nor could the professor imagine a president invoking an unfinished IRS audit as the reason his tax returns (and financial shenanigans) have not been viewed by the American public.


    Published only a decade ago, The Pale King already feels almost quaintly out of date—not imaginatively, but in its articulation of the problem incarnated by the IRS agents in the novel. Trained to “order and deploy” facts already generated, they inhabit a realm in which numbers themselves are honest at their core: 1 is 1, 2 is 2, 3 is 3. Yet though the numerals are clear, the agents labor in a tangled realm of crisscrossing rules, within which they perform crazymaking pirouettes around an ersatz ideal of economic fairness and justice. The pie has been made; the contest is indeed in the slicing, and the wealthiest citizens hold the knives.

    Almost a hundred years ago, Martin Heidegger linked boredom with repressed anxiety and fear.

    To quite a few Americans, IRS agents are suckers and losers, and the rules governing taxation are tedious. So, too, are the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. One can—ought to—interpret such stuff as one wishes. Why not choose your own facts, as the president does? Since it’s boring to have to do research to ascertain which information sources are accurate, or to winnow out flawed argumentation, the best thing to do is run with the facts that fascinate you. This will alleviate boredom—for as Schopenhauer reminds us, boredom might be considered “the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.”


    Almost a hundred years ago, Martin Heidegger linked boredom with repressed anxiety and fear. But he also noted that while both the anxious person and the bored person sense their alienation from the world around them, the bored person doesn’t care.

    Political scientist Leslie Paul Thiele has rephrased Heidegger’s argument this way: “Anxiety and boredom both confront us with the abyss of Being as nothingness…. In anxiety, however, one experiences a profound concern for this terrifying mystery, a concern that may transform itself into wonder if courageously digested. In boredom the mystery is avoided by a listless or frenzied turning away…[and a] continuous flurry of activity often becomes boredom’s chief defense against thoughtful anxiety.”

    Heidegger believed boredom was the dominant mood of his age. Amplifying Heidegger’s argument, Thiele suggests that boredom expresses an unwillingness to simply be in time. And technology’s incessant, rapid-fire production and consumption of goods and experiences is quite effective at abetting this unwillingness.

    In his speech at Dartmouth, Joseph Brodsky reminded his listeners that “nobody is as bored as the rich, for money buys time, and time is repetitive.” And yet, Brodsky added, “whether rich or poor, sooner or later you will be afflicted by this redundancy of time.” Addressing the graduating class as “potential haves” (versus have-nots), he warned that eventually “you’ll be bored with your work, your friends, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your room, your thoughts, yourselves. Accordingly, you’ll try to devise ways of escape. [Y]ou may take up changing jobs, residence, company, country, climate; you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis. In fact, you may lump all these together; and for a while that may work. Until the day, of course, when you wake up in your bedroom amid a new family and a different wallpaper, in a different state and climate, with a heap of bills from your travel agent and your shrink, yet with the same stale feeling toward the light of day pouring through your window…. Depending on your temperament…you will either panic or resign yourself to the familiarity of the sensation; or else you’ll go through the rigmarole of change once more.”

    In his speech at Dartmouth, Joseph Brodsky reminded his listeners that “nobody is as bored as the rich, for money buys time, and time is repetitive.”

    Brodsky was aiming neither to uplift nor to devastate. He was interested mainly in boredom’s relation to time. “Boredom deserves such scrutiny [because] it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor,” he went on. “‘You are finite,’ time tells you in a voice of boredom, ‘and whatever you do is, from my point of view, futile.’ Yet our finitude charges our lives with the strongest emotions, Brodsky reminded his audience. And boredom might be a kind of corrective simply because it’s real. Brodsky left his audience, no doubt by this time squirming in their seats, with these concluding thoughts: “[T]ry to stay passionate,” he urged. “[L]eave your cool to constellations. Passion, above all, is a remedy against boredom. Another one, of course, is pain… [W]hen you hurt you know that at least you haven’t been deceived… By the same token, what’s good about boredom…is that it is not a deception.”

    To which Charles Simic might add this, from his poem “To Boredom”: “In eternity’s classrooms, / The angels sit like bored children / With their heads bowed.”  To which I would add this brief poem by the Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich:

    The street was dusky.
    A window banged somewhere under the eaves.
    A light flashed by, a curtain soared,
    A quick shadow dashed off the wall.
    Happy is the one who falls head down:
    If only for a moment the world looks different to him.

    Khodasevich’s poem tells me why I’m incapable of being bored when I flash back onto my fall off that stone ramp. Lucky me, I affirm whenever I recall my near-miss: I didn’t break my skull and I saw the world afresh, if only for a moment. My finitude came into razor-sharp focus as I revolved in the air above the cobblestone lane. Yet who wants to rely on actual near-misses? We needn’t. We have boredom, our limitless refresher.

    Martha Cooley
    Martha Cooley
    Martha Cooley is the author of three novels—The Archivist (a national bestseller published in a dozen foreign markets), Thirty-Three Swoons, and Buy Me Love—and a memoir, Guesswork. Her short fiction, essays, and translations have appeared in numerous literary journals. She is a Professor Emerita in the English Department of Adelphi University.

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