FOREVER slow on the uptake, I've only recently fully realised why my mother gave me a copy of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene for my eighth birthday.
It was because I had learned the word “boring” at school a few months before.
When I tried it out at home, I suddenly found myself with a cup of water in one hand and an old toothbrush in the other, cleaning the bathroom from floor to ceiling, a task that engaged me from around four o’clock that afternoon until close to six. It gave me time to reflect on my mother’s tirade about boredom being the symptom of a “slovenly” mind, and, she told me: “you are not going to waste your life trying to be an imbecile,” adding, perhaps ambiguously: “Don’t miss the bits in the corners.” Boredom, to her, was a self-inflicted disengagement with life.
I used the word “boring” within her earshot only once again… a year or two later, totally unthinkingly. I hadn’t even meant it. It artlessly “slipped out” in my unguarded “how was school?” reply. Again, I was compelled to some introspection with a toothbrush in the bathroom. I never saw it again, but I’d bet that she put that toothbrush away safely somewhere in case it was ever a needed again.
By then, though, I wasn’t finding school “boring”… rather, I think I’d forgotten the real meaning of boredom. The Faerie Queene had me in thrall. It’s not a book “for kids” and my mother, herself a teacher, obviously knew that. It was written in 1596 in early English for heaven’s sake. And it is all about grown-up lust and violence and courage, cruelty, faith, truth and virtue, about deceit, deception and self sacrifice… a metaphorical working out, through poetically articulated fairy tales of chivalry, of life’s enduring moral conflicts. And the “v”s are all written as “u”s… it’s stuff beyond any eight year old’s comprehension. But it flooded my imagination for life.
I guess it began after I started throwing out words like “wondrous”, “soothly” and “betide”, and calling the sun “Phoebus” — stuff that made teachers blink. I had a small coterie of friends who’d all talk the talk and get into “knightly” rough and tumble in the playground, at the beach and wherever else we got together to play. We had words no-one else had… I looked up their meanings in the glossary at the back of Spenser’s book. We were a movement, pledged to imagined arts of chivalry. We picked playground “giusts” with boys with “lumpish heads” who failed to meet our standards by pushing around “faire”, “milde” or “innocent” girls or telling “guileful” lies. We were severe but comical pains in the butt.
But we were never bored. We were always on quests for “adventure”. We lived vividly in a transformed world at the edge of craziness. And the problem was that so much of Spenser’s allegory expresses of the sorts of “truth”, conflicts, failings and qualities we discover within ourselves
As I said, my mother was a teacher. Her classrooms generally brought together a mix of cultures: pakeha (New Zealand European), Maori, Pacific Island and sometimes English, Dutch and Asian children, new immigrants. She had syllabuses to work to, but bent rules, I know, to fire the curiosity of kids who seemed a bit left out or were falling behind. And, when I was rather older and studying psychology and anthropology at university, we’d talk about things like cultural influences and the way people think. By that time, she had moved on and was working with the ethnology department of the big regional museum.
She was a complicated, intelligent and demanding person who would incisively put her finger on things she saw obstructing human fulfillment and goodness. Boredom in her view was, I learned, not just about a “slovenly” mind. It was about an obnoxiously ill-mannered, lazy and immaturely self-focused mind. It was a cowardly refusal to explore anything beyond the boundaries of one’s own immediate preoccupations. Its cure was curiosity, and firing curiosity was, to her, the first obligation of a teacher. Curiosity is what feeds and grows the “self”… not times tables and the alphabet: curiosity makes the “self” interesting enough to live with. And the truth in The Faerie Queen is that it resonates with the inner struggles of bringing one’s “self” to maturity.
Boredom, my mother would say, is a dereliction of that struggle.
Boredom seems to be a peculiarly “modern” mood. It first appeared in literature in 1852: several times, in Charles Dickens' Bleak House.The expression “to be a bore” apparently turn up about 100 years earlier. Recent research has connected boredom with cultural variables and gender, attention spans and depression. And it’s been linked to a host of psychological physical, educational, and social problems including depression.
Boredom seems to have had a lot to do with the odd angst of Ivan Chtcheglov. The son of a taxi-driving Ukrainian revolutionary father and a French mother, he was a perfect candidate for the toothbrush. He won some notoriety when a fit of ennui drove him and a friend to try to “deconstruct” the Eiffel Tower with stolen dynamite because “its light kept them awake at night.” For five years following his failed attempt on the Paris landmark, he was confined to a mental hospital and died in 1998.
As a political theorist, activist and poet, Chtcheglov inspired several small, volatile, left-wing avant-garde groups like the Lettrist International and the Situationist International: left-wing cliques of exclusivist, squabbling and egocentric artist-intellectuals. “We are bred in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun,” Chtcheglov declared in 1953. “A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization,” he wrote with characteristic portentiousness. “Presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.”
Then, in the late 1960s, the Situationists coined a Chtcheglovian slogan: “The society that abolishes every adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” It was an augury of punk that reappeared on a banner under which members of the “Reclaim the Streets” movement partied when they shut down London’s M41 motorway in 1996. But is was not society but their own timidity, laziness, lack of imagination and extreme presumptions of entitlement that denied these listless souls “adventure”.
The thing that shines most vividly from Chtcheglov’s intellectual legacy is its self-pitying, ineffective pointlessness. A few attempts at penetrating observation float off to die alone and incompletely understood in voids of self-absorption, all for want of a toothbrush and a cup of water.
My mother would have sorted out Martin Heidegger. He associated boredom with waiting at train stations. “So walk, you fool,” I can hear my mother sharply snap. A couple of hours in our bathroom, and he’d have prised his head from his navel and the world would never have heard his pronouncement that: "profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals being as a whole.” What a wuss. It seems to me he missed a bit in the corner too.
Baudelaire blamed society's corruption for inflicting boredom on sensitive souls. My mother would have blamed Baudelaire. Schopenhauer described boredom as a “tame longing without any particular object”, while to Dostoevsky it was “a bestial and indefinable affliction”. Erich Fromm viewed boredom — “perhaps the most important source of aggression and destructiveness today” — as a psychological response to industrial society that locks us into alienated labour. A Canadian classicist, Peter Toohey, has countered that boredom is “a timeless universal human emotion” that impels us to art and literature. “Stuff it… I think I’ll write a novel,” one can imagine Tolstoy grunting as he launched himself into page one of War And Peace. Author Elizabeth Goodstein says that, although boredom seems embedded in the human condition, it’s linked to ways of thinking about our existence and experiencing time that reflect a specifically modern “crisis of meaning”.
Boredom has certainly become the bane of modern and postmodern society. It seems to have a way of surfacing wherever societies suffered self-inflicted surfeits of wealth: it drove Roman emperors mad. But, while the likes of Caligula could express their cravings for heightened stimulation in “real life” by engaging with high-risk abandon in real violence and extreme experience, boredom merely scums our social interfaces as an appetite for simulation and depictions of fantastical activity. It sustains a stupendously lucrative market for “entertainment” and titillation.
It leads us over the rainbow to a place where consequences scarcely exist, a kind of nowhere zone that is far safer, less demanding and less disappointing than reality, but also less satisfying. Life takes on the characteristics of an air guitar: the only place we get to live out our fantasies in is our heads because the fantasies are, in real life, beyond us: untenable and inexpressible. And, shorn of consequence, they lead nowhere. But, so demanding does real life seem by comparison that the temptation is to let our imaginations shrivel like vacuum packaging around the simulations.
Entertainment is a form of transcendence, but it’s one that persistently reminds us of our own ineffectiveness. It mocks us, and what else can we do but glaze over?
On the other hand, the transcendence that comes from within, rising sharp, bright and scary out of real life, changes us, often dramatically; it brings us to life: vivid real life. And, when we are changed, our world is changed.
Real life is not in the least boring, yet the amount of time spent in front of computer and television screens is rising.
Different studies produce varied estimates but a good idea of what’s going on was given by the U.S. ratings service Nielsen in May 2008. It reported that the average American was then spending a little over four hours a day locked in communion with a television set (127 hours and 15 minutes a month) and another 26 hours, 26 minutes a month working out online: together, on average, that’s five hours of electronically delivered inputs a day: one third of a healthy waking human life, or 75 full, 24-hour days a year. A 2010 Canadian study of high school students found their average daily screen time was about seven hours: more than 100 days of the year. If work and commuting take up nine hours a day, and sleep a healthy eight, and another seven hours are spent staring at a screen… that leaves no time at all for family, for preparing and eating food, for keeping fit, for getting to know friends and neighbours, for smelling the roses… for silence and solitude, for contemplation and reflection. Something’s wrong here …entertainment has become THE thing, and the most damaging, hurtful accusation that can be hurled at a person, a place, an event or an activity is that it’s “boring”.
Young backpackers, eagerly looking forward to taking a gap year to explore “the world”, were surveyed by TNT Magazine Travel Show 2008. Asked what they rated as the most essential item to take with them, 32 per cent of these intrepid would-be adventurers (mindful of the acute danger of travel-tedium) chose their iPods. That a first aid kit might come in handy, just in case, occurred to a mere two per cent of them.
An unfortunate thing about entertainment media is the way that the experience has to keep intensifying to hold the interest of its quickly jaded heavy users. It works precisely like a drug addiction: each “fix” needs a bigger kick to keep up with the craving.
So, in just over 50 years, “horror” movies have progressed from the whimsical absurdity of a giant radioactive octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) to the graphic sexual torture of films like Eli Roth’s Hostel (called “a sadistic freak show” by one of the film’s more charitable reviewers)… while electronic games have gone from William Higginbotham’s innocent Tennis for Two game of 1958 to Nintendo’s Mad World that lets players rip enemies’ hot, pulsating hearts from their chests, hack them apart with chainsaws and impale them on road signs… all on the “family friendly” Wii console. Entertainment is fraught in this way with the characteristics of addiction. And the boredom deepens.
Genrich Krasko, an American physicist and author of This Unbearable Boredom of Being, sees boredom as one of the most burning problems of today's America: crime, drugs, greed, ugly gender polarization, disintegration of family, decay in morals, racism, and so on, are the direct consequences of a crisis of meaning that has engulfed America.
Krasko, is a fan and follower of the late Dr Viktor Frankl: a psychiatrist, psychologist, philosopher and Holocaust survivor who, in The Unheard Cry for Meaning, wrote: “For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”
And, in Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning: “Unlike an animal, man is no longer told by drives and instincts what he must do. And in contrast to man in former times, he is no longer told by traditions and values what he should do. Now, knowing neither what he must do nor what he should do, he sometimes does not even know what he basically wishes to do. Instead, he wishes to do what other people do... or he does what other people wish him to do...”
It’s time to pull out of the nosedive.