The modern curse
A Philosophy of Boredom
Lars Fredrik Svendsen; translation by John Irons Reaktion Books, 192pp
Lars Svendsen's inquiry is a good, solid practical work of philosophy, in the tradition of Aristotle's Ethics and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. He has a light touch and a playful attitude, and draws on a wide range of texts, from Martin Heidegger and Samuel Beckett to Iggy Pop and the Pet Shop Boys.
The opening section is particularly strong. I was fascinated to learn that boredom was invented in 1760; the word is not found in English prior to this, though related concepts such as melancholy and acedia did exist. Acedia is from the Greek akedia, meaning "not to care". Usually translated as sloth, it meant not so much laziness as a betrayal of your duty to observe God. The monk who gave up, who didn't care, was committing possibly the most grievous sin of all, because not caring about God implied not caring about being lustful, avaricious or proud.
Svendsen does not really go into the historical circumstances surrounding the emergence of boredom. The date 1760 is surely tremendously significant, because it connects the beginning of boredom with the beginning of the industrial revolution. It was in 1764 that James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny and James Watt invented the steam engine. These two dastardly machines - Blake's "cogs tyrannic" - tore the peasant from his creative self-sufficiency and substituted machine-work for handiwork.
Work in the 19th century duly became unbelievably boring and tedious, and has remained so ever since. Modern consumerism provides an arsenal of weapons to alleviate boredom. Adverts for Virgin Megastores, for example, explicitly claim the shop's products will make you less bored. We seek solace from the tedium of toil in manufactured entertainment, and fill our leisure time with ever more lunatic activities (extreme sports spring to mind).
I was also fascinated to learn that the concept of "interesting" emerged at roughly the same time. Before 1760, we neither categorised things as being "boring" nor "interesting"; they just were. Perhaps the concept of individualism was not sufficiently developed for man to pre-sume to judge one way or the other. For me, however, this splitting mirrors the modern division between "work" and "leisure". Before the industrial revolution, as E P Thompson argues in The Making of the English Working Class, work and leisure were much more intertwined.
The punk movement was a nice, juicy protest against boredom; Svendsen cites the extreme rocker G G Allin and the Buzzcocks, creators of the song "Boredom", with its famous one-note guitar solo. But again, he could have gone further. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus places punk in the same tradition as Dada and situationism, which were both attempts to assert the value of living over the bourgeois ideal of mere survival. The situationist Raoul Vaneigem, for example, wrote in The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967) that "people are dying of boredom". Ten years later, the Sex Pistols created some of the least boring music of the modern age out of the experience of being bored.
In the end, delightful and important though the book is, I found Svendsen's conclusions a bit wimpy. Boredom, he seems to say, is just something we've got to live with. Some are more prone to it than others. Svendsen sees it as principally a psychological condition, whereas I would put more of the blame on boring governments, boring shops, boring products and the loss of creativity in our daily lives. He seems to admire the Warholian response to boredom, which is to say: "Who cares?"
At one point, Svendsen quotes Karl Rosenkranz, who wrote in 1853: "The boring is ugly, or rather: Ugliness to the point of the dead, empty tautological awakens a feeling of boredom in us." But he does not then, like William Morris, relate the rise of ugliness to the rise of capitalism. It is surely the inexorable progress of capitalism towards an ideal of quantity rather than quality that leads to its stifling homogeneity, ugliness and boredom. To become less bored, shouldn't we attempt to reclaim our lives from work, and live them freely and creatively?
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler and the author of How To Be Idle (Hamish Hamilton)