The Baileys are a camping family. My parents camped on their honeymoon. I sleep just as deeply on a mat as I do in a bed, and I don’t mind being woken up by first light and the shrieks of other people’s children. It’s not just the fresh air and the lack of screen time – though they undoubtedly help – but that, away from plug sockets and basic plumbing, it takes longer to meet our elementary needs. Much of modern invention is about convenience, increasing our free time and, with it, the possibility for boredom and the feverish attempts at distraction that follow. In contrast, there is something immediate and simple about having to walk across a field to go to the loo.
It’s a diversion I’ve often craved in this pandemic, during which the time for idleness has increased so that the passing weeks and months are somehow flattened in memory into one monotonous mass. Stripped of many of its usual intervening excitements, life’s routine is unbrokenly repetitive, lulling and listless.
“Boredom,” writes Lars Svendsen in A Philosophy of Boredom, “is the privilege of modern man” – a privilege because it requires a certain amount of self-reflection, which requires time.
In the spring, lockdown came, in some ways, as a relief: having the time – or, rather, the excuse – to do so little is a fantasy for the perennially exhausted. But the second time around, my “leisure” time does not feel so leisurely. Lockdown’s original comforts – box set binges, the simple food of childhood, not having to wear a bra – have lost their novelty. It seems unlikely that I will achieve anything – learn a language, write a novel – during a long winter indoors that I did not achieve the first time. I am reduced to the child, wearily whining, “Are we nearly there yet?”
The sociologist Martin Doehlemann lays out four types of boredom: situative boredom, the temporary kind you might feel when your flight is delayed; the boredom of satiety, when you have had enough of the same thing; existential boredom, when life feels empty; and creative boredom, which forces you to do something new. I have experienced all four over the past six months.
For Kant, the solution to boredom was work – “in idleness man feels a lack of life” – but anyone who’s ever had an office job knows that it is possible to be at once busy and bored. “Boredom” only entered the English language in the 1760s (before then there was acedia, a spiritual listlessness, or boredom’s close but more romantic relation, melancholy), and it is surely no coincidence that the decade also marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Avoiding hard graft, the Romantics sought to evade boredom by chasing individual pleasure – unspecified, limitless, transgressive pleasure; they could devour the whole world and not be full. The most extreme example of such logic is surely Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman, who is driven to ever more perverse vices by a feeling of incessant emptiness; reading American Psycho, Kierkegaard’s assertion that “Boredom is the root of evil” no longer sounds like quite such an exaggeration.
During this pandemic I have had plenty of time for both work and pleasure, yet boredom still permeates. Grey’s Anatomy reruns no long satisfy. (“People who watch TV four hours a day will not necessarily feel or admit that they are bored, but why else should they spend 25 per cent of their waking hours in such a way?” wrote Svendsen in 1999, eight years before Netflix began streaming.) I wonder if my boredom is not new, but simply uncovered by the forcible removal of my choicest distractions.
The poet Joseph Brodsky wrote that boredom is “time’s invasion of your world system. It puts your life into perspective, and the net result is precisely insight and humility.” I recall what my mother might have responded to cries of boredom when I was a child (I say “might” because I don’t remember her saying it, but given its place in parenting liturgy, it seems likely she did): only boring people get bored. Perhaps Brodsky would instead have us answer: only boring people cannot learn to see the value of boredom. I am trying.
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos