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Photographed by Dasha Cowley


22 January 2023

On Boredom 


Ennui, tedium, monotony. Words for a condition we have all felt at some point in our lives: boredom.


I have found myself feeling it rather acutely in the last few weeks. I have tried to relieve myself of it by engaging in exercise, television watching, pornography and half-arsed attempts at finding a job, but alas it has proven to be rather stubborn. My conundrum has led me to do a little research into the state, see if it is remediable and if, in the present age, we as human beings tend to feel boredom more so than those in previous ages. 


When I think of the word boredom, several things pop into my mind: decrepit sea-side bingo halls, Gordon Brown’s face and Slough trading estates. However, greater minds than I have addressed the theme throughout literature and philosophy. Take for example The Outsider, in which Albert Camus describes the life of an Algerian settler named Meursault. As a character he is plagued by apathy, indifference and to a large degree boredom. He whittles the time away at his mother’s funeral, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, and rather than mourning can only exclaim on how hot it is. He even conducts what is the crescendo of the novel, the murder of the Arab, in a state of indifferent boredom. Rather than carrying out a crime of conscious hatred or passion, Meursault claims the intensity of the sun and the glinting of the light compel him to shoot the man. 


Now I hope no one’s boredom is so extreme that they’re forced to shoot someone on their next beach holiday, but Camus’ novel does illuminate the pervasiveness of these kinds of apathetic states of mind which he sees as a result of life’s absurdity.


Several philosophers have also attempted to address the issue of boredom, viewing it as inextricably linked to the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. Schopenhauer, in true pessimistic fashion, described boredom as ‘the sensation of the worthlessness of existence’. Moreover, he saw boredom as one of life’s two poles, the other being a combination of want, desire and need. Therefore, when we experience desire, we strive for something, and upon achieving it we realise our goals. A strong measure of boredom then stops us from basking in our glory on a sofa with a bag of crisps (at least not for too long) as we then look for our next desired objective. In this sense, Schopenhauer saw boredom as a necessary component of life (more on this later).


So, is boredom more pervasive in the modern age than it has been in the past? Karl Marx certainly thought so. He saw it as an inevitable side effect of industrialised, capitalist society. People are forced to sell their labour in order to survive and are alienated from the fruits of their work in Marx’s eyes, and are therefore shackled not only by their proverbial chains, but also by extreme monotony. Perhaps Karl has a point. However, nowadays in the West, we find ourselves living in a post-industrial world. In this world which Marx failed to predict we are faced with even more ubiquitous tedium. Our attention is eroded by vacuous short-form media that is designed to keep us hooked with instant gratification, therefore rendering the ‘real’ world a dissatisfying doldrum of despondency. Furthermore, when I think of the modern workplace, I am filled with nothing but dread. Though office life is certainly more comfortable than the factory or the mineshaft, it brings its own problems, principally associated with boredom and meaninglessness. Dreary grey offices, and the even drearier morass of middle managers in terrible suits makes me want to steer well clear of the post-capitalist, corporatist world of work. 


German psychologist Erich Fromm, a disciple of Marx, closely studied the concept of alienation in the modern world. He wrote: ‘We rarely speak about one of the most terrible things of all: that is, being bored, being bored alone and, worse than that, being bored together’.


I also see it as a strange condition of the modern world that we have gyms. 200 years ago, only rich people and social outcasts would go into a room and deliberately lift weights above their head. Moreover, you would only go on a run if you were late for a train or were an 8-year-old. Nowadays however, our levels of boredom borne out of relatively high levels of material comfort have compelled us to set up great warehouses, where we go to put ourselves in intentional pain and discomfort to try and escape our crippling tedium. It’s bizarre when you think of it like that.


As we have established then, boredom seems to be omnipresent. In lieu of this, how do we escape it? The philosopher Bertrand Russell was critical of this escapist mentality. Like Schopenhauer he saw boredom as an inevitability. The endurance of boredom is necessary in his eyes if one is working towards a goal that is greater than themselves. Martin Heidegger took this a step further and in fact saw boredom as a harmonious state of being. It is a mood which prepares your mind for profound vision- giving us the ability to consider the nature of time and meaning. It is of this condition that ground-breaking ideas emerge. As Heidegger wrote: ‘Philosophy is born in the nothingness of boredom’.


But in the familiar romanticised style of the philosopher, both Heidegger and Russell fail to consider the emotional discomfort of boredom. Though they may be right that the condition is a prerequisite for renewal and achievement, it seems to me that one cannot simply embrace it. Everyone has been bored at some point in their lives (unless perhaps you’re some kind of psychopath) and consequently you know how it feels. Your mind is preoccupied solely with the intention of displacing your boredom. It is more of a primal urge permeated with desperation than a conscious act.


This article has been a mostly futile attempt at alleviating myself of my monotonous malaise and an attempt to shed some light on the condition for you, dear reader. Though I do enjoy writing, and it has captured me mostly for the duration of this piece, the cycle which Schopenhauer described will begin again. About ten minutes after I have finished editing this, I will be back in front of a television screen, probably with a bag of crisps, thinking desperately what the hell I’m going to do next.  If you have managed to read this far, I do hope I haven’t inflicted my boredom onto you. But bear this in mind: the next time you wake up from the pages of your plant science textbook in a puddle of drool you’re not just hopelessly bored, you’re a small step away from being a creative genius. Or so the philosophers say.

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