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The Uses of Tedium

TWO MILLIGRAMS OF The Big B, the doctor will say not so long from now after you have come in for relief from the Theme Park Adventure that is your life. It will cure what ails your restless iPodded, iPadded, and Kindled existence. Boredom, which begins, as Walter Benjamin put it, when “we don’t know what we’re waiting for,” is now a solution, not a problem. Here is the late David Foster Wallace in The Pale King: “It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” And for the Tiger Mom, accepting the monotony of memorizing multiplication tables leads to ... Harvard. “Rote repetition is underrated in America,” she wrote in her infamous Wall Street Journal piece.

Now Peter Toohey has written a short book defending drudgery. Dismissed in the past because it is not a big, passionate emotion like love or hate, boredom, he argues, should be respected and cherished rather than feared and reviled. It is adaptive, “in the Darwinian sense.” Not only can boredom “illuminate certain very famous pieces of art and literature,” but, “boredom has in some ways been a blessing.”  This distinctly un-romantic effort strikingly rejects older philosophical ideas warning that dullness might lead to crime, addiction, or death. “Boredom doesn’t cause anything,” Toohey proclaims. But his book does not merely aim to transform boredom from ugly duckling to swan. It strives to prove that so-called existential boredom might not exist.

Boredom itself has been around under various guises and names—acedia, horror, tedium vitae, and melancholia—for centuries. Common wisdom has it that modern boredom began during the Enlightenment, with increased leisure time and the loss of faith. It grew with modernity and rose to epidemic proportions in nineteenth-century France, and, thanks to technology and the expansion of the self, it has become ubiquitous in our times. For Patricia Meyer Spacks, in Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, boredom is nothing less than an “explanatory myth of our culture.”

But here is Toohey proclaiming boredom’s makeover. This re-evaluation of tedium is owed in part to the arrival of neuroscience to the literary and cultural studies party. Boredom can “protect from infectious social situations,” Toohey claims, citing research indicating that boredom can help you problem-solve or help you avoid toxic social situations. When you are bored, you might discover an “out of the box” solution to a problem. Or boredom might produce disgust, which might help you evade The Bore at a party.

It turns out that there are two types of boredom: the so-called simple type, which arises from repetitive menial tasks, confinement, routine, and excessive repetition, and the existential type, which occurs when the Futility of It All evokes despair and makes you question your place in the world. Toohey is more interested in the former, which can evaporate when you believe that some greater good will result from your wallowing in a mindless chore, when the traffic jam clears up, or when the Bore moves on to his next victim.

Actually, it is more accurate to say that Toohey champions simple boredom and that he believes the existential kind is “more of an impressive intellectual formulation than an actual emotion.” It might, he concedes, be depression. Or it might be what doctors call “chronic” boredom. Or it might be a myth.

According to the logic of this book, the confusion between the two types of boredom starts with medieval monks, who experienced acedia or the Noonday Demon as a loss of faith. Toohey writes that “In subsequent centuries, calling boredom by other over-dignified names—mal du vivre, ennui … has simply become self important.” The word boredom was invented during the Enlightenment, but Toohey reasons that human beings have always suffered from boredom, mostly the simple kind, whether they called it that or not. He finds it in Greek funerary steles, in Latin graffiti about the apparently boring quality of life in Camorra in ancient times, and in Seneca’s nausea. “An emotion cannot be denied to exist in humans or in animals,” he remarks, “because they lack the lexical resource to describe that specific emotion.”

Elsewhere the book purports to show how representations of boredom in art prove that the emotion can be identified by stock facial expressions and gestures, like the chin in the hand or shrugging. Some of the blame for the degree to which these claims strain credulity should be laid at the door of Toohey’s publisher. In his analysis of the funerary stele of Hegeso, he argues that the bored figure looks into the “undefined distance” as opposed to directly at her servant, but the small black and white reproduction makes it impossible to follow her gaze, much less judge whether you agree.

And some of Toohey’s other endeavors to treat art and literature as proofs of boredom—as though they were social facts—are unconvincing on their own. Yelena, the languid heroine of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, does complain “I’m dying of boredom”; but her gripe hardly proves, as Toohey claims, that Chekhov’s work is constructed around “the theme of boredom.” Richard Gilman, a former theatre critic for this magazine, once richly explained how Chekhov used boredom as a device and a screen: “Boredom is undeniably an element of the characters’ lives, part of the weather … but it isn’t a fate itself, it doesn’t define these … people.”

If you teach in a university, you may sympathize with the fact that Toohey displays more sympathy towards animals—he goes to great lengths to demonstrate that cockatoos and chimps suffer terribly from boredom—than to his own colleagues. But the references to the boring quality of academic work and to the boredom of his profession become, well, boring. Toohey blames the tenacity of the myth of existential boredom in part on his colleagues—his profession, really—who delude themselves that they are experiencing existential boredom when it is just the prosaic variety. The fools!

Reading his book, I often wondered whether Toohey, who by his own admission has spent a lot of time being bored, was bored while writing Boredom. There is much in this book to suggest it. While leaping from the boredom of Nazi criminals in jail to the boredom of existential heroes makes sense in this thematically organized book, can anyone alert to literature and history seriously begin a paragraph about Camus, after a discussion of Albert Speer, with the phrase “Another Albert …”?

It her earlier chronicle of boredom, Patricia Spacks Meyers offered more sensible—if more politically incorrect—advice to writers: “As a writer, one has no right to be bored …” Meyers also took up a subject that Toohey, for all his interest in boredom’s positive effects, neglects: the relationship of boredom to gender. Writing about the novels of Anita Brookner, she observes that boredom can separate the powerful, who have the right to complain about it, from the powerless, who do not. As Meyers puts it, “A solitary woman cannot afford to appear bored.” This trenchant observation brought me back to David Foster Wallace and his obsession with boredom. I have been trying to figure out for some time why so few women I know are interested in Wallace, and I now think that his insistence on chronicling and even honoring boredom may be the reason. There are fewer bored women in Wallace than boring ones. I don’t think that this deficit is a good thing.

Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, including The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, forthcoming from The Penguin Press in June.