The Thrill of Boredom

Santino, a 33-year-old chimp, likes to collect rocks before the Furuvik Zoo in Sweden opens and pile them up on the visitor side of his island. He greets the 300 less hirsute primates who crowd around his enclosure every day with missiles hurled from his cache. Indignation? Bad temper? Or is Santino so bored with his captivity that he’s taken to seeking relief — and entertainment — by throwing rocks at those on the outside?

Boredom, as I like to think Santino illustrates, is a pretty straightforward emotion. It’s a product of predictability and of unavoidable and unchanging circumstances. And if there’s no break from the boredom, it can easily spill over into anger and even violence. There’s a message here: avoid situations that may produce boredom, or rocks are liable to fly.

Simple boredom has a very long history. It’s not, as many argue, just a modern malaise. In fact, it’s a universal emotion that was just as evident in antiquity as it is in animals. My favorite example from boredom’s long and colorful past is a Latin inscription from the Italian city of Benevento, in a region now better known for the Camorra than for boredom. The inscription dates from the third century of our era:

For Tanonius Marcellinus, a most distinguished man of the consular rank at Campania and a most worthy patron as well, because of the good deeds by which he rescued the population from endless boredom, the entire people judges that this inscription should be recorded.

That must have been quite some boredom to warrant such a dedication. It may be unique in Western history. Tanonius Marcellinus probably cured the Beneventans’ boredom, which may have spilled over into rioting and rock-throwing, with the still efficacious regimen of aerobic exercise — in this case a gladiatorial contest in an amphitheater.

These days it often seems that it’s young people who complain most about boredom. Why so? Do the many means of stimulation in this age of instant entertainment make it much harder for them to keep interested and absorbed? Perhaps. But if the Beneventans are anything to go by, that’s probably not the only reason. Their boredom is more likely to result from the collision of their exuberant young lives with an adult insistence that they buckle down, not always reasonably, to the demands of the grown-up world.

So, if you see a young person assuaging a case of boredom with graffiti, don’t blame the age of the Xbox. The motive may be the same as that of the Roman graffitist who wrote 2,000 years ago, “Wall, I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.” Graffiti is often a product of the idle vandalism of youths suffering a boredom not unlike that of their ancient predecessors.

Maybe this link with the very young is why boredom often produces such unsympathetic and incredulous responses in adults — and why its beneficial possibilities are so often missed. Who would wish to share such an emotion with a mere child? Instead, grown-ups will sometimes complain that they suffer not from simple boredom, but from an existential boredom.

This form of “spiritual” boredom is a very serious matter indeed. It was once quite fashionable, and it still exudes an exotic world-weariness — much more impressive than to simply say, “I’m bored.” Existential boredom, it is claimed, can infect a person’s very existence with unrelieved emptiness, isolation and alienation. And it takes in many well-known conditions, evoked by such names as melancholia, ennui, mal de vivre, tristesse, taedium vitae, acedia, spiritual despair, existentialist “nausea” — and garden-variety depression. It’s the subject of most of the very solemn and earnest books written on boredom.

But not of David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published novel, “The Pale King.” This book puts simple boredom — the boredom of tax returns, offices and tax examinations — on center stage. It’s also the sort of boredom that some of Wallace’s tortuously long and deliberately difficult descriptions invoke in his reader. For this is not simply a dystopian version of modern life from which the young I.R.S. wrigglers yearn to escape. Rather, the routines of the tax office seem to provide for them — almost all of whom are troubled individuals with difficult backgrounds — an orderly, unvarying, dependable home. Santino would not have lasted long at the Internal Revenue Service. But Wallace showed how boredom can illuminate and soothe the more extreme emotional states.

It’s not just in “The Pale King” that boredom extends — as unlikely as it sounds — the helping hand. In real life it acts as an early warning that certain situations may be dangerous to human well-being. It’s not unlike disgust, another emotion that helps humans prosper. Just as disgust stops you from eating what is noxious, so boredom, in social settings, alerts you to situations that can do no psychological good. Boredom, interpreted properly, might act as an alarm. It urges you to step back.

So perhaps boredom is designed to encourage people to adapt their behavior and to protect them from social toxins, just as its first cousin disgust is designed, biologically speaking, to cause people to adapt their behavior to real physical toxins. Perhaps boredom should be viewed just as gout sometimes is, or angina or even mild strokes — as a sign of worse things to follow unless there’s a change in lifestyle. It’s not for nothing that the great Russian novelist Ivan Goncharov’s beguiling behemoth of boredom, the endearing Ilya Oblomov, perished of a stroke after a long lifetime of ignoring boredom’s siren signals. Boredom, I am saying, may play a salutary, evolutionary role in human life.

And boredom has other, less spectacular, benefits. The airman Dunbar in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” thought it was good for longevity — by slowing the passage of time. Boredom can also encourage innovation. It can breed dissatisfaction with ways that are intellectually shopworn. It can drive the thoughtful to question the accepted and to seek out beneficial change. And daydreaming — it’s often a byproduct of boredom. In their book, “The Secret World of Doing Nothing,” two Swedish social scientists, Billy Ehn and Orvar Lofgren, wonder if it makes people “able to imagine new possibilities.” Chris Fogle, the I.R.S. functionary in “The Pale King,” thinks so. “I tend,” he explains, “to do my most important thinking in incidental, accidental, almost daydreamy ways.”

Boredom makes our lives run more smoothly and even more happily. That’s if we heed its warning and try to remedy the deleterious constraints of a Santino-like existence.

Boredom should not be abused, exploited, ignored, sneered at, rejected or talked down to as a product of laziness or of an idle, uninventive and boring mind. It’s there to help, and its advice should be welcomed and acted upon. That many of us suffer from it should be no cause for embarrassment. Boredom deserves respect for the beneficial experience that it is.

By Peter Toohey, a professor of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Calgary and the author of Boredom: A Lively History.

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