Full Bore

A new book looks at the history of boredom. Scott McLemee is fascinated.

June 8, 2011

“Only boring people get bored.” Google offers no settled judgment about who coined this aphorism, but it came to my attention via Arline Tehan, the Rodin scholar, who happens to be my mother-in-law. It was the law of her household, in decades past, giving the kids an incentive to use the library, since otherwise some bit of housework could always be found to occupy their attention. All of this was well before the advent of the Internet, of course -- and I’m told that the TV set was off-limits except during specific evening hours. Then again, staring at a screen never relieves boredom, only anesthetizes it.

The propensity of children to get bored is well-known. Peter Toohey notes in Boredom: A Lively History (Yale University Press) that many adults will insist, out of pride, that they never succumb to it. But thinking of boredom as childish is too simplistic, he argues, while claiming immunity from it is seldom convincing. He admits to being bored “for very large tracts of my life,” and so one may regard his subtitle with a degree of suspicion. If he is prone to boredom, wouldn’t that make him boring? How lively can the book be?

Plenty, as it happens -- though the subtitle is still a bit misleading. The book’s approach is historical only in part. Toohey, a professor of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Calgary, draws on research in such fields as neurochemistry (the relationship between boredom and low dopamine levels) and penology (prisoners in solitary confinement are pushed to the extremes of tedium). He is skeptical, though not dismissive, of the trend in much humanities scholarship of late that treats emotions as so deeply embedded in specific social and cultural contexts as to be inseparable from them.

The most emphatically historicist understanding of boredom, for example, treats it as one of the side effects of modernity, kicking in sometime after the middle of the 18th century. The word “bore” in this sense, whether as a noun or a verb, doesn’t appear in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary from 1755. It seems to enter the English language in the late 1760s, with no clear etymological provenance. And for the symptom-of-modernity interpretation, the timing of its arrival is no accident.

The possibility of boredom only emerges once enough people have the security, leisure, and comfort to complain that security, leisure, and comfort aren’t everything. This coincides with, and is reinforced by, the rapidly expanding market for novels, with their reminder that one’s life could be much more interesting than (alas) it usually is. By the late 18th century, then, the conditions existed for a new sort of unhappiness, requiring a new word to name it. Until then, boredom was not really a problem. Things like famine and religious warfare had made life altogether too exciting.

This insistence on historical context runs against the more commonplace understanding of emotions -- the assumption that they are essentially timeless and universal. To be sure, the factors eliciting admiration, fear, anger, etc., vary from culture to culture, and so does their expression. The disgraced Samurai of the 16th century would commit seppuku; the disgraced American politician of the 21st calls a press conference. But the feelings themselves are the same -- and arguably, there are certain aspects of how we exhibit them cut across any cultural and historical barriers.

The late Silvan Tomkins argued that a few basic affects are hard-wired into us as organisms; they are part of how our nervous systems respond to signals from the environment. Disgust, for example, involves a rapid assessment that something is toxic or contaminating; this induces an involuntary impulse to pull away, with a tendency for the upper lip to curl, as when you smell something foul. The kinds of things inducing that feeling vary from society to society -- and within a society, for that matter. But the curled lip is nature, not culture, at work.

We are complex organisms -- our experience mediated by language and memory, not just sensory impressions. And we are capable of more than one response to a given stimulus. And so the hard-wired affective tendencies identified by Tomkins interact in all kinds of subtle ways -- creating a broad spectrum of human emotions.

Toohey doesn’t discuss affect theory. But he does mention the rather Tomkinsian speculation that boredom may not be a distinct feeling. Instead, it could result from a mixture of “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy, and the feeling of being trapped or confined.” Marshaling evidence for art and literature over the centuries, Toohey makes the case that variations on this combination of feelings can be found well before modernity. Certain similarities of bodily expression of boredom cut across various cultural divides, such as a certain way of slumping while resting head on hands. Boredom is, he argues, a feeling akin to depression and anger, but also a kind of emotional signal telling you to remove yourself from a situation that might overwhelm you with depression and anger.

For what it's worth, I find this intuitively persuasive. At any movie where there turns out to be a car chase, for example, my response always involves “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy, and the feeling of being trapped or confined.” And Toohey tends to confirm my mother-in-law's adage. If you wallow in boredom, or try to evade it by mind-numbing expedients -- rather than cultivating the skills needed to redirect your attention to something else -- there are other soul-depleting forces ready to kick in and make things worse. Clearly the author knows this; he's written an interesting book. And when you finish it, there's one on a recent volume on Rodin by another author that I'll recommend.


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