Boredom Hrach Bayadyan
It would seem that modern man is condemned to experience boredom. Boredom or the efforts to dispel it are inseparable from his or her life. And today, consumerist society provides numerous and varied means to cope with boredom—travel, hobbies, fitness, extreme sports, etc—not to speak of television, the cell phone, computer games, and diverse Internet services.
However, “We live in a culture of boredom,” “Our civilization is based on boredom,” and other such claims are likely to be expected from a Western critic. Boredom too, like other fruits of modernity, has its geography. Despite the fact that no one is safe against boredom, the luxury of being bored is not equally accessible to all societies and strata. As Lars Svendsen observes (we will touch on his book in greater detail below) there are no statistics on the spread of the boredom epidemic. It is not clear as to which strata of society suffer from boredom and to what degree. The history of boredom can be spoken about in a more specific manner. Boredom has been experienced and expressed, understood and interpreted, in different ways in different times. People’s methods of overcoming boredom have been different too.
Many authors have written about boredom— Pascal, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, and more. It would seem that the closer we get to the present day the more destructive boredom becomes, compelling creative types—from writers and artists to rock musicians—to reflect on this theme. Nevertheless, it remains a difficult psychological state to define. Kierkegaard equates boredom with the devil and defines it thus: “The demonic is that which is without content, boring.” According to Dostoevsky, boredom is “a bestial and indefinable affliction.” One of the present-day researchers of the phenomenon of boredom, Elizabeth Goodstein, labels it “experience without qualities,” where the allusion to Robert Musil’s novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is evident.
There is no exact answer as to the reasons for boredom and similar questions. Is boredom mostly a social or psychological issue and is the attitude one may have toward it an aesthetic perspective or a moral dilemma? Is it characteristic only of capitalist societies or is it an integral part of human life in general? How should we separate boredom from melancholy and depression, etc? Anything can be hidden under a mask of boredom, from indifference to aggression. It can be a defense mechanism, but it can also give rise to a fervent desire for risk-taking.
As we learn from Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom, boredom is a social construction of the era that began in the middle of the 18th century. “Interesting” as a concept came to light simultaneously with that of boredom. It was not up to then accepted practice to classify things as being either “boring” or “interesting.” Understandably, such a classification contrasted “boring” with “interesting.” That which was interesting was attractive. To be interesting meant not being boring.
In surviving texts from ancient times one can find descriptions of human experience that are reminiscent of boredom. The best example is the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament: “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity.” Seneca refers to the concept of tedium vitae which signifies weariness of life. But these are rare examples. One has to say that probably boredom was unknown to the ancient Greeks, at least as an established cultural form. Medieval Christianity utilized the words acedia or accidia from the Greek akedia (ἀκηδία) which in Latin meant “carelessness,” and can be expressed by the phrase “not to care.” For not only Pascal but even Kierkegaard, boredom was conceptualized in a religious context—e.g., “Boredom is the root of all evil.”
Svendsen distinguishes two primary types of boredom—situative boredom and existential boredom. The first is an attitude brought on by a set of circumstances. The second characterizes the entire era. When Svendsen says that “boredom is the privilege of modern man” he is referring to the existential type of boredom.1
Thus, one can claim that bored individuals are the offspring of the industrial age. They are shaped in an urban environment when a certain level of well-being is achieved and when it is possible to control one’s free time away from the workplace. In post-traditional society boredom becomes the property of the masses. The ability of the “middle class” to consume was entirely sufficient for it to be bored. The boring/interesting coupling reflected the separation of work and leisure. The daily drudgery and all the other duties making up the villagers’ lives gave them no chance to be bored. The meaning of their existence, inseparable from the natural world and the changing seasons, was ensured by their deep interconnection with celestial forces.
The Romantics were the first to proclaim “living an interesting life” as a way to escape boredom. Furthermore, in this instance “interesting” was primarily understood in an aesthetic sense. The tedium of the daily grind could be overcome by originality, by innovation. If traditional societies had mostly pursued collective meaning, from the time of the Romantics this was no longer enough. To live became a personal search for meaning. Man strives for the meaning that is obtained on the road to self-realization. In accordance with this, the cause of boredom is a lack of personal meaning in one’s life. In this case there is a constant danger of lack of meaning, given that meaning is not automatically guaranteed. Thus, it appears that boredom and the demand for one’s personal meaning embraced by the Romantics are two sides of the same coin. To avoid living a life of boredom one must give meaning to one’s life, while a lack of meaning leads to boredom.2
Thus, if we focus on “existential boredom” we can state that boredom is a problem more of meaning than of idleness or free time. Many have written about the postmodern crisis of meaning and its causes, often suggesting ways to overcome it. Let us touch briefly on a few of these.
In his book The Will to Meaning (1969) Viktor Frankl recorded that contemporary man suffered from a deep sense of loss of meaning; a state that he diagnosed as “existential vacuum.” This sense of loss of meaning characterizes posttraditional man who cannot make up his mind as to what he wants and what he must do, since tradition no longer dictates what is necessary. Frankl’s works were translated and widely read throughout the world. The theory he conceived and his psychiatric methods, widely known under the names of logotherapy and existential analysis, were practiced in many countries.
David Harvey, monitoring the history of time-space compression, describes the interaction of postmodern culture and the “postmodern condition,” uncovering the subsequent retreat of meaning in all forms of cultural expression:
“The experience of time and space has changed, the confidence in the association between scientific and moral judgments has collapsed, aesthetics has triumphed over ethics as a prime focus of social and intellectual concern, images dominate narratives, and ephemerality and fragmentation take precedence over eternal truths and unified politics.”3
Zygmunt Bauman uses the term “personalized society” to describe contemporary Western society which is typified by fragmentation, the breakdown of collective meanings, the colonization of the “public” by the “private,” the disappearance of the public sphere, etc. He also stresses the inability of man to master his or her own private life, life condemned to individuality, since man does not have sufficient means at his or her command to resolve the problems of self-constitution.
The paths to overcome the state of crisis which Bauman points out are not new or unexpected: the restoration of the moral foundations of human existence, the development of appropriate ethical norms for the new postmodern era, the creation of new mechanisms for harmony and for the construction of collective meaning, etc. One of his conclusions notes that man’s life has to be replenished with those values that are not subject to the destructive influence of time, because only thus can human life have meaning.4
When discussing the causes of boredom, Svendsen does not forget to mention contemporary technologies (not only industrial but also domestic) which, according to him, condemn man to passivity. For example, a person who watches television for four hours every day probably gets bored. That means that television does not so much save him or her from boredom as it expresses his or her state of being bored. Others may claim that the computer itself is “the earthly manifestation of the spirit of ennui” (T.J. Snaith) despite the generally widespread conviction that certain features of the new media (e.g., interactivity) enable the users to be active participants in decision-making.
In the 1970s in the West, predominantly in the United States, the “information revolution” began to be talked about in the form of radical technological transformations that would also be revolutionary in a social sense. Today, some of the essential conceptions of that rhetoric are the information society, digital technologies, cyberspace, virtual reality, etc. Thus, information and communications technologies create new possibilities for the formation of individual identity and the shaping of social solidarity; for example, they assist in overcoming cultural and social differences and restrictions of time and space (e.g., by allowing for unhindered and instantaneous communication). Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community “seeks to persuade us that the Internet is the modern means not only to recover the sense of community but also to attain ‘true spiritual communion.’”5
However, as Kevin Robins and Frank Webster maintain in their critique, the virtual society described in the prophecies of futurologists and techno-visionaries is merely a pacified and managed space. Their main aim is the colonization of the future—i.e., the colonization of possibilities.
The central theme of the majority of interpretations of contemporary technological transformation is the elimination of distance, which supposedly is one of the primary restrictions of human existence and which must be overcome. The virtual world that arises is an incorporeal world in which humans live as fragmented subjects, void of bodily form, by overcoming the limitations of physical space. Here, the border between the internal and the external is undermined, the differences between the “self” and the “other” is dissipated … After describing the situation Robins and Webster ask “whether there is any longer a basis for meaning—both aesthetic and moral—in a world that has been deprived of both nearness and distance.”6
The collected works of Viktor Frankl were published in the Soviet Union in 1990, on the eve of the empire’s collapse. D.A. Leontiev, in the foreword to the collection (such introductory prefaces were unavoidable in the Soviet Union since the bourgeois author had to be presented to the Soviet reader in the correct way by offering essential guideposts for comprehension and interpretation), noted how the manifestations of the “existential vacuum” took root in various countries, adding that “now our country has encountered the same thing. The moral crisis is nothing more than the feeling of meaninglessness on the part of an enormous number of people regarding their own lives … A number of social pathologies are explained by this—the spread of alcoholism and crime, drug usage, the increase in suicides … The moral crisis is a crisis of meaning, a crisis of responsibility, which is the consequence of a mindset to train people to be ‘cogs in the wheel.’”
Was Soviet man capable of becoming bored, of experiencing melancholy and attacks of depression? By definition—no. The Soviet modernization project also assumed industrialization, urbanization, etc. However, it was distinguished by an important peculiarity—it proceeded without the process of individualization, without the cultivation of the private, of a personal life. Life’s meaning was guaranteed via the communist “radiant future” (“entrusting one’s life to the future,” “the future in the present”), and was embodied in the lifestyle and everyday practices of Soviet citizens: disinterested enthusiasm and optimism, work in the name of public welfare, etc. Mikhail Ryklin defines the period of Stalinist dictatorship as a permanent “military state” where terror takes the form of rejoicing.
Sometimes, with the passage of years, established lifestyles and customs become a refuge where individuals can defend themselves from momentous occurrences, tensions, and upheavals, and where they can rediscover spiritual balance. On the other hand, it is precisely in daily life, in ordinary situations, that boredom can catch one out. As Svetlana Boym notes, as early as the end of the 19th century the use of the Russian word byt, which originally meant one’s daily lifestyle, began to be used by the Russian symbolists (and subsequently by the revolutionaries) to mean the kingdom of stagnation and routine, the kingdom of daily ephemerality and the absence of the transcendental (spiritual, artistic or revolutionary).
The Russian intelligentsia then declared war on the “routine” and the humdrum element of daily life. After the October Revolution the war against the daily grind entered a new stage and normal boring daily life was transformed into the exotica of days long gone by. When collective life was put on a pedestal, individual life was perceived as a social misunderstanding, an unpardonable manifestation of egoism. The components of the Soviet ideal of the new man were self-sacrifice, anti-individualism, and asceticism.7
The 1969 novel Khumhar (Amenian: “Hangover”) by the Armenian writer Hrant Matevosyan deals with the daily routine of individuals taking screenwriter courses at the Moscow Cinema House. The incidents described take place in the year 1965. Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte is retold in the novel. What is portrayed is the “boring life, incomprehensible sorrow, constant anxiety” of heroes that are “still walking, still loving, and still being bored.” “They were satiated with sleep, bread, and joy. Too lazy to hate one another, they wallowed in unwarranted sorrow. Now they were lightly going to swallow a lethal dose of sleeping pills … ” Whereas in the Moscow milieu depicted in the novel we find people ready to serve the communist ideology and people who refuse the possibility of establishing a career in such a manner, who resist temptations. We witness betrayal, despair, and moral downfall, but not boredom and “incomprehensible sorrow.”
To all appearances, the situation begins to gradually change in the last period of Soviet history, in the interval between the “Thaw” and perestroika which was also the time when nationalism strengthened and dissident voices came to the fore. As Svetlana Boym notes, in the late 1960s a private life in the nonofficial culture began to be seen as practically the only model of nonconformist behavior. The years of stagnation were years when apathy, disillusion, and duplicity proliferated. It was a time when, in particular, “the 1960s language of sincerity was replaced by irony, whose object was both the official Soviet language and the language of the ‘Thaw.’” People learned to play the role society demanded of them (by accepting or disregarding the daily required dose of ideology) among other roles intended for different settings. And in a situation where cynicism could have seemed like one of the more attractive forms of intellectual individualism, perhaps boredom would have become the subtlest form of resistance that the intellectual could offer up against the demands of Soviet ideology. In any event, the Soviet Armenian bohemian community that spent long hours sitting in Yerevan cafés during those years clearly showed signs of boredom. Thus, boredom was solely a part of elite culture and was not manifested on a wide scale.
A series of images from the post-Soviet “cold and dark” years have been forever etched in my memory. This was a time when the Armenian-Azerbaijani war was in full swing, when Armenia found itself in a blockade with no gas, no gasoline, and practically no electricity and when the transportation and heating systems of Yerevan had been paralyzed. After one or two freezing winters, Yerevan residents learned how to warm themselves using wood and kerosene stoves. The heavy layer of industrial and transportation-induced smog hanging over Yerevan that had become a common sight during the last decades of Soviet rule gave way to a cloud of smoke emanating from house chimneys which enveloped the center of this city of one million. It made a strange and terrifying picture. And when there were power cuts of unknown duration and the trams stood frozen in their tracks, you would see people, here and there, sitting in the immobile trams for hours on end in the hope that, perhaps, the power would come back on, allowing the trams to run once again and take them to wherever they were going. Now, when I recall that image of people sitting motionless in the trams, I ask myself whether those sitting idly like that for a long time were not bored. Probably not. When the only way to get somewhere was by foot it sometimes took hours to walk there.
1 / Lars Fr.H. Svedsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, Reaktion Books, London 2005, p. 21.
2 / Svedsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, p. 28.
3 / David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell, Cambridge 1990, p. 328.
4 / Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society, Polity Press, Cambridge 2001, p. 239.
5 / Kevin Robins, Frank Webster, Times of the Technoculture: From the Information Society to the Virtual Life, Routledge, London 1999, p. 230.
6 / Robins/Webster, Times of the Technoculture, p. 246.
7 / Svetlana Boym, Commonplaces: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1994, p. 29–40.