Between Pain and Pleasure: A Short History of Boredom and Boredology

Based on: Finkielsztein, M. (2018). Wstęp. Między cierpieniem a przyjemnością: krótka historia nudy i nudologii [Introduction. Between Pain and Pleasure: a Brief History of Boredom and Boredology]. Maska, 37, 8-18.

Boredom is a universal human experience, or, to quote enlightenment philosopher, Helvetius, “it is a force in the universe more powerful and acting far more universally than we are accustomed to imagine.” There is probably no one who has never encountered it in his or her life – and those who claim otherwise are surely bores, a tribe of people who, unwilling to meet boredom eye to eye, expose others to this uncomfortable encounter. Apart from its universality, boredom is also one of those things that have accompanied man since the dawn of time.

Nobody knows exactly when boredom was born. Soren Kierkegaard claimed that God was bored already before the creation of the world, Friedrich Nietzsche – that only on the seventh day of creation; Blaise Pascal suggested that boredom appeared after the expulsion of man from paradise and that it is a form of longing for the original closeness with God. The perception of boredom in animals is also a matter of debate, so we do not know whether not yet human ancestors could have been bored. The main axis of contention in this debate is the question of definition – what is boredom in its essence, and is it enough just to manifest certain external symptoms to experience it, or does one still need to be aware that one is suffering from boredom? Philosophers are unanimously of the opinion that boredom is a distinctive human experience, while biologists, on the other hand, claim that some simple forms of boredom can be identified in farm animals, domestic animals and in captivity (in circuses or zoos). Regardless of the outcome of this dispute, it can be said that one of the first documented effects of boredom are the cave paintings at Lascaux dated to around 17-15,000 BC. However, the Neolithic Revolution, i.e. the transition to a sedentary and agricultural way of life, should be considered a particular moment in the history of boredom. One of the more well-known effects of post-revolutionary boredom are, among others, the Egyptian pyramids – agriculture produced, on the one hand, a surplus of food (when there was no crop failure), so some people could be bored to their heart’s content, on the other hand – a boring, repetitive cycle of work on the land, which in the case of Egypt was connected with breaks in work during the floods of the Nile (it was this free time and potential boredom that was utilised by the pharaohs).

Already at this stage we can see the need for a thorough reinterpretation of the history of mankind, as it seems that our heroine, like the Freemasons and the Jews, has been influencing the fate of the world for a long time – except that, unlike the two aforementioned groups, her influence on history is not merely a part of a conspiracy theory. Boredom remained unnamed for a long time, but it can already be found in ancient Near Eastern literature. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000 BC), the king of the city of Uruk is tormented by idleness and embarks on a journey to find a sense of meaning in order to permanently relieve boredom. Kohelet, on the other hand, pointed to another, more pessimistic stigma of our heroine – futility, i.e. the existential form of boredom, the feeling of meaninglessness, veneration, the smallness of man in relation to the universe, the futility of all human activities, which are calculated to dismiss boredom and which fail because nothing can permanently satisfy man – the unknown quickly becomes familiar, and the new turns into the ordinary. Nothing new under the sun.

The presence of boredom can also be observed indirectly in Ancient Greece (the Greeks did not coined the term “boredom”, but used many synonyms). Isocrates described national festivals at Athens during which, while delivering speeches, “those who sleep outnumber those who listen” (Bruss, 2012, p. 319). The Greeks used in such situations, the word ochlos, meaning ‘affliction’ or ‘irritation’ (compare English ‘annoy’), which in the context of listening to speech probably meant a reaction similar to the weariness of contemporaries during a boring sermon or lecture.

Another example of “the constant transition from desire to satisfaction, and from that to a fresh desire, the rapid course of which is called happiness, the slow course sorrow, and so that this game may not come to a standstill, showing itself as a fearful, life-destroying boredom, a lifeless longing without a definite object, a deadening languor” (Schopenhauer, 1969, p. 164), is the king of Epirus, described by Plutarch, Pyrrhus. As long as he did not wage wars, did not know what to do with his time, he felt the same as the Hellenes waiting for a favourable wind before embarking on the Trojan War in Homer, which the Greeks defined with the word alys (English: listlessness, ennui), which can also be associated with boredom.

The Romans defined boredom with the word taedium and described its two major forms: taedium vitae and horror loci. Taedium vitae – or boredom, weariness with life, loathing of life – was another form of philosophically underpinned vanitas, while horror loci – ‘fear of remaining in one place’ – affected bored rich people who moved constantly between their homes in the countryside and in the city, in neither of which they could settle for long because of restlessness and lack of satisfaction. The Romans also saw boredom as a threat to social order and summed up their achievements in this respect with the slogan ‘panem et circenses’, since, as Giacomo Leopardi argued, boredom fills the void between pain, suffering and pleasure. Citizens were fed and entertained so that they would not fall into excessive boredom and organise rebellion or insurrection. On the altar of boredom were sacrificed gladiators, wild animals and … Christians.

Determining the exact age of boredom remains debatable, but there seems to be a strong case for saying that some forms of it can be observed as early as the beginning of human civilisation. Situational boredom would probably be somewhat more common, existential boredom more elitist – since human existence, as Arthur Schopenhauer believed, oscillates between suffering and boredom, when one momentarily banishes the spectre of suffering and hunger, one immediately discovers certain areas of painless existence which are immediately invaded by boredom – and the frequency of such situations must have been greater for people who were not forced to constantly struggle for existence:

as soon as want and suffering give man a relaxation, boredom is at once so near that he necessarily requires diversion and amusement. The striving after existence is what occupies all living things, and keeps them in motion. When existence is assured to them, they do not know what to do with it. Therefore the second thing that sets them in motion is the effort to get rid of the burden of existence, to make it no longer felt, “to kill time,” in other words, to escape from boredom.

(Schopenhauer, 1969, p. 313)

Some, in order to escape boredom, create culture in its various forms (from the simple to the sublime), because “it seems probable that the human capacity for being bored, rather than man’s social or natural needs, lies at the root of man’s cultural advance” (Linton, 1936, p. 90). It is no coincidence that Carnival was held in winter, when there was no work in the fields. Others enlist in the army, wage wars, discover new lands, are haunted by demons or angels, and so on. All human actions, even if unconsciously, are calculated to prevent boredom – already felt or only anticipated – and are the result of the fear that human beings feel of emptiness.

Boredom, then, in its mild form, is a state of lack of satisfaction with what one is doing, characterized by a lack of commitment and an impatient desire to engage in engaging employment; and in a deeper sense, a feeling of the meaninglessness and emptiness of what one is doing, or of life itself, a form of encounter with oneself, an awareness of emptiness and futility. As Blaise Pascal stated, “take away their [people’s] amusement, you will see that they will wither from boredom; they feel their nothingness without knowing it; how unhappy is he who falls into unbearable sadness, as soon as he has to weigh himself and nothing detaches him from it.” This is why people frantically run away from boredom; they are programmed to go about like winding watches that go about without knowing why to reproduce, to prolong their existence, to take pleasure – boredom is frustrating, depressing, unpleasant for most people who do not know how to deal with it, have not tamed it, have not come to terms with the ultimate realities of human destiny. Boredom would thus be a symptom of failure in the struggle to give (a semblance of) meaning to human life (existential boredom) or to the activity performed (situational boredom).

And although the epidemic of boredom certainly dates back to the last three centuries, problems with a sense of meaning and commitment have plagued humanity from the very beginning of its history, and boredom – often unnamed – has been an ulterior motive for many human activities. In different eras, this fundamental human experience has appeared under various names (taedium vitae, acedia, melancholia, spleen, ennui) and has been part of various cultural treatments. Accents, discourses, interpretations and proposed remedies have changed, but at a basic level, boredom has always occurred whenever a person has stopped struggling, at least for a while, to ensure their own existence – as an ulterior motive or, less frequently, as a conscious existential feeling.

Contemporary times differ from past eras in the scale and intensity of the experience of boredom rather than in its essence, because in every epoch we can distinguish both people who felt the futility of existence and those whose feverish need for novelty pushed them to act in various fields of activity. Peasants filled their surroundings with ghosts, divine, semi-divine or demonic beings, spun tales, created and cultivated traditions and rituals, some people of various origins enlisted as soldiers of various rulers, driven by a thirst for adventure and profit, others went hunting, played sports or engaged in artistic or intellectual activities.

Thus, boredom resulted in various activities influencing the course of history, and on a macro scale, boredom may be considered one of the factors responsible for social change. It seems that it is no coincidence that during periods of heightened feelings of futility, uncertainty, meaninglessness and anxiety – which we can call anomic periods – significant changes (for example, religious) and profound reinterpretations of boredom took place. The boredom of paganism paved the way for Christianity, and the anomie of the declining Roman Empire resulted in the conceptualisation of acedia, initially as a strictly monastic experience, then also a secular one. Subsequently, the boredom of ossified Catholicism resulted in heretical movements and eventually the Reformation. It is also no coincidence that the renaissance of melancholy coincided precisely with the period of pre-Reformation instability and religious wars, when the previous regimes of meaning were undermined and the new ones had not yet gained legitimacy. The unrest of the 17th century resulted in the concept of spleen and was an aftermath of the uncertain situation in Europe at the time of the clash between the forces of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Boredom led to the French Revolution, boredom recruited the armies of Napoleon, a contemporary of Pyrrhus, boredom prevailed after the Congress of Vienna, when the growing sense of veneration and lack of agency, called by George Steiner “the great ennui”, came to the fore. And one can go on in this vein ad nauseam.

Boredom is therefore “one of the greatest motivational forces” (Russell, 1932, p. 57) and a basic human disposition. It is not surprising, then, that a large part of the world’s literature was written out of boredom or dedicated to boredom. Voltaire, George Sand, George Gordon Byron, Stendhal, Alfred de Musset, Guy de Maupassant, Gustave Flaubert, Alberto Moravia, among others, wrote to kill boredom, and the list of works in which boredom is one of the important motifs would probably take up several hefty volumes. The heroes of Thomas Mann, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Johann Wolfgang Goethe are bored, the romantics (Francois-Rene Chateaubriand, Benjamin Constant, Theophile Gautier) and the decadents (Andre Gide, Joris-Karl Huysmans) are bored. One might get the impression that the entire literary legacy of the West is a laurel wreath of boredom. As Reinhard Kuhn (1976) pointed out, ” Literature is the natural product of ennui, and only through artistic creation can one overcome it” (p. 309). It is no different with other forms of cultural expression that are created in defence against boredom, that evoke or dismiss it, and that sometimes provide a convenient opportunity to reflect on it. This is the case with literary and film criticism, cinema, painting and … science.

Science was born out of boredom. Some would say out of curiosity, but that is a difference comparable to that between a glass half empty and a glass half full. Science answers the questions what, how and why – these are fundamental questions that arise not from active involvement in the course of things, but as a result of reflection, observation, standing aside. These questions are born from an unsatisfied desire for meaning, they destroy common sense, pre-reflective meanings, they cause a state of cognitive emptiness that can only be filled by the construction of alternative meanings. Thus, the same mechanism of passing from a wish (question) to the satisfaction occurs here – and each subsequent answer gives rise to new questions, pushes the researcher towards the new.

It is not surprising, then, that at some point reflection on boredom itself was undertaken. It would have its origins in the writings of Aristotle (probably his pupil, Theophrastus), to whom is ascribed the famous passage about melancholy being a stigma of eminent and brilliant people, which initiated humanistic, non-medical reflection on melancholy, Seneca, who in his works described the state of taedium vitae, or Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian – who described acedia in depth. Classics in this field of reflection would certainly also include Thomas Aquinas, who re-theorised acedia and made it a permanent part of Christian theology, Marsilio Ficino, who initiated a renaissance of melancholy and returned to the concept of melancholiae generosae, and Robert Burton, the author of the encyclopaedic work The anatomy of Melancholy. In the 17th century, the writings of Pascal, Henri de Saint-Simon or Francois de La Rochefoucauld would have been obligatory positions. Enlightenment thought, many of whose representatives painfully experienced boredom or mentioned it in their writings, would be widely represented. Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Madame de Stael or Louis de Jaucourt undoubtedly contributed to establishing the position of boredom in the pantheon of concepts describing the human condition.

Mature boredology, although not yet aware of its existence, began in the nineteenth century, which was mastered by mal du siecle – ennui. Great merit in describing and analysing the concept of “boredom” was due to the Romantics, who, it seems, were also the main victims of this affliction. The issue was also central in two philosophical currents – pessimism (Giacomo Leopardi, Arthur Schopenhauer, Emil Cioran) and existentialism (Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre). The first half of the twentieth century would be the foundation period of academic boredology: industrial psychology studied the boredom of factory workers, and psychoanalysis pointed to boredom as an important factor in neuroses and psychic disorders, philosophers tried to unravel the boredological thought of Heidegger or Kierkegaard. In seventies and eighties, in-depth studies of boredom in literature and successful attempts at macro-social approaches were also launched (Reinhard Kuhn, Orin Klapp, Sean Desmond Healy). And although academic boredology does not form a compact collection of complementary theoretical and empirical works, but rather a loose conglomerate of studies and dissertations with boredom in the title or in the background, the first steps towards unification have already been made – in 2016 the Boredom Studies Reader was published, so perhaps we will see a science of boredom per analogiam with, for example, well-being studies. More and more scholars are beginning to take boredom seriously and devote attention to it in their research, as demonstrated and encouraged by Boredom Conferences organized since 2014, which have enjoyed considerable popularity. In 2021 the International Society of Boredom Studies has been founded, which constitutes the next big step in institutionalization of boredology and gives hope for the future of this area of research.

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