Boredom: A Lively History

by Peter Toohey (Yale University Press)

One summer I worked for a temp agency, and they sent me on a retail assignment at a chichi home design shop. Starkly white and mostly empty, it looked like an art gallery and got about as much foot traffic. Technically I was a sales clerk, but they were using me mainly as a deterrent to robbers, so they didn’t train me to do much. For the most part I just stood there, all day long. I could look out the plate glass window onto the street but that only made me feel more cut off from a world where people did things. My boredom in this job was so total it felt almost holy, and for a long time afterward my joke was that if I were ever to find out I only had a week to live I’d spend it there, where every minute felt like an eternity.

We all have things to say about boredom, though like my story, they’re most often complaints. In his engaging meditation on the subject, University of Calgary professor Peter Toohey looks at boredom from a number of perspectives: philosophical, biological, and historical. He sets out to prove that, as unpleasant as it feels, boredom might be useful. But first he has to define what it is.

What do we mean when we say we’re bored? Different things, says Toohey, since the feeling is related to, and sometimes confused with, melancholy or loneliness. In trying to show us boredom he discusses paintings such as Melancholia by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Women Ironing by Degas. He describes Madame Bovary who, in her antsiness, took lovers and later her own life. Eventually he defines the emotion as “the first cousin of disgust,” which sounds about right. When we’re bored we’re not merely sleepy or distracted; we check out mentally to ignore a situation we can’t stand anymore. 

The difficulty he finds in defining the emotion has to do with the fact that there are really two kinds, he says: “simple” boredom — the kind we feel doing repetitive jobs or listening to selfish conversationalists and the loftier “existential” boredom, a supposedly more complicated state experienced by depressive intellectual types. Much has been written about that second, more impressive-sounding kind, Toohey admits, but he isn’t that interested in it anyway: he thinks it doesn’t exist. Or rather that it’s mostly a formulation, something found more often in art than in life, since adults don’t like to admit to feeling something as childish as boredom. The simple kind is the one that matters, he says. It’s universal and essential to survival, letting us know we’re in a situation that won’t do us any good.  

Fairly short and rather sweet, Toohey’s book is reminiscent of the Oxford University Press Seven Deadly Sins series, for which different writers ruminated on lust, greed and company as they appear in history, art, and personal experience. Like some of those writers, Toohey has a light touch and a waggish sense of humor; in his short introduction he confesses to having been bored “for very large tracts of my life.” 

Since he spends so much of the book dissecting boredom as it appears in art and literature, it’s too bad it came out before the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. He might have mentioned Wallace’s treatment of the subject, as seen in this passage: 

“Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there… surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airport gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkman, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

So beautifully put. But what would Toohey make of it? He might say Wallace was describing depression, not boredom (the two, of course, sometimes coalesce). One of the most interesting ideas in his book is Toohey’s suggestion that boredom, which like isolation and nostalgia is often assumed to be a modern problem, has probably been around a long time. He describes the acedia suffered by early Christian monks who prayed in the confinement of their desert cells, the “noonday demon” that some of them wrote about in detail. It gave them, among other miserable feelings, the distorted sensation that time was slowing to a halt. 

Ultimately Toohey seems to give the most weight to boredom’s biological basis. In his final chapter he looks at the science of the brain, and what could be the driest part of the book is actually the most pleasing to read. (By comparison some of his detailed descriptions of paintings are a bit, erm, dull, possibly because some of them seem like a stretch. Maybe the cactus lover in Der Kaktusliebhaber is enjoying looking at his plants. He doesn’t look all that unhappy to me.) 

Here’s what Toohey found — that physical exercise and social interaction encourage a neural plasicity that’s necessary for healthy brain functioning. Furthermore, boredom might be closely related to disgust not just psychologically but anatomically. Both feelings are processed in the insular cortex, and both, he believes, serve the purpose of warning us away from things that are bad. Disgust at a foul odor keeps us from eating something that could make us sick. Disgust at a deadly cocktail party keeps us from circumstances that are bad for our brains, or at least our spirits. 

It’s an interesting thought, in a sense the inverse of Wallace’s idea. Whichever way you choose to see it, Toohey’s investigation is thorough, and he wisely keeps his pondering brief. No one could accuse him of being a bore.