Surviving the Sahara: On Being Bored

Edgar Degas. L'Absinthe. 1876. Courtesy of Wikipaintings.

In his 1989 address to the graduating class of Dartmouth College the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky decided to forego the platitudes that comprise such ceremonies to instead admit that “a substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom.” Aside from the incongruity of such advice at an event, it remains significant that a man who survived multiple arrests, an Arctic exile, and countless other Soviet affronts can reduce it all to “nothing in comparison to the psychological Sahara that starts in your bedroom.”[1]

The unique agony in the experience of boredom is perhaps our most common and yet least examined condition as a species.

Understood as the inability to perceive meaning in one’s life, boredom—or, ennui, tedium, apathy, accidie, etc.—is in fact one of the few experiences that separates us from the contented stupor of animals. As Georges Bernanos writes in the opening to Diary of a Country Priest: 

The world is eaten up by boredom. To perceive this needs a little preliminary thought: you can’t see it all at once. It is like dust. You go about and never notice, you breathe it in, you eat and drink it …  But stand still for an instant and there it is, coating your face and hands. To shake off this drizzle of ashes you must be forever on the go. And so people are always ‘on the go.’[2]

The ingenuity of our capacity to distract ourselves day-in and day-out (Buzzfeed, Facebook, Netflix) is a well trodden path that need not be revisited here; however, it remains unclear what this militant obsession of regimented distraction conveys regarding the theological significance of boredom (is there any?) and if that experience of “complete rest” requires an imaginative element for it to be endured.

Theological considerations of the question of boredom have been largely limited to its more medieval incarnation: acedia. Defined broadly as a self-directed turning away from God and the abandonment of spiritual determination, acedia, or “sloth,” is characterized by an active turning away from the goodness surrounding us through restless activity. Boredom, on the other hand, operates as a portal in which the goodness of all matter may again be glimpsed. But it comes at the cost of an introductory agony: “When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it,” Brodsky commends.

A theological formulation of such a feat may be found in St. Ignatius Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises advise that “we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things.” According to St. Ignatius it is this indifference that enables one to move past the empty consolations of diversion toward an understanding of one’s finitude in relation to the infinite.[3]

Boredom thus becomes the paradoxical opening in which the presence of the infinite passes through the insignificance of the finite.

Brodsky captures this imaginative interlacing of the transcendent within the immanent when he suggests “this is what accounts … for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck of dust aswirl in a sunbeam.” But if the endurance of boredom requires the imaginative capacity to situate one’s immanent environment within a transcendent framework, it follows that the true tedium of life comes in part from a failure of the imagination. Even in stillness, it seems, one can miss the “invasion” of matter by the immaterial.

This is the image we are given in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters wherein the diabolic agents seek to staunch the spark of imagination with rote mindlessness: “You can make him do nothing for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.”[4] Such imaginative torpor robs man not only of the joy of divine participation but mere material diversion as well. Only today the “dead fire” is simply the flickering screen of a computer, the drone of a speaker, or the empty exchange of information in conversation. In either case, one escapes the ash of boredom and thus fails to confront one’s true condition.

To achieve the delight waiting on the other side of boredom we must allow the ash of the mundane to settle upon ourselves. Only then will we perhaps discover the imaginative resources needed to survive our own Saharas.

Denny Kinlaw is currently studying for his PhD in the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. His interests include American Literature and the intersection of literary theory and theology in the work of David Foster Wallace.


[1] Brodsky, Joseph. “In Praise of Boredom,” in On Grief and Reason: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998, 104-113.
[2] Bernanos, Georges. Diary of a Country Priest. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2002, 2.
[3] Raposa, Michael L. Boredom and the Religious Imagination. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999, 65.
[4] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996, 59-60.

 

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3 Comments

  • Christopher R. Brewer says:

    This seems, more or less, consistent with the poem in Ecclesiastes 1:4-11, what I’ve come to call the poem of sameness within apparent change. More generally, and following the exegetical work of Michael V. Fox (A Time to Tear Down & A Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes), there has been a breakdown of meaning. Fox explains: “An action of type of behavior may be called absurd with respect to its performance or its outcome. When the intention is to condemn the performance, the performer is blamed, for he could have simply desisted front he action. This is the way in which one might call idolatry or drunkenness absurd. When, however, we believe that an action is in principle good, or at least constructive, and yet observe that it does not yield the right results, then it is not essentially the action that is absurd but rather the event itself, which reveals the fact of the disparity between reasonable expectations and actual consequences. When Qohelet calls laboring for wealth and growing wise absurd he is bemoaning the violation of the just causal nexus of cause and effect, behavior and deserts. This violation renders the human condition absurd, and not only specific actions within it. Underlying Qohelet’s hebel-judgments is the assumption that the system that relates deed to outcome should be rational. For Qohelet, this means that actions should reliably produce appropriate consequences.” He concludes: “When the belief in a grand causal order collapses, human reason and self-confidence fail with it. This failure is what God intends, for after it comes fear, and fear is what God desires (3:14). And that is not the end of the matter, for God allows us to build small meanings from the shards of reason.” (pp. 48-49) I wonder if, along these same lines, boredom may be related to the absurd, and thus ultimately to fear. Is it its converse? Or a step along the way? Either way, the idea that we must allow “the ash of the mundane [or absurd] to settle upon ourselves,” but that this is not “the end of the matter” seems essential to grasp for what is life if not absurd?

  • Andrew Kaethler says:

    Thanks Denny! Great post. In line with what you were saying, it seems as if boredom is a state of mind that one must pass through to encounter the everyday sublime. Boredom is the wall that one constructs that does not allow one’s gaze to bounce back, a solipsistic forcefield.
    In “Diary of a Country Priest” the priest appears to inhabit a mundane boring life, but it is through this process that he encounters otherness and helps others to do the same. In the ash that gathered on the priest the seed of sainthood began to grow. His bland daily meal of bread and wine (sometimes sugared) began to change him and he became what he ate––eucharist.
    I wonder, is it boredom that brings about our imagination, or is it pushing past it and reaching the other side that inspires and ignites the imagination?

  • Tim M. Allen says:

    Thank you for this post, Denny! I will offer more of a comment than a question. Surprisingly, the topic of boredom regularly arises in discussions of Heaven, depending on what image comes under consideration. In the early 2000’s Peter Kreeft cited Sigmund Freud as offering two key observations about the purpose of humanity: love and work. In responding to the question, ‘why will we not be bored in Heaven?’ Kreeft connected Freud’s observation to the purpose of humanity lined out in the NT description of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. For Kreeft, our “infinite fascination” with these becomes “threatened” by boredom when the two become exclusive from one another. The image of “infinite fascination” towards God and neighbor is descriptive of action. We must participate. Conditions for boredom seem to diminish where love-creativity flourish. Images of a static Heaven tend to lead towards attitudes of boredom. Thank you, again for drawing our attention to this important topic!

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