Mark King well is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and author of Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface.
A few weeks into the new normal of physical distancing, self-isolation, quarantine and states of emergency, many people have shifted from a condition of high anxiety to one of persistent, nagging boredom. While general anxiety persists – Will state actions further trample civil liberties? Will the virus surge again? Am I sick or just listless? – routine irritations and restlessness have been ramped up.
Sure, you have Netflix, but is there anything left worth watching? You’ve cleaned the house, rearranged your bookshelves, sorted your clothes multiple times. Subaru’s pharmaceutical-style ads for their Impreza – “Are you binge-watching everything? Have you reached the end of the internet?” – tried to peddle the small car as a “fast cure for boredom.” They belong to the past. Fuel prices have plummeted, yet there are fewer places to go, especially in a vehicle full of contaminable surfaces.
Indeed, all fun-themed ads have become wildly disconnected from current realities: pitches for cruise ships, social gatherings at chain restaurants, beach vacations, Vegas visits. High-end food shows on television belong to another, more decadent civilization. The actual news is all bad, bars and restaurants are closed, your family is cooped up together all day making each other crazy, and the various postponements of ordinary life are both endless and enervating.
By now you’re sick of hearing “flatten the curve,” “plank the virus” and “governments need to do more.” You’re sick of hearing Donald Trump lie and Justin Trudeau hector, but maybe also of seeing Anthony Fauci and Andrew Cuomo rationally flail to no avail.
If you live in a city, the streets outside your window are empty and lifeless. Dog walkers, bottle collectors and food-delivery cyclists offer the only signs of human life. Do you pace your room wondering if there is such a thing as being bored to death? Yes, there is.
The raffish actor George Sanders, best known as the cynical drama critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950), left three suicide notes. One read: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” He was 65 and used Nembutal in a hotel in Castelldefels, near Barcelona.
That was in April of 1972 – the cruellest month, according to a certain poet and bored bank clerk. Now we enter April of 2020. Socio-economic fault lines have been ruthlessly exposed. Gig workers are at high risk, temporary layoffs are illegal but happening anyway, health-care workers and petroleum-industry personnel are freaked out, and so are serving staff, house cleaners, airline employees and culture workers – to name just a few. This economic crisis may prove far worse than the Great Depression.
And so we whipsaw between bouts of paralyzing fear, listless apathy and the peculiar febrile nervousness that is one of boredom’s most distressing modes. Sometimes it is what Douglas Adams, speaking of the boredom of immortality, called “the long dark tea-time of the soul.” At others, it is a quiet inward frenzy where everything is started but nothing begins, a soul tearing itself apart.
Almost exactly 200 years ago, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted, with pungent insight, that boredom was a specific condition of the modern world. He did not mean, of course, that people were never bored before relatively prosperous early 19th-century Europe. What he documented were new conditions of possibility for boredom: reliable shelter, enough to eat, leisure time, cultural stimulation and its absence, and everyone being able to contemplate self-identity in an indifferent universe.
We are forced to wait and wait and wait for a visa to freedom, as in Casablanca but without the exotic café life. Any trapped feeling is already an emotional trial; but now we wait for a decision that is delayed and deferred indefinitely. New tactics to overcome the condition grow more desperate and creative by the day simply because the old ones have been swept away.
Sports, a great diversion to many, are just … gone. TV networks and radio resort to anything at all: old highlight and blooper reels, simulated baseball games, quarantined NBA stars making Tik Tok videos of their lonely dance moves, friends on adjacent high-rise balconies playing paddle tennis in the air. People send each other facetious cocktail recipes: the Quarantini, (“just a regular martini, but you drink it all alone in your house”) or the Manhattan Project (“just a regular manhattan, but you drink it all alone in your study, scheming to annihilate distant enemies”).
That second one is mine and maybe not very funny. What can I say? I was bored.
No March Madness and then baseball’s Opening Day – when time is supposed to begin – melted into air. There are no endless NHL playoffs to fill our days, theatres and opera houses remain dark. Online happy hours and cocktail meetings, synched concert performances and plays, have replaced the real thing – and those are not bad, as life-hacks go, but we all miss the real in-person thing.
For much of the world, in recent decades, consumption and its market forces created a monetized situation of neoliberal boredom. This has been hugely abetted by technology and its various interfaces of profitable short-term satisfaction. Whenever immediate stimulation fails, a new immediate desire is engaged that can only be relieved, albeit temporarily, by new stimulation. Scrolling, tweeting, shopping, liking and posting combine to enslave consciousness. This experience of capito-temporal boredom is both a dependency and a luxury good, enjoyed in the way Thorstein Veblen analyzed American upper-class leisure society on the cusp of the 20th century.
To combat this emergent tendency in modernity, even before our own special technological upgrades, Schopenhauer and later European philosophers – especially Kierkegaard and Heidegger – analyzed boredom as a peculiarly philosophical problem. There is insight about life and its meaning lurking in the otherwise simply painful or tiresome experience of feeling understimulated.
There was a poster, allegedly to be seen in the Berlin U-Bahn system, that read “Langeweile ist der Ursprung des Philosophierens.” Which means: Boredom is the wellspring of philosophizing. An online image captures the idea in more contemporary meme form: a young man stares out a window and the caption reads “Bus windows: the ultimate philosophy school.”
All the canonical philosophers of boredom have believed that boredom was eventually edifying – a painful experience that, like mortality itself, educates and enhances the mind. Because we’re all addicts of our own desires for stimulation, the therapy here may be hard. There may be withdrawal, and the DSM and medical models of clinical addiction won’t help. This is philosophical work.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt posited the existence of someone he called the willing addict: someone who, instead of experiencing conflict between first-order desires (”I want X”) and contrary second-order desires (“I don’t want to want X") instead achieved congruency between these. In a high-functioning late-capitalist person, with standard positive first-order desires – a good diet, regular exercise, steady job goals, family devotion and so on – this would count as human happiness, or our consumerist version of Aristotelian eudaimonia: a blessed and contented life of virtuous borrowing and buying, though too often lacking the contemplation of the eternal the ancient Greek think considered essential to real happiness. Perversely, the willing addict has exactly the same cognitive and desire structures, but with actively harmful first-order desires that are nevertheless being sanctioned at the second order.
Boredom reverses the polarity but with a similar kind of psychic conflict between the two orders. Boredom is, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said, “a paradoxical wish for a desire.” An absent first-order desire (“I have nothing I want to do”) is bemoaned by the second-order wish to have one (“I really wish I did”). Hence the strange restlessness and anxiety of boredom, the itch that cannot be scratched. Any first-order desire, however much it is made of cognitive junk food, seems to relieve the itch – but only temporarily, potato chips for the soul.
Thus does boredom, as Schopenhauer avers, “etch lines of true despair onto a face.” Think of a life-sentence prisoner, a hurry-up-and-wait solider, an incurable insomniac, a teenager on an enforced family road trip, or an unemancipated worker. That is true boredom. Even the most blessed among us surely have parts of our jobs that are nothing but boring. (With no disrespect to my very smart students, in my profession it is grading term papers.)
In these times, where work, purpose, and even freedom of movement are comprehensively reimagined, boredom has become a stealthy enemy. And yet, it also remains a kind of ice-cream cone of socio-economic privilege, the complaint of the healthy and wealthy, if not wise. This is the paradox of the paradoxical wish for a desire: It is a sign of excitement and absence at the same time. You can get bored of being bored, and so create a spiralling attention-economy.
Beyond any political analysis, the basic existential stakes are profound. Boredom is not just a function of relative comfort and leisure time. It is, more fundamentally, an aspect of the basic condition of being-in-the-world. We don’t dwell on this nearly enough. Of course life is an amazing gift, but it is also hard, a bestowal none of us actively wished for. It is, rather, thrust upon us. Martin Heidegger called this thrownness: We simply find ourselves here, without debate or decision.
If we respond by forever fleeing a sense of loneliness or ennui, accidie or Weltschmerz, we only enable new psychic conflict – and new market opportunities. If your current boredom leads not to philosophical reflection but instead to new forms and moments of consumption, that is both an opportunity lost and a surrender to the current arrangement.
Boredom is an ineradicable part of everydayness and world-weariness a fact of life. The poet John Berryman wrote: “Life, friends, is boring / We must not say so.” But actually, we must say so. Langeweile has much to teach us about existence, meaning, consciousness and action. When you are forced to confront your boredom – really confront its lessons, about desire and selfhood – the world stands out more vividly, even if time itself crawls spider-slow. All the more so when philosophizing arises from boredom, our cruel-to-be-kind teacher.
If you are lucky enough to feel bored right now, and are not simply scrambling to make ends meet or stay alive, do not give way to melancholy or flee into flashy new stimulus. Look out the bus window, which is itself a window on the soul. Embrace the burdens of your being in the world. You cannot escape from yourself, but you can examine the conditions of your own possibility.
Of course, nobody, not even Heidegger, can dwell in existential angst all the time. (Heidegger devoted his worldly life to becoming a Nazi and sexually exploiting Hannah Arendt.) We all need to wander, divert and distract. We crave interaction and purpose, without which life is drained of meaning. Boredom remains a potential gateway to wisdom. But like the door in Franz Kafka’s parable Before the Law, it offers salvation and damnation at once. The door to freedom is – spoiler alert – yours alone to open.
More relevant still is Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit. The three bickering main characters realize at a certain point that the door holding them prisoner is, in fact, unlocked. And yet they cannot or will not leave their overdecorated torture chamber because they perceive, famously, that “Hell is other people.” This is not a fate worse than death, it is the nature of life itself – even when, as now, hell can feel like it is more like “no other people.”
Most of us forget that the line about hell is not in fact the last of Sartre’s play. It is, instead, this: “Well, well, let’s get on with it.” To quote yet one more genius of existential boredom, Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” There is no other option – not even, with all due respect to poor Mr. Sanders, what Hamlet called “self-slaughter.”
Stay the course, but be unflinching. Beckett again: “You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.” Boredom is the telling symptom, not the disease. My grandmother used to say, about human travails, that “worse things happen at sea.” These days, we’re all in the same drifting boat.