Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sexy Boredom

I've a review in today's Australian, 'Ennui need not be dull'.

It's of Boredom: A Lively History, by Australian-born Canadian classicist Peter Toohey.  The published version differs slightly from my text.  Here's my original text:
‘Your job as an author,’ a friend once told me, ‘is to be bored for your readers.’ The wordsmith has to suck up writing’s tedium, triviality and banality, to make a smarter, livelier manuscript. If the author fails, we know what can happen next: the reader closes the book in eye-rolling disgust, and walks away to another shelf.

In this, boredom is no simple evil or vice. It can be a tolerable part of a productive life, or a useful warning: leave now, or prepare to squander hours. Boredom, in other words, can be helpful.
This idea is at the heart of Boredom: A Lively History, by classicist Peter Toohey, an Australian-born scholar now at the University of Calgary. 
Toohey’s thesis is a bold and straightforward one: boredom is a universal, natural and sometimes valuable human emotion. He describes it as ‘a social emotion of mild disgust produced by a temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstance.’ Boredom comes on when we’re trapped, or confronting monotony. It is like our revulsion after overeating, or the nausea of rotten fish – it warn us away from a potentially dangerous situation. Only the danger is to our minds, rather than simply to our gullet.
Throughout history, scholars have given boredom many names: ennui, melancholy, acedia. It has been theologized as a demonic attack or sin, and romanticized as poetic alienation. But in many cases, this was just the listlessness of monotony, solitude, laziness or confinement – simple boredom, in other words. The desert monks confronting the ‘noontide demon’ weren’t struggling with Satan. Their problem was too much silence and sand, and nowhere to escape to. They conflated psychological warning signs with religious battle. Pagan games and sport would have helped them more than cloistered Christian piety. 
Toohey is clearly impatient with this tradition, and its modern versions: philosophical discussions of ‘existential boredom’. He sees this as a gussied-up version of simple boredom, or a catch-all phrase for quite different moods or conditions like loneliness and depression. It is an academic concept, not a natural human emotion. 
For Toohey, this is important, because over-complicated theories of boredom can blind us to more obvious symptoms. We’re bored, not necessarily because we’re philosophically alienated by modernity, but because – for example – we’re stuck in sedentary, blinkered lives. And this is more likely to promote depression and aggression than existential authenticity. In a persuasive chapter illuminated by animal and human psychology, Toohey demonstrates how pets and prison populations are both driven mad by incarceration. Boredom is simply the first symptom of a more chronic condition. Cockatoos in cages maniacally rip out their own feathers. Inmates turn to drugs, violence, self-harm. (‘Making a cockatoo out of a crook,’ writes Toohey, ‘is neither a good nor a profitable thing.’) Boredom is a sign that we need to change our circumstances or habits. We need precisely what the captive pets and criminals lack: variety, exercise and good company, not always more tracts about Being.
In this, boredom is partly a question of value – a question implicit in Toohey’s diagnoses and prescriptions. We put up with boredom when it’s part of something worthwhile, like writing a manuscript. We calculate that the gains – a clearer idea of a common problem, professional recognition, royalties – will outweigh the brief loss of our psychological equilibrium. Likewise for boredom’s remedies: exercise is valuable partly because it contributes to mental health. By promoting the growth of new neural cells, it revives memory, enhances cognition, alleviates depression. Simple boredom, in this light, is not a disease to be cured. Like the dull backache of deskwork, it prompts us to rethink the value of crucial choices, dumb habits, familiar circumstances. 
However, questions of value are best asked alongside some vision of the good life. This is how we evaluate what’s healthy or unhealthy, enriching or depleting, liberating or distracting. Toohey touches on this with his discussion of happiness, but passes over Aristotle’s conception. Here Toohey is a touch too hasty. By ‘happiness’, Aristotle did not simply mean simple pleasure or joy, but eudaemonia: human flourishing. This is why the philosopher did not think animals were happy. Not because they couldn’t feel simple pleasure, but because they were incapable of the intellectual and moral pursuits unique to humanity. Toohey recommends Aristotle’s ideas of leisure, but they are less convincing when deprived of ideas like eudaemonia – fundamental concepts that might illuminate boredom’s role in a good life. 
But this does not tarnish Toohey’s impressive achievement: he makes boredom, of all things, sexy. His crisp, conversational prose is untainted by silly jargon or pretence. His arguments display impressive erudition: history, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and aesthetics all get a guernsey. If it’s true that good writing requires authorial boredom, Toohey was undoubtedly tortured by tedium while writing this sharp, humane and funny book.
(Illustration: Pieter Codde, 'Student at his desk', 1633 [detail])

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