Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Boredom and Modern Culture

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Boredom and Modern Culture

Article excerpt

I. A Book About Nothing

When j. k. huysmans published Against the Grain in 1884, he thought that he had been writing for ten people, that he had been "crafting a hermetic book, locked to idiots." (1) Instead, as he would declare twenty years later, "Against the Grain fell like a meteorite into the literary fairgrounds, and there was astonishment and fury." (2) To the envy of novelists everywhere, he was not exaggerating.

Huysmans had not expected many readers for very good reason: Against the Grain is a book about nothing. Its only character is a jaded, misanthropic aristocrat who flees the world for a suburban hermitage. The novel simply catalogs his eccentric attempts to escape the boredom of modern life, one after the other, in excruciating detail. He decorates his rooms with color schemes that work only at night, under artificial light; he buys a tortoise and encrusts its shell with gold and jewels; he collects odd and exotic flowers; he experiments with perfumes and fragrances; he mentally inventories his vast library; he spends an evening luxuriating in sexual memories, and then reads an early Christian poem in praise of consecrated chastity. But nothing works for long, and after destroying his health, he must move back to Paris.

Despite the absence of a plot, Against the Grain was a sensation throughout France and the rest of Europe. Many condemned it, others praised it, but it had struck a chord. The book became the bible of the Decadent movement, and it inspired Oscar Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray. Evidently Huysmans was not the only person to find modern life boring, and his contemporaries found it refreshing, and even comforting, to read about someone confronting the problem head-on.

II. The Phenomenology of Boredom

Whatever the prevalence of boredom in the nineteenth century, it can only have increased. Today a book like Against the Grain would not stand out. Today we expect artists and writers to be preoccupied with themes of restlessness, dissatisfaction, and weariness.

Our familiarity with boredom should give us pause. We often talk about boredom, but we rarely wonder about boredom. And yet, there is a lot to wonder about. "Why is it that no other species but man gets bored?" Walker Percy asks. "Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep." (3)

Boredom is a subtle emotional state, hard to pin down, and it eludes easy classification. Being bored is unpleasant, but not exactly painful, either. When we are bored, it is not that we feel any positive emotional distress; rather, nothing engages us about what we are doing. Our desires have nothing to latch on to, and we find ourselves itching for something, anything, that might grab our interest. Elizabeth Goodstein calls boredom "experience without qualities." (4) Leo Tolstoy calls it "the desire for desires." (5) A recent psychological study defines boredom in similar terms as "the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity." (6)

Feeling bored often involves feeling disgust for whatever is boring us. After eating too much good food, our pleasure and enjoyment turns to disgust. It becomes too much even to have the plate in front us. We push it away. In the same way, when we become bored of something, we can feel almost physical revulsion. It becomes galling to have it in front of us. We push it away. Not coincidentally, Jean-Paul Sartre's first novel, which centers on themes of boredom and alienation, is titled Nausea, and Sartre frequently describes his protagonist as being overcome with spontaneous feelings of disgust.

Boredom can be mild, as when we become bored of playing cards, or when we turn off a movie because it has become boring. It can also be excruciating. Prisons typically reserve solitary confinement for the worst offenses because it is so boring. But whether boredom is mild or severe, if at all possible, we immediately seek escape by doing something else. …

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