Wakey Wakey

Susan Eilenberg

  • Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind by Patricia Meyer Spacks
    Chicago, 290 pp, £19.99, January 1995, ISBN 0 226 76853 8

Every reader has an archetype of boredom, which every writer fears to realise: a book as thick as a stack of freshman essays, as dim and grammarless as a headache, every phrase a phrase of a certain age, every page only page two. Writers will do much to avoid reminding their readers of possible connections between their own work and this nightmare ideal, sometimes going so far as to pretend that it does not exist, an approach not invariably successful. The more sophisticated, frequently more courageous, have discovered in boredom a subject of intense interest; but of course part of the excitement has to do with the contest between the writer and his cunning antagonist, together with the gruesome possibility that the work won’t make it out alive. An aphorism on boredom might hope to escape the slow, dumb mumbling of its subject. But to carry off an entire volume devoted to a condition about as definite as a mud puddle in a flood – this feat requires extraordinary qualities, such as have preserved from fractious tears countless children on countless rainy afternoons and have enabled novelists and other practitioners of culture to persist and thrive in the face of what Patricia Meyer Spacks calls ‘psychic entropy’. One of the oddities of Boredom is that, having amassed evidence of its subject’s profundity and pervasiveness (what could be more profound or more pervasive than entropy?), the book remains at bottom unconvinced that the phenomenon is anything more than an artefact of pampered cultural imagination. The contest is oddly calm.

Boredom feels so flat that it ought to be simple, but definitions are trickier than one would expect. Spacks describes it as a state of frustration either brought on by or experienced in terms of what she calls ‘disruptions of desire: the inability to desire or to have desire fulfilled’. That ‘or’ is a problem: it links categories of frustration that seem related only by the unmeaning coincidence of effect. The thwarted desire for desire is only very approximately like the thwarted desire for a particular but accidentally unavailable object. What makes boredom so interesting and so troubling is that it takes no emotional cognisance of the distinction Spacks’s ‘or’ marks; it fails to differentiate between a lack in the object and a lack in the subject. This absence of relation devastates the particularity of all particulars.

Boredom devours significance. Except that it tends not to last so long – that it tends to be remediable – the effect, as Spacks notes, is similar to that of narcissism or psychosis. ‘The maw of the meaningless,’ she calls it, remarking that in contemporary culture, especially among teenagers, ‘boring’ has become ‘an all-purpose term of disapproval’, ‘boredom’ a ‘universal explanation and complaint’, a trope for practically everything. Its power inheres precisely in its vagueness, its ‘capacity to blur distinctions’, its insuperable reluctance to specify the nature of its discontent. Its untellingness is the most telling thing about it. For it is a kind of aphasia, a breakdown in our conversation with the world. Boredom destroys the language of intimacy, the names that passion gives the things it cares about, the grammar of responsibility and concern. The judgment of boredom attaches almost indifferently to subject or to object, to cause or to effect, undoing the categories of analysis: in boredom, activity and passivity, internal and external, agent and object become indistinguishable. To be bored, Spacks’s mother told her, is to be boring: one becomes like what bores one. And boredom has the power to remake not only its victims but also its antitheses in its own image. Absorption can be as anaesthetising as tedium, can produce the same impression on observers; and any obsessive can testify to the facility with which interest can convert into its opposite.

But if boredom undoes certain distinctions, it confirms others. Though not eloquent, it constitutes a negative syntax of attention, marking with its refusals the limits by which we define ourselves. Mortal awareness requires that an investment of interest here be paid for with a withdrawal of interest there. Only an amnesiac or a god could be interested in everything, for, given the economics of desire, to be interested in everything amounts to being interested in nothing. So long as it spares at least something, boredom serves to protect the integrity of attention, revealing the way in which consciousness establishes itself in relation to the world. It makes sense that Spacks should try to recover the meaning of this particular kind of meaninglessness.

Her study, a sober treatment of what she would like to insist is a definable if various phenomenon, susceptible of scholarly treatment and moral evaluation, is presented more or less historically. Spacks finds the origin of boredom – which she studies, for the sake of convenience, in its Anglophone and primarily British manifestations – coincident with the emergence of the verb ‘to bore’, which, in its psychological sense, came into being in the middle of the 18th century. She sophisticates the dubious assumption that experience is a function of language and of the sociohistorical sensibility that language reflects and conveys into the still more dubious assumption that if a word denotes a thing then the absence of the word denotes the absence of the thing. This enables her to argue that those who found themselves listless, restless, dissatisfied, in despair, oppressed by ennui, convicted of acedia, or stuck in tiresome situations before the invention of the word ‘bore’ could not have been authentically bored: boredom did not exist before the English named it. And this leads her to a fantasy of what life was or perhaps only could have been like before the unfortunate invention of the word:

In the hypothetical world that lacks a concept of boredom, people would tend to accept their condition in life as given – like the dogs whose experience of the world Elizabeth Marshall Thomas attempted to share, imagining it as utterly free of boredom ... the hypothetical inhabitants of a world without the notion of boredom – they’re not dogs, after all – invoke categories other than those of feeling to assess their experience.

The creatures of this ‘hypothetical world’ inhabited ‘a harmonious state in which leisure did not exist as a separable condition, in which focus on community and on spiritual obligation obviated the need for extended introspection, in which people did not worry about the precise degree of happiness and fulfilment in their lives’. Though its function as fantasy is never explored, it tells us something about what motivates Spacks’s otherwise questionable insistence on enforcing a historical origin for her subject. Her vision of an original but surprisingly protracted paradise, the loss of which brought cultural difference into the world and all our woe, is reminiscent of certain versions of the Middle Ages. The nostalgia is old-fashioned even as nostalgia, and slightly unnerving, to readers for whom the thought of a happily homogeneous peasantry fails to carry unambiguously cheering associations.

Spacks is on surer ground when she describes (though briefly and in terms no longer new) the mid-18th-century intellectual climate in which the word ‘bore’ (along with a cluster of other words having to do with interest and excitement) came into being. The emergence of boredom both as concept and as experience, she tells us (like the development of the novel, its principal literary creature, instrument and palliative), shadowed the emergence of the modern subject as an individual, newly leisured, freshly loosed from the most exigent part of its spiritual discipline, persuaded of the validity of its recently-conceived right to the pursuit of happiness, and awakened to the interest of inner experience. Boredom reflected the growing disparity between the ideal of individual experience and the reality of individual impotence.

Boredom did not at once establish its authority as the dominant sensibility. Traces of the attitude that preceded the invention of boredom, the attitude that held irritable dissatisfaction to be evidence of spiritual inadequacy and indulgence in the sin of acedia, lingered into the 18th century. Spacks cites Samuel Johnson in particular as one whose ethical conservatism formed his conviction that the world owed him no amusement. For Johnson, interest was for the individual to supply for himself out of his own intellectual and emotional resources; if he was bored, he had no one but himself to blame. Among women, too, uncertain of their right to gratification and thus (by implication) to boredom, this attitude survived for some time; through the 18th century and into the 19th, women continued to hold themselves responsible for making their lives of outward monotony and tedium interesting both to themselves and to others. But among men the conviction of personal responsibility for one’s emotional engagement with the world, the belief that to confess to boredom was to confess to a lack of intellectual resources, weakened and expired. As the perceived source and responsibility for boredom shifted from the victim of boredom to its object, the bored man learned to seek relief in activity and then in social analysis.

By the 19th century, the shame Dr Johnson would have felt at finding himself bored had become a quaint anachronism; boredom, ‘the primitive anger of unfulfilled entitlement’, as Spacks has it, had become a demand on the world and an accusation against it. Boredom was an index of moral consciousness, its discontent a measure of legitimate grievance against a world empty of meaning. The reader of the 19th-century novel no longer automatically assumed boredom to be a sign of personal deficiency. Sinister in a villain – a sign of sadistic or narcissistic tendencies – it could in other contexts be read as a blameless response to trying circumstances: a character who did not feel bored might now incur suspicion.

If its moral significance began to split in the 19th century, it shattered in the 20th. Boredom can now mean anything: selfishness, idealism, impotence, prestige, poverty, luxury, anorexia, appetite. It is ‘an embracing rubric of discontent’, ‘an all-purpose index of alienation’.

Spacks’s instincts are less historical than literary and sometimes less literary than social. Her chapters are organised around what one might see as little communities of books that comment implicitly on one another and so articulate – or sometimes repudiate – a shifting sense of communal responsibilities and values. So she reads together Dr Johnson and Boswell; Fanny Burney and minor female writers of Gothic fiction; the dread Hannah More together with a marvellous collection of lesser-known women (Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Mary Delany) whose letters and diaries survived against the odds; Wordsworth’s ‘The Idiot Boy’ and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, joint labourers in the fields of edifying tediousness; Sir Charles Grandison, Coelebs in Search of a Wife and Robert Elsmere, fallen favourites; bored heroines in Austen, Edgeworth, Ferrier, Brontë; Victorian boredom in Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope; modern boredom in Eliot, James, Waugh, Lawrence, Stein, Brookner, Berryman, Barthelme and Bellow.

This list represents only a part of the vast amount of material covered by Spacks; her book sometimes seems like an elaborately annotated bibliography. For the most part, her readings, leaning heavily on thematic summary, do what she clearly wants them to do: they convincingly remind readers that boredom has been a problem around which a major literary (and primarily novelistic) tradition has defined itself. Rarely is what she offers news; but then she does not seem to offer it as such, nor (usually) as material for abstract theorising.

Aware of the allure her subject has for the philosophically and psychoanalytically inclined, Spacks does throw out, now and again, a little flourish in the direction of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or some scholar of contemporary French ennui; but her interests lie closer to home, in the things her friends and students have said to her over the years, in rules learned of her own teachers, in advice she remembers having passed on to her daughter. These bits of casual observation, antique academic attitudes and folk wisdom appear sporadically throughout the book, infusing it with an air of homely modesty at odds with the apparent ambition of the project as a whole, reminding us, appropriately, that this study of the quirks and aberrations of subjectivity and the impairments of readerly response has behind it the responses of a reader who can justify the tedium of ‘The Idiot Boy’ on intellectual grounds while leaving herself emotionally unpersuaded, who knows she likes Hannah More only because she enjoys the triumph of the lecturer over the awfulness of her material, who reads A Handful of Dust through Emily Post – whose speculations, in short, temper the authority of theory and history with the contingency of life. It is part of her role here to insist that everything, even boredom itself, can be made interesting by attention.

This tolerance for interest in all its ungeneralisable peculiarity is one of the strengths of the book, but it comes and goes. When it goes, plots and characters may be blandly pressed in the service of typicality and prescription. Thus in Villette the fact that Lucy gets tired of mending Ginevra’s clothes or watching Polly being dutiful is made to bear a burden beyond its capacity when required to ‘exemplify Lucy’s emphatic insistence on controlling her own situation when to do so lies within her power’. Thus in Sense and Sensibility Elinor is blamed for the solipsism of ‘refusing to share her pain’, something no Austen heroine with a notion of courtesy would dream of doing, while Marianne is taken to task not for selfcentredness but for her ‘tendency to allow herself idiosyncratic responses’, a tendency that draws from Spacks the remark that ‘when teenage mutant ninja turtles interest one preadolescent, they turn out to interest many others.’ This oddly inconsequent remark suggests the limits of her patience with individual differences, and indeed the small errors Spacks makes about characters’ names, family relationships and adventures betray an intermittent indifference to the little things that make them as they are and not otherwise. The mistakes themselves are trivial, of course; it is only the context, the exhortation that we should pay attention, that makes one notice.

But if Spacks has sacrificed a detail or two for the sake of the framework, the framework is compromised in its turn, overburdened by the hospitality of its author’s intelligence, her scrupulous inclusion of contentions that, in their strong forms at least, do not get along together. There is, on the one hand, the argument about boredom as a social construction, the product of Enlightenment culture whose social utility, a conveniently various quality, has carried it to triumph in our time. This is the official argument, the one that determines the shape of Spacks’s investigation, the one that generates the visions of a harmonious time before the invention of boredom, the one Spacks would prefer to argue.

But a counter-argument, insisting every so often on making itself heard, interprets boredom as a condition as old as human nature and older than culture, a force whose authority is impossible ultimately to resist. It is the ‘psychic entropy’ that conditions all our efforts, the dark ground of all our interest, the default state of consciousness. ‘All endeavour of every kind takes place in the context of boredom impending or boredom repudiated and can be understood as impelled by the effort to withstand boredom’s threat,’ Spacks writes. ‘All “cultural advance” derives from the need to withstand boredom.’ And although she goes on to say that of course she didn’t mean it really, that she was just talking like a 20th-century post-Nietzschean, we find her later glossing the phrase ‘I am interested in’ as ‘I resist boredom by investigating’ and discussing boredom as if it were the chief driving force behind writing and reading and everything they have come to stand for.

Neither argument alone is ultimately persuasive. A reader may have doubts about both the strict literalness of the version that produces boredom from its vocabulary and the enthusiasm of the version that presents boredom as the spring of human achievement. That the two arguments should run side by side in the independence of mutual disregard may be confusing, but it is not unreasonable. As Spacks effectively demonstrates, boredom is too diverse for coherence, too multiple for definition. No single theory will suffice. If Adam Phillips is right when he observes that ‘we should speak not of boredom, but of the boredoms,’ then perhaps the most remarkable thing about the subject is that we regard it as one at all.