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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in