Boredom isn’t a subject that engages many writers or readers for that matter. You’d think boredom is bad enough to endure, so why add insult to injury by reading about it? But as Walker Percy noted in his best known novel “The Moviegoer,” there’s a distinction to be drawn between boredom as a subject and boredom as a condition. Boredom as a condition is…well, boring, tedious and sometimes painful. Boredom as a subject, on the other hand, can be fascinating. One view is that the reason we’re bored so much these days is because, paradoxically, we’re overstimulated – too many demands on our attention have left us bereft of sufficient imagination to cope when our digital devices are not accessible. (It was Pascal who famously said “All man's troubles come from not knowing how to sit still in one room” -- troubles that may include boredom. There isn’t one type of boredom, either. There are at least two principal types. There is the common type which is equivalent to a dull, throbbing headache, tolerable (barely) but unpleasant. It’s the kind of boredom you experience waiting in a long, unmoving line to buy groceries or mail a package or renew a driver’s license. This is the boredom that saps the soul and numbs the mind. It is like a chronic, low-grade fever, it’s endemic to routine, unrewarding jobs, narrowing the focus of one’s day, making the passing hours obstacles to be overcome in order to get to five o’clock.
There is another kind of boredom – the acute kind, the painful, oppressive kind. It is the kind of boredom that you feel in every fiber of your being. What you’re thinking, the only thing you’re thinking is: I have to get out of here right now! You’re trapped by someone at a party, someone who is telling you a story that threatens to go on forever, the sort of interminable story that if Scheherazade told it, the king would have killed her straight away rather than allowing her to go on for the next thousand nights. At a party, at least, you have some route of escape. (“I’m sorry, I need to freshen my drink.”) But extricating yourself isn’t so easy if you find yourself, as I have, at a dinner party where by ill luck you are seated next to a bore intent on bending your ear until dessert. What makes it even more agonizing is that the interesting people, the amusing people -- are far enough away so you have no chance of taking part in their conversation but are close enough to hear how much they’re enjoying themselves. This is boredom. This is also torture.
What makes boredom so interesting (among other things) is that while it seems to take forever as long as you’re suffering from it, it has no staying power, it dissolves once you’re no longer bored. It’s what happens when a sickness lifts. It’s difficult to remember what it was like when you were in its grip. The duration of boredom, viewed in retrospect, is reduced to practically no time at all. Indeed, it could be said that boredom makes a mockery of time. (If you were bored stiff every day of your life would you feel like you were an immortal whom the gods had tricked like Midas? You get what you want but then find you don’t want it at?) We all know what it feels like from when we were children and the days went on forever and nothing ever seemed to change or change fast enough? When am I going to be old enough to go to bed at nine? When will I be old enough to stay out past midnight or not to have a curfew at all? But then we forget what it’s like. That’s when time speeds it up relentlessly. That’s what we get for wishing it could pass and now it is past. You’ve made a trek through an arid psychic landscape, only to discover that looking back on it, there’s nothing there. As far as I know, one of the few authors to comment on this curious phenomenon was Arthur Koestler (whose reputation rests on his novel “Darkness at Noon” and several controversial works about science and history) in an obscure monograph called “Dialogue with Death.” Imprisoned for several months by Fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, he was forced to confront an experience known to soldiers – a combination of boredom and terror, boredom because almost nothing ever happened to distinguish one day from the other (an occasional visit from a barber was a big event) and terror because at any moment, with no warning, you could be taken out and shot. But what Koestler noted after his release was that this period in prison soon became compressed in his memory so that what seemed going forward to have taken years (though it was only months) seemed as if it taken only a few weeks. Conversely, he noted that when we are having a good time, when we are living through an eventful period – say a weekend which involves some traveling, interesting encounters, dinners and parties with friends – can seem to fly by, but viewed in hindsight, seems to expand in memory. No one probably summed it up better or more succinctly than Einstein whom, asked to define his theory of relativity, said that when you put your hand in a boiling pot for a minute it seems like an hour and when you’re talking to a pretty girl for an hour it seems like a minute. Take it one step farther: That hour with the pretty girl, even if you never see her again, sometimes because you never get to see her again, once relived in memory, may last until the end of your life while that excruciating minute with your finger exposed to the boiling water fades to nothing at all.