From Philosophy Now, Jan/Feb 2010
Thanks to Priya Ramankutty for the recommendation.
La Vie D’Ennui
Colin Bisset is inspired to do nothing.
A friend and I are wandering through the lush gardens of a grand country home. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live somewhere like this?” I ask, stopping to admire the view of the house over its lake. “Summer days on the lawn, grand parties, cocktails.” My friend mutters something about having a social conscience, but I’m not listening. “Lazing about,” I continue. “Wonderfully bored.” My friend’s face swivels towards me like the ventriloquist’s dummy in Magic. “Bored? How could you be bored if you had all that?” he exclaims.
I have always fancied being bored on a huge and stylish scale. I’m talking Great Gatsby boredom, with everyone lying around in white clothes and floppy hats, sipping long drinks with cooling names, and being utterly and divinely bored. How sophisticated can one get, goes my thinking, that even when surrounded by the best things in life, it’s not enough? Boredom wins through.
There’s something exquisite about boredom. Like melancholy and its darker cousin sadness, boredom is related to emptiness and meaninglessness, but in a perfectly enjoyable way. It’s like wandering though the National Gallery, being surrounded by all those great works of art, and deciding not to look at them because it’s a pleasure just walking from room to room enjoying the squeak of your soles on the polished floor. Boredom is the no-signal sound on a blank television, the closed-down monotone of a radio in the middle of the night. It’s an uninterrupted straight line.
Actually, my idea of boredom has little to do with wealthy surroundings. It’s about a certain mindset. Perfect boredom is the enjoyment of the moment of stasis that comes between slowing down and speeding up – like sitting at a traffic light for a particularly long time. It’s at the cusp of action, because however enjoyable it may be, boredom is really not a long-term aspiration. It’s for an afternoon before a sociable evening. It marks that point in a holiday when you’ve shrugged off all the concerns of work and home, explored the hotel and got used to the swimming pool, and everything has become totally familiar. ‘I’m bored’ just pops into your mind one morning as you’re laying your towel over the sunlounger before breakfast, and then you think ‘How lovely.’ It’s about the stillness and familiarity of that precise moment before the inevitable anxiety about packing up and heading back to God-knows-what.
Like everyone, I’ve been bored in the way often linked with death, but that was mainly as a child, and as you get older you become more resilient in dealing with it. As an adult, you can choose between luxuriating in your boredom or eliminating it by getting up and doing something. The choice is yours.
Being observed to be bored stirs up judgment from others, especially parents. “Haven’t you got anything better to do?” they ask. Do they expect the truth? That you do have nothing better to do than lie around listening to music, but that you’re also perfectly happy doing this? And when did being told to tidy your room constitute an interesting alternative?
As a child boredom is a bleak prospect. It was my regular companion when my family stayed with my grandparents in Scotland for the summer holidays. Their house faced the sea, which meant that there was a rocky seashore to explore. But after five or six years of that it was beginning to pall. Ruby splats of jellyfish were no longer regarded as terrifying, and there was a l imit to how many times you could yell “I just saw something move in the water!” and run screaming from the water’s edge. There was also the fact that my sister was now grown up enough to find it demeaning to hang out with someone my age who wanted to play. My parents and grandparents seemed delighted to sit and conduct endlessly dull conversations.
And so I would sit and think. I would sit at the top of the garden looking out over the roof of the house to the water beyond, and wonder what it would be like to live on a boat. And I would sit on the rocks on the seashore and watch the birds foraging for food, and wonder what it would be like to fly. And I would sit in the sunroom listening to the rain on the roof, and wonder what it would be like to be old enough to have holidays on your own, in proper hotels with swimming pools and waiters and organised amusements. And sometimes it was lovely just to be sitting and thinking like that for hours on end.
At other times my thoughts took more perplexing turns. I would wonder if everything I was looking at wasn’t actually there, that it was just an illusion. Or what if everything was pitch black but only I thought it was light and colourful? Or what if what I heard didn’t match what I thought I was seeing? These were not the sort of thoughts I felt able to own up to at the afternoon tea table, and so I ended up for quite some time believing that nothing could be trusted because my eyes were certainly being deceived. I’m not sure why a ten year old boy was experiencing philosophical angst, but it certainly shows that I had an awful lot of time on my hands.
And that’s the point of boredom, isn’t it? Wasn’t Newton sitting underneath an apple tree staring into space, and Archimedes wallowing in the bath, when clarity struck? In my own insignificant way, I think I have always understood that doing nothing is the key to getting somewhere. As a writer, it takes a while to convince others that you are working hard whilst appearing to be lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling, but once this is accomplished it can be very useful, especially if you are enjoying staring at the ceiling and hear, “I’m sorry, he can’t come to the phone at the moment, he’s working” – which suggests a genius on the cusp of a plot breakthrough rather than someone deciding whether to have poached or scrambled eggs for lunch.
Living in a surfing suburb, I am often aware of groups of people of all ages who gather ostensibly to watch the surf. The bigger and more dangerous the surf, the more people will gather and watch it. But there’s a limit to how long you can focus on huge waves crashing near the shore. Isn’t the reality that these people have completely zoned out and are simply using the surf as an excuse to stare into space? If you asked them why they’re staring at the sea they’d come up with a host of answers, many of which might have the ring of truth. Sure, the colour and drama of a roiling ocean is a sight to behold, but who’s going to admit that really, they’ve been loafing on the beach with an empty thought bubble hovering over their heads?
Boredom in the workplace is something else, of course. Here every moment has hovering over it the question-mark of time passing.
This kind of boredom sucks the life from you. It has none of the hallmarks of the grand boredom that I’m after – the sort with a rousing soundtrack as you emerge from the darkness of sloth into the light of inspiration. The sort that illuminates new questions: Why not go and live in another country? Why shouldn’t I write a novel? That sort of boredom is the equivalent of a long bath with French soap and frangipani flowers floating on the surface; something so relaxing and pleasurable that you really don’t want it to end. And yet, when the bathwater has cooled and the flowers have gone mushy, you’re happy to lift your glowing self from the tub and move forward into the stream of life with renewed vigour. Such is la vie d’ennui.
Okay, so sometimes you might wrap your bathrobe around you and snuggle into the sofa and think, I’ll tackle the future just as soon as I’ve caught up with these old episodes of The West Wing. But that’s how boredom works. Eventually you will step out into the brave new world. You have to move. That’s what boredom is for; and perhaps why God invented cramp and bed sores.
© Colin Bisset 2010
Colin Bisset was bored in the UK and has been happily bored in Australia since 1997. He writes on a variety of subjects.
A Sacred Lesson Through Death
1 week ago