In his introduction to Alberto Moravia’s 1960 novel, La Noia, or Boredom as it’s translated into English, William Weaver recounts how in the 1950s, when in Rome, he would frequently run into Moravia on the street and ask how he was. Here is Weaver:
“But on encountering him, I would first, automatically, ask him how he was.
“Mi annoio,” he would usually reply, in his clipped, telegraphic way. Moravia seemed not to talk but to blurt. “I’m bored. Mi annoio. Voglio morire.”
How often have I used the phrase, “I’m so bored I want to die” is uncountable since I’ve used it numerous times, and still use it often. The articulation of this feeling out loud will seem self-indulgent to those who claim they are never bored, and despicable to those who are too busy to be bored. Yet, as busy as I am as a husband, father of two small children, director of an honors program and a full-time teacher who manages an ambitious if not so vibrant research agenda, I find myself bored more often than I care to admit.
For the last few weeks I have begun reading nearly half a dozen books, only to grow tired and bored after the first fifty pages or so. Two of these books are from favorite writers. Yet, I find that nothing keeps my attention these days. Perhaps it’s the coming of spring after a particularly long winter. Perhaps it’s the end of the academic year. Perhaps it’s a mid life crisis. I’m not sure. What I do know is that I can neither read nor write for longer than a ten or fifteen minute stretch before I find myself searching for something else to do. The concept of social media may have something to do with this, as Nicolas Carr has written quite persuasively in his book The Shallows. But needless to say, I may know the cause, but that does not help me at the moment.
I’ve been unable to write anything substantial for weeks. I did have one good morning, but that proved to be an anomaly. Writing is something I do not usually force, but I do try to maintain a regular writing schedule: For two or three days a week I work on my scholarship during the day and my fiction at night. In the afternoons I work on reviews for World Literature Today. I’ve started hundreds of essays, articles, and reviews, only to find myself bored enough to abandon them. In fact, I have enough abandoned writing to put into a rather large collection.
For as long as I can remember I have felt a profound sense of boredom. This mood is much more than the daily or weekly mood that overtakes most of us. For me the mood washes over me at the oddest of times. I can be in the middle of a book, the middle of an article I’m writing, or even in the middle of a class I’m teaching. I try to play it off as best as I can, but the boredom I experience is intense. In an instant I no longer care what I am doing of who I am talking with. Thankfully, I have learned how to fake my way through most social situations.
Perhaps the boredom I feel comes with having it too good. I have never had to go without food, or clothing, I’ve never been homeless, and I’ve never felt compelled to beg for anything. I suspect that having it too easy is part of what ails most of us today. Even in the midst of the worst recession in decades, most of us still have it pretty good. In a way, I feel that I’ve ended up a spoiled brat, used to getting what I want when I want, and I hate that about myself. I hate it mostly because I lack the moral courage to try and change. I’m materialistic and unapologetic about the way I live my life. In short, I am a capitalist’s wet dream. I go for the fancy packaging and the latest new gadget.
I won’t go into all of the things Heidegger has to say about boredom, but I have searched for a solution to this mood in my own life. The boredom I suffer from is, as I’ve said, much different, much deeper than your ordinary everyday boredom. I fear that my own sense of boredom is much more entwined with my psychological wiring. My boredom is like a tree branch that has wrapped itself around a fence post. Sooner or later the fence post will break. My boredom is more melancholic, more serious. At times it’s painful. It’s not depression or writer’s block so much as a long, drawn out sigh. In fact, I seem to be able to identify it most to what is going on with Larry Darrell, the protagonist in W. Somerset Maugham’s magnificent 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge. Although I am not suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome as he is (at least to the best of my knowledge), I do feel a profound kinship with Larry Darrell. Perhaps I’ve been reading and writing too much. The solution may lie in an act of movement. Perhaps I should dust off my passport and pack a knapsack and hit the road. But I don’t have the luxury that Larry Darrell has. I have responsibilities. Besides, I cannot stand to be away from my wife and children for much longer than a few days.
We all like to think of ourselves as interesting people. To be called a “bore” is perhaps one of the most insulting labels of all. It signals to others that we are interested only in ourselves, and interest, by it’s very definition, means being in the midst of, among. Perhaps the boredom of which I speak means a lack of interest in the most ontologically charged sense. Our boredom, my own, may come from a feeling of temporary detachment from being in the midst of this or that. It does make me feel slightly better to know that great writers like Moravia were plagued by a profound sense of boredom. At least I’m in good company.