On Boredom

*this essay is based on a introduction I gave during the second edition of DDD on Boredom, hosted by Bakken & Bæck in 2019. 
Things we discussed when coming up for a topic for this edition of DDD: portals, gaps, cracks, and other interfaces, psychic numbing, the absence of presence, relingos, the fear of missing out, empty shops, 404s. 

Eventually, we landed on boredom as an overarching theme, which begs for a disclaimer. It seems ridiculous to host an event around boredom, as an event is by definition something that takes place, implying a happening—boredom’s antidote.

Boredom usually creeps in when the woven web of events, which conceals the passage of time, has become so thin that it offers us a peek into the latent space that lies underneath. I’m here to block the view, weaving a tight-knit tapestry of words to distract you. 

And yet, you already might be bored in the midst of all this.  
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"I lie outstretched, inactive; the only thing I see is: emptiness; the only thing I live off: emptiness: the only thing I move in: emptiness”, wrote Søren Kierkegaard, for whom boredom was a serious matter.

Boredom allows us to experience an important, but paradoxical, aspect of time. In boredom, time refuses to pass. Instead, it stalls. Under the spell of boredom, time feels, as one of the German terms for boredom suggests, like a literal Langweile.

Seated on a cold bench, waiting for that last train to come, it’s hard to not look at the hand of a ticking clock. To not follow its monotonous movements and get trapped in its endless rounds. In this paralysing rendez-vous with empty time, boredom seems to manifest itself most distinctively.  

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The etymological root of boredom, “bore”, refers to something that pierces, perforates, makes a hole or hollows out. If I would want to be a bore right now, I would talk so tediously as to metaphorically pierce holes in you.  

While piercing is a violent, physical act that seems far removed from that irritating numbness we associate with being bored, today’s meaning of the word still rests on this "hole making", on the creation of empty spaces that might swallow us whole. 

In a speech to soon-to-be graduates at Dartmouth, the poet Joseph Brodksy described boredom as: "the psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and spurns the horizon." It grows within us, spins itself around us, until there’s nothing else to see. 
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In this desert, time no longer feels three-dimensional, but has become linear, creating a claustrophobic present. To escape it, we search for an interference, something that can even out the deafening sound of this endless now with a noise, or an anti-noise.

In preparation for this talk, I scribbled down the Greek word “ataraxia”, which means, if I can rely on my own notes, “the absence of disturbia”, or "a lucid state of serene calmness or robust equanimity”. According to the Pyrrhonists, Epicureanists and Stoisists, this state can only be reached when we accept that we can’t control or understand reality.

In stead, we should sit still, and pay attention to that which develops without our interference, to embrace our own insignificance. It goes without saying that ataraxia requires time and training, a mental preparedness to face seemingly empty spaces with imperturbability. A hard thing to come by for the young and the restless.  
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If only something could enthuse us in the desert of dullness. If you would break down “enthusiasm” into its Greek parts, it would be “En, Theos, Seismos", which means something like "in, God, earthquake". Or at least, that’s what Valeria Luiselli writes, who I trust to break up words into meaningful pieces.

To be enthused is to find the god within, or to feel an inner earthquake, caused by a divine interference. According to Kierkegaard, the gods created human beings out of boredom. As we are possesed by them, we share their bores and thrills. We are at their mercy. 

But what if these Gods are no longer there to cause these inner earthquakes? In a secularised society, we began to regard humans as individual beings who must realise themselves. We became the productive authors of our own desires, in charge of creating our own stirs and escaping our own bores. 

From ice baths and yoga retreats to belly-dancing and bungee-jumping—the modern world has given us many distractions. We throw ourselves on all things new, taking on anything that might prevent us from having to gaze into the endless abyss. To disguise the smell of still water, we hope to make waves.  
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But everything new soon becomes old again. This yearning for expansion, the search for the next thing that lies beyond our reach, starts to accumulate, and so will the number of impulses we need to answer this longing.

The boredom that pierces our souls demands a constant stream of stimuli, brought to us by hand-held devices that carry billions of bits. But even in times of overexposure, the bore will eventually beat the buzz. By chasing constant change, boredom has us on the run. And while we desperately seek places to hide, it will find us again. 

“Despite all your education, all your potential”, Brodksy told the Dartmouth’s Class of ‘89, “you’ll be bored with your work, your friends, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your room, your thoughts, yourselves.” And while pain, passion and pleasure might relieve us in those moments, the best way out might be through. 
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Having endured hardship through most of his life, Brodsky had learned that there is no embrace in this world that will not finally unclasp. We are never stuck, as life is like being on a constantly moving train for which we all have a one way ticket. The place we find ourselves in today is soon going to be our past, despite our best efforts to record and repeat the parts we like.
“Take one last look at it, while it is still its normal size, while it is not yet a photograph”, Brodsky ends his speech. “Look at it with all the tenderness you can muster. For you are looking at your past. Exact, as it were, the full look at the best. For I doubt you’ll have it better than here.”

By organising DDD, we invited our speakers to provide us with that close look at the holes that pierce us. Many have said that time is our most precious (and therefore, expensive) possession. Being able to experience it in its full glory might be one of our greatest privileges.

So, let us bore and be bored, while we can. 
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