If you have spent any significant amount of time in some kind of creative endeavor you have probably also spent a lot of time being bored. Your day tends to be unstructured and open, leaving room to do nothing that goes nowhere. You likely live with a generalized hope for moments of peak experience, which makes the rest of life into a desert of normalcy and routine. The purpose of any creative project is inherently uncertain. You can never really be sure that things will turn out as you expect, or even at all.
Some combination of unstructured time, expectation of peak experience and uncertainty of purpose are endemic to a number of social types and roles. Obvious examples are monks, soldiers and prisoners. You could also include housewives, tourists and teenagers. Not to mention bohemians, graduate students and aristocratic types living in democratic regimes. Not coincidentally, persons occupying these and similar roles have often met with recurrent bouts of boredom.
A natural response to persistent boredom is to try to make it go away. The next time you’re bored, stroll over to the psychology section of your library. Or google “boredom cure.” You’ll find a number of helpful suggestions. For example, you could go to a party, or find a hobby. You could exercise, or make some new friends. Getting a job tends to help. Studies show the best thing to do is to attain flow.
Maybe you don’t want to get rid of your boredom so fast. Perhaps you feel it might contain something worth hanging onto: a longing to pursue something worth pursuing. And this ache for something that connects you to a bigger and deeper tradition of human encounter with the meaningfulness of our time might well be diminished if Adderall and a jog were its fullest answer. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. Many able and talented people have tried to pull off the trick of extracting some meaning out of boredom, of forcing boredom to generate its own kind of interest.
Michael Crowley, for instance, wrote an article for the New Republic on boredom, called “Prison Break.” Crowley talks about how in a society full of BlackBerries, IMs, Twitter feeds and 24-second news cycles, there is little time to let oneself be bored. Media moguls routinely declare war on boredom, announcing its final defeat at the hands of the new entertainment machine.
While acknowledging some downsides to boredom—like war and depression—Crowley goes on to accentuate the positives, such as how in releasing ourselves to boredom we do not seek to pass the time but experience time as time, in its pure passing. Such moments can provide a kind of “spiritual emancipation” that leads to “creative idleness.” At the very least, ruling out boredom as such means ruling out taking time with yourself and the question of who you are or might be. That sort of flight-from-self is a species of self-loathing.
Crowley typically writes about the great political issues of the day, those that should arouse the interest of all citizens. So it was somewhat surprising to find him venturing into a topic that could seem abstruse and, well, boring. I emailed to ask him how the New Republic’s readers had responded.
On June 4, 2006, at 10:51 p.m., Michael Crowley wrote:
I suppose I got interested in the topic because I’m someone who gets bored very easily and had recently been praising the way my BlackBerry (complete with web browser) had been helping me to avoid boredom. Then I started to wonder if this was a good thing. There was also a Time magazine article on the new generation of kids and how wired they are and I think it included a line about how they can’t tolerate boredom. The piece came to be when I mused about these thoughts to a couple of editors who got very excited and started offering up all sorts of literary and cultural references as well as personal anecdotes. I thought it might be a foolish idea but they convinced me otherwise. Feedback has been very good. I think my mother said she thought it was the best thing I’d ever written, which I found surprising, and another very erudite friend called it “perfect.” Mind you I’m not claiming it *was* perfect, only that I did get very favorable feedback. (I actually wasn’t thrilled with it when it shipped off to press, felt it had some leaden lines and space forced me to leave out some of my favorite bits.) I’m not sure what I hoped “to do” with the topic. I just wanted to explore it, to think about it, and I suppose to have some fun with it. One of my regrets was not being able to include more of the funny quotes/observations about boredom in history and literature—there are quite a lot as you know.
I will add that in writing the piece I read a bit of existential philosophy that touched on the subject. And doing so made boredom seem a lot less amusing to me and on some level, really, deeply depressing. The notion, proposed by some (Pascal, maybe? I can’t recall) that life is a series of distractions to avoid confronting our existential state was a real downer (even if I don’t necessarily agree). I hadn’t expected that little philosophical journey at all. But I suppose I’m the wiser for it.
It turns out that boredom is not necessarily boring. Articles and speeches about its significance earn large audiences. Yet we do not seem to know what to make of it. We are haunted by boredom yet praise it as a gateway into untapped possibilities. We blame ourselves for giving into it yet we feel something would be missing without it.
The idea that boredom can be a weird but wondrous wellspring of meaning is not necessarily a new one. But it is worth returning to, even if thousands of New Republicreaders have been impressed by that thought too. Probably just long enough to tweet it.
In 1998, New Vision Psychic Newsletter explored “the importance of boredom and unpatterned perception,” developing the idea that “to be bored is to be on the verge of being startled awake.” Boredom leaves you alone with yourself, without the safety of a book or TV show to distract you. It hurts, but it is the pain that comes with learning how to feel. It may not be something you like, but part of you still “glories in it. In boredom, worlds open to us.” For those interested in personal exploration of the mystical qualities of boredom, the authors recommend an exercise:
Sit on the ground outside and be bored.
You may have to wait a while for true boredom to settle in. You have to sit long enough for your mind to recognize that running through its lists and endless chatter won’t cause you to automatically reengage in typical activities. Just sit there. Don’t catalog all the things you see, or run through the list of tasks you want to accomplish that day. Just sit and watch, without interpreting. …
As you are sitting there you are probably starting to feel foolish. Children may waste their time doing not much of anything, but adults have things to do. More social patterning. Ignore it. You are not trying to squash that response—being able to recognize social norms and act within them is important. Instead, you are temporarily ignoring the reflex to follow habit. When it suits your purposes, you will again resume those patterns. … What do you think might happen to you, sitting here on the ground doing nothing? The answer: I don’t know. And that’s the frightening part. Once you are truly bored, you are stepping into the unknown. You don’t know what thoughts will occur to you, what your eye may notice, or how you will feel. You are stepping beyond the comfort of habitual patterns of perception. … Breathe deeply, from the diaphragm, and relax. Gently resist the reflex to jump up and get busy with something, or even to continue sitting there but busying your mind with unnecessary thoughts. Just sit, relax, and watch. No rush, no hurry.
Congratulations! You can now begin to be truly bored. You mind is no longer treading familiar paths tramped smooth through endless mental pacing. Your eye no longer knows what to settle upon. You are now in unexplored (or, at least, underexplored) territory. What does your eye begin to notice? You will begin to see a richness of detail surrounding you, a diversity of light and form that you probably haven’t noticed in years. Look at the grasses beneath you. What color are they? Don’t say “green” out of reflex. Look. They aren’t just green. They are every shade from brown to gold to green to darker shades approaching blue. …
You aren’t forming a mental catalog of all these things. You are just noticing, learning to observe without filtering those observations first. … Continue this process with touch, smell, even taste.
Is it wrong to be bored? On discussion forums for Christian youth, the general consensus seems to be that boredom is a sin. God wants us to take joy in His creation, fulsomely and constantly; to be bored is to close oneself off from the opportunities God grants us. It is to deny Him the glory that comes from our cultivating the creative powers He planted in us. Bored people attack God’s work, even if sometimes this emptiness is a preparation and condition for being filled. These judgments are typically backed up by numerous citations of scriptural passages (e.g. Hebrews 13:5, Ephesians 6:18, Thessalonians 5:18 and Mark 12:30).
Treatises by early Church fathers discuss the sin of acedia, which literally means “lack of care.” It was one of the original eight cardinal sins, before they were downsized to seven and acedia was merged with tristitia (sadness) into sloth. Solitary monks wandering the desert were the most likely to fall into acedia, usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., which they called “the demon of noontide.” Monks thought that acedia was particularly bad because ceding to it made other sins more likely, like gluttony. Bored monks thought a lot about lunch. They were also likely to succumb to the worst sin of all, pride. Being bored, they could not understand how others could take pleasure in the activities of everyday life. This left them feeling misunderstood, aloof and superior to everybody else.
You might think that a historical chasm separates the temptations of desert monks from those of young people surfing the internet. If so, you are probably not religious, and you probably have a hard time understanding how boredom could be a cardinal offense against God. For people who think being bored is sinful, the gulf between modern and ancient boredom is nil when measured against eternity. A case in point is Richard Winter’s book, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment. Winter advises that if you read the writings of desert monks like John Cassian, you will find that even though they lived outside of modern overloaded sensory environments, they still dealt with boredom. Just like them, many of us experience a noonday slump that may be indicative of a deeper suffering. We, like them, often feel the urge to flee boredom into worldly distractions, which, in turn, make us even more spiritually desiccated. For latter-day victims of the demon of noontide, sin is sin. The culture of entertainment may be the driest spiritual desert Satan has devised as of yet. God’s reward remains the same, eternally.
But you needn’t be religious to render harsh judgments against bored people. If “sin” has too much divine baggage, perhaps “moral failure” better captures the kind of badness boredom represents. In this case, your boredom is not an offense to God. It is a confession of your inability to lead a life animated by your inner resources.
Sometimes this way of thinking about boredom is associated with the rise of a disciplined, rationalized, bourgeois work ethic in modernity. Immanuel Kant, for example, talked about boredom as a threat to the autonomous performance of duty. Samuel Johnson complained about how it reduced his personal productivity. Anti-bourgeois writers, like Paul Lafargue (who was Karl Marx’s son-in-law, incidentally), took the opposite approach, celebrating the “right to be lazy.” Be that as it may, appealing to the historical novelty of moralized boredom will likely not help very much when your mother tells you that bored people are boring. Ask John Berryman:
Dream Song 14
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
As a sin or as a sign of moral failure, boredom is not a very attractive pose. There are, however, certain forms of life within which boredom counts as a virtue. For what if you believe (rightly) that the world is in fact objectively boring? Wake up, eat, work, shit, sleep. Repeat. Reproduce. Die. A monotonous cycle of mechanical repetition, endlessly repeated, devoid of significance or purpose. If that is how the world is, then boredom would be precisely the correct attitude to adopt towards it. N’est-ce pas?
People who spent their time in the Factory in the 1960s or in mid-seventeenth-century Parisian salons seem to have thought so. They prided themselves on being bored with the ordinary world. Regular people are regular, and the appropriate response to such people is boredom.
If you think boredom is a virtue, then you probably believe that the right way to treat a boring world is to be bored with it. That may be the only way to prove that you yourself are not boring. Schopenhauer is the metaphysician of virtuous boredom: “Boredom is a direct proof that existence is itself valueless. For boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.” Baudelaire drew a portrait of a social type devoted to living out this attitude of aloof superiority: “The dandy is the man who shocks others but is never shocked.” Indeed, there is a kind of moral competition that follows from the aspiration to ethical superiority in boredom. One strives to be more bored than everybody else in the room. At the same time, one takes care to never be boring to others. La Rochefoucauld was an expert commentator: “We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.” Iggy Pop was an expert performer: his song, “I’m Bored,” captures his ability to be bored while simultaneously being scandalous—an integral part of his coolness.
I’m the chairman of the bored,
I’m a lengthy monologue,
I’m livin’ like a dog.
I bore myself to sleep at night.
I bore myself in broad daylight coz.
I’m bored. I’m bored. I’m bored.
You can watch Pop performing this song on YouTube, as he writhes about displaying both his shirtless chest and his inconsolable boredom. If you are attracted to this conception of boredom, then you will likely feel some degree of pressure to be bored by this video.
Boredom as an aristocratic pose of aloof superiority draws its recruits from the dispossessed, the exiled, or, most often, from those who wish to make themselves into exiles. Boredom becomes a mark of distinction, failing to be bored a sign of baseness, Baudelaire’s “anywhere out of the world” the motto.
This is boredom as a negative and reactive virtue. Is there a positive ideal it could enable and a constructive mode of existence it could animate? Yes. The ideal is modernity and the mode of existence that of the modern artist.
This at least was the position Baudelaire took and it resonates today in places like Chicago’s Café Ennui. “Modernity” for Baudelaire was not primarily a designation for a historical period. It was an aesthetic aspiration. An artwork is modern to the extent that it gives expression to the momentaneous upswelling of an event. A classical work aspires to give voice to the timeless, the enduring, the venerable. A modern work sensitizes its audience to the “contingent, the fleeting, the ephemeral.”
The modern artist lives therefore in constant conversation with boredom. Every lyrical emergence of modernity is a moment won from and doomed to sink back into a desert of ennui. Much as the medieval saint’s holiness was linked with his capacity to be particularly pained by the prick of pride and the ancient warrior’s nobility was connected to the fact that shame brought him the greatest of all suffering, the modern artist’s creativity is tied to his acute sensitivity to boredom. The thought that there might finally be nothing new to be seen, no more modernity to be created and enjoyed, terrifies him. This is why his life can be defined by the search for “the new!” He is always and everywhere anxious about its absence.
The opening poem of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, “To the Reader,” offers probably the most terrifying portrait of this version of boredom. It asserts that, of all the evils, boredom—not pride, not cowardice—is the vilest of all. “Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice, gorillas and tarantulas that suck and snatch and scratch and defecate and fuck
in the disorderly circus of our vice, there’s one more ugly and abortive birth.” In contrast to other vices, boredom “makes no gestures, never beats its breast.” Boredom does not call attention to itself. It slowly saps away “the soft and precious metal of our will.” From here, normal boundaries are erased as victims cast about in search of something to make them feel alive. Anything is better than nothing, including violent and forbidden fantasies: “It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together. This obscene beast chain-smokes, yawning for the guillotine.” Even if you think you have escaped its energy-sapping, “world-devouring” yawn, you are wrong: “You know it well, my Reader. You — hypocrite Reader — my double — my brother!” Baudelaire’s boredom is a terrible truth that the poet is able to face and incorporate into his existence, which others secretly know but hypocritically evade.
The Flowers of Evil is one of the seminal poetic engagements with boredom—as it unfolds Baudelaire transforms boredom into something to be owned rather than subdued. The book progresses from the early, shocking portrayals of ennui as a monster to be overcome toward later poems where boredom is represented as an internal component of a creative life.
Only when we drink poison are we well—
we want, this fire so burns our brain tissue,
to drown in the abyss—heaven or hell,
who cares? Through the unknown, we’ll find the new.
The poets and heroes depicted in the early poems of Baudelaire’s collection strive to rise above boredom, to somewhere untouched by its draining powers. Baudelaire calls this place “The Ideal.” These ancient types prefer to fight dragons in the clouds rather than the boredom of everyday life. Baudelaire’s ennui is intended to name a new monster, one which requires a qualitatively different kind of struggle:
We imitate, oh horror! tops and bowls
in their eternal waltzing marathon;
even in sleep, our fever whips and rolls—
like a black angel flogging the brute sun
Strange sport! where destination has no place
or name, and may be anywhere we choose—
where man, committed to his endless race,
runs like a madman diving for repose!
This is not the challenge of defending a sacred position or glorifying a god whose divinity is already secured. It is the weird effort to find a position worth defending in the first place; the odd poetic challenge to represent the moment of divine birth in process and on the move, as it arises out of the boring muck. The search is not for a secure resting place—the Ideal. The search is for something worth searching for.
Boredom offered Baudelaire a figure for his conception of artistic virtue. The artist is that person willing to follow the unpredictable operations of the imagination for their own sake, wherever they may take him, even (especially) beyond standard moral and social conventions. The artist crosses boundaries. And so does boredom, smoking his hookah, dreaming of the gallows, releasing himself to unacknowledged desires.
This depiction of boredom as the price of creativity has resonated from the Latin Quarter to the present. This is especially true in latter-day bohemias such as Wicker Park, Haight-Ashbury and West Queen West, which are rapidly gaining new membership. The number of independent artists, writers and performers in Toronto has more than doubled in the past ten years. From 1998 to 2003, Chicago added 131 restaurants and 208 fitness centers. Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project entry on boredom includes the note: “in 1757 there were only three cafés in Paris.”
Baudelaire did not think of modernity in chronological terms. However, his modernism registers a decisive historical turn. In his poetry and criticism, being modus, à la mode,nouveau was recast as a positive quality rather than a vain curiosity. As it turned out, this shift in values may have defined a great historical transition; a shift away from a life of upholding traditions toward one focused on generating new knowledge, new feelings and new practices.
You might assess your boredom as part and parcel of this historically novel attempt to lead a modern life, a life devoted to modernity. The history of the European words for boredom is striking in this regard. The English “boredom,” for example, is a recent invention. And nobody knows its derivation or etymology. It appeared from out of nowhere, a new creation for a new age. “Melancholy,” “spleen,” “sloth” and “acedia” have been around for much longer, going back to the classical and early Christian periods. But “bore” does not appear in English until the 1760s. One of the first known usages of “bore” refers to an individual as a “French bore,” meaning a French person who suffers from boredom. “To bore” first appears in 1768 in a letter describing being “bored by these Frenchmen.”
This was also the same period in which the first usages of the word “interesting” appear, in the modern sense of “that’s interesting!” Just as people began to worry about being bored, they started to talk about their desire to experience interesting things for the sake of their interestingness (as opposed to their morality, nobility or holiness). An era begins where “the interesting vs. the boring” come to define spectrums of evaluation, such as the way we judge historical events or determine the value of personal qualities.
The French “ennui” and the German “Langeweile” are more venerable. But something new happened to them at the same time that “boredom” and “interesting” were emerging. The French concept had arisen from the Latin “in odio habere,” “in odio esse.” “Ennui” was used earlier than “bore,” the first known English usage coming in 1667: “we have hardly any words that do fully express the French ennui.” It signified both a sense of disgust brought on by some concrete cause and a sense that the soul lacks some gratifying content. Yet until fairly late it lacked much resonance with the experience of empty time, central to the concept of ennui today. This sense, however, was always primary in the German “Langeweile,” with its clear linguistic connection to time: “the long while.” But originally “Langeweile” was just an everyday description of objective time passing slowly. Only later did it become associated with subjective suffering. From these divergent starting points, “Langeweile” and “ennui” underwent reciprocal transformation, approaching one another from opposite directions and finally fusing (though their historical residues sometimes still give them different accents).
Between 1931 and 1961 occurrences of the word “boredom” increased ten-fold, according to sociologist Orrin Klapp, together with a plethora of related words and concepts. Here is a list Klapp compiled: acedia, anhedonia, apathy, arid, banal, banality, blasé, burn-out, chatter, chatterbox, chitchat, chore, cliché, cloying, dismal, doldrums, drag, dreary, dry, dull, dullness, effete, enervation, ennui, flat, glazed eyes, hackneyed, harping, ho hum, humdrum, inane, insipid, insouciance, irksome, jade, jaded, jejune, languor, lassitude, listless, long-winded, monotony, museum fatigue, pall, platitude, prolixity, prosaic, prosy, repetitious, restless, restlessness, routine, rut, sameness, satiety, soporific, stagnant, stagnation, sterile, stuffy, stupefying, surfeited, tedium, tedious, tiresome, torpor, trite, trivia, uneasiness, uninteresting, verbosity, weariness, wearisome, world-weary.
The Eskimo’s language enables a fine-grained appreciation of snow. The language of the ancient Greeks made it possible to analyze anger in minute detail. English today permits similarly penetrating descriptions of boredom.
Why does modernity lead to boredom? One answer is implicit in Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” essay, which locates the decisive moment when boredom became a generalized condition of life at the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events marked the end of history in the sense that the live competitors to liberal democracy—socialism and communism—were now off the table. Things of course go on and modern societies face ongoing challenges, such as terrorism. But nobody seriously imagines that the major world powers or significant elements within them will adopt the main tenets of Islamic extremists. Without a living moral challenge, there remains plenty to do, like development work in Africa. But this kind of thing amounts to an interesting way to spend one’s time and a way to make oneself into a more interesting person at cocktail parties. Not a great moral confrontation the outcome of which is genuinely in dispute. What is left is a world finally purified of everything but the interesting and the boring.
Other answers go further back, linking the rise of boredom to the rise of Enlightenment science, industrialism and bureaucracy. These valorized quantitative calculation over qualitative experience, turned workers into interchangeable commodities and made human beings into cogs within organizational machines. Moderns had to invent a new word, “boredom,” because their hyper-mechanistic, quantitative, rationalized world bored into their daily existences in newly penetrating ways. When these sorts of experiences become the normal stuff of daily life, as one of David Foster Wallace’s characters puts it, “the word invents itself. … The name springs up under cultural pressure.” Even if our experience of boredom seems to carry us off into a world of eternal sameness, the diffusion and depth of that experience is through and through historical.
A third answer about the boredom-modernity connection highlights the rise of individualism. The focus is often on the Romantic search for self-expression and the attendant desire for intense, autonomous personal experience as a bedrock of meaning against the depersonalizing forces of modern life. Saul Bellow’s character Charlie Citrine summarizes it well:
For me, the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom. This increasing, swelling, domineering, painful self-consciousness is the only rival of the political and social powers that run my life (business, technological-bureaucratic powers, the state). You have a great organized movement of life, and you have the single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever. … To be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is to be separated from all else.
All of these versions of the boredom of modernity share a common structure. There was a world before the advent of boredom. This world was richer, fuller, more in tune with the flow of time, defined by challenges that unquestionably matter. And then there is the world with boredom, defined by the contrast between the boring and interesting. This world is somehow truncated and emptied of meaning. It is concerned more with personal experience than trans-personal meaning. Its people are points on a grid, its landscape is homogenous, and its basic values settled.
But being bored can be thought of as ending history in a different and more positive sense. When you are deeply bored, historical questions fall away. You stop asking about whether we live in modernity or post-modernity, how industrialism has affected the human situation, whether community is possible in an age of bureaucracy, or whether there remain any great historical challenges after the fall of Communism. These disappear as so many external distractions. They become evasions from listening to your boredom. All that is left is you, your situation and the strange and wondrous fact that there is something there at all. And that this could potentially matter to you.
This is the mystic’s boredom, boredom as a mood that tunes us into the importance of being there. Martin Heidegger was the great philosopher of this revelatory potential of boredom. He gave a lecture course on “The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics” in which nearly half the term was spent on the phenomenology of boredom. He asked his students to “awaken” a mood of deep boredom. He claimed that doing so would enable them to authentically ask the fundamental questions of metaphysics: namely, the questions about the significance of the world, finitude and solitude. In a mood of deep boredom, these are living questions, not simply academic ones borrowed from schools, books or history.
Together Heidegger and his students worked to awaken deep boredom from within more superficial everyday boredoms, like the boredom of being stuck in an airport terminal. These types of boredoms are mostly attempts to evade the metaphysical question contained in boredom. As you cycle through your iPod playlist and shuffle through magazines at the airport, you are trying to drive away your boredom. As the day flies by at the ballgame and the night disappears at the party, you are finding ways to avoid tuning into your boredom with yourself. Yet trying to find something to occupy yourself with while you wait means that you are the sort of creature for whom time can be significant. Heidegger invites us to release ourselves to a boredom that raises the question of how anything could matter in the first place:
Boredom is still distant when it is only this book or that play, that business or this idleness, that drags on. It irrupts when “one is bored.” Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals beings as a whole.
Heidegger might lead us to conclude that there is something about boredom that is in the end too slippery to pin down. That boredom is a little pocket of mystery left for people living in a world obsessed with the eradication of mystery.
This has not been the approach of American businessmen and politicians, for whom it is now conventional wisdom that our way of life depends on constant transformations in consumption styles and behaviors. There may be limits to population growth or to our material needs, but the imagination is unlimited—it is the most renewable of resources. Some such thought has led contemporary economists to a surprising new research topic: bohemians and bohemian neighborhoods. These are now to be seen not as dangerous nests of unproductive human waste but as hotbeds of innovation, the analogue on the consumption side of the economy to R&D labs on the production side. Steady, dependable, focused laborers animated by the Protestant work ethic have been supplanted as the heroes of economic development by the cultural descendants of the outsiders who patrolled the Latin Quarter in mid-nineteenth-century Paris and the dirty hippies whom Mayor Daley took on with a vengeance at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Today, Mayor Daley II actively courts people very much like those his father ordered to be beaten into submission. Rustbelt cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh are falling over one another to convert spaces previously devoted to industrial production into promenades for flanerie, punctuated by movie theaters, ethnic restaurants and pubs with incredibly diverse selections of beer. The quest for novelty and the flight from boredom is not simply an individual spiritual challenge or even the aggregation of many individual problems; it keeps our iPod designers, video game engineers and bartenders employed.
Something is missed in this way of relating to boredom, however. For the boredom busters of the world do not linger at all with the experience, do not give it any time to build, develop and challenge them. The next time you are bored, ask yourself: Am I sinning? Am I stunting my moral growth? Am I exercising a necessary virtue? Am I experiencing the precondition of creativity? Am I releasing myself into the temporality of existence? You will find no simple answer to these questions, but the very fact that you’ve stopped to pay attention to your boredom may be important. We might say that today boredom provides the background to any truly creative endeavor; for more than one artistic spirit, it has presented itself as the ultimate challenge. Boredom in this way provides its own antidote; perhaps every new thing has boredom to thank.