Boredom seems like an eternal state, but that’s the nature of boredom. It has no beginning or end, just pure middle. In fact, boredom has a history, and it hasn’t always been the same. The ancients were familiar with boredom, but it was an unusual state of mind not generally encountered in daily life. Plutarch reports the Greek general Pyrrhus complained he was bored in retirement. The Roman philosopher Seneca described boredom as a kind of nausea. The Christian tradition declared chronic boredom (acedia) a sin. The Renaissance assumed a more laid-back attitude, likening boredom to melancholia brought about by studying of math and sciences too much. Eighteenth-century Quakers revived the notion of boredom as sin, constructing a prison in Philadelphia in which inmates were kept in isolation at all hours of the day. Boredom was supposed to drive miscreants to God. Mostly it drove them deeper into deviance.
Boredom became an existential condition in the industrial age. Dickens, who was probably never bored, is credited with the first published instance of the word “boredom,” which he worked into Bleak House (1852), along with a few hundred thousand other words. During his research for the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin found that boredom emerged as a social condition in the 1840s. “France is bored,” announced Lamartine in 1839. In Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina boredom is something akin to depression. Nineteenth-century boredom is a social condition in which social relations are stuck in place while technology advances. “We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for,” Benjamin writes. The upper classes embrace boredom because it means history has stood still, freezing their place in the social hierarchy. The working classes are bored because they can’t stop working; for them, history never changes. According to Benjamin, the gambler, the drug addict, and the flâneur are best able to resist boredom because they choose their own fates. “The more life is regulated administratively, the more people must learn waiting,” Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project. “Games of chance have the great attraction of making people free from waiting.”
The gambler is just killing time. The flâneur, on the other hand, “charges time like a battery” by continually attending to his immediate surroundings. The flâneur sees through the false novelty of fashion in one of its most famous homes. “Monotony is nourished by the new,” Benjamin observes. Modern history itself is periodically jolted by uprisings only to settle back into the status quo. The revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871 erupted in the name of universal democracy and justice, only to end in the reconsolidation of special interests and upper class control, leaving social relations unchanged.
Nevertheless, Benjamin held out hope that boredom was a portal to bigger and better things. When you are bored you will entertain any notion just to escape boredom. Benjamin described boredom as “the threshold of great deeds.” When we’re bored, we’re ready for anything.
This receptivity to the genuinely new—a condition important to Benjamin even if he never adequately distinguishes it from the false lures of fashion and novelty—may have passed into history. The culture industry has trained us to passively entertained by constant distraction. In place of Benjamin’s metaphor of the dreaming collective waiting to be disturbed, we now think of the human condition as one of a vessel that needs to be filled. Distraction is like a drug we need to remain at the same level of satisfaction. Maybe a new set of social relations will be declared in a text message or on Twitter. We can only wait, listlessly, to find out.