A Bibliography of Boredom

This afternoon I reread the passage in The Magic Mountain in which Thomas Mann expounds on the nature of boredom.  Lars Svendsen in A Philosophy of Boredom asks, “What is the difference between profound boredom and depression?” concluding that there is considerable overlap.

Thinking about how various thinkers have dealt with boredom led me to scribbling a bibliography for a study on the subject, which I thought I’d share here. All of these works deal to a greater or lesser extent with the concept of boredom:

  1. Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind – Patricia Meyer Spacks
  2. In Praise of Boredom (from On Grief and Reason) – Joseph Brodsky
  3. Boredom is a major preoccupation in much of Herman Melville’s work
  4. Being and Time – Martin Heidegger (on the theme of profound boredom)
  5. The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell
  6. The themes of boredom and  waiting are dominant in the novels of Marguerite Duras, notably Moderato Cantabile (which is brilliant and you should read anyway.)
  7. The Voyage Out – Virgina Woolf (fascinating exploration of the textual use of boredom)
  8. Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity – Elizabeth Goodstein
  9. Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
  10. A Philosophy of Boredom – Lars Svendsen
  11. Boredom: A Lively History – Peter Toohey
  12. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

I realise there is an extensive literature of the phenomenon of boredom, many of which I have not included. I came cross Lee Rourke’s top 10 books about boredom. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section.

Time’s Passing

It was an interview with Philip Larkin that commandeered my night, not the interview itself which is mostly unremarkable, nor the appeal of Larkin, which in my case is negligible. It was his reply to a trite question about his daily routine, to which he replied:

My life is as simple as I can make it. Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings. I almost never go out. I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time: some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way—making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.

As you might imagine, the passing of time is a central preoccupation, hence the naming of this blog. Though it has been many years since I last read Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the book exerted a powerful influence on my perspective. Csíkszentmihályi theorizes that in a state of complete absorption temporal concerns evaporate. In this ideal ‘flow’ state ego, disappears and time ceases to pass.

Probably due to commercial inducements, Csíkszentmihályi’s work has fallen down the ‘positive psychology’ rabbit hole, but there are elements of Flow that are profoundly intelligent. It isn’t easy to generate complete absorption, and if you try too hard failure is certain, but, for me, listening to Schumann’s late work or to Arvo Pärt, reading Kafka, Coetzee or Aristotle can transport me to that place where I forget myself and the passing of time.

Stemming the passing of time is also a way (the only way?) of recapturing a sense of the enchantment that is supposedly absent in our alienated modern world. I’ll end this rambling with a passage from Philip Fisher’s lucid Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences:

The moment of pure presence within wonder lies in the object’s difference and uniqueness being so striking to the mind that it does not remind us of anything and we find ourselves delaying in its presence for a time in which the mind does not move on by association to something else.

Time’s Flow Stemmed

This blog’s name is an allusion to the time that elapses when you look up from a book and realise it is much later than you thought. Contained within that allusion is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called Flow, what sporting participants refer to as being in the zone.

The inspiration is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Reader.

I’d long been reading. Since with rush of rain
this afternoon first dimmed the window-pane.
The wind outside had passed from my regard:
my book was hard.
And, as I turned its pages, I would con them
like features darkened by reflectiveness;
time’s flow was stemmed around my studiousness.
Then of a sudden something overshone them,
and, ousting anxious verbal maziness,
stood: Evening, Evening … everywhere upon them.
I do not yet look out, but the long lines
have split in two, and words from their combining
threads roll away wherever they’re inclining …
And then I know: above there’s a serpentining,
glittering gardens there’s a spaciousness;
yes, once again the sun must have been shining.
Now summer-night is all encompassing:
small groups are formed by what lay scatteredly,
people on long walks wander darksomely,
and strangely far, as though more meaningly,
is heard the little that’s still happening.

And when I gaze up now from what I’ve read,
everything’s great and nothing’s akin.
Out there exists what I live within,
and here and there it’s all unlimited;
save that I weave myself still more therein
when on to outward things my glances fly
and gravely simple masses formed thereby,-
there far beyond itself the earth’s outswelling.
It seems to be embracing all the sky,
and the first star is like the farthest dwelling.