Tuesday 29 January 2008

Notes on a theology of boredom

Note: I was thinking of writing a proper essay on this topic, but I got bored with it, so I’ve posted a sketch here instead.

In Milan Kundera’s short novel, Identity (1998), the character Jean-Marc describes a visit to his dying grandfather. He hears a peculiar sound coming from the dying man’s mouth, “one sound, an ‘ahhhh’ that broke off only when he had to take a breath.” This “ahhhh” is not the sound of pain or of attempted communication; as Jean-Marc listens, he realises that the sound signifies an essential truth about human beings: “this [sound] is existence as such confronting time as such; and that confrontation … is named boredom” (p. 74). A bleak picture of our being-in-time, to be sure! One is reminded here of Heidegger’s massive analysis of boredom, where the strange indifference of “profound boredom” was identified as “the totality of that which is.”

So what might a theologian have to say about boredom? On the whole, theologians have harboured dark thoughts about boredom, and have tended to classify it either as somehow sinful or at least as a consequence of sin. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard famously remarked that “boredom is the root of all evil” (his argument is delightful: “The gods were bored, so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created” – and so on). Jacques Ellul’s work, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (1969), identifies boredom – so “gloomy, dull, and joyless” – as one of the defining perversions of modern social life (p. 121). Ellul’s view here is close to that of Karl Barth, who similarly described “the signature of modern man” as neither serenity nor rebellion, but simply an “utter weariness and boredom.” In Barth’s view, “man is bored with himself,” and as a result “everything has become a burden to him” (Church Dogmatics III/2, p. 117).

More recently, Graham Neville has offered a theological analysis of boredom in his book, Free Time: Towards a Theology of Leisure (2004). Neville advances the depressing thesis that “the nature of boredom … corresponds to the monastic sin of accidie or sloth” (p. 100), and so he urges us to overcome boredom, or at least to allow the sinful passivity of boredom to be sublated by the more constructive passivity of “wonder.” Neville’s all-too-obvious identification of boredom with the medieval sin of sloth is anachronistic, however, since the word/concept of “boredom” had no existence prior to the 18th century – as Patricia Meyer Spacks observes in her brilliant genealogy of boredom: “If people felt bored before the late eighteenth century, they didn’t know it” (Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, p. 14).

So if we withhold for a moment the judgment that boredom is sin, we might find a more constructive way to reflect on this peculiar state of mind. I’m inclined to think that the Italian philosopher Giorgo Agamben (who looks suitably bored in this photo) has pointed the way forwards here. In an essay entitled “In This Exile” (published in Means Without End, pp. 121-42), Agamben speaks of “the essential inoperability of humankind,” that is, the fact that human beings “cannot be defined by any proper operation,” so that our humanness can never be exhausted by any particular identity or task. In this connection, Agamben speaks of “humankind’s creative semi-indifference to any task.”

Here, the “semi-indifference” of boredom is linked to an essential theological truth about human beings: we are not reducible to our work; we always exceed any given task. Or as Agamben puts it elsewhere, boredom discloses the essence of a “simply living being” (see his essay, “Profound Boredom,” in The Open: Man and Animal, p. 70). Between our work and our being there lies a gap – and boredom names this gap.

This theme of a gap between being and work has never been more beautifully articulated than in Andrew Marvell’s 1653 poem, “Bermudas”. The poem depicts an unfallen Paradise – and it ends with the lines:

Thus sang they, in the English boat,
An holy and a cheerful note;
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.

The image here of prelapsarian labour is simple, but astonishingly powerful. They are rowing to keep time in their song, not vice versa! They are really working – but they exceed their work, and the labour itself is simply a needless embellishment, a fitting but absolutely non-necessary improvisation of their existence. Or to put it more simply, their work is pure praise: the rowing of the oars simply forms the background rhythm of their song. In Agamben’s terminology, the rower in this poem is a “being-without-work” – he really works, but his work is superfluous, since he utterly exceeds it.

But if Agamben rightly insists that human beings are irreducible to their work, he fails to note the (today more important) point that humans also exceed their leisure and enjoyment. If boredom names the gap between our being and our work, it also names the gap between being and enjoyment. At least in the affluent West, most of us would accept that life cannot finally be boiled down to work; the more sinister and more beguiling threat today is the reduction of life to enjoyment.

As Slavoj Žižek has frequently observed, late-capitalist existence is structured by an obscene and threatening superego imperative: enjoy! (see for example The Universal Exception, pp. 331-35). In its own way, this capitalist law of enjoyment also seeks to close the gap between our being and our works, except that here, our true and proper “work” – the work which the law demands of us! – is enjoyment itself. (The true horror of The Matrix of course lies precisely here: when Neo swallows the red pill, he discovers that all human existence has been secretly transformed into a monstrous technological production of enjoyment; it is “pure,” immediate experience, no longer mediated even by life – or rather, it is pure human enjoyment at the expense of humanity.)

In this late capitalist setting, the only absolute prohibition is indifference or boredom – or rather, the consumer-ideology itself generates boredom precisely in order to forbid it and alleviate it. The machinery of late capitalism thus functions like the medicine mentioned by Hegel: it is a wounding-and-healing poison which paradoxically “heals the wound which it itself is” (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, III, 55). We are always bored, and always being (forcibly) rescued from our boredom.

So just as a society which reduces life to social utility will prohibit boredom vis-à-vis work, so too a society which reduces life to enjoyment will prohibit boredom vis-à-vis leisure. If, at times, a truly radical resistance can only take the form of passivity and non-participation, then is it possible that boredom itself might be a crucial site of resistance today? As human beings, we are always in excess: we exceed our tasks, and we exceed our enjoyment. There is always a gap between my “works” – what I do, what I enjoy, which market niche I identify with – and my humanity. To be bored – without immediately seeking to transform that boredom into either productivity on the one hand or enjoyment on the other – is to hold open this gap, and to resist participating in its insidious closure.

To face both work and enjoyment with what Agamben calls a “creative semi-indifference” is, today, the gesture of the human being who stands before God and is recognised by God – the human being who is no longer under the law (neither the law of works nor the law of enjoyment), but under grace.

This human being – the human being under grace – is the one whose work and play can never be taken too seriously, since they are merely creative embellishments, non-necessary improvisations, which contribute to the harmony and peace of a life of praise. Like Marvell’s rowers, both our work and our play can thus find their true meaning only as they serve the modest role of “keeping the time” in our song:

And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.


Anonymous said...

Excellent! Thanks!

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Ben, thanks for this fascinating post!

So is blogging leisure, work, or an expression of gracious living? :)

Shane said...

"Neville’s all-too-obvious identification of boredom with the medieval sin of sloth is anachronistic, however, since the word/concept of “boredom” had no existence prior to the 18th century – as Patricia Meyer Spacks observes in her brilliant genealogy of boredom: “If people felt bored before the late eighteenth century, they didn’t know it” (Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, p. 14)."

This seems like a fallacious bit of reasoning: people x didn't have word y, therefore they also didn't have the concept of y.

As far as I know, the Greeks didn't really have a word for 'lesbian', but that doesn't mean (a) that there were no lesbians or that (b) the greeks didn't have the concept of lesbianism.

So, the late provenance of the english word doesn't establish boredom as anything particularly modern. Indeed, this website seems to suggest Lucretius had some important insights into the phenomenon.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Shane: nice try, but I'll stick with Foucault on this one...

Nick said...

Thanks, Shane.

Personally, I enjoy Chesterton's approach, that there is no lack of wonders, but of wonder.

"A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon."

Anonymous said...

I hope you will eventually work this up into a "proper essay," not only because it's an interesting treatment of an interesting topic, but because I think it could benefit from further elaboration--especially the last bit about law & grace. I found myself wondering, for instance, whether the idea of vocation or calling might be the right way of specifying the way grace rescues us from boredom. To have a vocation, in my Frankfurtian understanding, is to be wholeheartedly committed to (and thus identified with) that which one cares about. Such wholehearted commitment can give one's life a unity & integrity, an integrity which, among other things, allows one to continually narrate everything one does and undergoes into a story whose ending is "..and that's how I became who I am today." (Think here of In Search of Lost Time.) I take it that that's one of the ways we gain the right sort of "creative semi-indifference" in our work & our enjoyment, since it gives us a clear sense of who it is who's doing the working and enjoying, where these activities & passivities belong in the story of our lives, etc. One way of thinking about the grace that frees us from boredom, then, is in terms of vocation.

That, at least, is what occurred to me as I read this post. I'm sure there are other ways of elaborating on the way God frees us from boredom, and I'm sure you've got your own ideas on the subject. It would be great to see you spell these out.

(Then again, maybe we could co-author a "proper essay" on the subject...)

Anonymous said...

I would not necessarily say that boredom is itself sin, but:

If boredom names the gap between our being and our work, it also names the gap between being and enjoyment. At least in the affluent West, most of us would accept that life cannot finally be boiled down to work; the more sinister and more beguiling threat today is the reduction of life to enjoyment.

There is an element missing here. Certainly boredom can stand critically against the attitude that we can be reduced to either our work or our leisure, but I still think it is a consequence of sin.

We are created to praise God, and that's what we'll do continuously in heaven. We are called to try to live that life as fully as possible on earth, too, hence the Pauline command to pray ceaselessly. We cannot be reduced to our boredom, either -- ultimately we are called to transform that boredom into a willingness to praise God.

This goes back to lex orandi, lex credendi -- the Church has historically grounded itself not in daily Eucharist (though that is a salutary practice) but in the Divine Office. This points to what our proper action is as Christians. It may not take the form of frequent liturgical prayer -- though I firmly believe this is the surest route to being able to pray ceaselessly -- but we are nevertheless intended to praise God unceasingly in some way.

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful! - reminds me a bit of Josef Pieper's "Leisure, the Basis of Cuture," and some things that Newman points out in "The Idea of a University."

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful! - reminds me a bit of Josef Pieper's "Leisure, the Basis of Cuture," and some things that Newman points out in "The Idea of a University."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. You might be interested in Michael Hanby's essay
'The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy' Communio 31 (2004), 181-99.

It can be found at:



Richard Beck said...

It seems to me that it would be worth comparing and contrasting the following:


I wonder if "boredom" is really what you are after in this post. A psychologist sees boredom as a motive force, a negative affective state that pushes the agent to seek change or new challenges. As such, boredom is a healthy feature of our psychology. Necessary from an adaptive viewpoint. The issue is whether, coming out of the bored state, anything seems worth pursuing. This seems more existentially evaluative than the felt experience of boredom.

Regardless, great post.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Thanks Ben. I've been wanting someone to write on this subject. I like the image of our boredom being a result of the abundance of grace and life given by God. If I am bored, it is because "my cup overfloweth." At the same time, this reality should propel us beyond ourselves to our neighbors, so that our praise is a witness to the world.

Anonymous said...

I would applaud were I not overcome with a blessed ennui. As I put it in my 8th Proposition on Worship: "To put it most counter-culturally: Blessed are the bored, for they will see God." Thus as a liturgical expression of praise and thanksgiving, perhaps after the Sursum Corda: The congregation yawns.

Anonymous said...

I echo the others: Fantastic post.

I have been mulling over the relationship between boredom and being captured in Agamben also. I wonder about the relationship between this "not being captured by anything" and Badiou's discussion of the revolutionary / messianic community: the boundary between boredom and being captured is theopolitical.

It does seem that we, if only for brief moments, are completely captured by a project - these things that do capture us briefly seem to do so by virtue of something other than their sheer scintillating-ness; rather, the conditions for being so captured are found in us, our being interested. That interest, it seems, is counter to the disinterest that Capitalism engenders.

Perhaps, and I am stretching here into terra incognito, this "being interested" is related to a particular relation to Time - eschatological time.

Anyhow, Great post.

Anonymous said...

I nearly awoke to hear “Like Melville’s rowers…”

Shane said...

@B. Myers,

Nice try, but i'll prefer [insert name drop here] on this one . . .

Weekend Fisher said...

If I could throw 2 cents down the gravity well here and watch them spin ... Picking up where you mentioned boredom as distance between ourselves and our action or role of the moment:

Boredom's task is to recognize a dead end. It's not only the mind's abhorrence of being reduced to the work or the enjoyment, it's also the mind's sense of a waste of time, a "penultimate thing being mistaken for an ultimate thing." Things which touch on love, hope and eternity hold our attention.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Michael O'Neill Burns said...

Jean-Yves Lacoste has a great section on boredom in the Liturgy in 'Experience and the Absolute' that is worth checking out.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for all these interesting and very helpful comments, which have given me lots of extra things to think about (and extra things to read!).

In particular, thanks Philip for that Hanby essay — I'd been thinking that my notes on boredom should really have made some connection between "boredom" and "joy" (since if there is indeed a gap between being and work, surely that gap could — and should — also be named joy). So Hanby's essay on boredom and joy is helpful here.

And Kevin, thanks for your excellent suggestions about "vocation". I had originally hoped to structure the whole essay around the concept of vocation, but I just didn't know how to do it. So your thoughts here are very helpful — and this could also fit with Christopher's comment about "being captured by a project", etc.

So anyway, thanks for all these insightful comments and suggestions.

Anonymous said...

I think I am too late to get involve the discussion. So I just share with you what I think about boring:
1. I need to learn from Jewish tradition esp. the Midrash. Once you get into it, you will never get boring
2. Boring theoloy (or other things else) is the waste of God's creation because they remove the exciting nature of creation and supress God's excitement, "Good!" (Gen 1).
3. Will God get boring when He see the works of human? Does "divine boring" exist? If there is a divine anger as obviously shown in Bible, will there be a divine boring? Why and why not?

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the concept of "ennui" in Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I have always felt that Bovary's character was not simply meant to be despised. She is bored with her aristocratic lifestyle for a reason, and it is the same reason as the Wise Preacher: in a world where sensuality and pleasure are the ends of human existence, then boredom is the only form of resistance. This is the beauty of Flaubert's realism; an intensely theological realism.

Anonymous said...

But the most interesting thing is that even the everyday life in Madame Bovary is dull, the reading of it is not dull!
Reading it as a 'third person' we will find enlightment from the bullness.
Reading always has such a paradox...

Unknown said...

In The Structure of Awareness (Abingdon, 1969) Thomas C. Oden treats boredom as anxiety experienced with respect to the present -- in contrast to anxiety with respect to the past (guilt) or anxiety with respect to the future (fear). Ultimately, in his view, all anxiety reflects idolatrous attachments. Well worth the read.

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