Boredom and ennui used to be counted among the deadly sins, either bundled together with sloth, or denounced separately. Boredom was considered a spiritual torpor that led to despair and nihilism: in Dante’s Inferno, “acedia” is a state of listlessness associated with “tristitia”, sadness, and offenders are plunged into fetid black mud that chokes them as they cry and sob. When I heard some young people in a refugee camp interviewed about their experiences in 2016, it wasn’t the harshness of the conditions or worries about their future that they dwelt on. It was the lack of something to do that made them most weary. Like Dante’s sufferers in the mud of hell, they were afflicted with boredom.
That was five years ago, when isolation happened to refugees and prisoners, or nuns and hermits who had chosen it. But now these conditions have been imposed on many of us. During lockdown, it can be hard to know where the week has gone, yet at the same time life seems to have come to a standstill. Work has been suspended for millions, not all of them furloughed, while others are being overworked and exposed to the virus. I’ve often heard people say the past year has been monotonous and depressing, with nothing to look forward to. The pandemic has created a new boredom: not yawning lassitude, but foreboding, emptiness and a lack of expectation.
To think of boredom as sinful assigns culpability to the sinner. However, during the Renaissance, after Dante was writing, perspectives on boredom shifted. According to elaborate astrological allegories, the zodiac held sway over the humours and the bodily organs, and determined your character and your fate. Your sadness and disaffection were no longer entirely your fault, because if you were born under the sign of Saturn, you were likely to suffer from an excess of black bile, or spleen, the cause of melancholy. Melancholics were depicted as alone and lost in sad, world-weary thoughts. But this state wasn’t altogether stigmatised; boredom was also regarded as the grounds of genius (indeed, while Dürer’s figure of Melancholia is sunk in gloom, she is surrounded by symbols of her rich, reflective inner depths).
Now, as Aldous Huxley acutely observed in an essay on “accidie” in 1923, boredom is “a state of mind which fate has forced upon us”. During this pandemic, boredom is blooming malignantly in conditions of overwork rather than those of sloth or shiftlessness, adding to the exhaustion of everyone, most especially home-schooling parents, women, doctors, nurses, cleaners, carers, couriers, rubbish collectors and other key workers who are making survival possible for the rest of us. And the younger you are, and the more you are therefore hoping will happen, the more furiously frustrating it feels to exist suspended in a state of pause.
Since Huxley’s diagnosis, a harsh idea of the individual as an autonomous agent who meets targets, delivers outputs, takes exams and gets results has intensified the misery of boredom and made it harder to live in the present. This emphasis on productive activity is the antithesis of daydreaming or attending to the unfolding moment. Children need space and time to allow their desires to surface and kindle their curiosity, as Adam Phillips pointed out in his prescient essay, On Being Bored, and the same goes for adults. Ingenuity, discoveries and creativity can arise out of aimlessness.
It’s a powerful paradox that a good way to alleviate boredom is to contemplate its features through another person’s eyes. In their very different ways, Dante and Samuel Beckett both make clear how illuminating and fascinating – and even funny – depictions of boredom can be. In Beckett’s Endgame, Clov asks: “Do you believe in the life to come?” to which Hamm answers: “Mine was always that.” This is art working like a vaccine: take a small dose of boredom in artistic form and it will hold at bay one’s worse attacks of melancholy and despair. (Analogously, people have increasingly sought horror films during the lockdown: annulling one fear with a strong dose of another.)
Many inspired and surprising remedies for inactivity can be found on the internet. But I’ve always believed that imagination is an underused resource, especially in times of duress, and that it’s overlooked or even repressed because it doesn’t suit contemporary power structures for us to explore our capacity to dream and play and concoct alternatives. The Museum of London’s project to collect our dreams during the pandemic performs that valuable trick of perception, transforming the overlooked and finding untold interest in it; it also reflects the strain of the pandemic, and the fear, destruction and sheer sadness it has wrought.
During this period of soul-crushing boredom, it would be valuable to pay more attention to what people are feeling and thinking, rather than trying to distract and lull them; to collect our daydreams, reveries and thoughts from this time, and let expectations and desires find common expression. This idea owes something to Mass Observation, the huge social research project that ran from 1937 to record everyday life in Britain, through observers who asked people to record their thoughts and conversations in diaries and questionnaires.
Perhaps the focus now should be on the material arising from our inner worlds, stories about what might or could be. Together with a colleague at Birkbeck College, London, I’ve been working on an idea for a nationwide project that would assemble a contemporary portrait of our dreads, our hopes, and our dreams of change that have emerged during the pandemic. This collective project could begin online, and move later into local centres, with libraries and empty high street premises used as collection points to gather people’s contributions.
This wouldn’t be a book, but a tapestry of wishes and hopes for a time to come that is presently being denied. The key principle here is relating to one another: building recognition between us through the act of making up a story and projecting it into the future. In this way, we might transform the dark mud of boredom and sadness into laughter and sympathy, through the ancient art of making up and passing on stories.
Marina Warner is a cultural historian, critic, novelist and short story writer. Her most recent book is Inventory of a Life Mislaid, An Unreliable Memoir