(Author's note: This version may differ slightly from the published version.)
Is prison the philosopher’s ideal habitat? Bertrand Russell suggested as much when he wrote of his incarceration as being “in many ways quite agreeable.” Close to five months in prison during the First World War freed Russell from the active life of a pacifist and allowed him to return to the sedentary life of the mind. Able to think and read, he wrote one major work, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, and began another. Prison was meant to scare Russell out of his pacifism. Instead, it threatened him with the most productive stimulant of the 20th Century – absolute boredom.
Lars Svendsen might sympathize with the Russell’s ecstatic downtime. The thought that boredom is a prime mover is counterintuitive, especially considering that most of Svendsen’s expert witnesses declare boredom a calamity. Dostoevsky called it a “bestial and indefinable affliction.” Heidegger labeled it a “silent fog.” Kierkegaard pronounced it “the root of all evil.” Most damningly, Georges Bernanos predicted, “… If the human race disappears, it will be out of ennui and boredom.”
Kierkegaard may be closest to the truth, at least in a historical sense. Christians of the Middle Ages didn’t know boredom per se, but acedia, a capital sin particularly hazardous to the monastic order. Acedia seized the mind of the unoccupied monk, inspiring all sorts of indecent imaginings of his abandoned worldly life. It acquired a reputation as the great satanic motivator, the sin that inspired all other sins. While acedia did not survive God’s post-mortem, its successor, boredom, did retain its sinister fecundity.
If Svendsen is right, we owe much of post-Enlightenment culture to the very menace of boredom. But things are not so easy. A fear of boredom may have given us Romantic poetry and phenomenology, however, it also brought along some of civilization’s darker impulses. Today no one would be shocked if a freeway killer or third-rate dictator claims his actions were the result of being bored. Maybe this is why when Warhol maintained, “I like boredom,” he had some explaining to do. Boredom is ubiquitous, but to revel in its emptiness is to be truly deviant. In one of the book’s stronger chapters, Svendsen discusses the work of two chroniclers of degeneracy, JG Ballard and Bret Easton Ellis. Given a lack of meaning in modernity, Ballard and Ellis’ protagonists invent their own values, whether it is a psychosexual obsession with the automotive death, or an inordinate interest in the music of Genesis coupled with serial murder.
The monastery, prison cell, and academy are not dissimilar institutions, and in light of this fact, one speculates why studies of boredom are so rare. It can also be asked whether such a project is even possible. Most of A Philosophy of Boredom is devoted to explaining how slippery boredom is as philosophical subject. Lacking any content of its own, boredom drives philosophers elsewhere for meaning. Heidegger is perhaps alone in attempting a phenomenology of the subject; yet, as Svendsen maintains, much of the writing was overlooked for the philosopher’s remarks on anxiety. Is all this misunderstanding and evasion born out of the worry that a study of boredom would itself be boring? Or is the problem in boredom’s fundamental lifelessness? One suspects the latter, and that the Das Kapital of boredom will be a long time coming. In the meantime, we can thank Lars Svendsen for somehow writing a thoroughly enjoyable tour guide to one of the most inhospitable deserts of modern life.