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Jack Smith

The torpor of boredom settles in and suddenly all's wrong with the world

June 10, 1987|Jack Smith

Alan Caruba, founder of The Boring Institute, has published a book called "Boring Stuff: How to Spot It & How to Avoid It."

He has sent it to me with a note that begins:

"Boredom is so much a part of our lives that it's easy to overlook."

He says he started the institute as a media spoof, but since then he has been touched by the more serious aspects of his subject.

"Boredom lends itself wonderfully to humor, but clearly it has a very serious side to it. It (can be) a significant sign of potential teen suicide, school dropouts, marital failures, job burnout and drug use."

Boredom is perhaps the most common of maladies. It is a temporary lack of interest in life; a lowering of vivacity, a lethargy, a somnolence. Our senses go torpid; our eyes glaze over; our joie de vivre runs dry.

I suppose Jung and Freud and their colleagues have explored this phenomenon and that there are words to describe it, but we don't need a psychiatrist to define boredom for us, and I doubt that a psychiatrist can exorcise it.

We are all familiar with the social bore. This is the person who corners you at a party and drones on interminably, without insight, humor or revelation, about his own existence, while you glance about desperately seeking ways of escape.

His subject may be as lofty as religion, or as low as the relative merits of ravioli, cannelloni and lasagna. I am mystified by the number of times a conversation will drift to the eating preferences of those present. Baseball, politics and sex, I think, are more interesting subjects, but they fall far short of food in popularity.

I have an idea that many a budding romance has been aborted when the young woman asked the young man, "Do you like eggplant?" or the young man volunteered a liking for fried potatoes.

More malignant than the social bore, who finally can be escaped, is boredom with yourself. This form is pathological. It is intrinsic. Life suddenly holds no excitement. Love has lost its bloom. Nothing tastes good. You have no interest in books, or music, or the movies, or sports. You don't care whether the Dodgers win or lose, or whether your girlfriend phones, whether the champagne is effervescent, or whether you get a check in the mail. You lurch about in a vacuum. You regard life as Louis Jourdan regarded Paris in "Gigi," when he sang, "It's a bore!"

Samuel Johnson was speaking of that kind of boredom also when he said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."

It is this kind of boredom that the jet set are trying to escape in their tireless intercontinental peregrinations. They fly from New York to Cannes, only to find boredom waiting for them on the Riviera. They flee to Paris, and then to Rome, or London, or Leningrad, and finally they seek to escape it in Hollywood, only to find its dreadful specter in residence there.

The trouble with discussing boredom is that the subject itself is boring. The other night we watched a play on television in which several people sat around a New York apartment having a party. They were boring people and the play itself was inevitably mostly boring. I don't know why playwrights so often try to create drama out of the daily lives of boring people. Boredom in, boredom out.

But poets and philosophers have often taken notice of this common emotion.

Voltaire was certainly speaking of the social bore when he said, "The secret of being a bore is to tell everything."

James Russell Lowell had the intrinsic bore in mind when he said, "There is no bore we dread being left alone with so much as our own minds."

Samuel Butler verified my notion that boredom is subjective when he observed, "The man who lets himself be bored is even more contemptible than the bore."

The cynic Ambrose Bierce defined a bore as "a person who talks when you wish him to listen," which is the kind I am most familiar with.

The notorious misogynist Friedrich Nietzsche observed, "God created woman. And boredom did indeed cease from that moment." But then he stayed in form by adding, "But many other things ceased as well! Woman was God's second mistake."

Logan Pearsall Smith, author of those random thoughts he collected as "Trivia," observed: "What a bore it is, waking up in the morning always the same person."

But of course we never wake up quite the same person. We are a day older; our wrinkles have deepened, our hair is thinner and grayer; we may have matured a bit; we may be more enlightened, our prejudices may be less entrenched, we may have more compassion for our fellow man. We can hope so, anyway.

I myself am rarely bored. Possibly that's because I am always amazed at my thoughts, my feelings, the orchestra of stimuli that give me pleasure.

I had a high school English teacher once who told us that the cultivated person could experience more in the confines of a single room than the banal person in all the capitals of Europe.

No doubt there is some truth to that, but I'd like to have another shot at Athens and Rome, before I shut the door.

By the way, Caruba's book can be purchased from The Boring Institute, Box 40, Maplewood, NJ 07040, $7.45 inclusive.

I haven't read it yet. I'm not that bored.

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