BOOK Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind
by patricia Meyer Spacks
Univ. of Chicago press, 272 pages
Nothing would more damn a book about boredom than if it were boring. Patricia Meyer Spacks's Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind largely avoids that awkward possibility: as literary studies go, in fact, it's a real walk in the park.
The book chronicles the evolution of the concept of boredom in England from the 18th century to the present, drawing its conclusions from close-readings of personal records (ie. correspondence, memoirs, diaries) and canonical works of fiction. Spacks limits her sphere of investigation to a boredom understood as "the kind that appears to be caused by not having enough to do, or not liking the things one has to do, or existing with other people or, in a setting one finds distasteful," that is, she disregards boredom as symptom of depression, anger, anxiety, or other malaise. She focuses on the upper classes, and pays special attention to the relation of gender to modes of experiencing or confronting boredom; as a result her study is resolutely, though not radically, feminist.
Spack explains that the word boredom did not exist until the mid-18th century; thus, far from being the universal condition that we tend to assume, it is a fairly recent social construction. The popular idea (voiced by Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and others) that "all endeavor of every kind takes place in the context of boredom impending or boredom repudiated" presents boredom as a universal like fear or desire; its linguistic history, documented by Spacks, suggests otherwise. Boredom, then, appears as "an explanatory myth of our culture" whose linguistic appearance in the 18th century was linked to an increase in and new understanding of leisure time, the decline of Christianity, a new concern with individual rights and an increasing interest in inner experience.
The concept of boredom developed from being perceived as a moral failure in the 18th century, to an index of class arrogance and inadequate responsiveness to others in 19th century and finally to the universal motivating force it is seen as today. Specifically, Boswell and Johnson warned against the moral failing of dullness; Dickens blamed a morally bankrupt society for the boredom of some of its members and 19th-century women accepted the necessary tedium of their position and resigned themselves to needlepoint; we today think it our right to be entertained and are offended by boring people and things: so is boredom's history in a nutshell.
Before this time the idea of boredom was not necessary for an understanding of existence: athough people in the early 18th century may have led lives which from our standpoint would appear boring, they did not think of them as such. Spacks traces the term's appearance and development as conjunctive with evolving concepts of the individual's place in society. The religiosity and community of pre-modern times, which discouraged individualism, gradually gave way to the fragmentation and alienation of modernity and post-modernity, which encourages individualism.
Some of Spacks' most interesting observations surround boredom in women's lives and fiction. In both the 18th and 19th centuries, women's lives were defined by predictable routine. Reading offered an escape, but the dangers implicit in that escape were well known: unless novels were written in accordance with an unyieldingly moral ideology they could engender in their readers unsalutory desires and vicissitudes of emotion. Yet women's actual existence--their good works, the various musical and artistic talents with which they embellished themselves, their letter-writing and social calls--offered little fodder for fiction, except in the hands of an adept like Jane Austen. Instead of presenting happy alternatives to boredom, fiction by and for women often presented them in positions of extreme anguish and suffering, spurned by lovers, neglected by husbands, etc. In comparison, Spacks argues, boredom would look good.
A flaw of Spacks' book is that she protests too much: as if unsure of the validity of her thesis, she overwhelms us with putative evidence of the centrality of boredom as a phenomenon. This evidence often consists of veritable lists of the appearances of the word boring (in one of its forms) in the text under consideration, which proves indeed that boredom appears in the text, but not that it is what makes the text work.
The book's final chapter concentrates on the current state of boredom. Spacks observes, tellingly, that while a few centuries ago boredom was a term that had no currency, we now live in a society that encourages and produces ad copy like the following: "I gave up chocolates. I gave up espresso. I gave up the Count (that naughty man). And his little house in Cap Ferrat. The Waterman, however, is not negotiable. I must have something thrilling with which to record my boredom." Boredom: A Literary History of a State of Mind tells the interesting and significant story of how and why we got from there to here.