The Ho-Humdrum


In Outlook, an excerpt from Joseph Brodsky's In Praise of Boredom:

But should you fail to keep your kingdom And, like your father before you come Where though accuses and feeling mocks, Believe your pain…

– W.H. Auden, Alonso to Ferdinand

Known under several aliases—anguish, ennui, tedium, doldrums, humdrum, the blahs, apathy, listlessness, stolidity, lethargy, languor, accidie, etc—boredom is a complex phenomenon and by and large a product of repetition. It would seem, then, that the best remedy against it would be constant inventiveness and originality. That is what you, young and newfangled, would hope for. Alas, life won’t supply you with that option, for life’s main medium is precisely repetition.

One may argue, of course, that repeated attempts at originality and inventiveness are the vehicle of progress and—in the same breath—civilisation. As benefits of hindsight go, however, this one is not the most valuable. For should we divide the history of our species by scientific discoveries, not to mention ethical concepts, the result will not be in our favour. We will get, technically speaking, centuries of boredom. The very notion of originality or innovation spells out the monotony of standard reality, of life, whose main medium—nay, idiom—is tedium.

In that, it—life—differs from art, whose worst enemy, as you probably know, is cliche. Small wonder, then, that art, too, fails to instruct you as to how to handle boredom. There are few novels about this subject; paintings are still fewer; and as for music, it is largely non-semantic. On the whole, art treats boredom in a self-defensive, satirical fashion. The only way art can become a solace from boredom, the existential equivalent of cliche, is if you yourselves become artists. Given your number, though, this prospect is as unappetising as it is unlikely.

But even should you march out of this commencement in full force to typewriters, easels and Steinway grands, you won’t shield yourselves from boredom entirely. If repetitiveness is boredom’s mother, you, young and newfangled, will be quickly smothered by lack of recognition and low pay, both chronic in the world of art. In these respects, writing, painting, composing music are plain inferior to working for a law firm, a bank, or even a lab.

Herein, of course, lies art’s saving grace. Not being lucrative, it falls victim to demography rather reluctantly. For if, as we’ve said, repetition is boredom’s mother, demography (which is to play in your lives a far greater role than any discipline you’ve mastered here) is its other parent.