Apr 30, 2009 0
I wrote on Tuesday that I had been persistently bored since the death of my father. It’s true, I have been: bored bored bored bored bored bored bored. What a terrible power boredom has. What a curse it is to be denied distraction.
In the first week after his death, I was transported back to the third week of the long summer holiday. That is, to that point when the novelty of not having to work has completely worn off; when you have played with your toys, read your books and watched your videos; when one half of your friends have gone on holiday and you can’t see the other half because you don’t have anything to do with them; when the only thing to do is to roam the house telling everyone how bored you are: bored bored bored bored bored bored.
Meanwhile, in the background, holiday homework loomed with ghastly inevitability. This was the knowledge that I would eventually have to get back to work. Now I am, and it feels like going back to school after three months off. In the intervening period, I have forgotten how to perform even the simplest tasks: how to add up, how to write, how to hold a pen.
Boredom is created in the gap between an impulse and an awareness. The impulse is the overwhelming desire to do something. The awareness is the absolute certainty that there is nothing that will satisfy that desire. Nothing. When I told people how bored I was, they tried in maternal fashion to suggest activities: have you read your comic?; have you called your friends? They didn’t understand. There. Was. Nothing.
Most of the time, it is a great pleasure to do nothing. But doing nothing is only possible when there is something to compare it with, something else you should be doing. All the best distractions are in part procrastinations. All the most meaningful entertainments are in fact avoidances. Everyone knows this, but if you are going to be distracted then you cannot know it too clearly, because nothing destroys fun like reasons to be having fun. In-between moments, like Sundays, are worst of all for this. The task at hand is not immediate enough to supply its own distractions; yet neither is it far enough away to hide completely the need for distraction. Being bored is the long Sunday of the soul.
David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished, novel, The Pale King, was going to be about boredom:
His drafts, which his wife found in their garage after his death, amount to several hundred thousand words, and tell of a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work … Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment, the book suggests.
The extract I’ve read – “Wiggle Room” – is typical Wallace: sharp, funny, very clever and beautifully written. But he struggled endlessly with the subject. And in the end, in the form of the endless manuscript, it contributed to his death.
Wallace was bored, I believe, chronically so. His magnificence lay in his refusal to accept not only his boredom, but also the remedies on offer. He refused to lose himself in television or drugs. He denied himself the full measure of distraction.
It’s often said – by frustrated parents, in the main – that only the boring are bored. I don’t see it that way, but I wonder at times whether David Foster Wallace did. He was facing a great enemy, and there was no shame in fighting dirty. Yet he refused.
In him, this was heroism. But, for myself, I prefer to do what I can.