In Praise of Boredom

Brodsky in 1988Joseph Brodsky (1940 – 1996)

In his wonderful blog The Attic,” Bruce Watson, summarized Joseph Brodsky‘s views on boredom in  “IN PRAISE OF BOREDOM.” I share the post below with my readers and encourage them to visit Watson’s site.

HANOVER, NH, JUNE 1989 — On a bright, breezy afternoon, the green lawns of Dartmouth College were given over to graduation, graduation at last. There was the usual pomp, the usual circumstance, but the distinguished speaker was most unusual.

Stepping to the podium, Joseph Brodsky looked like any aging professor. Balding, portly, wire-rimmed. A dark coat, a weary gaze. Here it comes, students thought. The same boring speech — fame, fulfillment, saving the world. But Brodsky chose a different topic — boredom itself.

“A substantial part of what lies ahead of you,” he began, “is going to be claimed by boredom.”

Boredom. “Known under several aliases,” Brodsky continued, “anguish, ennui, tedium, doldrums, humdrum, the blahs, apathy, listlessness, stolidity, lethargy, languor. . .” Boredom is “the psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and spurns the horizon.” Despite all your education, all your potential, Brodksy told Dartmouth’s Class of ‘89, “you’ll be bored with your work, your friends, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your room, your thoughts, yourselves.”

“If you find all this gloomy,” he said, “you don’t know what gloom is.”

Joseph Brodsky knew what gloom was. Grads were told of his Nobel Prize for literature, but few knew the price he had paid. After starving through the siege of Leningrad during World War II, Iosif Alexansandrovich Brodsky plunged into boredom. Soviet boredom. He worked in dull, droning factories, in a morgue, in a ship’s boiler room. Reading, always reading, he began writing poetry, poems of freedom that alarmed the Kremlin.

Branded a “social parasite,” Brodsky was put in mental institutions, in prison, in a labor camp above the Arctic Circle. Wherever authorities shoved him, he faced down the endless hours, “pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.” In 1972, Brodsky was put on a plane to Vienna, exiled for life. Coming to America, he became a professor, a citizen, a celebrated poet. Yet he remained fascinated by boredom because, he told grads, “boredom is your window on time.”

As boredom’s bard, Brodsky was in good company. “Against boredom,” Nietzsche said, “the gods themselves struggle in vain.” “Avoiding boredom,” wrote Susan Sontag, “is one of our most important purposes.” But in the decades since Brodsky spoke “In Praise of Boredom” this stifling state of mind has come out of the doldrums and into the lab.

Psychologists in Boredom Studies are learning the dangers and benefits of watching grass grow and paint dry. London now hosts an annual Boring Conference. (A redundant title?) Each summer in Warsaw, scholars gather for the International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference. Studies of boredom might seem, well, bor-rring!!! but their conclusions are worth waking up for.

Everyone knows boredom leads to addictions —drugs, gambling, smart phones. But who knew of boredom’s blessings, among them — creativity. Subjects given a repetitive task just before a creative one come up with far more responses than those who, without the dull intro, just try to be clever. Boredom also sparks action. “It is this signal to explore,” says neuroscientist James Danckert, “to do something else. That what you’re doing now isn’t working.”

Joseph Brodsky did not need a lab to teach him about boredom. His advice to grads? If you chase constant change, boredom will have you forever on the run. Money? “Most of you know first hand that nobody is as bored as the rich, for money buys time and time is repetitive.” “Detective novels and action movies” provide some relief, but “avoid TV, especially flipping the channels: that’s redundancy incarnate.” Brodsky saw just one way to handle boredom — embrace it.

As “your window on time,” boredom teaches the plodding rhythms of the universe. In its grip, one learns the lessons of time, a deeper wisdom that can make you kinder, more patient. So “when hit by boredom, go for it. . . Let yourself be embraced by boredom and anguish, which anyhow are larger than you. No doubt you’ll find that bosom smothering, yet try to endure it as long as you can, and then some more.”

“Above all,” Brodsky concluded, “don’t think you goofed somewhere along the line. . . This awful bear hug is no mistake. Nothing that disturbs you is. Remember all along that there is no embrace in this world that won’t finally unclasp.”

It was a short speech. Some grads glanced at watches, others at green lawns. In the decades since, the Class of ‘89 has gone through the window of time and on to. . . what? Fame? Fulfillment? Saving the world?

But those heeding Brodsky’s advice learned what boredom can teach. For boredom “puts your existence into its perspective. . . If we learn about ourselves from time, perhaps time, in turn, may learn something from us. What would that be? That inferior in significance, we best it in sensitivity.”


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8 thoughts on “In Praise of Boredom

  1. Loved every word, yours and Brodsky’s. I am a big fan of boredom. I do mostly the same things every day, but I don’t really get bored easily. And if I do, I think of how quickly the last 10, 20, 30, 40 etc years have gone, and I tell myself: “Don’t be a fool, and move your backside….do something useful.”.

    ”boredom teaches the plodding rhythms of the universe. In its grip, one learns the lessons of time.”. Brilliantly put. For the lessons of time are the lessons of life and death.

    It is natural to feel bored….that’s when we start taking everything for granted. For some strange reasons, when I think of all these ‘human curses’, I imagine all the ancient philosophers defiantly SMILE….Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, the whole gang. I think this is the best attitude to adopt. It’s as if they gave the middle finger, pardon the expression, to human finitude itself.

    Very interesting, this Joseph Brodsky (I am ashamed to confess I knew nothing of him).

    Thank you!

  2. Thank You—-What a magnificent article…reminds me of Blaise Pascals Pensees

    “The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me ” Pascal

    “If our situation was truly Happy, thinking it about it would not make us so unhappy” Pascal

  3. Good advice from Mr. Brodsky. Boredom bothers many folks now. Particularly those who bought the multitasking argument. They just can’t understand the futility of doing more, poorly instead of doing less well: they cannot appreciate the restorative power of ‘ennui’ because they can’t stop keeping up appearances of multitasking long enough to learn something from inactivity. Brodsky came up differently in life, faced serious obstacles; became successful; and died too young. ..two years after my father, who was born in 1910. You do the best you can, with what you have and know. If one learns HOW to be bored, he knows there are things far worse.

  4. Boredom? Would have to think about it.
    Isn’t it more that there’re not enough hours (minus six/seven sleep-hours) in the day to do what needs to be done?

  5. There is an infinite number of irresistibly interesting thoughts to think about; of problems that feel compelling and urgent and that affect so many, and that one feels the need to come to terms with; of articles and books to read; of burning questions to look up the answers to; of Dilbert cartoons to catch up on. If only I had a little bit of boredom, I’d not be so averse to sleeping several hours per night.

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