Boredom used to be the ultimate luxury, now it’s more attainable than ever
From Egyptian hermits to Jared Leto, here's what we can learn from the rich history of having nothing at all to do.
Left: l’Ennui (1893), right: Ellen DeGeneres in her "prison" during lockdown (2020)
Since the arrival of a global pandemic, boredom is on the rise among the millions of (partly) quarantined people. But what does boredom actually mean? Being bored is not the same as having nothing to do; as worrying about getting a new job or being hungry or ill is not the same as being bored. On the other hand, every activity can be boring, and what we find boring says a lot about our culture. Time to delve in a little bit deeper and identify some of those cultural landmarks.
Arguably the first people to really theorise boredom were the desert fathers: Christian hermits who went to the Egyptian desert to live a solitary life of prayer. Feeling bored was literally the only other thing they could do apart from being spiritual, so to them this “noonday demon”, as they phrased it, was the most dangerous sin. Funnily enough, these kinds of retreats recently seem to be the epitome of cool again. Take Jared Leto for example, who in March went on a twelve day silent meditation in the desert. Jared's adventure seems part of a broader trend, in which people (and especially a celebrity elite) look beyond simply consuming stuff and experiences. They live in minimalist interiors and are in search of something spiritual and meaningful that they are missing in their busy, well-equipped lives. Unlike the hermits, Jared might have gone to the desert not to face boredom, but to escape it. It is a boredom that only emerges after you have tried everything to cure it. It is the kind of boredom with modern society that the French have coined “ennui”.
In 1884, French author Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote a great self-isolation novel around this feeling called A Rebours. It is about Des Essientes, the last scion of a noble family, who lives a life of outrageous hedonism in Paris and is unsuccessfully trying to escape his boredom. “He actually suffered, when he saw the faces of certain people (...) like the flaneur who passed by with his eyes almost closed and a know-it-all expression on his face, and the man who was smiling at his reflection in a shop-window, and another person that appeared to have all kinds of great thoughts, frowning while he was eating his sandwiches over the newspaper. (...) [Des Essientes] saw such a stupidity, such a disgust for (...) art, for literature, for everything he thought important.”
Enraged Des Essientes decides to retreat to a little mansion in the woods, where he surrounds himself with his very select library, a turtle with gemstones on its shell, and the most exquisite perfumes and drinks but still, nothing seems to satisfy him as he drowns more and more in his own neurosis.
When Huysmans published his novel, it actually became quite a success, to his own surprise, as the book has no real plot or character development and is essentially about, well, nothing. A lot of people actually appeared to feel their own fatigue with modernity and the consumer society reflected in it.
During the 20th century (between and after the great wars) ennui became the epitome of chic: being bored was a way to set yourself apart from the masses. Being bored indicated that at least you didn’t have to worry about the basic problems in life and that hedonism had no secrets for you. In other words, it took a lot of time, money and effort to be bored. And it spread: rockstars like Iggy Pop were bored. Supermodels were bored. Britney Spears was bored.
With the advent of the smartphone it became even more difficult to be bored. We could fill every waking second by scrolling on our phones. While scrolling we would see other people, mainly influencers, living active lives full of interesting social encounters and unique experiences which would induce jealousy, FOMO and burn-outs, but not boredom. Boredom became the holy grail: there were even Ted Talks about how to achieve boredom, to make yourself even more creative and productive (the weirdest neoliberal mindfuck ever).
After a while, influencers, who initially acted like they were most successful at avoiding boredom, started to show signs of it too. In 2018, the so-called migraine-pose on Instagram became a brief trend. The Jenner sisters and Emily Ratajkowski (among others) were spotted holding their hands against their temples, likely because it tightens your face and makes your cheekbones look more prominent. Some people read it differently, however. To the dismay of real migraine sufferers, the influencers seemed to be faking and glamourising a headache, like a modern variation of fin de siècle-paintings of bored women with their head between their hands -- see l’Ennui by Gaston la Touche for example.
Moreover, self-care had become a popular influencer trope, a variation on the productive boredom from the Ted talks: it became obligatory to sometimes miss out, in order to prevent burn-outs and other mental health issues. And of course, every moment of self-care had to be documented and shared.
The phrase “Cancelling plans is OK” became a meme: for internet people this had been a truism long before the fatigued influencer elite also discovered the joys of rejecting a hysterical pursuit of success and happiness. For those who give up on aspiring to have a more glamorous life, staying home is just staying home. It’s not self-care, it’s not a way to get ahead in life, it’s about being miserable and enjoying that.
With the arrival of the epidemic, this way of doing nothing has lost its rebellious quality. Staying home is no longer a conscious choice, lack of a social life is a matter of survival. When movie star Jared Leto returned from his desert retreat, he found himself in a world in which all of a sudden almost everyone was in self-isolation. This is the exact moment that the chronic ennui that seemed a key characteristic of modern and postmodern society, died (at least for now). Jared Leto ended up “bored in the house”, Kendall Jenner is playing games on her phone, Emily Ratajkowski is lying lethargically in bed all the time (like practically everyone). Boredom itself has become boring.
Next week a “time”-themed Met Gala was supposed to take place, but it obviously got cancelled. Instead of a Met Gala glamourising the concept of “time”, we're left inundated by the actual thing. What to do with all of the hours usually spent working your ass off, in order to someday be bored at the Met Gala? Boredom at home is obviously not an option for the fashionista, so hobbies have become a thing again. Get yourself a typewriter like Madonna (“creative people are not bored”), slam yourself through a life-size Jenga game, or try to avoid the “noonday demon” while reading the books of the desert fathers.