Overweening Generalist

Sunday, April 13, 2014

If You're Bored, Don't Read This

Or, on second thought, go ahead and read; I mean: why not? It's not like you have anything better to do, fer crissakes.

I can't find the source for a quote I'm about to fake, but I'm fairly sure it was either Timothy Leary or Robert Anton Wilson who said that, if you're bored you're boring. Does that seem callous to you? It does to me, or did. Now I see it as a tremendous spur, because when I read the quote - wherever the damned thing is - I had been well on my way to a personal abolition of boredom. I testify here: I'm never bored. (I will admit that I simply may not perceive myself as being bored, even when some fMRI shows my state to be very much like another's who testified that they are bored, but this line of thought could easily veer into some arcane spiel, which I shall resist.)

"Someone please text me. I'm bored." - seen far too often in CraigsList personals.

                                         Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy

If we're all caught up in the Infinite Goof - and I think we are - boredom seems some sort of faulty mechanism which we needn't accede to. To those who are bored, easily bored, usually bored, find most people boring, or were not bored but are now that they've read this far: let us assign blame to the school system, which never taught us how to rewire our nervous systems to avoid boredom. Or blame Bad Economics, your parents, your diet and genome, and Other People. Once we've assigned blame, we feel cleansed, absolved of a bad habit (?) such as boredom, and decide to never be bored again. I assert it's a worthy goal. Why not give it a shot? I suspect exactly 13 of you are way ahead of me on this one.

Oh, but there "really are" so many dreadfully boredom-inducing things out there, you say. Bullshit. To steal gleefully from Billy the Shakes and warp him a tad: nothing is either boring or not but thinking makes it so.

Gawd, you might be thinking: this Overweening Generalist dude is a simpleton! Ha! Maybe, but the old game of equating sophistication with being bored with what the lower-minds find accessible and fun? I'm not buying. Your above-it-all Weltschmerz isn't working and I hate to say it, but you look like a damned fool to me, usually.

Back to the Infinite Goof: I don't see the world as an Epic, with all the breathtaking events swirling around me, and myself in the center of History. We do know some friends who seem sort of like this, no? Hey, if it works for them and their marvelously endowed egos: let them enjoy their narratives. How fantastic these lives are to those living in them! And we get to play some small part!

Neither do I see the world as a Tragedy or a Melodrama; those who do - they seem to never know this about themselves! - seem so boring that they're of a passing fascination to me. I listen, probe, try to get into the head space in which the keynotes of every day seem to point to boundless Tragedy or soapy Melodrama. (There are Good People and Bad People, dontcha know? And me and my friends are the Good People...

Uh-huh...What's the payoff?)

Yes, you're not hallucinating: by dint of my writing about boredom in this way, I seem to be arguing that boredom is interesting (or: not boring) to me.

In an Infinite Goof life is more like a Black Comedy. I cop to it: I live in a Black Comedy. Almost all of my favorite writers seem to live in one, too. We humans have made up almost everything we take very seriously...and forgotten we did this. We assert a Free Will, but that's quite debatable. Certainly the frontal cortex thinks it's running the entire show, but the lower half of our brains, and our amygdalas and oh hell: the limbic system in toto: they act and speak in ways quite contrary and perplexing to "us."

"What was I thinking when I did X (not the drug, but the variable that X stands for)?" Indeed.

Paraphrasing William James: Of course everything is determined and yet our wills are free. A sort of free-willed determinism must be the run of the game.

If that's not cosmically hilarious to you, you might not be paying attention.

"A subject for a great poet would be God's boredom after the seventh day of creation," Nietzsche says. A funny line? You're with me if you said aye.

Now, accidents do happen and some of our fellow humans find themselves mired in sadnesses and depressions and crippling anxieties and fears and it's nothing to joke about. But it does seem to lend credence to the Black Comedy model: a war criminal like Dick Cheney not only got away with it, he's smiling and has many fans and yet another book out, huge advance, and gets to air his ghoulish opinions on dipshit TV "news" as if he's a wizened Elder Statesman. Meanwhile, you remember that happy-go-lucky guy from high school? The one who liked everyone and was fun to be around? Remember when he cut all his hair off in solidarity with that other student who got cancer? Some of us followed suit and sheared their locks too. Yea, him. His wife died in a car accident (drunk driver), then he lost his job and I saw him the other day, looking like crap, begging for change outside a Starbucks.

Justice? A noble social construct. The preceding paragraph illustrates why I don't see the world as a Farce. Too much suffering. Too little equity and justice, too much luck and chance.

Robert Anton Wilson turned me on to life as a Black Comedy, and that a major, always-ongoing activity in life must be to learn how to "use your brain for fun and profit." I'm working on it, always. I have my days.

The Black Comedy is life inside the Infinite Goof, and I rather like it here. In Laurence Sterne's eternally delightful novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Shandy's father, in conversation with Uncle Toby, asserts "Every thing in this world [...] is big with jest, - and has wit in it, and instruction too, - if we can but find it out." (Book V, chapter 32)

I've been reading more and more about pleasure and human evolution and confess I'm quite taken with ideas about us humans stumbling onto more and more ways to modulate our "selves" - our inner states -  in order to feel good. Or at least: better than that last brain-state, which could have been more pleasant than it turned out to be. You're thinking: drugs? I'm saying: yes. You're thinking: sex? I'm retorting: of course! What do you think I am, a damned eejit? Hell: masturbation, a perennial hot topic for me, even if it's clearly not for most others, judging by how quickly they withdraw themselves from the midst of me when I broach the subject.

And so I often find myself alone, abandoned at a gala. May as well rub one out...

Play. Humor. Invention. Tinkering. And oh my lawd: daydreaming, sooo underrated. Not underrated but seemingly essential play: music. Make it, listen to it. Really listen. Feel the music activate the bioelectric circuitry of your brain and bod, one brain module secreting dopamine and faxing it to another area of your brain, which in turn spray-bathes its own endogenous euphorics onto the finest neurons, temporarily coating your precious grey goo with glee...and this all due to a blistering guitar solo! Think of the effort that guitarist put forth, only to do that to my brain. Thanks, man. Maybe I should actually buy your CD, rather than downloading it gratis. (In truth, I've never downloaded any music from the Net, for free. Ever.)

And yes: engaging our sensoria with media such as this thing you're doing right now. Are you bored? If so, I blame you, mostly. I will accept part of the blame, if only to make you feel better.

The line from Shandy's pop reminded me of feelings I get when I read Buddhist or Taoist texts. And, on a level inchoate to me now: the impetus of comedy. The problem seems to me: if you don't get the joke...you don't get the joke. Which in turn feeds me more of the Black Comedy vibe.

Anyway, the topic I've been tap dancing around here seems timeless. David Foster Wallace, in his posthumous novel The Pale King, has a not-named character say:

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive...To be, in a word, unborable. (p.438)

What gets me there is 1.) "unborable" and 2.) "conditioned". Your mileage may vary.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific post. It made me think of "Dream Song 14":

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored
mean s you have no

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
People bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
- John Berryman

Now, I'd intended to only quote part of that, but I found it not at all boring to type the whole thing. It seems to resonate well with your post.

I do get bored sometimes, especially when I feel tired and/or stressed. I feel I don't have the energy to concentrate on stuff that sometimes excites me. Certainly some people find me boring sometimes.

David Thomson wrote an interesting biography of Laurence Sterne. I found it made me think a lot about Bob Wilson's Historical Illuminatus! novels and the world of the 1760's and 1770's. I've never finished Tristram Shandy. Thomson loves it. I took it with me on an airplane trip to New York from Arizona in 1989, but I got bored. I find I get easily bored reading on airplane trips. I often bring something serious with me, but I get bored with it. When I arrived in New York I bought some sports magazines to take with me on the next leg of my trip to London. I found them less boring than the novels I had brought.

I don't travel by air very much, but in recent decades I find myself again and again getting bored of the books I had brought with me on the trip and buying a Stephen King book for the return trip. I find that I enjoy reading them on planes. I then end up with a number of half read King novels on the shelf. Next trip I will bring one of them along and finish it. (I may even finish It which I started in 1988 and still haven't finished.)

Anonymous said...

If you're bored right now you're not
paying attention to what's in

That also may be that you can't or
won't think.

If like the OG you are thinking a
lot then there's a lot to think on
or around. Is it Black Comedy or
just the usual monkey business ?

For those who are sublime souls
above the reach of Darwins point
maybe they aren't looking hard
enough at the excitements near.

Peruse a few headlines, Crooks in
banks Steal everything not nailed
down then come back for the nails.
Nazis wipe out Ukrainian police
then suck NATO into backing them
against Russia. Security bug puts
huge slice of interNet exposed to
invisible stealing of everything.
All over the planet you have
active demonstrations, cessations,
and every other kind of wildeyed
looneyness in progress.

The time to be bored is when all
of that ceases and we have to go
on the net for live concerts. I
think the single site figure for
legal downloading is a quarter
million. Trying to listen to all
the free stuff should end any cry
of piracy.

I'm back reading Pareto again for
the footnotes. Scientific Sociolgy
with teeth, too bad he didn't
spawn a multitude of his type.

Check up on the inventor of the
Theremin, now there's a story to
take the edge off boredom. The
punch line is miraculous black

I see Condi Rice isn't the best
corporate asset you can buy in
the Net age. Dropbox may want to
change their name to Ricedrop to
survive the flak.

If I can get all my projects finished I'll try boredom.

michael said...


I need to read the Thomson book on Sterne; I've grown to really love Tristam Shandy over the past 22 months. I have an English teacher friend who wrote a thesis on Shandy at UCLA, and often when we got in our cups he'd start talking about Shandy, and I owned the book in my Great Books collection, but it didn't catch on with me until recently. I think we have to approach the book having dropped ideas about narratives and "what a novel should do."

Thanks for the Berryman poem! I thought it uncannily apt for this riff on boredom.

I wrote the piece very very quickly, and re-read it after sleep and am afraid I come off as arrogant, but I don't mean it: I have been depressed, anxiety-ridden, and gone through long periods of what I like to call "melancholia," and yet I still found these "stuck" states fascinating. I did not like them, but they spurred me to know more about them, what might be done to alleviate them, etc. I simply FEEL like I'm never bored anymore. In fact, I consider my non-boredom to be sort of problematic: too many things are interesting to me, and there's never enough time in the day, etc: I seem like some sort of weirdo-simpleton at times.

michael said...

@ Anon-

Jeez, we really are tuned into the same wavelengths.

I had always liked the theremin ever since I saw a video of Jimmy Page playing with it and I realized it was the instrument I heard on so many film and TV soundtracks. The only instrument you play without actually touching the thing!

But I didn't really know much more about it, until I went to see the documentary _Theremin: An Electric Odyssey_ (1994), which was so fantastic it seemed it was too good to be true...but it is true!

Now there needs to be a Jack Parsons documentary that's just as good.

It seems like I've forgotten what it feels like to be bored, and I know people consider it an unpleasant state. I confess I'm puzzled about how such a large swath of the population seems to fall prey to boredom so often.

Sue Howard said...

Great post, and I love the David Foster Wallace quotes you included. Whatever's denoted by the label "boredom" seems to shift (in "meaning") for me if you associate it with (or reframe it as) anxiety, grief, depression, etc - or at least as a result or symptom of those "painful" states. Boredom, as the idea has been conveyed to me since childhood, seems to imply *lack* of some sort - emptiness, the need to add more, etc. Whether in the environment, or in the capabilities of the person experiencing it.

But if it's regarded as "too much" of something (rather than too little) - as in the case of anxiety/grief/pain, then you presumably want less of it - and less of whatever stimuli are causing it. Emptiness or nothing as preferable to pain, threat, etc.

"Unborable" - David Foster Wallace's term. On the one hand, someone who has accumulated so much knowledge and neurological know-how, that they can find ways to engage interestedly and enthusiastically with anything. Or, on the other hand, some kind of sci-fi transformation (or "enlightenment") of humans so that they're free from "psychological" (and perhaps even physical) pain and suffering. They've successfully got rid of it or decreased it to a level of insignificance.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


I relate to this, as I seldom feel vexed by boredom, either. My problem, similar to yours, is that I have too many things I am interested in, and not enough time to get to them. The problem Eric mentions -- toting a couple of books with him for a trip and discovering he does not want to read them -- is not a problem that's likely to come up with me, as I always tote along my Kindle. It has a couple of hundred things on there to read; I'm sure to find something.

I do sometimes download free music from the Internet, but never anything commercial. I feel little guilt about downloading from caches of avante-garde, out of print music -- I feel like, if anything, I am helping to preserve the music. Here are two of my favorite sites



michael said...

@Sue Howard-

Yes: I like the lines of thought that deal with the semantics of "boredom" and especially our own framing: I could say I'm an anxious person because ideas excite me too much, and I have some sort of inability - OCD-ishness? - to stop thinking and reading and questioning, etc. It makes sense. There's no perceived "lack" for me. I guess the reason why the "anxious" frame doesn't quite work for me - although - I do feel anxious: I find my general state pleasurable.

Whatever tags/words/frames we put to our interiorities, what we don't want is suffering. It appears there are mind-body practices that alleviate anxiety/depression; there are drugs and other technologies that dampen/divert attention from pain and anxiety/depression.

I guess I saw "boredom" as perhaps the most amenable of these generalized states, although, admittedly, the semantics and subjective states seem problematic.

It could be I'm missing something like...empathy? when I suggest that boredom is unnecessary. Maybe I was born with a genetic endowment that allows me to see something interesting in just about any situation...even the concept of "boredom."

But my intuition about an individual's interaction with the experienced-but-not-noted enforced dullness of much schooling, PLUS a consumer culture that encourages a passivity, etc: I think this has more to do with how bored states are engendered in the general population.

I remember some passage in a book by William James (or Dewey?): make very minot changes to your everyday routines, and note how 'life" suddenly seems more interesting. This idea has been the subject of more "objective" study and has seem to have been borne out...

Right now I think the most effective ways to decrease boredom and make moves toward ultimate abolition of that state: question whether you're thinking for yourself - Cosmic Schmuck "theory" - ; try to do something "creative" every day; challenge yourself to learn something "big" over the next few months; study music/a new language/a new discipline; meditate and exercise and practice cognitive behavioral methods and "mindfulness"; ask Qs and listen more; assume a state of enlightened "turned on" hedonism and see if it takes over one's self and infects others; start to see humor as a seriously effective mood-alteration and form of rhetoric; be kind; note how different environments affect mood, alter forms of media consumption; remind yourself you'll die one day and imagine looking back on your life and thinking about what you would have wanted to do differently, because you can actually DO that stuff NOW, etc.

michael said...


Your points about avant-garde and out-of-print music are well-taken.

I must say: I've followed your GREAT blog very closely and have read other stuff you've done and the feeling I get that I'm in the mental presence of a fellow non-bored-person is palpable.

Are we lucky? Or did we stumble onto some keys that allowed us out of the boredom traps? A combination of both plus Something Else?

Sue Howard said...

"But my intuition about an individual's interaction with the experienced-but-not-noted enforced dullness of much schooling, PLUS a consumer culture that encourages a passivity, etc..."

The more I think about it, the more interesting this approach seems. The competitive "you're not good enough" thing that one sees in both schooling and in advertising - you have to do more, accumulate more, to succeed and to "get a life". I think the social notion of failure and its various effects on us probably has a lot to do with much "boredom", maybe.

And continuing with the MORE/LESS framing dichotomy, you've got the mega-popular Eckhart Tolle convincing millions that less thinking and less accumulation of ideas, less baggage, etc, is the answer (to boredom and pretty much everything else that troubles us).

I've never thought much about these subjects from the perspective of "boredom" before, but it "ties together" a lot of separate conceptual threads for me in a useful (and very non-boring) way. Thanks again for the pointers to fruitful area of thought.

BrentQ said...

Whenever I find myself in the company of people who I'm tempted to label as boring,dull,conventional etc.,I try to remind myself of Joyce's quote about never having met a boring person--A pretty heavy duty sentiment when you think about it.

michael said...

@Sue Howard-

As always, thanks for the thoughtful contributions.

The relentless competition in schooling and advertising's "you're not good enough until you buy our crap": the problem is: when do you know you're "good enough"? You're always looking "out there" for confirmation that you're good enough, but that will NEVER do: there's always someone prettier, with more friends, more stuff, bigger everythings, etc. That day when when you will finally feel "happy" will aways be "maybe sometime next week, or next year." It's a set up for ennui, if not boredom.

That's why I think RAW/Pound and others' advice to tune into your own set of values, constantly thinking what it is YOU really want in life, what's most important (and let others have their value systems), why this is more important than that in living the kind of life you think "good" etc: it's inner-directed. There's a chance you can negotiate with your own values and actions and actually feel good about your life. It's a set-up for a No-Win Situation when what tells you you've "arrived" is always "out there."

I feel lucky that, long ago, I realized having a bunch of stuff was not where's it's at. My first tip-off: observing my peers who had Porsches at a young age: they were miserable. I love that bit early on in one of the first Platonic dialogues, where Socrates is walking through the Agora and looking at all the goods available in the marketplace. "How many things there are that I do not want!"

Another confirmation for me was reading Erich Fromm's book _To Have Or To Be_. The orientation of having tends to encourage boredom; "being" seems to discourage those states we might call boredom?

Rorty says artists and other Ironists don't want to be on their death-bed and be asked to say a few words about who they were and be forced to utter words, phrases and sentiments that are "cookie-cutter" ready-made terms: they want to have achieved some uniqueness that was inner-directed. What a horror to say you were a good mother, a family man, a patriot, a good worker, etc.

And if thinking about "being" is about ontology, then some sort of guerrilla ontology seemed ripe for me.

michael said...

Brent Q:

I thought about the Joyce stance and I realized I wanted my "reality" to be more like that. The trick seems to be in getting past the social roles we're all playing (using humor?) and getting someone to open up a bit. Often I'm interested in the idiolect: the way they sound with language, a sort of fingerprint, but having to do with words and sounds.

How many "things" in what I say to others tell them "things" about me that I am not aware of? Or that I never thought could be interpreted that way?