Monday, July 28, 2008

On boredom

The word boredom did not enter the language until the eighteenth century. No one knows its etymology. One guess is that bore may derive from the French verb bourrer, to stuff.

Question: Why was there no such word before the eighteenth century?
(a) Was it because people were not bored before the eighteenth century? (But wasn't Caligula bored?)
(b) Was it because people were bored but didn't have a word for it?
(c) Was it because people were too busy trying to stay alive to get bored? (But what about the idle English royalty and noblemen?)
(d) Is it because there is a special sense in which for the past two or three hundred years the self has perceived itself as a leftover which cannot be accounted for by its own objective view of the world and that in spite of an ever heightened self-consciousness, increased leisure, ever more access to cultural and recreational facilities, ever more instruction on self-help, self-growth, self-enrichment, the self feels ever more imprisoned in itself--no, worse than imprisoned because a prisoner at least knows he is imprisoned and sets store by the freedom awaiting him and the world to be open, when in fact the self is not and it is not--a state of affairs which has to be called something besides imprisonment--e.g., boredom. Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself.
(e) Is it because of a loss of sovereignty in which the self yields up plenary claims to every sector of the world to the respective experts and claimants of these sectors, and that such a surrender leads to an impoverishment which must be called by some other name, e.g., boredom?
(f) Is it because the self first had the means of understanding itself through myth, albeit incorrectly, later understood itself through religion as a creature of God, and now has the means of understanding the Cosmos through positive science but not itself because the self cannot be grasped by positive science, and that therefore the self can perceive itself only as a ghost in a machine? How else can a ghost feel otherwise toward a machine than bored?

--from Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy
I am not a "self-help book" kind of person. But then this is not really a self-help book. I like it because it's one of those books that presents a lot of questions, but no answers. You have to provide the answers yourself. Somewhere along the line, you might learn to think about things in a different way. Life changing? No. But entertaining and perhaps at least a little enlightening? Yes.


  1. "(c) Was it because people were too busy trying to stay alive to get bored? (But what about the idle English royalty and noblemen?)"

    That one gets my vote. As to whether the royalty were bored, that is where the term "Drunk as a lord" tells us the answer.

  2. I tend to agree with that one, too. I had never heard the expression "drunk as a lord" before, but it makes sense. I seem to have a vague memory of them using the word "dissipation" where we would probably have used "boredom."