on Boredom, edited by Tom McDonough (The MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery)

In “Dream Song 14,” John Berryman not only exposed his boredom but patched in his world’s disapproval of such languishing:

"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   
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no   
inner resources, because I am heavy bored."

Boredom.jpgIn his introduction to Boredom, SUNY professor of art history Tom McDonough writes, as if in response to Berryman, “Boredom, then, is a symptom of repression: it both masks and marks all the potentialities and desires whose realization class society frustrates.” This is the ennui of modernity, sprung from the rise of industrialism in the mid-19th century, the spread of consumerism, and the metastasizing of mass politics. For the artist, as Walter Benjamin noted in The Arcades Project, “Boredom is the threshold to great deeds.” When lack is all one finds, then everything is nascent, maybe. In this sense, boredom is both a void and a plenitude, both pressurized and frivolous. Of her boredom, Berryman’s mother “must not say so” – but the poet can’t say enough. McDonough explains:

We find a great split between those who suffer boredom as a burden to be lifted and those who face boredom as itself an aesthetic experience with critical and transformative potential – an aesthetics of impoverishment that must then be understood in this dual sense, as both the artistic transcription of our world of social privation and its possible redemption.

In Boredom, McDonough curates 60 key texts on the subject, usually core excerpts, and sorts them into eight thematic chapters. He begins with a bit from Elizabeth Goodstein’s book Experience Without Qualities which touches on Baudelaire’s “nihilistic vacillation between desires for total renewal (and their accompanying political expressions) and bitter acceptance of an inhuman order (and the flight into the self)” … dual extreme wishes, drawn together, inhabiting Baudelaire’s famous lines:

He is Ennui! -- His eye filled with an unwished-for tear,
He dreams of scaffolds while puffing at his hookah.
You know him, reader, this exquisite monster, 
-- Hypocrite reader, -- my likeness, -- my brother!

images-1.jpegThen on to Benjamin: “We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for.” (Elsewhere, in “The Storyteller,” he said more lyrically, untypical for him, “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”) Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer are the go-to philosophers for late 20th century theorists. Patrice Petro, in “Aftershocks of the New: Feminism and Film,” writes:

Whereas Benjamin tends to theorize boredom in relation to emptiness and ennui (typical of nineteenth-century formulations,), Kracauer emphasizes the distracted fullness of a leisure time become empty (a twentieth century view). The differences between these two views on boredom are perhaps best illuminated by the images of modernity that emerge from their work: in Benjamin, the empty streets of Eugène Atget’s Paris; in Kracauer the crowded stadiums and picture palaces of 1920s Berlin.

This boredom, they say, is desolate and inspired. The exquisite monster regards the scene at hand and finds that “the everyday” is vanished. It’s just an idea, the scene has been cleansed of it. The mall doesn’t want us to have an empathic relation with its spaces, though lately the national banks invite us to have a latte while applying for a line of credit. “Always the two sides meet,” writes Maurice Blanchot in “Everyday Speech” (1962), “the daily with its tedious side, painful and sordid (the amorphous, the stagnant), and the inexhaustible, irrecusable, always unfinished daily that always escapes forms or structures (particularly those of political society …).”

Unknown_0.jpegOnce McDonough establishes the defining terms of boredom, he goes on to “Indifference/Silence” – the intentional attenuation of dulling effects in art. Think of Warhol’s 320-minute-long film Sleep (1963). As art historian Barbara Rose wrote in 1963, “If, on seeing some of the new paintings, sculpture, dances or films, you are bored, probably you were intended to be. Boring the public is one way of testing its commitment.” While the artist bursts out of boredom into art, the observer of art moves from the gallery or theater to the everyday-further-mistrusted. John Cage: “In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”

images.jpegIn the section “Nothing Happens,” we take up “the gendered specificity of this experience,” namely the suburban malaise of the housewife. Enter Betty Friedan and Feminine Mystique (1963) and what McDonough calls “an ambient fear of one’s own fictiveness.” Jennifer Doyle in “I Must be Boring Someone” considers the character of Ingrid Superstar in Andy Warhol’s 19567 film Bike Boy: “As Superstar prattles on about food and inexplicably peels herself out of the top of her dress, she replicates and inverts one of Hollywood cinema’s most conservative presentations of the spectacle of the feminine sexual difference. Her performance of depersonalized talk (which, in terms of what it says, reveals nothing) …” enforces her boredom on the male to whom she will not yield. She speaks on and on because she knows she is not being heard by him. But the audience attends to absorb every syllable.

The chapter “No Future” contemplates “punk’s sartorial and musical anti-styles … exacerbat[ing] precisely those qualities of indifference and estrangement cultivated by a society of consumption.” This is followed by “Blocs of the Mind,” the “peculiarly Soviet form of boredom,” and then “Disengage!” in which the observer is invited to sense the infinite half-lives of boredom embedded in culture. A piece from the Critical Art Ensemble (1992) asks us to “turn the pages of a fashion magazine and witness the perfect calm of boredom in the environment of excess … Sublime dilettante. Electric toys. … A woman of fashion with real gifts, real abulia. Mental illness and hebetude, suicide, the powers to imagine without the drive to focus them. Material comfort and the squandering thereof …”

images-2.jpegThe boredom in Boredom is presented as a product of modernity. But back around 500 B.C., Heraclitus said, “To do the same thing over and over again is not only boredom. It is to be controlled by rather than to control what you do.” Modern boredom fails to find meaning. But how different is this failure from the Great Doubt described by the Zen masters: “ It is neither life nor is it death. It is as though one were encased within layers of ice that extend in tens of thousands of ri.” From this dull bewilderment, they said, comes “the time of the great, piercing, marvelous Awakening, the occasion of the single shout ‘Ka!’”

McDonough’s Boredom supplies essential commentary that illuminates how many artists of our age have voided their work of conventional techniques and elements and have incorporated boredom in order to disturb our boredom with boredom. But there is something eternally human about the pendulum’s swing between blankness and ah-ha. And aren’t there moments when both seem active at once, when a sense of nothing triggers a vision of something – and the space between them is where we land? Perhaps this is where the artists finally lead us.

images-3.jpegI think of the supreme boredom of Emily Dickinson’s long evening. The Saints, like Berryman’s mother, take oaths against the existence of the very thing she is experiencing. (Her father was a lawyer, thus “affidavits.”) Like all great poets, she leaves us precisely in the middle of the muddle.

So much of Heaven has gone from Earth
That there must be a Heaven
If only to enclose the Saints
To Affidavit given.

The Missionary to the Mole
Must prove there is a Sky
Location doubtless he would plead
But what excuse have I?

Too much of Proof affronts Belief
The Turtle will not try
Unless you leave him – then return
And he has hauled away.

[Published March 31, 2017. 240 pages, $24.95 paperback. A volume in the Documents of Contemporary Art series.]