In the summer of 1993, my son walked down the hallway into my study, where I was reading. He said: “I’m bored, Daddy.” I had been waiting for this moment to come since the day of his birth. Finally, my son had found his way to boredom. I nearly wept with joy.
I tenderly placed my hands on his bony, young shoulders and told him how proud I was of him. After years of nearly everyone around him—but mostly his grandfather (my son was an only child and only grandchild)—giving him every single thing he ever asked for, and more, to keep him from ever becoming bored, my son had exhausted all manner of distraction and had somehow, finally, become bored. Truly bored. I saw the artist in him blossom forth that humid summer day.
I asked him what he was going to do about his boredom, how he was going to transform it. He stared at me as if I had violated some sort of father-son contract, as if it were my duty as a parent to rescue him.
Too often we expect the external world to entertain us out of our boredom. We fear doing the real work that would carry us deeper into thinking. Boredom puts us in tune (Stimmung), as Martin Heidegger claims, with our authentic Dasein, the deepest level of our being.
When I did not immediately respond by giving my son a toy as a way to distract him from his boredom, he looked down at the floor, hoping I would think of him as a sad, sad, sad victim of the wrath of boredom. I smiled, and reminded him we were from Pittsburgh; there are no victims of boredom in Pittsburgh. But the child continued staring at the floor, hoping, perhaps that I would care about the sadness that was overwhelming him, that somehow Catholic guilt would flow through me, and I would nurture him, or give in to his sad pleading for a distraction, and rush to a store and buy him something to cure him of his boredom.
I shook my head, and told my son he was at the beginning of a journey, and that like all true journeys, the trek out of boredom had no path, only a desire, a longing to transform stasis, a desire to no longer accept what capital wants us to consume. I told him all the time when he was “playing” games on his Gameboy or staring at images flickering across a television screen that it was then that he was truly bored, not now.
I told him that, for Lithuanians, the word boredom comes from starvation and misery. I said, "Boredom is a lack of physical and mental existence." My son was seven at the time. It had only taken him seven years to realize that he lacked a physical and mental existence, that distraction destroys the soul. I said: “Like Heidegger, you are finally becoming aware of time passing. Boredom makes this awareness possible.”
I looked directly at his tiny child eyes, and told him with fatherly love that he needed to get lost. And that getting lost would be far more complicated and far more enjoyable than consuming the same experience again and again and again, but that it would also be terrifying and would make him vulnerable. I said, “Enter the flames of intimacy with time, my child. Jouissance awaits you!” (That’s right, I said that with an exclamation mark! I do not care what Elaine says!)
My beautiful child mumbled something about not knowing what I was talking about and insisted that I do something about his boredom. I finally gave in. I handed him a string. I told him I had been keeping this to give to him as his Christmas present, but that I would give it to him early. I told him that W.G. Sebald played with one string his entire childhood, and look at the sentences he wrote when he got older. All because of playing with a string as a child. Seriously.
Read any Sebald sentence. I did not think anyone had the courage to write such slow sentences any longer. Sebald spit into the face of flash this and flash that and micro this and that, and wrote his truth. He turned away from all that is going on and passing itself off as fiction in the contemporary world, and he wrote writing. Hooray for the madness of Sebald. Imagine the patience it takes to read such sentences. (Most read over his sentences, reading past the beauty of each word, on their way to be done with it all.) Imagine the devotion it took to write such sentences. Imagine the boredom he played with, and played inside of, as he wrote these beautiful sentences.
Each sentence of Sebald’s is a prayer, a being-with time and breath. All because his parents were so poor that they could only give him a string as a toy. (Granted there may have been other factors involved in Sebald becoming the artist he became, but I believe in the power of simplicity.)
I told my son to take the string down to the creek, find a turtle, gently put the string around the turtle’s delicate neck, like a leash, and take the turtle for a walk through the neighborhood. I told him secret stories about Uncle Walter Benjamin, the uncle with two first names. I said, “Son, you are on a doorstep, a hesitating moment, an existential state of almost-there-not-quite-becoming-becoming.”
To cultivate one’s boredom is to orchestrate a dramatic reduction in speed. It means to take a deep breath and turn matters inside out, and to view the present as an eternal repetition of the same, before some unknown future will suddenly unnerve our sense of the same-as-it-ever-was sameness of consumer culture.
Some people are so fearful of becoming bored that they “create” insurance policies against boredom. One such insurance policy is to have more than one window open on their computer while they are working. Such people do exist! They frighten me, but they are “real” actual people, and they live in America! and they move among us. These people work on a word document, perhaps writing a poem, while having two or three website tabs open and ready, in case they begin to drown in boredom. In case the poem fails to rhyme. In case they become bored with their own imagination.
How is it possible to look into or out of more than one window at once?
I do not mean to, in any way, romanticize boredom. I am not recommending that we should find new ways to bore ourselves. I am not suggesting you should take someone on a date and deliberately attempt to bore the person. I am convinced that if, in the middle of making love, your partner tells you, in a calm, even voice: “I’m so bored,” that that is a bad reaction to your lovemaking skills. You should, if I am not mistaken, excite your partner. Help your partner to break on through to the other side, to the place of jouissance.
And when you write a short story, I am against boring stories. In graduate school a fellow student wrote a story that was nearly impossible to read, only three of us survived reading the whole story. When we discussed it, and told the writer that his story did not engage us and so on, the writer nodded in agreement and smiled in a smirking kind of way. He then told us that he was boring us on purpose. His intention was to write a story that was boring and repetitive for no reason. He said his story was Kafkesque. Only a “creative” writing student could utter such words without a hint of irony. And, no. No, he wasn’t being Kafkesque. He was being a bad writer. A bore.
I am, however, saying that we need to protect ourselves from distraction. Far too often we sabotage boredom with distraction. And there is nothing romantic about distraction; in fact, it is the primary way that capitalism maintains its hold over us. Capital deliberately exhausts us so that we are forced to only be able to consume, not create. (Think of how quickly many “people” got addicted to Pokemon Go, and how quickly so many "people" quit playing it.) F*ck capital. F*ck distraction. Create.
Here is an experiment:
Read a Faulkner novel quickly. You will throw it against the wall. You will say, “Faulkner is a boring writer.” But the truth is that you are a boring reader; a reader who is reading quickly to say that you are done with reading. Because you do not slow time down, you accuse Faulkner of being boring. You silly twerp. Now, read Stephen King quickly. You will say he is not boring. He is exciting. Because everything is on the surface. Everything is readily available. In fact, everything is always already there, a priori, when you read King or any of those others like him.
You are not reading. You are consuming. You silly f*cking twerp.
Now. Read. Faulkner. Slowly. Slower. Slow. Slow. Pretend it is not about a race to get Faulkner read, but to experience the experience of reading. Faulkner becomes exciting because you are exciting. You are turned on. Because beauty limps and waits beneath the surface. Beauty is convulsive. Trust the beauty of slowing down. Now, read King slowly. There is nothing there. All that is there is there. See?
Recently the New York Times reported that the average person spends 15 to 30 seconds looking at a work of art in the New York MOMA. Imagine what the average person is not seeing by looking so quickly at a painting? James Joyce once said to Marcel Proust that it should take someone as long to read his work as it took him to write it. Personally, I agree. How is it possible to see a painting in thirty seconds?
We need to create more boredom for our children. Forget Barney and Big Bird and those other clowns “teaching” our children; dear God, the cult of “teaching” that those clowns have spawned. From a very young age our children need to be bored more often, and given strategies for creating their own experiences, not consuming other people’s experiences; in fact, I recommend that children spend at least half of each waking moment moving beyond boredom on their own. Children, and adults for that matter, should be punished for giving in to distraction as a way to sabotage their boredom. Hopefully, they will resist the temptation of distraction and move from boredom to frustration. There are plenty of shopping days remaining before the holiday season: buy your loved one a special gift: boredom.
Sign up for the Doug Rice Newsletter to stay up to date with announcements about readings, gallery shows, publications, and special offers. Click the link below. No spam. Promise.