Boredom and the Lockdown

Written by: Colin Bird


In 1989, the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky addressed the eager graduands of Dartmouth College. It wasn’t your usual commencement speech: ‘If you find all this gloomy,’ he said of his remarks, ‘you don’t know what gloom is.’  Brodsky chose the occasion to forewarn the departing Dartmouth students that ‘I doubt you’ll have it better than here’ and to ‘fortify’ them against the ‘dull hours’ to come. Boredom, Brodsky predicted, would sooner or later plague their lives, followed by ‘neurosis,’ ‘depression’ and ‘pills.’ Thirty years on, as large portions of the population are confined to their homes amid a global pandemic, Brodsky’s thoughts on boredom are well worth considering.

‘When hit by boredom,’ he said, ‘go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom.’ Boredom is to be embraced, for Brodsky, because its ‘awful bearhug’ is at least not deceptive: it truly ‘represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.’ Facing it squarely, he thought, is a way to jog ourselves back to vitality, because, by reminding us of our utter insignificance and finitude, it eventually rekindles the main antidotes to boredom: passion, pain, and anguish. Boredom deserves ‘respect’ in his view because ‘infinity is not terribly lively’: being bored ‘anticipates’ death – the ‘inanimate infinity that accounts for the intensity of human sentiments.’ When we are bored, we feel stuck, but Brodsky’s point is that indulging the emotions that come with boredom automatically reveals the deceptiveness of that feeling. We are never really stuck until we are dead. In the meantime, we are on what Brodsky calls a ‘runaway train,’ a one-way trip that won’t stop at any particular signal for long.  Staring boredom down is like pulling back on the archer’s bow, irritating tensions that can bounce us back into honest vitality, and can help get the train moving again sooner rather than later.

Some circumstantial support for the wisdom of Brodsky’s formula can be found in Alone, Admiral Richard Byrd’s gripping memoir of his five-month solo stint at an Antarctic weather station in 1934. Byrd (no relation) manned the station mostly in the dark, thanks to the long, sunless, polar night, and boredom was never far away. He wrote that ‘If the polar regions have taught me anything, it is patience. I rarely spent more than an hour on any one job, preferring to shift to something else. In that way I was able to show a little progress each day on all the important jobs, at the same time keep from becoming bored with any one. This was a way of bringing variety into an existence which would be basically monotonous.’  Later on, Byrd faced a terrible dilemma: he needed warmth, but his stove – his main source of heat – was poisoning him with carbon monoxide fumes. He frequently considered giving up: ‘Why bother? … Why not let things drift? That would be the simple way. Your philosophy tells you to immerse yourself in the universal processes. Well, the processes here are in the direction of uninterrupted disintegration. That is the direction of everlasting peace. So why resist?’  Byrd’s harrowing account doesn’t fully explain how he kept going, but it does contain an interesting tension.

He often sounds like a classical Stoic, for whom the maintenance of mental peace or ‘imperturbability’ is crucial.  For example, when he asks himself how he mustered the ‘the will and desire to endure these hardships,’ he gives an answer worthy of Epictetus or Seneca: ‘By taking control of my thought. By extirpating all lugubrious ideas the instant they appeared and dwelling only on those conceptions which would make for peace. A discordant mind, black with confusion and despair, would finish me off as thoroughly as the cold.’ This self-interpretation, which for all I know may be right, points away from Brodsky, because it focuses on the cultivation of detachment and dispassion.

Yet large parts of Byrd’s text paint a different picture, suggesting that his ‘official’ Stoic reading may reflect self-delusion. For what really strikes readers of Alone is the consistent references to ‘torment,’ ‘despair,’ ‘gloom,’ ‘disillusionment,’ ‘misery,’ sleep interrupted by ‘unspeakable nightmares,’ etc. Brodsky’s suggestion, I think, would be that it was this emotional charge that was more likely what kept Byrd’s train chugging along and kept him in touch with reality. In a psychological sense, these two different readings need not be inconsistent: perhaps the anguish and despair are motivationally required to muster Stoic resolve. But philosophically, the two are hard to reconcile: it is a strange sort of imperturbability that can subsist only on perturbation.

Whether Brodsky’s strictures are helpful in our current predicament will depend, in part, on one’s judgment about whether it is relevantly like the more ordinary scenarios he clearly had in mind (mid-life crises, professional ennui, marital dissolution, etc.). It’s hard to deny some overlap: monotony; commuting endlessly between the same three or four rooms day after day; running out of conversation with one’s family members; a news media that is like a stuck record, repeating the same basic information over and over etc. — these have certainly been a large part of my own experience of ‘lockdown,’ and they seem clearly to fit Brodsky’s bill. 

Other features point in a wholly different direction: the odd anxiety that since we are hopeless at risk assessment, we’re complicit in an act of mass hysteria; disillusionment about the capacity and competence of Western governments; the slightly embarrassing discovery that one needn’t actually be in physical contact with other human beings to fulfill most of our obligations to them; the refusal to acknowledge that sooner or later, most of us are going to be infected, whatever we do now; and the peculiar psychology of an ‘invisible enemy’ and its typical distortions. But it’s striking that most of these, COVID-specific, issues in some way raise concerns about deceit, (self-)delusion, inauthenticity, cognitive bias, or distorted thinking. Perhaps Brodsky is right that indulging boredom is at least a more honest – indeed healthy – reaction.

An Introduction to Political Philosophy, 2nd Edition by Colin Bird
An Introduction to Political Philosophy, 2nd Edition by Colin Bird

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About the Author: Colin Bird

Colin Bird is Associate Professor of Politics and Director of the Program in Political Philosophy, Policy and Law at the University of Virginia. His publications include An Introduction to Political Philosophy, 2nd edition (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Human Dignity and Political Criticism (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)....

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