pessoa on work & boredom


We may know that the work we continue to put off doing will be bad. Worse, however, is the work we never do. A work that’s finished is at least finished. It may be poor, but it exists, like the miserable plant in the lone flowerpot of my neighbour who’s crippled. That plant is her happiness, and sometimes it’s even mine. What I write, bad as it is, may provide some hurt or sad soul a few moments of distraction from something worse. That’s enough for me, or it isn’t enough, but it serves some purpose, and so it is with all of life.

A tedium that includes the expectation of nothing but more tedium; a regret, right now, for the regret I’ll have tomorrow for having felt regret today—huge confusions with no point and no truth, huge confusions…

…where, curled up on a bench in a railway station, my contempt dozes in the cloak of my discouragement…

…the world of dreamed images which are the sum of my knowledge as well as of my life…

To heed the present moment isn’t a great or lasting concern of mine. I crave time in all its duration, and I want to be myself unconditionally.

—from Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

boredom / happiness studies: adorno on the fetishism of suntanning & schopenhauer

An archetypal instance is the behaviour of those who grill themselves brown in the sun merely for the sake of a sun-tan, although dozing in the blazing sunshine is not at all enjoyable, might very possibly be physically unpleasant, and certainly impoverishes the mind. In the sun-tan, which can be quite fetching, the fetish character of the commodity lays claim to actual people; they themselves become fetishes. The idea that a girl is more erotically attractive because of her brown skin is probably only another rationalization. The sun-tan is an end in itself, of more importance than the boy-friend it was perhaps supposed to entice. 

Adorno on the evils of suntanning:

The act of dozing in the sun marks the culmination of a crucial element of free time under present conditions – boredom. The miracles which people expect from their holidays or from other special treats in their free time, are subject to endless spiteful ridicule, since even here they never get beyond the threshold of the eversame: distant places are no longer – as they still were for Baudelaire’s ennui – different places. The victim’s ridicule is automatically connected to the very mechanisms which victimize. At an early age Schopenhauer formulated a theory of boredom. True to his metaphysical pessimism he teaches that people either suffer from the unfulfilled desires of their blind will, or become bored as soon as these desires are satisfied. The theory well describes what becomes of people’s free time under the sort of conditions of heteronomy, and which in new German tends to be termed Fremdbestimmtheit  (external determination). In its cynicism Schopenhauer’s arrogant remark that mankind is the factory product of nature also captures something of what the totality of the commodity character actually makes man into. Angry cynicism still does more honour to human beings than solemn protestations about man’s irreducible essence. However, one should not hypostatize Schopenhauer’s doctrine as something of universal validity or even as an insight into the primal character of the human species. Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labour. It need not be so. Whenever behaviour in spare time is truly autonomous, determined by free people for themselves, boredom rarely figures; it need not figure in activities which cater merely for the desire for pleasure, any more than it does in those free time activities which are reasonable and meaningful in themselves. Even fooling about need not be crass, and can be enjoyed as a blessed release from the throes of self-control. If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored. Boredom is the reflection of objective dullness.

Adorno on DIY (home improvement?):


‘Do it yourself ’, this contemporary type of spare time behaviour fits however into a much more far-reaching context. More than thirty years ago I described such behaviour as ‘pseudo-activity’. Since then pseudoactivity has spread alarmingly, even (and especially) amongst those people who regard themselves as anti-establishment. Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity. Misguided, but not accidentally so; because people do have a dim suspicion of how hard it would be to throw off the yoke that weighs upon them. They prefer to be distracted by spurious and illusory activities, by institutionalized vicarious satisfactions, than to face up to the awareness of how little access they have to the possibility of change today. Pseudo-activities are fictions and parodies of the same productivity which society on the one hand incessantly calls for, but on the other holds in check and, as far as the individual is concerned, does not really desire at all.


—excerpted from Adorno’s essay “Free Time,” in his The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture (1991).


Read "Free Time," IF YOU DARE!

the philosophy of boredom: the boredom of philosopy

boredom as a philosophical problem

Svendsen’s conclusion: “Boredom is life’s own gravity."

As a philosopher, from time to time one must attempt to address big questions. If one fails to do so, one loses sight of what led one to study philosophy in the first place. In my opinion, boredom is one such big question, and an analysis of boredom ought to say something important about the conditions under which we live. We ought not – and are actually unable to – avoid considering our attitude towards the question of being from time to time. There may be many initial reasons for reflecting on one’s life, but the special thing about fundamental existential experiences is that they inevitably lead one to question one’s own existence. Profound boredom is one fundamental existential experience. As Jon Hellesnes has asked: ‘What can possibly be more existentially disturbing than boredom?’

The big questions are not necessarily the eternal questions, for boredom has only been a central cultural phenomenon for a couple of centuries. It is of course impossible to determine precisely
when boredom arose, and naturally it has its precursors. But it stands out as being a typical phenomenon of modernity. On the whole, the precursors were restricted to small groups, such as the nobility and the clergy, whereas the boredom of modernity is wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomenon today for practically everyone in the Western world.

Boredom is usually considered as something random in relation to the nature of man, but this is based on highly dubious assumptions regarding human nature. One could just as well claim that boredom is embodied in human nature, but that would also presuppose that there is anything at all that can be called ‘human nature’ – a presupposition that seems problematic to me. Postulating a given nature has a tendency to put an end to all further discussion. For, as Aristotle points out, we direct our attention first and foremost to that which is capable of change.
By postulating a nature we are claiming that it cannot be changed. It can also be tempting to postulate a completely neutral human nature, where man has just as great a potential to experience sadness as happiness, enthusiasm as boredom. In that case, the explanation of boredom is exclusively to be found in the individual’s social environment. I do not believe, however, that a clear distinction can be made between psychological and social aspects when dealing with a phenomenon such as boredom, and a reductive sociologism is just as untenable as a psychologism. So I choose to approach the matter from a different angle, adopting a perspective based partly on the history of ideas and partly on phenomenology. Nietzsche pointed out that the ‘hereditary fault of all philosophers’ is to base themselves on man at a particular period of time and then turn this into an eternal truth. So I will make do with stating that boredom is a very serious phenomenon that affects many people. Aristotle insisted that virtue is not natural, but that it is not unnatural either. The same applies to boredom. Moreover, an investigation of boredom can be carried out without presupposing any anthropological constants, i.e., anything given independently of a specifically social and historical space. We are dealing here with an investigation of man in a particular historical situation. It is us I am writing about, living in the shadow of Romanticism, as inveterate Romantics without the hyperbolic faith of Romanticism in the ability of the imagination to transform the world.

Even though all good philosophy ought to contain an important element of self-knowledge, it does not necessarily have to take the form of a confession modelled on Augustine’s
Confessions. Many people have asked me if I undertook this project because I suffered from boredom, but what I personally feel ought not to be of any interest to readers. I do not conceive philosophy as being a confessional activity, rather one that labours to gain clarity – a clarity that is admittedly never more than temporary – in the hope that the small area one feels one has shed light on will also be of relevance to others. From a philosophical point of view, my private conditions are irrelevant, even though they are naturally important to me.

I carried out a small, unscientific survey among colleagues, students, friends and acquaintances that revealed that they were on the whole unable to say whether they were
bored or not, although some answered in the affirmative or the negative – and one person even claimed that he had never been bored. To those readers who have possibly never been bored I can say by way of comparison that deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void. One tries to fall asleep, takes perhaps a few faltering steps, but does not gain sleep, ending up in a no man’s land between a waking state and sleep. In Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa wrote:

Certain sensations are slumbers that fill up our mind like a fog and prevent us from thinking, from acting, from clearly and simply being. As if we hadn’t slept, something of our undreamed dreams lingers in us, and the torpor of the new day’s sun warms the stagnant surface of our senses. We’re drunk on not being anything, and our will is a bucket poured out onto the yard by the listless movement of a passing foot.

Pessoa’s boredom is obvious – it is distinct in all its formlessness. It is, however, in the nature of things that very few people indeed can come up with an unequivocal answer as to whether they are bored or not. First, moods, generally speaking, are seldom intentional subjects as far as we are concerned – they are precisely something one finds oneself
in, not something one consciously looks at. And second, boredom is a mood that is typified by a lack of quality that makes it more elusive than most other moods. Georges Bernanos’s village priest provides us with a fine description of the imperceptibly destructive nature of boredom in The Diary of a Country Priest:

So I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this – one does not see it immediately. It is a like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it, and it is so fine that it doesn’t even scrunch between one’s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off one. That is why people are so restless.

It is perfectly possible to be bored without being aware of the fact. And it is possible to be bored without being able to offer any reason or cause for this boredom. Those who claimed in my small survey that they were deeply bored were as a rule unable to state accurately
why they were bored; it wasn’t this or that that plagued them, rather a nameless, shapeless, object-less boredom. This is reminiscent of what Freud said about melancholy, where he began by stressing a similarity between melancholy and grief, since both contain an awareness of loss. But whereas the person who grieves always has a distinct object of loss, the melancholic does not precisely know what he has lost.

Introspection is a method that has obvious limitations when investigating boredom, so I decided to look critically at a number of texts of a philosophical and literary nature. I regard literature as excellent source-material for philosophical studies, and for the philosophy of culture it is just as indispensable as scientific works are for the philosophy of science. As a rule, literature is a great deal more illuminative than quantitative sociological or psychological studies. This applies not least to our subject, where much research has focused on how the deficiency or surplus of sensory stimuli cause boredom without this always being particularly illuminative when considering such a complex phenomenon as boredom.
As Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, has expressed it: ‘Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.’

Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

a brief history of boredom (the 70s to the 90s)

In this section from Gary Indiana’s Do Everything in the Dark, the narrator-as-culture-critic once again surfaces, with Indiana’s customary brilliance at identifying the essential details of an era…


Boredom can be viewed as a kind of fossil fuel, poured into inertia and ignited with fabulous results, but I am skeptical of this view, which reeks of unempirical optimism. We were ex­cited for a while by drugs and sex, sometimes by escape from stultifying provincial childhoods, by ideological manias that were in the wind, by Che Guevara and Mao’s Little Red Book, by Rolfing massage and Maharishi meditation, by rock and roll, pun, rock, hip-hop, marketing brainstorms, junk bonds, liver transplants, by ever-refined electronic gadgets that seemed to afford some control over the gathering chaos. But eventually ever thing new became a short-lived palliative for the fatal gash of boredom. We began manufacturing problems that sounded deeper, worthier of analysis, than the Oblomov syndrome pro­duced by getting older in an age when everybody had seen too much by the time they were thirty-five.

prologemena to all future happiness studies

Is writing marketing copy the most boring job in the world?

Not necessarily, I suppose, and in some ways it is better than lawyering. But, once again, I feel compelled to commit the glaringly obvious to print: I cannot believe how fucking depressing work is…


In fact, I don’t think my mood could be any lower than it is now. I cannot understand why the people working all around me are not jumping out of windows as I type this post. These people should be slitting their wrists in the bathrooms, hanging themselves from the coat hooks in the toilet stalls, begging the janitor for the keys to the roof so they can bid adieu to this vale of tears with a sprightly leap from the top of the building…


Certainly having no capacity for imagination or powers of observation or faculty of empathy must help most of my colleagues get through the day. But why do they even bother?

I mean, my life is often a quiet and desperate hell. I really cannot take much more of this constant current of mental pain that runs through nearly every waking moment.  So what keeps the walking failures all around me going? More specifically, how does one get through the day without the ordering powers of art? 

These cretins seem to think if they work now they’ll have a better time of it in some distant future. Like squirrels with nuts, except squirrels definitely go about their work in a more orderly fashion that most of my colleagues… and now one has to remind them of their deadlines.


Perhaps I should try to take part in a psychology study and skew the results so badly this nonsense field of “happiness studies” is snuffed out before it gets much more of a toehold in Canada.

vocation = ennui & depression

It’s not as sinister as William Burroughs‘ “the algebra of need”, but it’s no less corrupting …


Let V = vocation, E = ennui and D = depression. 

If V represents one’s waking hours from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm, if E represents an overriding feeling of utter weariness and discontent from lack of interest in one’s immediate environment, and if D represents a pervasive low mood, loss of interest in usual activities and diminished ability to experience pleasure, then: 


V = E + D. 


Where V has a spillover effect into one’s non-vocational hours — represented as V + V1 — then the equation must be rebalanced with the levels of E and D rising exponentially:


V2 = (E + D)2.


Finally, if one’s vocation (V) also represents one’s career (C), then one is in even more trouble: in this situation E X D is now understood to represent — in addition to denoting the case of ennui multiplied by depression — the ensuing condition of Erectile Dysfunction, or ED:


V2(C) = ED2

Or, in layman’s terms, getting fucked doesn’t mean you’ll get to fuck (the obverse of the old adage that “the fucking you get isn’t worth the fucking you get”).