There’s a murky undercurrent to this week’s story about the French worker awarded €40,000 in damages by a court who agreed that his employers had subjected him to “boreout”; the condition of having so little to do that one’s mental health is seriously affected.
What lies beneath the story of Frédéric Desnard’s tenure at a luxury perfume maker, in which he claims his duties extended merely to ordering a few sheets of paper by way of office supplies, is unclear. Was he being deliberately sidelined? Did he complain to his – dread phrase – line manager, and find himself rebuffed? Did he feel unable to find another job?
Whatever the reality, his underuse led him to take several months off in a state of depression, whereupon Interparfums gave him the boot.
It sounds less a case of boredom than of a breakdown of workplace communication that resulted in feelings of isolation and plummeting self-esteem. But this is very much boredom’s fate; it is a concept on to which we project all sorts of painful emotions that are hard to interrogate and accurately capture.
During lockdown, for example, many of us have frequently referred to ourselves as bored. But poke a bit at that easy summary and you quickly discover much more of a hotchpotch of feelings: a base layer of fear and powerlessness, perhaps, with top notes of instability, exhaustion, foreboding and sadness. Bouncing from the biggest picture – thousands dead, seriously ill and bereaved – to the small-scale, recurrent losses of ordinary life has emptied us out; we are less bored than flattened by the psychic assault of the pandemic.
This is not boredom so much as besiegement; indeed, we may long for a return of straightforward, old-fashioned tedium. And this is the good news, because boredom is a glorious state, if you allow yourself to define its parameters and approach it with an open mind.
It requires initial work, particularly in hunting down other emotions that might be in the mix; anger and resentment, for example, are boredom’s regular outriders. If you’re furtively pissed off that someone or something isn’t letting you do want you want to do, you’re not bored, you’re constrained. If boredom is simply a way of hiding the knowledge that, really, there’s something else you should be tackling, you’re not bored, you’re engaged in displacement.
If boredom is masking a pressing concern – lack of resources, physical or mental illness, threats to your wellbeing and security – you’re not bored, you’re imperilled. These are not happy situations.
But if what you mean is that, in that moment, you’re lacking stimulation, that all the possible ways to spend or squander your energy have failed to strike a chord, that you feel simultaneously restless and listless, that the hours seems to stretch ahead without appetising diversion – well, then, my friends, you’re in hog heaven. You’ve got the great existentialists, Camus, Sartre, Beckett, on your team. Proust is reclining on to his pillow by your side. Herman Melville’s indolent clerk Bartleby is agreeing that he, too, “would prefer not to”. (Yes: they are all blokes. No: they did not, apparently, have to bother themselves with the vacuuming.)
The cult of productivity, once bounded by the workplace and various strains of Protestantism, has bled into almost every aspect of our lives. People share interesting cultural artefacts on social media with the apologetic preface that they are “late to this”; often, what they mean is that they have experienced whatever it is hours after its first appearance, as if its power wanes after lunch. Personally, I’m just about ready to admit that I’m late to Barnaby Rudge; anything after that, I’m still limbering up.
Steps aren’t taken unless they’re logged, carbs not consumed until they’re counted, opinions not opined if they’re not immediately lauded or denounced. Tick, tick, tick, goes the rhythm of modern life; tock, tock, tock goes the other bit of the equation that we prefer to forget. (No coincidence, of course, that the TikTok app’s popularity is inextricably linked to both speed and brevity.)
“Life is first boredom, then fear. / Whether or not we use it, it goes, / And leaves what something hidden from us chose, / And age, and then the only end of age.” The conclusion to Philip Larkin’s poem Dockery and Son is unlikely to be repurposed in a greetings card any time soon, but it’s strangely cheering if you choose to take it that way, and I do. “Whether or not we use it, it goes”: in other words, take the afternoon off, infinity doesn’t give a toss.
So, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to liberate yourself from the clock and from a sense that achievement lies only in activity, do so. You might stare out of the window and notice that a crack in the pavement looks like Googie Withers, and then start thinking about Bill Withers, and then remember that awful school-playground joke about what happens when you put a duck in the oven (it’s Bill Withers, apologies to Peta), and then remember the oven does indeed need cleaning, but really who cares, because it’s possible that Talking Pictures might be re-running Within These Walls, feat. Googie Withers herself, and now, you see, you’re not bored at all. You in fact have a plan, which is to first listen to Lean on Me, then watch a bit of telly and order some oven cleaner for use on another day, a day in which time will be precious, and there’ll be simply no room for this lovely, aimless, soul-restoring boredom.