[Paleopsych] Joseph Brodsky: Listening to Boredom

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Listening to boredom. (excerpt from 'In Praise of Boredom'; adapted from 
Dartmouth College commencement address) Joseph Brodsky.
Harper's Magazine, March 1995 v290 n1738 p11(3)

Abstract: Boredom is a natural condition of modern life that plagues rich and 
poor alike. Even unusually gifted individuals who create lucrative innovations 
must endure boredom. Advice for new college graduates on how to survive tedium 
is presented.

A substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom 
. The reason I'd like to talk to you about it today, on this lofty occasion, is 
that I believe no liberal arts college prepares you for that eventuality. 
Neither the humanities nor science offers courses in boredom . At best, they 
may acquaint you with the sensation by incurring it. But what is a casual 
contact to an incurable malaise? The worst monotonous drone coming from a 
lectern or the most eye-splitting textbook written in turgid English is nothing 
in comparison to the psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and 
spurns the horizon.

Known under several aliases--anguish, ennui, tedium, the doldrums, humdrum, the 
blahs, apathy, listlessness, stolidity, lethargy, languor, etc.--boredom is a 
complex phenomenon and by and large a product of repetition. It would seem, 
then, that the best remedy against it would be constant inventiveness and 
originality. That is what you, young and new-fangled, would hope for. Alas, 
life won't supply you with that option, for life's main medium is precisely 

One may argue, of course, that repeated attempts at originality and 
inventiveness are the vehicle of progress and, in the same breath, 
civilization. As benefits of hindsight go, however, this one is not the most 
valuable. For if we divide the history of our species by scientific 
discoveries, not to mention new ethical concepts, the result will not be very 
impressive. We'll get, technically speaking, centuries of boredom. The very 
notion of originality or innovation spells out the monotony of standard 
reality, of life.

The other trouble with originality and inventiveness is that they literally pay 
off. Provided that you are capable of either, you will become well-off rather 
fast. Desirable as that may be, most of you know firthand that nobody is as 
bored as the rich, for money buys time, and time is repetitive. Assuming that 
you are not heading for poverty, one can expect your being hit by boredom as 
soon as the first tools of self-gratification become available to you. Thanks 
to modern technology, those tools are as numerous as boredom's symptoms. In 
light of their function--to render you oblivious to the redundancy of 
time--their abundance is revealing.

As for poverty, boredom is the most brutal part of its misery, and escape from 
it takes more radical forms: violent rebellion or drug addiction. Both are 
temporary, for the misery of poverty is infinite; both, because of that 
infinity, are costly. In general, a man shooting heroin into his vein does so 
largely for the same reason you rent a video: to dodge the redundancy of time. 
The difference, though, is that he spends more than he's got, and that his 
means of escaping become as redundant as what he is escaping from faster than 
yours. On the whole, the difference in tactility between a syringe's needle and 
a stereo's push button roughly corresponds to the difference between the 
acuteness of time's impact upon the have-nots and the dullness of its impact on 
the haves. But, whether rich or poor, you will inevitably be afflicted by 
monotony. Potential haves, you'll be bored with your work, your friends, your 
spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in 
your room, your thoughts, yourselves. Accordingly, you'll try to devise ways of 
escape. Apart from the self-gratifying gadgets I mentioned before, you may take 
up changing your job, residence, company, country, climate; you may take up 
promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis.

In fact, you may lump all these together, and for a while that may work. Until 
the day, of course, when you wake up in your bedroom amidst a new family and a 
different wallpaper, in a different state and climate, with a heap of bills 
from your travel agent and your shrink, yet with the same stale feeling toward 
the light of day pouring through your window. You'll put on your loafers only 
to discover that they're lacking bootstraps by which to lift yourself up from 
what you recognize. Depending on your temperament and your age, you will either 
panic or resign yourself to the familiarity of the sensation, or else you'll go 
through the rigmarole of change once more. Neurosis and depression will enter 
your lexicon; pills, your medicine cabinet.

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for 
alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that 
you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. This predicament, after all, 
has been sufficiently glamorized onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, 
however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with 
your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict's daily fix.

There is yet another way out of boredom, however. Not a better one, perhaps, 
from your point of view, and not necessarily secure, but straight and 
inexpensive. When hit by boredom , let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit 
bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit 
bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the 
worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, 
undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to 
the likely peril of one's mental equilibrium. It is your window on time's 
infinity. Once this window opens, don't try to shut it; on the contrary, throw 
it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it teaches you the 
most valuable lesson of your life: the lesson of your utter insignificance. It 
is valuable to you, as well as to those you are to rub shoulders with. "You are 
finite," time tells you in the voice of boredom, "and whatever you do is, from 
my point of view, futile." As music to your ears, this, of course, may not 
count; yet the sense of futility, of the limited significance of even your 
best, most ardent actions, is better than the illusion of their consequences 
and the attendant self-aggrandizement.

For boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values. It puts your 
existence into its proper perspective, the net result of which is precision and 
humility. The former, it must be noted, breeds the latter. The more you learn 
about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become to 
your likes, to the dust aswirl in a sunbeam or already immobile atop your 

If it takes will-paralyzing boredom to bring your insignificance home, then 
hail the boredom. You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet infinity is 
not terribly lively, not terribly emotional. Your boredom , at least, tells you 
that much. And the more finite a thing is, the more it is charged with life, 
emotions, joy, fears, compassion.

What's good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of meaninglessness of 
your own, of everything else's existence, is that it is not a deception. Try to 
embrace, or let yourself be embraced by, boredom and anguish, which are larger 
than you anyhow. No doubt you'll find that bosom smothering, yet try to endure 
it as long as you can, and then some more. Above all, don't think you've goofed 
somewhere along the line, don't try to retrace your steps to correct the error. 
No, as W. H. Auden said, "Believe your pain." This awful bear hug is no 
mistake. Nothing that disturbs you ever is.

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