Boredom and Death

“Boredom,” writes Thomas Bernhard, is “the worst disease that anyone can fall prey to in this life.”

I’m inclined to agree, ignorantly. Ignorantly, because I can’t remember ever actually being bored. I take the feeling to be this: in freedom and plenty, wanting nothing except to want something. I’ve naturally experienced the common discomforts that approach boredom—waiting impatiently for something, disliking something I was doing or sitting through, persevering in a seemingly endless bit of busywork—but none of these things, I think, are boredom properly speaking. Boredom is satiation without satisfaction. But despite my ignorance I can well imagine that boredom is the worst possible condition because I identify it with death.

I don’t mean that death appears boring to me, but rather that, of all the indispositions available to a being who is subject to death, boredom seems the worst and most essential. Boredom, in other words, is surely only a possibility because of death and it is death’s worst possibility. An immortal life would be imbued with too much patience to allow for boredom. Boredom is an impatience so great that it loses its object: the bored person is not impatient for anything, indeed they are actually too impatient for anything. And that is why boredom requires death as its transcendental condition. Only the prospect of death can instigate or justify an impatience so intense.

According to the Bernhard character who utters the above lines about boredom, it is a malady, like suicide, disproportionately affecting the rich. This makes a great deal of sense. Those of us who are not rich, for whom the material problems of life are actually problems, see the perfection of our aims through a scrim of daily struggle. We store our avocations in weekends and holidays and evenings. Paradoxically, the difficulty we experience in finding time for aesthetic pleasure or intellectual stimulation preserves the joy of these things for us.

But I’m not happy with that formulation. It could be too easily twisted into a theodicy for the evil of stolen freedom and stolen time that characterizes our shitty capitalist society. Labor does not preserve the poor from the greater evil of leisure. It is surely humanity’s right to face boredom. It is in the conquest of boredom that all our values are created and upheld, that meaning has meaning, that life becomes worth its own loss.