The History of Boredom

So little happened on this day in 1954 that it has been designated “the most boring day in history,” this title granted in 2010 by the artificial intelligence computer True Knowledge Answer Engine. Earning the MBDH award would make April 11 interesting, of course; and even setting aside this catch-22, the computer’s sifting of the historical record — some 300 million facts concerning the births and deaths, discoveries and disasters of April 11 — only used data from 1900 onward.

No doubt the True Knowledge Company (recently renamed Evi) used an army of algorithms to award their laurel crown. But the human scholars can go back long before 1900 to document the yawning and finger drumming. In his recent Boredom: A Lively History, Peter Toohey notes a cryptic a Latin inscription from the Italian city of Benevento, dating from the late third century:

For Tanonius Marcellinus, a most distinguished man of the consular rank at Campania and a most worthy patron as well, because of the good deeds by which he rescued the population from endless boredom [Latin: taedium], the entire people judges that this inscription should be recorded.

Some historians date the “modern epidemic of boredom” from the Enlightenment and the ensuing “crisis of the self.” Toohey says this may be true of the highbrow forms of ennui and “existential boredom” but not of the common garden variety. This he defines as “a social emotion of mild disgust,” caused by “temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstance” and often causing some useful new change. Or what seems like it:

As fast as the new is experienced…it is liable to become boring. The new becomes a variant of the infinite. It recedes infinitely. Infinity is of course temporal as well as spatial. Time has a very interesting relationship with boredom and its representations. We have all experienced the sluggishness of time when we have been confined in boring situations. According to one of the late Clement Freud’s famous witticisms, “if you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving you don’t actually live longer, it just seems longer.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.