Symposium: Boredom

This month on Notes from 21 South Street, we introduce the Symposium. The Symposium is collection of writing on the same topic. Our aim is to explore each topic using different approaches and from different perspectives, and to delight in the coincidences and contradictions that result. This month, Rumur Dowling, Victoria Baena, Kevin Hong, and Liza Batkin discuss “Boredom.”

Heater, Vija Celmins, 1964. Image courtesy of www.whitney.org

ONE

“Fever is the only madness that most of us will ever experience,” Patrick Lauppe writes in his introduction to the first theme of Notes from 21 South Street. “We pursue it in hallucination and intoxication, but fever must arrive uninvited: a devil that can cross any threshold he’d like. Fever is a nightmarish house party that leaves the body ravaged and scarred from the inside out.” Perhaps he is right. But our true demon is not so gregarious. It arrives quietly, and it takes root. It is heralded not by the furious tremors of a coming surge, but by the ominous toll of a sluggish hour. The tick of a clock. The heavy sigh. The restless fluttering of an impatient foot.

In his autobiography, Roland Barthes recalls “A panic boredom, to the point of distress: like the kind I feel in panel discussions, lectures, parties among strangers, group amusements: wherever boredom can be seen. Might boredom be my form of hysteria?” His pairing of boredom with madness is not new. The thought crosses millennia of literary musing, philosophical inquiry and spiritual belief. Boredom, whether conceived as a critical attunement, psychological state, existential malaise, physical impairment, scholarly illness or personal weakness, was once thought to afflict those beset by a demonic envoy called acedia. Evagrius the Solitary, the fourth century Christian Desert Father, first described the fiend. Evagrius lived amidst his fellow monks in the Desert of Cells, the desolate sprawl of arid land south of Alexandria, and he envisioned a demon that latched itself to pious minds at the very moment the sun had reached its apex, when the hottest hour seemed to drag for an eternity, when the temptations of modern life in Alexandria sang out most plaintively. Distracted and disgusted with their repetitive work — the copying of scripture, the weaving of reed baskets — the monks lapsed and gave into their demons. Their boredom was a failure before God.

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