We are saved by having nothing to do

It is not, on the face of it, the most encouraging claim to be made for a new novel: not only does it have boredom as its theme but its author was himself so bored while working on it that he committed suicide. Although the book in question, The Pale King, will still be a major literary event – it is the posthumous work of one of the great American writers, David Foster Wallace – there has been something a bit grim about its advance publicity. “Boredom is a tough subject in a novel,” the writer Jonathan Franzen, a close friend of Foster Wallace’s, said last week. “Arguably, Dave died of boredom.”

Once again, a great life-enhancing experience – that of being bored – is getting a bad press. There have already been “Novelist died of boredom” headlines. Yet boredom, as Foster Wallace realised better than most, is an interesting subject. In a typewritten note which was found with the novel, he wrote: “Bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

It is a profoundly unfashionable idea, that beyond the thickets of unutterable tedium (sitting through a grim West End play, for example, or having to endure a dinner party conversation about property prices or what really happened in The Killing), there may lie a sunlit glade of bliss.

Since the 18th century, ennui of one kind or another has been seen as a terrible scourge, and never more so than now, when activity and busyness have become an addictive part of modern life. Yet Foster Wallace is right: it is not the bored we should worry about, but those who never experience moods of dreary nothingness because they are forever fretfully on the move.

Boredom is an expression of dissatisfaction with the tediousness of life; it is a moment when the better, quieter part of you is demanding more. In extreme cases, where it is part of a profound depression, it can lead to addiction, crazed risk-taking and worse. But, in proportion, it is a force for good.

In a recently published book, Boredom: A Lively History, the author Peter Toohey argues that his subject has the biological purpose of warning us against toxic or dangerous situations, rather as a disgusting taste or smell does. The fact that, according to one survey, the average Briton is bored for six hours every week, amounting over a period of 60 years to the equivalent of a fortnight’s ceaseless boredom, worries him not a jot. Being bored is “an enabling experience”.

Adults are spurred by it into making a change in their lives. Teenagers, mooching about languidly and complaining that they are bored, are learning an important condition of life – and how to deal with it. I have never been quite as bored as I was when I attended an aggressively dull boarding school, but it was during that period of my life that I learnt a musical instrument, became interested in reading, and began to wonder whether the life for which my background had prepared me was one which I really wanted to lead. By inflicting hours of tedium on its inmates, the school did many of us a huge favour.

The fear now is that there is not enough boredom in our daily lives. Anyone with a smartphone or laptop has instant access to entertainment or company, admittedly both of a distracting, superficial kind. Computers, which appear to be the great enemies of tedium, provide the contacts, games and pointless conversations which can keep angst and introspection away. They provide the easy illusion that life can be full, busy and interesting without the slightest mental, physical or spiritual effort.

The unbored quickly become bores themselves. It is above all by dealing with the exciting challenge of overcoming boredom that we begin to understand who we are, and to learn how to make the best of our lives.

Independent, Tuesday, 5 April 2011