Friday, May 6, 2011

Peter Toohey's "Boredom: A Lively History"

Peter Toohey is a professor in the Department of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Calgary. His books include Melancholy, Love and Time: Boundaries of the Self in Ancient Literature.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Boredom: A Lively History, and reported the following:
The psychological danger posed by prolonged boredom is one of the main arguments of Boredom: A Lively History and page 99 has a lot to say about this topic. Meursault, the zombie-like murderer of Camus’ great French novel, The Outsider, appears here. Meursault aims to conquer the prolonged boredom of death-row solitary confinement by memorizing and then regularly reviewing in his mind all of the meager details and contents of his prison cell. Meursault maintains that by practicing this technique he “ended up not being bored at all”. And there is Albert Speer. Adolf Hitler’s chief architect and successful second-world-war Minister of Armaments and War Production, Speer practised a variant of Meursault’s method during the 20-year stretch in Spandau prison that he was handed out at the Nuremberg trials. By relentlessly pacing about the prison exercise yard Speer attempted to recreate mentally the distractions of a vast, imaginary journey by foot from Berlin to Guadalajara in Mexico. “This project”, he writes, “is a training of the will, a battle against endless boredom”. The prolonged experience of boredom, apparently mastered by Meursault and by Albert Speer, can be the most dangerous of conditions. Mersault and Speer were lucky to have got off lightly, for boredom, when not relieved, easily spills over into manic, self-harmful behavior, or into prolonged depression. This can be especially true in situations, such as in jails, where constraint and lack of stimulation is the norm. The American psychiatrist, Stuart Grassian, writing, in the 1980s and on page 99, concerning the deleterious mental effects of solitary confinement, argues that such imprisonment can generate or, in some cases, severely exacerbate acute mental illness. (Because the US penal system is often reliant on solitary confinement, Stuart Grassian maintains that such effects are widespread.) But boredom is not usually dangerous and page 99 might not give this impression. Boredom normally is a simple emotion, one of mild disgust that is produced by temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstances. It something that children often complain of, but it is something that usually passes quickly and is easily forgotten. This emotion is very common if you can believe anecdotal evidence. Yet it’s curiously overlooked. When you read books about boredom, the discussions are mostly focused on “existential” boredom (so, emptiness, isolation, disgust, alienation). That doesn’t help very much with the day-to-day boredom that most people feel. Boredom: A Lively History aims to put this simple emotion back into the picture.
Learn more about Boredom: A Lively History at the Yale University Press.

--Marshal Zeringue