BOOK: A novel guide to spiritual languor

Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind by Patricia Meyer Spacks, University of Chicago Press £19.95
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HALFWAY through her intricate history of boredom, Patricia Spacks admits that writers are probably the least qualified to fathom its unbearable dullness. Nietzsche called boredom "the windless calm of the soul that precedes a happy voyage". For W alter Benjamin it was "the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience", while Proust derived the whole of his monumental work Remembrance Of Things Past from a spate of early nights. Patently such writers had idle moments, but they were not bored.

Perhaps for this reason we have no classic accounts of the nature of boredom, no Anatomy of Tedium. Are we bored by too much, or too little? Is boredom an ailment, an aesthetic judgement, an emotion or simply a desire to desire? Earlier this century, statistician Francis Galton attempted to measure boredom by counting the numbers of fidgets at meetings of the Royal Geographical Society. But boredom has generally been attributed to other people - the idle rich, the workaholic, the drop-out, the accountant, the housewife, the boring old fart.

In search of an origin, Spacks traces boredom back to 18th-century England and the birth of the dullard. The OED's first documented case is as late as 1768, with the Earl of Carlisle's reference to "Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by those Frenchmen". The English had previously used the French word ennui to describe a mood of spiritual languor, but there was a need for something more abrupt, less metaphysically dignified - particularly to describe the French.

Boredom belongs to the age of secular identity and the creation of leisure time. When people began to ease free of the realm of public conduct and foster their private sensibilities, boredom was their first reward. In 1745 David Fordyce complained that the solitary life "approaches too near the life of a vegetable".

To compensate for this ever-growing void in the inner life, there was a rush of distractions in the outside world. Comic operas, circuses, horse-races, canary-breeding and tulip-growing all testified to a fear of running out of things to do. Writers lik e Samuel Johnson repudiated these flightly digressions from the moral life and sought to counter boredom with contemplative musings in journals such as The Idler. Johnson's Dictionary contains no verb "to bore". It was left to Boswell to articulate the tr ue pain of tedium: "While Lonsdale was drowsy after dinner, we sat in stupid silence, and I groaned inwardly."

The rise of boredom also fuelled the rise of the novel, and similar moral dis-approval surrounding the shift from perusing "conduct books" to the pleasure of the rip-roaring read. As late as 1839, Arthur Freeling was warning young brides that "the excitation produced" by reading novels could seriously damage their health. But then women were equally dissuaded from advancing their knowledge, expressing their opinions or being bored.

Such tensions between didacticism, prudence and desire are at the heart of Spacks's study. Starting with 18th- century female diarists and Richardson's Clarissa, she traces a 200-year weakening in the fabric of attention. From Jane Austen to George Eliot, Dickens and Trollope, a tableau of increasingly bored characters tells the story of how a dutiful and engaged reading of the world gradually gave way to the thirst for distraction.

As such, the book is really a history of boredom's counterpart: the loss of the interesting. Spacks holds a Chair of English at the University of Virginia and, like Dr Johnson, her job is to create interest. By gravitating towards the most engaging issues raised by the history of boredom, she awakens a desire to read all kinds of books that have long been deemed unpickupable: Samuel Richard-son's Sir Charles Grandison, or Mrs Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere. But when the moral quandaries begin to fade, when the loosening of the ethical life approaches terminal entropy, her work comes to an end.

With the 20th century, the book peters out just where it should be getting going. There are some brief readings from Lawrence, Waugh, Anita Brookner - and then a grey abyss. Boredom has become too diffuse, too low-key to be of interest. But of course it is the literature of the "morally interesting" that has faded. Boredom and the trivial, on the other hand, have experienced their greatest imaginative flowering. A finer apprec-iation of shades of dullness could have included Beckett, Pesso a , Camus

and what about Citizen Kane, Hancock, Warhol, couch potatoes, punk, "The Likely Lads", British Rail, Nigel Planer, Thelma & Louise, Princess Di and Slackers? The critique of pure boredom has only just begun. He who is tired of boredom is tired of life.