Boredom: A Lively History, By Peter Toohey

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The Independent Culture

The daunting title is mitigated by the sub-title, presumably inserted to generate rather more than zero sales for Yale University Press. The ensuing book is generally lively, such as the list of "colourful circumlocutions" for boredom including "he could yap the leg off an iron pot... A bore can be a fish head, a pill, an alf or even a bromide... QFD (quelle fucking drag)", though it is not entirely bereft of boredom. Even Peter Toohey admits his definition of boredom, as "an emotion which produces feelings of being constrained or confined by some avoidable and distastefully predictable circumstance", is "very cumbersome".

Though he is right to claim that "boredom is one of the most unexpectedly common of all human emotions",Toohey tends to find it where it does not necessarily exist. Yes, the three Apostles in Lo Spagna's The Agony in the Garden rest their heads on their forearms in "a sign of boredom", and the same applies to the languishing female in Walter Sickert's Ennui, which is, incidentally, a far from boring painting.

But Toohey is pushing his luck when he opines about the figure grasping her hair in Degas's La Coiffure, "Rather than merely aiming to assuage the pain, the position of her arm is strongly evocative of boredom's body language." Hearing that, my wife commented, "It's obvious he's never had long hair." Similarly, Toohey maintains that Jan van Eyck's painting of St Jerome in his Study shows he is "resolutely bored" but many would say that the saint's pose, again with hand on head, was resolutely studious.

An innocuous shot of Frinton's docks from around 1900 is categorised as "a very dreary commentary on work and industry" due to the absence of "people and animals and activity". Others might see the photograph as quietly atmospheric. The setting is reminiscent of Edward Thomas's potent poem "Adlestrop": "No one left and no one came/ On the bare platform".

Toohey finds examples of cultural boredom in works ranging from Forrest Gump, who displays "a persistent desire to hurry off", to the "existential boredom" of Sartre's Nausea. Toohey on boredom contains much stimulation though his inclusion of exactly the same sentence – "Boredom is a normal, useful and an incredibly common part of human experience" – on pages 170 and 190 suggests that his attention may have drifted a little.

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