publisher colophon

The essay examines the concept of boredom in religion, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. In the English language, the French word ennui, as well as boredom, covers a spectrum of indifference. Ennui, however, refers to a more or less chronic state of mind, while boredom has, in most cases, both a cause and a boring object. This essay is most concerned with ennui, or profound boredom, which it explores through a range of phenomena from denial and melancholia to disillusionment and waiting.

In a certain sense boredom is the most sublime of human feelings.

—G. Leopardi, Thoughts

Boredom is the most sterile of human passions. Born of emptiness and generating the void, because not just sterile in itself, but making everything it touches or mixes with sterile too.

—G. Leopardi, Zibaldone

I. Acedia

Boredom, laziness, disgust, depression, melancholy, desperation, abulia. These concepts are all interlaced and every era has chosen to focus on one. The topic continues to be studied today (see Agamben, 1977/1993). At the end of Antiquity and during the Middle Ages, however, akedia (ἀκηδία)—lethargy or listlessness—was particularly written about. In those centuries, akedia became sloth, one of the seven capital sins, an ailment specific to monks.

Indeed, a lethal danger loomed over the monk, alone in the Egyptian stone desert where he spent his life trying to resemble Jesus as much as possible. At noontide, when the sun was at its peak and the heat became stifling, the "meridian demon" took possession of the loner's soul. Monakos in Greek means solitary and celibate. These single, quite singular, men would give that noon scourge the Greek name akedia, later Latinized into acedia. The "a" is the privative prefix and "kédos" means care—in other words, acedia, sloth, is an unconcern, an indifference, a negligence, and a dejection.

From the Egyptian Thebais acedia moved to the monasteries of the West. In fact, we can look at the entire Western European [End Page 1] monastic tradition as one great strategy to avoid acedia. This defensive posture indicates why it was important for the monk always to have something to do in his retreat, for him not to fall prey to voids.

At high noon, wrote Saint Nilus of Ancyra in De octo spiritibus, the homo religiosus is "torpid and dazed":

When reading, bothered by anxiety he soon falls asleep; or rubs his face with both hands, straightens his fingers and, putting the book down, looks at the wall; returning to the book, he skims several lines, muttering the end of each word he reads; at the same time he fills his head with some idle sums, counts the pages in his notebook.

(p. 79, col. 1145–1164)

He cannot concentrate on what he is reading; he often slumbers briefly and then wakes up with a compulsive hunger.

When the midday demon seizes him, writes Saint John Cassian (ca. 360–435) in De institutis coenobiorum, "it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual." So the acedic often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society. He grieves and lies still and gutted, always in the same cell.

He cries up distant monasteries and those which are a long way off, and describes such places as more profitable and better suited for salvation. On the other hand, he says that everything about him is rough, and not only that there is nothing edifying among the brethren who are stopping there, but also that even food for the body cannot be procured without great difficulty. Lastly he fancies that he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell. Then the fifth or sixth hour brings him such bodily weariness and longing for food as if he had put off taking food during a fast of two or three days. Then he looks about anxiously this way and that, goes in and out of his cell and frequently gazes up [End Page 2] at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting; and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him…

(Book 10, Chapter 2)

The Carthusian monk of the twelfth-century Adam Scotus wrote in his Sermones:

Often, when alone in your cell, a certain dullness seizes you, a mental insensitiveness and a sickness of heart. You feel great disgust. You are a burden to yourself and the internal joy that made you feel so happy has abandoned you. The sweetness you felt yesterday or the day before has turned into great bitterness; the flux of tears that soaked you has dried up. The spiritual vigor has faded, your interior calmness has died out. Your soul is in shreds, confused and divided, sad and bitter. You no longer like to read, prayer no longer offers you the peace you sought, and you can no longer find the sweet rain of spiritual meditations…Spiritual joy and delight are no longer inside you. You are inclined to joking, to idle stories and conversation, but slow in keeping silent and taking on a valid commitment or in devoting yourself to spiritual exercises.

(P.L., CXCVIII, 91–440)

Striking here is the image of the aridity of sloth: the comforting tears dry up, the sweet rain of meditation ceases. Acedia is also a spiritual chill. This cold quality of sloth was to have a long career in the West. First sloth and later melancholy would be described as cold and dry: the algid soul with no fervor withers.

Acedia was de facto an attack of "I couldn't give a damn" typical of every kind of boredom. And what does the ascetic individual no longer give a damn about? His work, which consists in finding God and hence hesychia, the delight of union with Him, beatitude, bliss, as ultimate happiness, far from the occupations of the world. Instead of rejoicing about contact with the divine, the churchman desires… Nothing interests him anymore, because a desire with no object, loose and unbridled, paradoxically nails him to his bed on the one hand and pushes him to wander feverishly round the world in hunger on the other. [End Page 3]

In short, the affliction of the slothful, in its various forms, reveals itself to be the other face, worried and desolate, of a need to be carefree like most people. This very human, too human, thoughtlessness is temptation for the spirit who tends towards the Great Project—in the case of monks, hoping that God will manifest Himself! This is the great, mighty feast the monk aims at: meeting God. And the desire to eat well and drink, to jest and amuse himself, to copulate…

Why does the "demon of sloth" descend upon us at noon? In the pagan world, midday was the time of day when Pan would materialize in the woods and in the countryside. Pan, the shepherd God with the horns and legs of a goat, hairy and hoofed, was in antiquity the Lord of the fields and the forests at noontide. He would wander through the woods playing music and dancing, excitedly trying to grab shepherd boys or nymphs. When a boy or a girl would escape from his erotic grasp, he would masturbate. Horrible was his wild cry, which would even terrify himself—a midday cry, at the peak of light and lasciviousness. He had all the requisite qualities to inspire the Christian iconography of Satan. Was sloth ultimately the temptation of Pan? Midday was the hour of Pan and of panic.

Pan was the god of libido in its most untamed form: pure concupiscence. In fact, sloth—in the same way as plain boredom—illustrates a phenomenology of desire that emerges wildly and detracts attention from delight in what counts. The demon makes us feel the full weight of the real, returned to its full, barren, icy truth.

But why does Pan grab monks in particular, and what is the condition of this grabbing? We will see later. Sloth makes the dynamics of boredom in general transpire, as we will also see later.

II. Heidegger: "It is Bored"

Today boredom leaves us perplexed. Although it is of course painful, boredom is a second-degree suffering. Its pain accompanies the indifference that characterizes it, an indifference toward beings that is simultaneously pleasant and [End Page 4] unpleasant. Perhaps this paradox—boredom as an unpleasant by-product of the fulfillment of pleasures—indicates why so many philosophers and critics have explored the subject—from Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Leopardi, and Nietzsche to Russell, Bergson, Benjamin, Jankélévitch (1963), and Sontag (1966). Among these thinkers, Martin Heidegger analyzed boredom in the most elaborate way.

Heidegger distinguished three forms of boredom in the course of lectures he delivered in 1929/1930 and later compiled as The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (1983/1995). The first form of boredom is becoming-bored-by-something; the second form is being-bored-with-something and the passing of time pertaining to it; and the third—the form that we shall deal with here—is profound boredom. This last is not connected to something specifically boring; instead, the whole world overwhelms us with its tedium. The English language uses the French word ennui, as well as boredom itself, to cover this spectrum of indifference. Ennui refers to a more or less chronic state of mind, while boredom has, in most cases, both a cause and a boring object. The phenomenon of ennui, or profound boredom, most concerns us here.

Heidegger characterizes profound boredom as a "fundamental attunement" (Grundstimmung) of contemporary Dasein. As translators William McNeill and Nicholas Walker state, Heidegger applies the term Dasein—existence or, literally, "being there"—to connote "human existence with respect to its openness to being" (1983/1995, p. xix). Why, however, only contemporary existence—being there in recent times—and not of all time? Is our age perhaps particularly boring? Heidegger does not develop this point. He hints, however, that to do philosophy you have to be profoundly bored. In antiquity and later during the Renaissance, one had to be a melancholic to philosophize. In his Problemata, Aristotle asked, "Why is it that all men who have excelled in philosophy, in politics, in poetry, or in the arts, have been subject to melancholy?" (30.1, 953a10–14) It should be noted that melancholy, mélas kolé—black bile—did not necessarily coincide with what psychiatry called melancholia. The term referred to mental disorders in general. It would seem, however, that for the moderns—at least for Pascal onward—in order to philosophize one had to [End Page 5] be bored. In our current culture, ennui tends to replace melancholy as a noble disposition, as a sentiment in which to take pride against a world that flees breathlessly from boredom.

Heidegger stresses the temporal essence of ennui, perhaps guided in his emphasis by the German term Langeweile, which means literally "long while." For Heidegger, in a condition of ennui, Dasein, the individual being there—or the human subject, we could say—confronts itself with being-left-empty and with being-held-in-limbo. Recall the figure of Chance in Jerzy Kosinski's novel, Being There. But we should not believe that boredom is a state of consciousness. On the contrary, "Es ist einem langweilig"—it is bored—says Heidegger about profound boredom. The bored one is not a person but something indeterminate. Bergson argued similarly: one does not have boredom; one is boredom. In other words, profound boredom, even though it is an affect, empties the ego, the consciousness, and reduces the subject to impersonal neutrality. Ennui is the subjective experience of the eclipse of one's subjectivity; it is the subjective sense of one's exclusion from sense. Hence, in Either/Or, Kierkegaard (1843/1987) states that in boredom "I am dying death."

Now, being-left-empty in profound boredom corresponds to the fact that being there (Dasein) is a part of being (Sein) that denies itself in its totality. For Heidegger, in other words, it is beings that refuse themselves to existence and not existence to beings. Phenomenology is anti-psychological: when it analyzes emotions, it does not start from the absolute assumption of an emotional ego, but concentrates instead on beings of the world as correlated to an emotion. For phenomenology, an emotion is first of all a modification of the world. In the case of boredom, it is a refusal on behalf of the world to give itself:

Beings have—as we say—become indifferent as a whole, and we ourselves as these people are not excepted. We no longer stand as subjects and suchlike opposite these beings and excluded from them, but find ourselves in the midst of beings as a whole, i.e., in the whole of this indifference. Beings as a whole do not disappear however, but show themselves precisely as such in their indifference.

(1983/1995, p. 138, emphasis in original) [End Page 6]

Denying themselves as a whole, what do the denying beings say? They speak of the denial of what being there could do and allow to be done. The possibility of doing or allowing to be done of existence remains unused. Although psychiatry distinguishes between calm boredom, with no agitation, and troubled restless boredom, one can still move from one to the other. One can be hyperactive out of boredom. In short, ennui is idleness, even if the bored can, mechanically, do certain things.

Now, as stated above, for Heidegger existence distinguishes itself essentially for its opening to being. In contrast to animals, humans relate to things as such; they do not simply use them, they open themselves to them as things, to their being, let us say. They do not limit themselves to climbing the stairs, but they have a relationship with the stairs as such. Ennui results precisely when this opening, which intimately distinguishes being there, remains unaccomplished. In other words, existence is open to being, but, in boredom, beings refuse themselves. In profound boredom, beings deny themselves as a whole. Obviously this is not a decision that they make, but rather a specific relationship, a fundamental attunement that existence in the world establishes with them. Heidegger rightly says that in a condition of ennui each being is indifferent to being there, to human subjectivity.

But what is meant by indifference? Heidegger does not explain, because he would then have to abandon the phenomenological description and enter the field of desiring subjectivity. The meaning of this denial by beings in a condition of profound boredom (a consequence of a subjective closure to the world?) deserves analysis. Note that the term ennui, like the Italian noia, comes from the Latin in odio, "in hate." Similarly, the English words bore and boredom derive from acts of perforation. Ennui is not innocuous, not mere indifference, therefore, but hate, something that implies a rejection, a sort of loathing, a passive resistance by beings. It tacitly generates something, like a form of violence. Renata Adler noted this phenomenon: "bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel. It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time" (1976/2013, p. 131). We will return to the violent and cruel dimension of boredom. [End Page 7]

As Agamben (2002/2004) points out, if in ennui beings refuse themselves as a whole, the experience of existing comes across as very similar to the animal's experience, which, as stated above, according to Heidegger does not acknowledge beings as such and is therefore weltarm—poor in world. It is noteworthy that Heidegger analyzed the relationship of the animal to the world in the course on boredom from which he composed The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. Is profound boredom being poor in world? Is it not a paradox that boredom, on the one hand, attunes one to existence in the world and, on the other, confronts being there with a défaillance, a failure that associates it with the animal, that is, with the refusal of beings to give themselves as beings? If being there is defined precisely as an opening to being, should the fundamental attunement—ennui—be one in which beings are closed to being there, a closure by beings that in a way originates in existence itself?

But do beings really refuse themselves in boredom? Beings remain there, they persist lazily, they insist on their being present. As Heidegger points out, it is in fact being there that becomes an es—an it—that excludes commerce with the world. In other words, the question presents itself: Do beings refuse themselves to being there in the world or do they, in boredom, lack something fundamental to existence? When we make mention of lack, we enter the field of psychoanalysis.

III. Psychoanalysis: The Eclipse of the Object

The most frequently cited psychoanalytic contribution to the study of boredom is Otto Fenichel's 1934 essay, "Zur Psychologie der Langeweile" [on the psychology of boredom]. Fenichel distinguishes between pathological boredom—chronic unmotivated boredom—and normal boredom and finds the same dynamics in both: one becomes bored because the object or the aim that could satisfy the drive are lacking. In pathological boredom the object is repressed, that is, the subject no longer knows what object could satisfy it; in normal boredom, the object is simply lacking. In both cases we are dealing with a relation between the drive and its object. This thesis had [End Page 8] already been stated by Schopenhauer, for whom boredom is leeres Sehnen—empty desire—a desiring tension that aims at something that is not there.

If Fenichel's analysis is correct, we should conclude that in boredom we experience the drive—now deprived of any object—directly, or in its purest form. Indeed, as we will see, we experience a peculiar aspect of the drive: the Drang, the urge or yearning, the impulse or demand. Contrary to what many believe, the object is not something added to the drive but is one of its constituent parts, a constituent part that can, however, be missing. When one of our drives has an object, in a way this object distracts us from the drive: it absorbs the drive inside the value that the object holds for us. Just as Husserl asserted that consciousness is always the consciousness of something, we could state "the drive is always the desire for something"—except in boredom, the painful desire for nothing. From this perspective, Heidegger's claim that beings deny themselves as a whole should be reformulated thus: beings as a whole deny themselves as an object—Objekt—of the drive. In other words, the subject finds no Objekt, which in psychoanalysis refers to the object of desire or pleasure, not the objective object (Gegenstand, what stands opposite), but the French objet objectal, the objectual object, the object-for-a-subject. In boredom, beings mind their own business; they no longer offer themselves to the subject to satisfy it or to give it pleasure or to haunt it. A being reduces itself to Gegenstand.

It would be a mistake to think that because the bored have no interest in anything of the world that a drop or disappearance of drives, of libido, is produced in them. If libido did disappear, the subject would become a lifeless form, a human statue. But boredom is painful, and no pain exists without libido. In boredom, libido has strength, but no object and no sense.

Many argue that the concept of "drive" is fundamental to Freudian theory (see Nancy, 2011). What defines the drive, der Trieb, as Sigmund Freud called it? First, the drive is something active, "masculine" (Trieb in German is in the masculine gender); it is a pushing up, an overflowing. Further, Freud (1915) broadly distinguishes the ego drives, which seek the self-preservation of the individual, from the sexual drives. [End Page 9] According to the Freudian axiom, spiritual or mental life is a complication of the flesh, of the libidinal body. Freud does not deny a play drive, a destruction drive, a sociability drive and so on, but he maintains that all these mental drives can be broken up into more elementary, partial drives connected to the erogenous body. The sexual drives are partial because they emanate from parts of the body, mostly orifices (the eye, for example, in the case of the scopic drive is an orifice). Thus, even though grouped within the general category of libido, drives are always partial; they are, for Freud, always plural. Orifices or holes contribute multiple sources (Quelle) to the drive, but drives also have a push or impulse (Drang), an aim (Ziel) and an object (Objekt). An object-position is always required for the drive to deploy as such, but the object itself, an integral part of the drive, can change. Later, of course, Freud will consider destruction, insofar as it is the manifestation of Death, to be a fundamental drive, and sociability to be the expression of an equally fundamental Eros, the life drive.

The object is a fundamental component of the drive. If a concrete object is lacking, the object-position still remains a constituent component of the Trieb. In a condition of mourning or depression, we suffer from the loss of a loved object (Freud, 1917[1915]). But although we lose the object as a being, the object-position remains unchanged: we suffer because something that ought to be in a particular place in reality is no longer there. Boredom, however, is distinct from mourning or depression. With boredom, the object-position itself is lacking; the subject does not even know what it lacks. If it knew, the subject would strive to obtain it and would cease to be bored. In boredom, the drive turns out to be maimed; it is, I would say, a monstrous drive.

Freud (1915) distinguishes three dimensions of the drive: the real, the economic, and the biological. The real separates what interests us from what does not. The economic separates what gives pleasure from what does not give pleasure. The biological separates the active from the passive. Evidently, the dimensions of drive implicated in boredom are the real and the economic. Boredom reduces the world, and the subject itself, to something of no interest, in other words, to a pure [End Page 10] real, and it confronts the subject entirely with things that offer no pleasure. The subject plunges into the unpleasant real. In boredom, the oppositions of the drives fail, because only one of the two manifests itself; we only feel disinterest and displeasure. Boredom thus reveals a looming senselessness of libido.

Now, physiological processes have highs and lows, they come and go, they swing, while drives have konstante Kraft, a constant force. Freud describes drives as lava flows and the drive-led organism is like an ever-erupting volcano spewing out in surges, one after the other. The fact that permanent tension inheres within Freudian drives leaves many perplexed. Some have commented that drive theory contradicts biology and must be reformulated to deserve scientific consideration. Others have defended this gap precisely to free drive theory from any biological reference and to turn drives into something subjective, something spiritual. After all, Freud described the doctrine of drives as "our mythology" (Freud 1933[1932], p. 95); and to Einstein he wrote, "does not every science come in the end to a kind of mythology like this" (Freud & Einstein, 1933[1932], p. 211). Now, this mythical character of non-intermittence in drives—which contrasts with our subjective perception of our impulses—can only mean one thing: that the drive coincides with a tension that, despite being fragmented into various surges of lava, entirely subsumes being alive. As long as we are alive, we are drive-driven beings, and being drive-driven beings is being alive. The constant force is the force of life that never ceases to disturb us, that never ceases to make us search for trouble thanks to which we can confess we have lived.

When discussing libido, Jacques Lacan—who dwells extensively on the articulated structure of the drive and considers it a "montage"—states remarkably:

It is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life.

(Lacan, 1973, p. 180, author's translation)

But these fabulous features of libido, as I would call them, are already present in the concept of drive as the constant tension [End Page 11] coextensive with life. Boredom, much to the annoyance of the subject, lays bare this life instinct, an instinct that finds nothing with which to nourish the subject. Libido sinks before beings that deny themselves as objectual objects. No being seduces libido.

IV. Lacan, Desire with no Aim

To clarify the structure of the drive, Lacan (1973, p. 163) proposes a schema:

No description available
Click for larger view
View full resolution

The source of the drive is not marked here, but it corresponds to the beginning of the arrow on the lower right side of the rim, the arrow emerging from the hole of which the erogenous zone consists. Lacan uses two English terms—aim and goal—to describe what Freud expressed with the term Ziel, a term that refers also to a destination or target. One might think that the target of the drive is self-satisfaction, but Freud clarifies: "But although the ultimate aim of each instinct remains unchangeable, there may yet be different paths leading to the same ultimate aim; so that an instinct may be found to have [End Page 12] Various nearer or intermediate aims, which are combined or interchanged with one other" (1915, p.122). The fact that the goal is not single, that it is phased in a succession of intermediate goals, leads Lacan to interpret Ziel as a journey or a path, as well as an aim. The ultimate destination—meant as satisfaction, as the goal—appears in the final stage of the journey, during which the Drang arrow returns to the source itself and closes the circle. In other words, the drive ultimately finds satisfied autoerotically: the mouth kisses itself, the eye by looking satisfies itself. The object, therefore, is not captured by the push of the drive, which instead goes around it. The Objekt is what allows the flesh to derive enjoyment from itself.

In boredom, the objet a does not show up at the appointment; the drive arrow cannot go around it and hence cannot reach its goal. Where does it end up? Not being addressed to the object, the push of the drive loses its aim and seems to escape towards the infinite, in a desperate search for an awaited object. The feeling of boredom is this perception of the escape of the push of the drive, which does not return to the subject's body and mind. When Heidegger stated that there is a being-left-empty and being-held-in-limbo in profound boredom, he seemed to be pointing exactly to this: the subject is left empty by the drive that does not return to the fold. In other words, it does not return to the subject itself and is held in limbo, insofar as the drive certainly does not extinguish itself but seems still to promise something in this departure from the subject. Thanks to boredom, the human being is able to perceive the libidinal push as such, in its purest form. "Boredom is nothing other than the pure desire for happiness," wrote Giacomo Leopardi. We can subscribe to that insight: boredom is desire. But rather than the desire for happiness, I would say the desire for satisfaction.

A statement by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (1993, p. 68) is well known: "the mood of diffuse restlessness [in boredom]…contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire." I would say, however, that restless boredom is desire with no wish, an idling desiring—like an engine running in neutral—in which the subject cannot become involved. Although we always wish something when we wish, desire (libido) may have no object. [End Page 13]

Boredom does not usually make us cry, it makes us yawn. In fact, boredom is partly extinguished by crying. When we touch the bottom and cry, ennui becomes despair, which consoles and amuses us by turning our pain into a dramatic spectacle. Apart from the brain mechanisms that link yawning to tedium, yawning has a symbolic dimension: the compulsion to open our mouths wide seems an ideographic representation of elementary desire, of oral desire, of the desire to eat. Significantly, we also yawn when we are hungry. Yawning is bouche béante, a gaping mouth, wide open, in the same way as all desires are "gaping." In boredom, the drive does not reach its target; unable to return to the source, to the erogenous rim, it loses the source, resulting in a diffused, pure "gaping." In boredom, the drive is reduced to pure push—Drang—a push towards nothing. Boredom is like a treadmill: the moving platform that obliges us to walk or run nonetheless keeps us in the same place.

Freud argued that we have no escape from the drive, which comes from inside us. We can flee from external stimuli, but not from internal ones. Boredom, however, immobilizes us: it is a petrifaction before the drive.

For Heidegger, the being denies itself as a whole in profound boredom. We could ask ourselves: Why "as a whole?" After all, those who are bored can always hope that a being of some kind will suddenly appear and drag them away from boredom. In fact, this refusal is a total one, because deep down the bored know that no being can ever be an object of the drives. Hence Heidegger can ask:

Do things ultimately stand in such a way with us that a profound boredom draws us back and forth like a silent fog insinuating itself in the abysses of Dasein?

(Heidegger, 1983/1995, p. 77, emphasis in original)

He adds that this revelation of the wholeness of being also occurs in another emotional situation: in the joy of being next to the person you love, in participating in that person's existence. Such is a situation we might consider boredom's opposite. Boredom and the joy of love: in both cases we stand before beings as a whole. We could say that in boredom we are crushed by [End Page 14] beings in all their substance, while in Angst, which is neither fear nor anxiety, existence is placed before nothingness.

In fact, there is a cosmic boredom that may not even be anything actual, but rather a fold of life, a background noise—vanitas vanitatum, the vanity of all things. It is seeing the world, life, as an inane repetition or mechanistic succession. It is the tedium of seeing life through the scan of biological phases: the voluble agitation of childhood, the erotic fever of adult youth, the grave concern of maturity, the listlessness and haughtiness of old age. The monotonous repetition of the seasons and the fatal succession of generations, love as a mere machinery to reproduce our genes, the senseless complexity of the cosmos: in other words, it is the boredom of the objective look on the world and life. Not that the true scientist is bored, quite the opposite. I am referring to an objective look on all life, not the avid pursuit of science. We can derive pleasure from searching for objectivity, but we suffer boredom when we seek to be objective towards everything without also searching for a sense. In fact, the objective outlook sees everything as Gegenstand and not as Objekt. But Gegenstand as such has no subjective value; it is being insofar as it is being and nothing else. It "tells" us nothing. The objective world is a hateful world, or at least disagreeable. Perhaps, when Heidegger asserts that ennui is a fundamental contemporary attunement, he makes this claim because we live in the age of science and objectivity, in an era when the world no longer concerns us.

Perhaps for Heidegger boredom is the fundamental attunement because it is in the essence of beings to refuse themselves to existence, to the subject. A being only gives itself to us as Objekt and Ziel, as object of desire and as goal, insofar as it becomes object-for-me. A being has to dress up as the object of the drive in order not to refuse itself: it must not let the drive circumvent it. In a certain sense, the drive always embraces it, but missing it. In boredom, beings do not allow themselves to be embraced by the push—Drang—of the drive. [End Page 15]

V. Killing Time

Philosophers have remarked that humans are beings that spend their lives escaping boredom, even sometimes falling into deep trouble in the process. Often we do not consider boredom a particularly grave affect, because—apart from pathologically chronic boredom—we usually manage to deceive it. But prolonged boredom can be devastating, as when boredom appears with Medieval sloth or with a depressive crisis in the broad sense. In such cases, it can combine with an affect that apparently contradicts it: anguish.

In extreme situations, for example during imprisonment or when living in seclusion like a hermit, when we are generally forced into highly monotonous situations, the subject looks for escape routes. The route prisoners in isolation or anchorites find is hallucination.

Oliver Sacks writes:

Whether darkness and solitude is sought out by holy men in caves or forced upon prisoners in lightless dungeons, the deprivation of normal visual input can stimulate the inner eye instead, producing dreams, vivid imaginings, or hallucinations. There is even a special term for the trains of brilliantly colored and varied hallucinations which come to console or torment those kept in isolation or darkness: "the prisoner's cinema."

(2012, p. 34)

Note that this cinema is produced not only in people deprived of any visual stimulus but also in those exposed to monotonous stimuli, such as pilots who have to fly for hours in an empty sky. These are not psychotic hallucinations but compensational ones: neither external reality nor the internal imagination are capable of producing objects of satisfying interest, but despite this condition, the mind manages to project its own film. This also sustains a fundamental Freudian theory, one that has often been criticized: that the psychical apparatus tends towards satisfaction and that if reality denies it, the psyche will hallucinate the objects of satisfaction that are lacking (Freud, 1950 [1895]). Human beings try to obtain enjoyment always [End Page 16] and in all cases, even at the cost of fabricating their own hallucinatory enjoyment.

We say that in a condition of boredom time is endless. In fact, in the midst of non-boring experiences we do not perceive time as such, but acts and things that attract and interest us soak those experiences. Of course, we all perceive the passing of time, but that perception is not a painful one because it provides raw material for the dynamics of our drives. When, however, in boredom the dynamics of the drive are blocked, we perceive time as pure being and finally become aware of time as the indigestible matter of life. Perhaps this is why Heidegger considered boredom the initial, the fundamental, philosophical sentiment. Time empties itself of the objects of the drives; hence we perceive it as an empty fundamental being. Kant's a priori mental syntheses—space and time—are essentially boring. Nothing, in fact, is more boring than the a priori.

Hence: killing time; taking your mind off things; passing the time enjoying yourself; having fun. The expression killing time reflects a persecutory vision of time. Perceived time must be killed, because it is an obstacle to enjoyment; it is what is left in life when we take away enjoyment. The mere flowing of time is the intolerable skeleton of life, as if, instead of seeing my beautiful beloved, I saw her skeleton. Or as if a museum only exhibited the canvases and not the paintings: time is the canvas of events. As the etymology of ennui suggests, boredom has something heinous about it, insofar as it encourages us to kill.

When we are bored at a show, conference, or social occasion, we instinctively tend to look at the time. I would maintain that looking at our watch is equivalent to yawning. We often do so not because we really want to know the time, but to communicate unconsciously to the other, for example, to the speaker: "How much longer do you mean to go on? Give us a break!" Looking at your watch is at once an unconditioned response, an informative action, and an aggressive message. Faced with something boring, time—materializing in our watch—imposes itself on us. It imposes itself as what remains in the generalized retirement of the Objekt and Ziel of the drives, as if time were the only relevant object left, but relevant in the negative sense, like the being that is left once enjoyment is taken away. [End Page 17] Hence, the need to kill time. The in odio of the etymology is substantially a hatred of time, which affirms its presence as "passing never passing," a presence to drown in the whirlpool of libidinal satisfactions.

VI. Useful Boredom

Starting in the eighteenth century, the idea that human life is nothing but an escape from boredom gains affirmation. This thesis implies that boredom is a very useful sentiment. Indeed, young children already display it; as soon as they come into contact with the external world, they begin to look for interesting stimuli, objects in motion, and so on. And if no stimulus captures them, they cry. Often we wonder why they are crying, but it is quite clear that they are bored, that they are demanding something that will amuse them. At times, even cats and dogs clearly cry because they are bored; they would like to play.

This idea of life as a struggle against boredom takes root in the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, for whom the essence of human beings consists in escaping pain. Avoidance of pain, however, is not enough; in fact, its absence becomes boring, and, in turn, causes further pain. The essence of humans, therefore, is not only to escape pain but also to find pleasure, indeed always to seek new enjoyments. Yet boredom is a zero-degree pain: once we have tried all pleasures in the effort to fend it off, boredom is again ready to set in. Being bored thus signals that we cannot stop desiring, that we feel compelled to desire because only desire gives us life, a critical insight reached by James Mill's son, John Stuart Mill. From here we see the development of a positive concept of boredom as a sentiment that allows us to hunt for new desires and dislodges us from a sort of satisfied indolence. Walter Benjamin adopts this idea of boredom as the whip of creativity: "Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places—the activities that are intimately associated with boredom—are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well" (1936/1969, p. 91). [End Page 18] Benjamin laments the fragility of boredom, its transience, because only boredom can give birth to the chick, that is, the creative idea that starts form experience.

Currently, cognitivism and evolutionary psychology approach boredom as a beneficial mental mechanism, one that encourages us to invent new activities and create new pleasures. According to cognitive viewpoints, boredom makes our lives more productive through our efforts to overcome it. Evolutionary psychology, in vogue today, insists that all phenomena—even what might at first appear painful and dysfunctional—fulfill biologically adaptive functions. Evolutionary psychologists seek to demonstrate the presence of Darwinian adaptation in all things, even when nature develops maladaptive qualities, as with the antlers on male deer, the only use for which is to seduce the females (the bigger and more intricate, the more seductive), but which also handicap the animal because of their weight. The evolutionist will go to any lengths to explain that even the burdensome aspect of those antlers is adaptive. For evolutionary psychologists, even boredom is adaptive because it spurs us to be active and creative: to escape boredom we devote ourselves to science, art, psychoanalysis, and other great enterprises. It should be noted that available data tells us that people who suffer serious boredom are also the most exposed to drug addiction and suicide.

Still, beyond the cognitivists and evolutionary psychologists, the intelligentsia of our era tends to look upon boredom favorably, even if always ambivalently, as the two citations from Leopardi that began this essay show us. Boredom is considered to be an affect typical of non-superficial, non-fatuous individuals who do not take refuge in the plenteous stimuli of modern society or in all of the devices designed to prevent tedium from filtering through to us. Hence we meet the figure of the blasé man or woman, someone who no longer believes in anything, a paradigmatic aristocrat or intellectual, a disenchanted champion of privilege. In his 1960 novel, Boredom, Alberto Moravia introduced us to an idle scion of a family from the wealthy bourgeois world whose boredom is in fact a mark of his social class. In an Italian comedy film, a flaccid arrogant snob repeats, "I'm weary of my weariness!" Such an expression—like "my boredom bores me"—signals that human beings with no [End Page 19] concerns, even material ones, remain stuck with the luxury of their ennui, a price the privileged must pay for being exempt from anguish and cares. As we will see, however, the boredom of the privileged is also the other side of their ambition, which makes them regard the daily gratifications the world can offer as miserable.

VII. The Grandiose Self and the Great Feast

Again, why boredom? Lacan called dreams, neurotic symptoms, slips, and jokes—phenomena both pathological and not—the "formations of the unconscious." So-called normal formations and pathological ones have the same structure. Thus, for boredom too the limit between pathology and normality is always uncertain. My impression is that profound boredom is the effect of a profound disillusion. We unconsciously expect great things, which never happen, and the sun of the object having set, all things of the world plunge into the darkness of indifference.

Boredom is a spell that might never end. Again, it is significant that in German it is called Langeweile. Boredom is like an eternal waiting—but a waiting for what? I would say for the great feast. The feast is what gives the libido a direction, multiplying the objects of enjoyment. When I speak of a great feast, I am not of course referring to parties in which we may participate to while away time, to deceive boredom. I am referring to fantasy, which is unreachable: the great feast is defined by the fact that we never have access to it.

Humans and animals usually react to boredom by sleeping. It is an exception to Freud's statement that we cannot escape from our drives. Sleep is a non-motor, psychic escape; it is a going somewhere while physically remaining in the same place. We sleep because we become tired of boredom. Those who are often bored tend to sleep a great deal, or stay in bed in a sort of catatonia. Sleeping cancels out boredom because it eliminates the being that refuses to give us the object, but when catatonic depressed subjects awaken, they find themselves once more before the rejecting barrier of being. Sleep is the morphine of the bored. [End Page 20]

I followed a person who suffered from chronic boredom accompanied by lack of appetite and intestinal disorders. He was able to work, but with gloomy sluggishness. When he slept, however, the scenario would change completely: his dreams were exciting, full of twists and turns, amorous adventures, exotic travels. He found it difficult to wake up and shift from this oneiric movie to a waking life that had turned squalid because a great professional project he had been harboring for some time had failed. Apparently, he had reacted well, but in practice his failure had demolished his libidinal investment in the world. Barred from the great feast when awake, the subject took part in the feast, in the triumph of life, during sleep. It was as if his unconscious were saying: "You can only dream of the fine life. You can lead it only in your dreams." In his dreams his Other appeared, who despite—or through—boredom found enjoyment. According to Freud, hidden behind any psychic suffering we find enjoyment, not of course of the I (Ich) but of the It (Es)—es geniesst, it enjoys. His Other, which derived enjoyment from boredom, entered his consciousness in dreams, because there the great feast was all for him, and there it directed the existence of the subject. In boredom, therefore, we find a facet of envy.

Ralph R. Greenson (1953) presented a case in some ways similar. It dealt with a twenty-nine year-old woman who suffered from chronic boredom. "This patient would experience the most vivid night dreams, yet her associations went to the day remnants and then on to the minutiae of her everyday life. There was no link from the night dreams via associations to fantasies, or thoughts, or memories" (p. 11). Her dreams were so vivid as to seem real, while her real days dissolved completely in the fog of details.

For the bored it is impossible to be the Other, the one who enjoys. All that is left to them is exile from real life with its lack of object and sense. No ideal cause vivifies the subject; in boredom all causes are lost causes. Leopardi shared a similar vision of boredom:

In a certain sense boredom is the most sublime of human emotions. Not that I believe that the examination of this sentiment may generate the consequences many [End Page 21] philosophers have strived to recount, but nonetheless, that inability to be satisfied by any earthly thing, not even, as it were, by the whole earth itself, to consider the incalculable breadth of space, the marvelous mass of worlds and to find that all is slight and tiny compared to the capacity of one's own spirit; to imagine that the number of worlds is infinite, the universe infinite, and yet to feel that our spirit, our desire would still be greater than any such universe; to accuse things always of insufficiency and nullity, to suffer the lack, the void, and therefore boredom—this seems to me the finest sign of grandeur and nobility that human nature manifests. And so boredom is little known among men of small importance and slightly, or not at all, among the other animals.

(1837/2002, LXVIII)

Leopardi very explicitly stresses the megalomanic foundations of all profound boredom: the world is too small for the immensity of one's soul. Boredom is Napoleon ruling over Elba. What I call, hyperbolically, the great feast becomes in Leopardi "to imagine that the number of worlds is infinite." Some Italian psychoanalysts, including Giovanni Carlo Zapparoli (1979) and Mauro Mancia (1990/1993), have already seen in boredom a destructive, grandiose, and hostile narcissism. Only a tremendously ambitious Ego or grandiose Self—a concept Heinz Kohut made popular in psychoanalysis—is capable of profound boredom. And I wonder whether, put into different words, these are not the secret reasons that Heidegger considered boredom the fundamental attunement. In his view, although boredom is related to a rejection, it is still a rejection by the being as a whole. There is something of the grandiosely totalizing in this rejection. Boredom is a check from which the magnificence of the failed subject unfolds—the subject who finds the actual world unworthy.

And so to return to the acedia of the medieval monks, we may now gather its implicit dynamics. For the monk, the encounter with God, the ultimate goal of his vocation, is the great feast. A hyperbolic feast. But this encounter does not materialize. The check of this great feast makes room for the primary, carnal libido, the libido of Pan. The lack of the sublime object [End Page 22] brings the reemergence of the elementary, libidinal, "Pan-ic" objects, the only ones capable of "killing time".

In fact, we kill time, through secondary or futile activities, while we are waiting for a great event. Boredom is ultimately a wait, but a wait for something we do not know, or rather for something of which we have lost memory. Hence the boring aura that surrounds so many of our enjoyments—the enjoyments that can make us forget boredom only to a certain point. Hence too the multiple activities the bored will engage in to deceive their long wait, the wait for the great feast.

Sergio Benvenuto

Sergio Benvenuto is a psychoanalyst and philosopher. He is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Sciences and Technologies of Cognition of the Italian Council for Scientific Research (ISTC-CNR) in Rome and editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Psychoanalysis, which he founded in 1995. He teaches psychoanalytic clinical practice in several institutes in Naples, Kiev, Moscow, and Mexico City and has authored books and papers translated into several languages, including: Mechta Lacana (Dream Lacan) in Russian (2006); with A. Molino, In Freud's Tracks (2008); Accidia: La passione dell'indifferenza (Sloth: The Passion of Indifference, 2008); and La gelosia (Jealousy, 2011). His book What Are Perversions? Sexuality, Ethics, Psychoanalysis has been translated into English (2016).


Adler, R. (1976/2013). Speedboat. New York: New York Review Books.
Agamben, G. (1977/1993). Stanzas: Word and phantasm in Western culture. (R. L. Martinez, Trans.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Agamben, G. (2002/2004). The open: Man and animal. (K. Attell, Trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Benjamin, W. (1936/1969). The storyteller. In Illuminations: Essays and reflections (pp. 83–109). (H. Zohn, Trans.). New York: Schocken Books.
Fenichel, O. (1934). Zur Psychologie der Langeweile. Imago, 20: 270–281.
Freud, S. (1915). Instincts and their vicissitudes. Standard Edition (Vol. 14, pp. 111–140). London: Hogarth Press.
Freud, S. (1917[1915]). Mourning and melancholia. Standard Edition (Vol. 14, pp. 239–260). London: Hogarth Press.
Freud, S. (1933[1932]). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Standard Edition (Vol. 22, pp. 3–182). London: Hogarth Press.
Freud, S. (1950[1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. Standard Edition (Vol. 1, pp. 283–397). London: Hogarth Press.
Freud, S., & Einstein, A. (1933[1932]). Why war? Standard Edition (Vol. 22, pp. 197–215). London: Hogarth Press.
Greenson, R.R. (1953). On boredom. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1, 7–21.
Heidegger, M. (1983/1995). The fundamental concepts of metaphysics: World, finitude, solitude. (W. McNeill & N. Walker, Trans.) Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Jankélévitch, V. (1963). L'aventure, l'ennui, le sérieux. Paris: Aubier Montaigne.
Kierkegaard, S. (1843/1987). Either/or: Part I. (H.V. Hong & E.H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lacan, J. (1973). Le séminaire, livre XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychoanalyse. Paris: Seuil.
Leopardi, G. (1837/2002). Thoughts. (J.G. Nichols, Trans.). London: Hesperus Press.
Mancia, M. (1990/1993). In the gaze of Narcissus: Memory, affects and creativity. London: Karnac Books.
Moravia, A. (1960/1999). Boredom. (A. Davidson, Trans.). New York: New York Review Books.
Nancy, J.-L. (2011). Freud – so to speak. European Journal of Psychoanalysis. Retrieved from–27/nancy.htm
Phillips, A. (1993). On kissing, tickling, and being bored: Psychoanalytic essays on the unexamined life. London: Faber & Faber.
Sacks, O. (2012). Hallucinations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Sontag, S. (1966). Against interpretation and other essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Zapparoli, G.C. (1979). La paura e la noia. Milan: Il Saggiatore. [End Page 23]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.