I haven’t thought much about boredom recently – maybe not for years. I guess the middle of life is not the time for boredom; there just seems to be too much to do. My high points of boredom occurred in childhood and adolescence, especially at boarding schools, and especially on weekend afternoons. Time seemed to stretch out endlessly, featurelessly, though I suppose the enormous gulf extended only until the next mealtime, Latin group or game of football.
I was suddenly reminded of the feeling of boredom on a recent stay in Spain, a mini-clearing I created for myself in what Dante called the “selva oscura” of middle life. I suppose it had partly to do with being in a fairly remote spot, without that all-purpose contemporary antidote to boredom, an internet connection. I had gone to stay with friends in a lovely but slightly dark old house in a village off the beaten track, a village with no bars, cafés, restaurants or shops, where most of the houses are only half-occupied at best.
There was also the weather, not at all typical for Spain in June; a strange restless kind of weather with abrupt changes of temperature, with sudden downpours and gusts of wind, so that one was constantly having to change clothes, and could not settle into that blissful, lizard-like basking in the sun that is part of Mediterranean summer.
If you asked a bored teenager why he or she felt bored, you might get the answer, “There’s nothing to do here”, or possibly, “Why wouldn’t I feel bored in a dump like this and with losers like you for company?” It doesn’t take much probing to see that such answers are not really satisfactory. Is it really the place or the people that are at fault, and what exactly is this feeling of being trapped, which seems an essential part of boredom?
“Denmark’s a prison,” says Hamlet, in response to overtures from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “Then is the world one,” replies Rosencrantz, quite reasonably you might think, though with an edge of sinister cynicism given the fact that he and his companion have agreed to spy on their supposed friend.
Hamlet may be suffering from something deeper than boredom, from a profound mourning or melancholy brought on by his father’s death in which the world appears as “a foul and pestilential congregation of vapours” and man as a “quintessence of dust”. Poets of the Romantic era often identified with Hamlet, and the French Romantics found a more exquisite word for boredom: “ennui”. A schoolmate published a rather witty couplet in a school independent arts magazine to which I contributed some photographs, and it went like this: “If I should die, think only this of me:/ Ennui.” Witty but also horribly prophetic as this talented young man took his own life at the age of 25 (he is one of the subjects of a beautiful poem by Bernard O’Donoghue, “The Wanderer: i.m. Gerard Hermele and Margaret Wilkinson”).
We may be straying a little from the subject. I wasn’t feeling depressed on my recent trip to Spain, and the Saturday afternoon feeling of boredom at boarding school was not exactly one of depression either. But the suggestion is that boredom might not be as simple or as superficial as it seems. Boredom takes away one or more of the habitual veils from being. You are no longer distracted by multiple activities. What you are left with may well make you feel uncomfortable; you are left with yourself, and time, and the world.
My recent experience suggested to me that boredom could be, not the dreary stale feeling of being trapped with nothing to do, as it appears to teenagers, but a kind of threshold, a gateway from one kind of being to another. That is, boredom can mysteriously transform itself into something quite different.
Of course, there are things to do, wherever you are. There is reading, for a start. The dark old house is full of books, as all houses should be. I came across a small anthology of poems by José Agustín Goytisolo, perhaps the least known – outside Spain – of three remarkable literary brothers from a Spanish-speaking background in Barcelona. José Agustín, the poet, seems to me the most personal, human, unpretentious of the three. The loveliest of his lyrics have an unaffected simplicity, which does not diminish their emotional depth.
Then you can go for a walk, down the little road where hardly any traffic passes, the old road to another village, now usually approached via much faster roads. You will find that there are still cultivated fields and terraces, in the old style, with abandoned and ruined houses covered by ivy and surrounded by thickets, where nightingales are singing. Poppies have sprung up at the edge of the wheat fields; some are fading already.
Back at the house, in the garden, the cherries are ripening, the blackbirds are eating them. The swifts come wheeling, shrieking – is it for sheer delight? – and it will soon be sunset.
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