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Boredom, ennui, la noia, langeweile?

“What is boredom? It is when there is simultaneously too much and not enough.” Jean-Paul Sartre

On the Home page of this blog I proudly declare "I like food and I'm bored" - going on to explain that this was how I first conceived the idea of the whole blog. Of course I still get bored every now and then, everyone does, but yes, it stops me from being bored. It fits the view that boredom can lead to creativity and innovation. Not that I would claim any innovation with what I do, but I guess it does fulfil any creative impulse that I might have. I think that possibly everyone needs that - however simply it is fulfilled. And yet every now and then I write very boring pieces - maybe this is going to be one of them - and every now and then I am bored with the whole thing. It's inevitable. Part of the human condition it seems. I wonder whether prehistoric man was ever bored, for even the Ancients were bored.

"the vast amount of ancient graffiti on Roman walls is a testament to the fact that teenagers in every era deface property when they have nothing else to do." Smithsonian Magazine

It's sort of cool for a teenager to be bored isn't it? Or rather certain groups of teenagers make a big thing about everything being so boring, and those who want to be in that group join in. Which can lead to destructive behaviour rather than a creative outlet - or even worse, to depression. Mind you some would say that graffiti is creative and in certain circumstances it can be. I do certainly remember flouncing about and saying that I was bored often when I was a teenager. Was it a call for attention I wonder now? Or did it come from a feeling of inadequacy?

One of the things that I wanted to look at though is the fact that the words for boredom in a different languages vary slightly in their meaning. At least they do to me. So here is a brief look at that. Language is such a fascinating thing.

'Boredom' comes from two old English words - 'borian' which means to bore through, to perforate' with the old English word descended from older north European variants that fundamentally mean 'hole'. The suffix 'dom' is even more interesting in that it is somehow related to 'doom'. Indeed at one point in history boredom was considered to be sinful and we all know what being sinful leads to. So I guess it sort of means a pit of despair. Scientists apparently don't really understand boredom because it's a bit like Sartre's quote - too much and too little all at the same time. Too much to choose from, and too little time to choose? Nothing to do and simultaneously so much going on that one is not part of? And the scientists seem to agree.

"boredom is a state in which the sufferer wants to be engaged in some meaningful activity but cannot, characterized by both restlessness and lethargy." Dr John Eastwood

Anyway they all seem to at least agree that it can be a very bad thing - leading to destructive behaviour, drugs, depression - and yet alternatively - that very good thing - an incentive to creativity. Perhaps it's because being silent, still, having nothing to do, is just too hard for the human brain.


Those words are spoken by Death - a character in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels who always speaks in capitals.

However, my final feeling about the English 'boredom' is that it's - well - boring - tedious, sort of nothing going on - a black hole which might lead to oblivion or a whole new universe.

'Ennui' - the French word, on the other hand, is somehow more existential, more intellectual, even more poetic. And countless numbers of French philosophers have pondered on the subject:

"There is nothing so insupportable to man as to be in entire repose, without passion, occupation, amusement, or application. Then it is that he feels his own nothingness, isolation, insignificance, dependent nature, powerless, emptiness. Immediately there issue from his soul ennui, sadness, chagrin, vexation, despair." Blaise Pascal

Indeed the whole Existentialist movement as put forward by writers such as Sartre and Camus was derived from ennui - a kind of meaninglessness. Nausea in fact - the tile of Sartre's most famous book.

And yet silence, or meditation, contemplation can be a wonderful source of creativity. In America there is, believe it or not, a Boring Conference - and the organisers of that have this to say on the subject - an answer to Pascal perhaps:

"use the mundane as an impetus to creative thinking and observation ...

It’s not the most amazing idea in the world, but I think it’s a nice idea – to look around, notice things. I guess that’s the message: Look at stuff.” James Ward/Conference organiser

'Noia' - a similar word to nausea now that I think about it - is the Italian for boredom. Their most famous novelist Alberto Moravia wrote a novel called La Noia. It sounds angry to me, but I am not as familiar with the Italian literary and philosophical psyche and so will just say that one of the book covers looked similarly angry to this picture that I found online. And when I think about it I guess it is sort of related in that way to 'ennui' but perhaps rather more violently. In fact the verb to be bored is 'annoiarsi' - which I imagine comes from the same root as annoyed. So maybe the Italians get more annoyed than depressed when they are bored. However, there is a latin word - 'taedia' which is obviously where we get the word tedium - another aspect of boredom.

And the Germans seem to latch on to that aspect because their word is 'langweile' which means a long time. And I suppose that's another aspect of boredom is it not? Time slows down. It drags. For if you are bored you tend to do nothing but sit around saying I'm bored and so time drags. The hard workers of the world are rarely bored, or rather time does not drag for them. There is no time to stop and be bored.

Although - and here I come to food. When my children were teenagers and when I was working full-time and David was even busier than I and often away or at least home very late, I would cook a very limited range of meals. I castigate myself for this now, but I guess I was tired and did not want an argument along the lines of 'what is this on my plate?' Both of my sons are now very interested in food and will try almost anything - with some provisoes - but in those teenage years they were very, very conservative in what they would eat. And I was so bored with cooking the same old things over and over again. Which is probably why many people are bored by the idea of cooking, especially when it's so easy to order in takeaway.

It seems that chefs get that way as well. I read today in The Guardian newsletter that Heston Blumenthal had been taking a break:

"a couple of years ago, I’d just had enough. I sound like some old, retired gunslinger hanging up his gun, but I just felt like a hamster on a wheel."

He moved to Provence and "spent the longest time with myself" - a dark night of the soul perhaps. Delia too has more or less given up on cooking. Her husband does most of the cooking at home and she merely takes an interest in what her chefs are cooking at the Norwich Football Club's restaurant. Years ago now she says she was 'all reciped out'. She has retired - another interesting word in the world of boring, seeing as how it incorporates the idea of being tired again or anew.

I'm retired too and have been for a long time now, but I love cooking. I get bored when I can't try something new because I just have to use up something in the fridge which doesn't seem to offer a lot of options for creativity, or when I just have to reheat something because I made too much of it in the first place. This is particularly irksome when there is a recipe I saw somewhere that I am dying to make.

Cooking is boring I suppose - it's something that sort of has to be done every day - unless you live on takeaway but it's fundamental and actually one of the most creative things that ordinary people like me can do. The higher creativity of art of any kind, of science, of thought is beyond most of us. So let's fall back on cooking as our source.

Tonight is a boring meal. Boring because it's just leftovers and boring because it's Shepherd's Pie which is possibly one of the most boring dishes in the world, being simply a rehash of roast lamb and mashed potatoes. And yet, as we devoured the first half the other day, we both agreed that this fundamentally mushy rehash is absolutely delicious. Particularly if you eat it with two other very non-hip ingredients - baked beans and HP sauce. But there will be Aldi's double gold medal winning Pinot Grigio to go with it. And it's Friday - which used to mean more than it does today.


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