Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos
Auvergne. Cantal. May 1991.
Do people still suffer from periods of boredom even with computers, smart phones and tablets to occupy them endlessly? There’s also television, of course, which in homes of many Americans is on twenty-four hours a day, making it harder and harder to find a quiet place to sit and think. Even neighborhood bars, the old refuge of introspective loners, now have huge TV screens alternating between sports and chatter to divert them from their thoughts. As soon as college students are out of class, cell phones, and iPods materialize in their hands, requiring full concentration and making them instantly oblivious of their surroundings. I imagine Romeo and Juliet would send text messages to each other today as they strolled around Verona, though I find it hard to picture Hamlet advising Ophelia to betake herself to a nunnery.
These and other thoughts came to me as I sat in a dark house for three days in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Being without lights and water is a fairly common experience for those of us who live in rural areas on roads lined with old trees. Every major rainstorm or snowstorm is almost certain to bring down the lines, which, because of the relative scarcity of population, are a low priority for the power company to fix. We use oil lamps and most often candles, so our evenings around the dining room table resemble séances. We sit with our heads bowed as if trying to summon spirits, while in truth struggling to see what’s on our dinner plates. Being temporarily unable to use the technology we’ve grown dependent on to inform ourselves about the rest of the world, communicate with others, and pass the time, is a reminder of our alarming dependence on them. “Nights are so boring!” my neighbors kept repeating. Our days were not much better, with overcast skies that made it even difficult to read indoors. All of this reminded me of the days of my youth when my family, like so many others, lived in a monastic solitude when the weather was bad, since we had no television. It wasn’t in church, but on dark autumn days and winter nights that I had an inkling of what they meant when they spoke about eternity. Everyone read in order to escape boredom. I had friends so addicted to books, their parents were convinced they were going crazy with so many strange stories and ideas running like fever through their brains, not to mention becoming hard of hearing, after failing to perform the simplest household chores like letting the cat out.
Living in a quiet neighborhood made it even worse. Old people stared out of windows at all hours, when they were not staring at the walls. There were radios, but their delights—with the exception of a few programs—were reserved for the grownups only. Thousands died of ennui in such homes. Others joined the navy, got married, or moved to California. Even so, looking back now, I realize how much I owe to my boredom. Drowning in it, I came face to face with myself as if in a mirror. I became a spectator of my own existence, which by turns struck me as being either too real or totally unreal. I recall one day being absolutely sure that time had stopped, despite the loud ticking of the clock in my room. Everything stood still. Walking through a museum, years later, I recalled that moment in my room as I passed the statues of Greek and Egyptian gods. They looked to me as bored as I had been.
I forgot who said one is bored only in paradise and not in hell. How true, I thought at the time. I remember living in a tenement on the Lower East Side in the late 1950s. The building was so noisy; there was not a chance of being bored for a second. At almost any hour of the day, one could hear several radios tuned to different stations at the same time, husbands and wives arguing, mothers shouting at their children, babies crying, drunks cursing on the stairs and tenants gabbing and laughing on the front stoops. Everybody had complaints about something or someone. My university friends idealized humanity. Not my neighbors. They had a low opinion of almost everyone in the neighborhood. What are you studying? The old woman I was renting my room from asked me one day, and I told her: History? What kind? European, I replied. Aha, she said with a knowing look in her eye. The kings, the priests, the people being led by the nose, all scum. I didn’t know what to reply. Despite her gloomy view of aristocracy, she fed me like a prince. In fact, the moment one entered our building, several ethnic cuisines came to compete for one’s nose with their tantalizing smells, making it impossible, even with all the typical disappointments of youth, to feel sorry for oneself for long.
Still, thanks to the hurricane and the hours of darkness it imposed on me, I and many others had a kind of high school reunion with boredom. It brought about a sudden and unmistakable realization that we are only puppets jerked this way and that way by whatever device we think we are operating. With its strings loosened for the time being, there was nothing for us to do but slump idly in some chair with our heads dangling and our smiles fixed crooked, while Irene ran around the yard beating up trees like the riot police and in the process telling us what little regard she has for us personally and everything we’ve done over the years to make our home more attractive.