I find myself thinking about boredom. Boredom, is a feeling that seems to be prevalent amongst the modern world’s most dominant social experiences of fatigue, depression and various neuroses which are effected in today’s society. It is an inevitable consequence of modern technological advancement where the borders between work and life have become blurred, the world made smaller by the internet, and the news broadcast continuously twenty four hours a day, extending even further into our subjective experience.
Although it is often considered a trivial emotion, boredom is at times both an expression and a way of life for those who are affected by it. For an eight and a half hour shift a day, I am the invisible woman, having to work, unrelated, temporary jobs in order to survive as an artist. I sit at a reception desk in a room the size of an aircraft carrier (a fitting monument to Marc Augé’s non spaces or spaces of transition), surrounded by an audience of people who take no notice of my presence. I have adopted a warm, friendly greeting.
With this in mind, I thought it would be fitting to talk about Alberto Moravia’s 1960 novel, Boredom (sometimes translated as The Empty Canvas). Set in Rome just after World War II, it is a novel about boredom or its more dignified cousin ennui. This is a term not easily defined, but whose meaning describes a general feeling of detachment, malaise or weariness arising from a lack of connection with the world. The narrator, Dino, is persistently and irrefutably locked within boredom, a condition he defines as perfect estrangement from the world around him, “a kind of insufficiency, or lack or reality” which he likens to a too-short blanket upon a sleeping man on a winter’s night; which inevitably, will either expose his feet or his chest, and so he never succeeds in falling asleep properly, there is always a lack.
The novel opens with Dino leaving his mother’s bourgeois home in order to live in an artist’s garret and paint, but painting cannot fill the vacuum for long, to the point where he decides to stop. There is an arresting image of Dino, having stared at a blank canvas for hours on end, finally slashing it to shreds with a knife. He has failed to make the canvas real for himself, so he destroys it. This blunt opening encapsulates the rest of the novel. The place that painting took in Dino’s life is replaced by a sexual relationship with Cecilia, a relationship lived with detachment and indifference until the point that Dino discovers that the girl has a lover and that, in fact, he does not possess her. The remainder of the novel consists of Dino’s obsession with Cecilia and his hope to find redemption by truly possessing her and therefore needing her no longer.
For Dino, his estrangement from everything is the same as an inability to possess anything for he is incapable of empathy; he can only know another by owning them, yet everything that Dino tries to possess slips from his grip. Moravia was especially influenced by the thoughts of Marx and Freud and sharply criticized the dehumanized, capitalist world. The predominant theme that recurs in this novel is the difficult relationship between people and objects, seeing boredom as the lack of a relationship with external things. In one of his long monologues, Dino talks about his childhood, “during those years, I would suddenly stop playing and remain motionless for hours on end, as though in astonishment, in reality overcome by the uneasiness inspired in me by what I have called withering objects: the obscure consciousness that between myself and external things there was no relationship.”
For Moravia, life mirrors fiction in his 1962 interview for Esquire magazine with the actress Claudia Cardinale, who at the time was at the height of her success.
“Dear Claudia Cardinale,” Moravia announced at the beginning of their meeting. I will make a special little interview for you. You must agree to be reduced to an object.” “What kind of object?” she asked. “An object as opposed to a subject,” the writer explained, “that is, not an object, but that very object that only she can be, and indeed is.” An object, continued the author, of boredom, which appears in daylight and disappears at night.” Moravia asked Claudia Cardinale to describe her body and movements, what time she went to bed, in what position she slept in, the order in which she removed her clothes. “He asked me how I move my arms,” she said.
In the same way that Moravia questions Claudia Cardinale, Dino bombards his mother and later his lover with such questions, wanting to know every seemingly trivial detail of her routine and of her physical movements: “I didn’t ask you what you think, but what you do, when do you put on your jewellery, before or after dressing, in what order, that is, which pieces first and which afterwards? After you’re dressed, what do you do exactly? Then, after the garden, what then?
The novel acts as an episode of one of Dino’s many attempts to escape from boredom, whilst at the same time feeling lost without it. If Dino succeeds or not is not crucial, it is of less consequence than the struggle itself. Life consists of boredom; it is a psychic condition, a social ailment, a form of passive aggression. I log off my computer, I log on again, I check Twitter and Instagram, I Google the word boredom, I find that the French poet Baudelaire in the year of his death wrote: “Je m’ennuie!!! Elle m’ennuie!!!! Tout m’ennuie!!!!!” His lament, “ I bore myself!!! She bores me!!!! Everything bores me!!!!!”
Liz Zumin is an artist whose practice stems from an interest in contagion, suggestion and imitation. Through visual metaphor and physical experience she explores the duel between the isolated individual and the shared awareness of the group, the forming of relations, and how affect is transmitted between bodies and becomes enacted at a neurological, chemical and anatomical level.