08 August 2011


A great many false ideas have been spread about the nature of boredom. It is generally believed that by filling time with things new and interesting, we can make it "pass," by which we mean "shorten" it; monotony and emptiness, however, are said to weight down and hinder its passage. This is not true under all conditions. Emptiness and monotony may stretch a moment or even an hour and make it "boring," but they can likewise abbreviate and dissolve large, indeed the largest units of time, until they seem nothing at all. Conversely, rich and interesting events are capable of filling time, until hours, even days, are shortened and speed past on wings; whereas on a larger scale, interest lends the passage of time breadth, solidity, and weight, so that years rich in events pass much more slowly than do paltry, bare, featherweight years that are blown before the wind and are gone. What people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony — uninterrupted uniformity can shrink large spaces of time until the heart falters, terrified to death. When one day is like every other, then all days are like one, and perfect homogeneity would make the longest life seem very short, as if it had flown by in a twinkling. Habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull; and if the years of youth are experienced slowly, while the later years of life hurtle past at an ever-increasing speed, it must be habit that causes it. We know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time — and thereby renew our sense of life itself. That is the reason for every change of scenery and air, for a trip to the shore: the experience of a variety of refreshing episodes. The first few days in a new place have a youthful swing to them, a kind of sturdy, long stride — that lasts for about six to eight days. Then, to the extent that we "settle in," the gradual shortening becomes noticeable. Whoever clings to life, or better, wants to cling to life, may realize to his horror that the days have begun to grow light again and are scurrying past; and the last week — of, let us say, four — is uncanny in its fleeting transience. To be sure, this refreshment of our sense of time extends beyond the interlude; its effect is noticeable again when we return to our daily routine. The first few days at home after a change of scene are likewise experienced in a new, broad, more youthful fashion — but only a very few, for we are quicker to grow accustomed to the old rules than to their abrogation. And if our sense of time has grown weary with age or was never at all that strongly developed — a sign of an inborn lack of vitality — it very soon falls asleep again, and within twenty-four hours it is as if we were never gone and our journey were merely last night's dream.

—  Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain