The True Centre of the Universe

Frank Zappa once said that the most common element on the planet is stupidity. I suspect it’s boredom. I got bored today myself. Maybe you did too. If so, we’re not alone: last year some guy at the Vatican published a paper on the ‘Empire of Boredom’, suggesting that ennui could be the major existential problem facing Western Youth today.

This could be true, and yet it’s not dealt with much in modern writing, which though frequently very boring, is not about boredom per se. Tales crammed full of drugs, sexual extremism, or literary dribble about middle-class familial dysfunction mask the essential ingredients of modern life: hours spent watching the manic blabber of TV, or consuming useless information on the Internet, or sitting in a cubicle, or shopping for food, or eating food.

I have a long and rich acquaintance with boredom. I grew up in a small & exceedingly crap town, with no cinema, no bookshop, no nothing. For young folk this could be harsh, leading to experiments with bags of glue and violence. When I was young, weapons were not yet commonplace in Scotland so it was possible to fight for pleasure. One of my brothers took a job as a doorman in a nightclub specifically so he could beat people up. A friend, intoxicated by boredom and no other substance, shaved off his pubic hair and sent it in an envelope to his brother who was studying in Cambridge: an act of psychological violence, perhaps. I myself was less confrontational. I expressed my boredom by drawing cartoon strips featuring a balding man with no eyes who lived in a white void. Nothing ever happened to him. I also started to hallucinate that I could make a business success of a circus which featured people with no talents whatsoever. They would just sit around doing nothing in front of spectators. Then I took a job in the Civil Service. My job was to mail packages to farmers instructing them how to kill their cows more efficiently, as Britain was in the grip of the Mad Cow crisis at the time. One day I felt something hot dripping out of my ears. It was my brains dissolving.

I moved to Russia to get away from all this, and Moscow was a very interesting place to be in 1997: people were getting shot every day and there were ‘no guns’ signs posted at the entrances to nightclubs. But the more I started to travel outside of the capital, the more I became aware of a cosmic degree of boredom in the Russian provinces that was unlike anything I had seen in Scotland. First, the vast distances that isolated folk from the capital made a difference. Then there was the lack of money and opportunity. In Scotland you can always get out of your small dump—the big cities are close together and London is never more than a day’s journey away by bus, and much less by plane. In Russia you can’t move around so easily, and unless you have a special permit you are not allowed to live in Moscow. As a consequence the country is full of intelligent, highly gifted people stranded in the middle of nowhere, without work or hope. The mind-numbing boredom of the Russian provinces is attested to in lots of Russian literature, from Gogol to Dostoyevsky to Sologub and many others besides. Indeed, I would say that if you read a book about Russia by a writer and he is blathering on about the essential spirituality of the provinces, he is selling you a fairytale.

The most extreme instance of boredom I ever saw was in a town called Uglich. Though it was only 100 miles or so from Moscow it took 10 hours to get there by bus because the main roads and train stations had passed it by. And once you arrived there was nothing to see except a church, some water and one or two old factories. The government had never got round to paving the streets so people stood around ankle-deep in mud, gazing into space. The cinema had shut down; the only shop I could find sold rubber balls and a metal bucket. Wait—I tell a lie—there was also a sex shop selling dildos and butt-plugs.

I was there to visit a secret history museum. I had heard that a family had turned their living room into a weird expo on the history of the town. After wandering around in the mud for a few hours I found it—and sure enough, it was full of life-size papier-mache dummies representing mad Tsars and Tsarinas, as well as other junk they had found lying in the mud. There was also an original edition of Diderot’s dictionary. The father delivered a strange lecture explaining how Uglich was the centre of the cosmos. Then he and his children dressed up in costumes and enacted scenes from the history of the town.

I was there with a friend. After the performance he was depressed; he thought the family was deranged. I agreed, but thought it was probably a good thing. Their madness had filled the world that surrounded them with meaning and symbolism. It gave them satisfaction. Instead of feeling hopelessly stranded like many Russians do, they felt absolutely central. Madness was the best and most rational response to their situation.

I haven’t been in America long, so it’s difficult for me to say very much about American boredom. However, I did spend a couple of months in a small, wealthy town outside Austin, Texas and can only observe that its silence and cleanliness were unlike anything I had ever seen before. This was a vacuum-packed, shrink-wrapped boredom. It was dry and it did not spurt. And whereas in Scotland and Russia people just find themselves surrounded by boredom, here it was something the people had opted into: the houses were big, the streets quiet and peaceful, the cars were shiny and new. I was in the midst of something considered by many to be the ‘good life’. For some, perhaps, it was the ultimate fruition of the American dream, the terminus point of Western Civilization. This was a place where you could live surrounded by like-minded fellow citizens, with all your possessions around you, in perfect stability, where nothing dramatic happened, ever.

It was very, very, very boring.

From (17/10/06)

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