4/28/15

A Defence of Bores

THE UNIVERSAL, or approximately universal, opinion in these days is that the unpardonable sin is to be a bore. This is a profound error. If this awful phraseology is to be used at all, it may safely be said that the unpardonable sin is being bored. Ennui is, the great sin, the sin by which the whole universe tends continually to be undervalued and to vanish from the imagination. But it is a quality of the person who feels, not of the person who produces it. There is just the same difference between knowing that we are bored and knowing that another man is a bore that there is between knowing that we are murdered and knowing that another man is a murderer. If we are suddenly shot through the body in the middle of Fleet Street we have logical grounds for stating that, taking the common use of words as our basis of reasoning, we are, essential speaking, murdered. But whether the man who shot us can, as a whole, be described as a murderer is a very much more subtle question, and takes us at once into the entanglements of legal controversy which stretch back to the Magna Charta and the code of Justinian. He may not be, personally, a murderous person at all. He may have shot us in supposed self-defence, mistaking for a savage gesture of attack the graceful movement with which we summoned a hansom cab. He may have shot us in a fit of abstraction, misled by our physical resemblance to a round target at Aldershot. The condition of ourselves, when shot, is a clear matter, the condition of the man who shot us is a particularly doubtful matter, and may be anything between devilry and childishness. Death, in short, is a positive and defined condition, but it belongs entirely to the dead person.

In the same way boredom, which is the next condition to death, being a decay of vitality, is a positive and defined condition, but it is only positive and defined as regards the person bored. The person who produces the effect may be generally a bore or he may be the very reverse. He may have been explaining something full of wild interest or of ravishing humour. Dickens would be a bore in satirically hitting off the Circumlocution Office if he were satirically hitting it off to a Soudanese Arab. Mr. Gus Elen (that great philosopher) would be a bore if he were imitating every tone and gesture of the South London navy to a hermit in Tibet. Precisely in the same manner there may be much real interest in the man who has just been unfolding the romance of sewing-machines or the matchless poetry of cattle food to our rude barbaric ears. We may have presented merely the stupid composure of the savage presence of the really passionate drama of the lawsuit which his aunt by marriage had with the trustees under his great-grandfather’s will. The blame, if there be blame, is with us for being bored. The subject is not a dull one; there is no such thing in the world as a dull subject. The mere fact that he, our interlocutor, a person to all mortal appearance very much stupider that we are, has found out the secret and captured the charm of the that subject is sufficient demonstration that it is not eternally or necessarily a dull subject, If he can be excited about the principle of the lever or the abominable conduct of the Robinsons, why cannot we? We are subdued; he is wild; there in a phrase is his final and immeasurable superiority. The man who is happy is naturally and necessarily superior to the man who is weary. The sadness and inertia of the bored person may be educated or intellectual, but they cannot possibly be such good things in themselves as the great purpose, the starry enthusiasm and the heavenly happiness of the bore.

The true attitude towards this matter would save a great deal of error and a great deal of pessimism about the world we live in. Pessimism, which is, of course, mainly the product of the rich and idle classes in almost all cases, means essentially this: that the idle cannot understand that the strenuous and exact details which do not interest them can possibly interest other people. Because the fluctuations of leather or the minutiae of amateur photography bore them, they imagine that they must bore those who talk about them. In their eyes a thing becomes dull in so far as it absorbs a man and shuts out other matters. This is true in a certain social sense, but in the ultimate psychological sense it is the reverse of the truth, for the absorption of the man and the exclusion of other matters show not how dull the subject is, but how fascinating it is. Because a man refuses to come out of Eden, they assume he is being detained in gaol.

The case is very strongly exhibited, for instance, in the common idea that mathematics is a dull subject, whereas the testimony of all those who have any dealing with it shows that it is one of the most thrilling and tantalising and enchanting subjects in the world. It is abstract, but so, to all appearance, is theology. Men have hurled themselves on the spears of their enemies rather than admit that the second person of the Trinity was not co-eternal with the first. Men have been burned by inches rather than allow that the charge to Peter was to be a charge to him as an individual rather than to him as a representative of the Apostles. Of such questions as these it is perfectly reasonable for anyone to say that, in his opinion, they are preposterous and fanatical questions. And what men have before now done for the abstractions of theology I have little doubt that they would, if necessary, do for the abstractions of mathematics. If human history and human variety teach us anything at all, it is supremely probable that there are men who would be stabbed in battle or burnt at the stake rather than admit that three angles of a triangle could be together greater than two right angles.

The truth surely is that it is perfectly permissible and perfectly natural to become bored with a subject just as it is perfectly permissible and perfectly natural to be thrown from a horse or to miss a train or to look up the answer to a puzzle at the end of a book. But it is not a triumph if it is anything at all, it is a defeat. We have certainly no right to assume offhand that the fault lies with the horse or with the subject. A very good example of this may be found, for instance, in the revolt against the family which is going on almost everywhere at this moment; in the innumerable millions of absolutely exceptional geniuses and temperaments who are renouncing the claims of family because the family misunderstands them or the family bores them. In some isolated cases they are certainly right; in almost every case they may conceivably be right. But at the back of all, one has a dark and profound conviction that these secessions would suddenly dwindle almost to nothingness if for one single instant the seceders regarded the boredom as a failure on their own part rather than as a failure on the part of the family. But so in truth it is. A family quarrel, for instance, may be a very squalid and tiresome affair if we happen at that moment to be sickened or exhausted, or, in other words, if we happen at the moment to be squalid and tiresome ourselves. But assuredly a family quarrel is not uninteresting in itself. Anybody who has ever had to do with any sort of practical collision between the interests and emotions of any five or six human beings must assuredly and clearly be certain of this—that the pen of Balzac would be needed adequately to depict their characters, that the ethical charity of Herbert Spencer would be necessary to define their claims, that only Shakespeare could embody their emotions, and only God can judge their souls.

Let no one flatter himself that he leaves his family life in search of art, or knowledge; he leaves it because he is fleeing from the baffling knowledge of humanity and from the impossible art of life. He may be right; but it must not be said of him that he gave it up because Mrs. Brown was unsympathetic, or because Uncle Jonas was a bore, or because Aunt Maria did not understand him. It must be said that he, pardonably enough, failed to realise the exquisite fragrance of the character of Mrs. Brown; that he, pardonably enough, did not detect the dim but delicate colours of the soul if Uncle Jonas; that he, pardonably enough, did not understand Aunt Maria. Being bored is the sin, not being a bore. Because of the weakness of humanity we may allow to men revolutions and emancipations and the breaking of bonds. But the strong man, the ideal, would be interested in any circle into which, in the course of nature, he fell. The hero would be a most domesticated person; the Over-Man would sit at the feet of his grandmother.

~G.K. Chesterton (1902): in Lunacy & Letters.

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