Contemporary attitudes toward student boredom have varied greatly. Whereas some have viewed it as a relatively trivial, even inevitable fact of classroom life, others have sought remediation through improved engagement techniques. Lost in many of these discussions, however, is a clear sense of the moral stakes associated with boredom. Drawing upon the work of Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, particularly her poem “Hitler’s First Photograph,” this essay encourages Christian instructors to reconsider the possible implications of boredom. Far from merely superficial, ordinary boredom, Szymborska suggests, may have grave moral and social consequences. For Christian teachers, this view calls for greater urgency in addressing students’ lack of interest in the classroom even as it highlights the need for a comprehensive theology of boredom. Chad P. Stutz is an Associate Professor of English at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.
Recent ad campaigns by Converse® (“Shoes are boring. Wear sneakers.”) and Kraft Miracle Whip® (“Don’t blend in. Don’t be ordinary, boring, or bland.”) point to a sobering truth: Boredom has become a pervasive feature of modern American culture.1 Parents and children bemoan it; psychiatrists diagnose it; marketers (so they claim) palliate it and in doing so perpetuate it. In profound ways, it has shaped and continues to shape our literature, occupational choices, churches, youth culture, relationships, and what we eat for breakfast. And if we are to believe what, since the 19th century, has emerged as a popular narrative of social deviance, boredom even serves as an impetus to crime.2 Indeed, many educators need look no further than the classroom to discover the nearly ubiquitous presence of ennui. The signs are all too familiar: the continual yawning, relentless clock-checking, and constant doodling, not to mention the repeated tardies, excessive absences, and habitual texting, all of which can be read as symptoms of indifference and lack of interest. There are those rare students who claim never to have been bored, but the vast majority have struggled with boredom at one time or another, some of them chronically so.3
In what follows, I want to insist that boredom ought to concern Christian educators more than it often does, for it represents a formidable threat not only to the well-being of individual students but also to society and the Christian educational enterprise. Far from being merely silly or trivial, as is sometimes assumed, boredom, both inside and outside the classroom, poses a serious moral and social problem.4 As Seán Desmond Healy has claimed, boredom is “one symptom of an advanced stage of an entire culture in irremediable disintegration.” For Healy, this diagnosis applies predominantly to what he labels “hyperboredom,” or the existential malaise symptomatic of a nihilistic perspective on reality (the stuff of Beckett and Baudelaire).5 Such an attitude is, from a Christian ethical standpoint, obviously suspect. I would like to suggest, however, that so-called simple, situative, or responsive forms of boredom—those associated with specific activities and therefore temporary—may prove similarly problematic.6 In truth, it is all too tempting to dissociate the bored student, who would rather ponder the ceiling tiles than listen to a lecture, from Healy’s catastrophic narrative of cultural disintegration or from those who would see the devil behind every yawn. Boredom, one might say, is an annoying but otherwise immaterial fact of classroom life. In reality, however, it is anything but inconsequential. The statement “This is boring” is never trifling; even more importantly, it is never innocent.
To make the case for the moral and social significance of boredom, I would like to draw upon what may at first seem a rather unlikely source—a poem by the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012) entitled “Hitler’s First Photograph.”7 Given that the word “boring” and its related forms appear only a handful of times in Szymborska’s more than two hundred poems (and not at all in this particular text), it is easy to miss the crucial role that boredom plays in her thinking.8 Yet her treatment of this theme in “Hitler’s First Photograph” is significant, especially in terms of the ethical perspective she brings to bear on the problem. For although Szymborska appears to share the view that in modern society boredom is to some extent unavoidable, her insistence on the moral dimensions of ennui provides a clear challenge to those who would discount or misjudge its impact. According to the poem, even simple forms of boredom—the kinds teachers commonly witness in the classroom—can turn out to be morally and politically devastating.
Such a view, while not without precedent, stands in stark contrast to many contemporary analyses, which have frequently ignored or downplayed the ethical dimensions of boredom, tending either to clinicalize it or treat it as a manifestation of various environmental determinants.9 Suggestions for remediation, particularly those directed at the classroom, have likewise tended to minimize the moral stakes of boredom. In general, these suggestions have typically fallen into one of three categories. The first type, represented by the expansive body of literature devoted to student “engagement,” seeks to combat boredom through pedagogical techniques designed to promote student investment in a particular activity or discipline.10 Here, the emphasis falls on presentational modes, teacher enthusiasm, instructional variety, and practical relevance as means to overcome student indifference. The second does not so much attempt to combat boredom as to inoculate students against it. Boredom is simply part of life, and sitting through the lectures of the Rev. Dr. Dryasdust can help students to develop appropriate coping mechanisms for transitioning from the boredom of the classroom to that of the office.11 The third type aims neither to dispel boredom through enhanced engagement techniques nor encourage acquiescence to its inevitability but rather to embrace its positive capacity for personal insight and growth. From Martin Heidegger’s claims for the revelatory power of boredom to Kevin Hood Gary’s recent reflections on the ways in which a courageous “suffering through” boredom can contribute to the formation of “a viable self,” boredom, these apologists argue, has its benefits when properly negotiated.12 None of these approaches, I believe, is without merit. They have, in fact, generated much wisdom and sound advice. Even so, what they too often underestimate are the moral risks and destructive potential inherent even in ordinary species of boredom.
In turning to Szymborska for helpful insights, I make no claims to offer any magic potions, silver bullets, or panaceas for boredom, whether inside the classroom or elsewhere. Viable solutions are, quite frankly, notoriously hard to come by, and weighing the myriad options requires far more extensive consideration than the scope of this essay permits. My more modest aim, rather, is to urge a change of perspective—to persuade Christian teachers in particular to approach boredom as something more than a localized, superficial issue so that they may, in turn, encourage their students to do likewise. The reality is that many students today know they are bored;13 what they fail to grasp, however, are the potentially momentous consequences of this fact. Thus, whatever the ultimate solutions to boredom, one must begin by drawing students’ attention to boredom as a problem. As Nicholas Wolterstorff observes, “the cultivation of self-awareness” is an indispensable part of any Christian education that seeks to have a practical impact on student thought and behavior outside the classroom.14 If there is any hope of mitigating boredom’s effects, one must start by helping students to excavate their assumptions and hold them up to the light of Christian truth. When it comes to the ennui they so often take for granted, many students (and teachers) could benefit from a healthy dose of Christ-exalting skepticism. Only when the moral and social ramifications of boredom are thoroughly grasped can feasible solutions be sought.
“Hitler’s First Photograph”: Boredom as a Prelude to Death
One of Szymborska’s most provocative treatments of boredom occurs in a poem that fails to use the word explicitly. Instead, she relies on one of boredom’s most common indices—the yawn—to signal its destructive presence.15 In “Hitler’s First Photograph,” boredom serves as a prelude to death. Here, Szymborska compels us to reexamine our assumptions about Hitler and our own complicity in historical catastrophes by imaginatively transporting us to the dictator’s early childhood. As she writes in the opening lines:
And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!
Will he grow up to be an L.L.D.?
Or a tenor in Vienna’s Opera House?
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know:
printer’s, doctor’s, merchant’s, priest’s? (1-7)
Many first-time readers find this poem deeply unsettling—a quality that arises chiefly from Szymborska’s skillful use of dramatic irony. On the one hand, she manages, quite against the odds, to humanize Hitler by re-imagining him as an “average” child from the perspective of ordinary late-nineteenth-century Austrians. To achieve this, Szymborska utilizes simplistic diction, or the “baby talk” associated with doting mothers (“Precious little angel, mommy’s sunshine, honey bun” ), coupled with an appeal to bourgeois fantasies of self-determination and social advancement: “Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander? / To a garden, to a school, to an office, to a bride? / Maybe the Bürgermeister’s daughter?” (8-10). In the world of the poem, Hitler appears “like the tots in every other family album” (24)—that is, as the innocent object of both tender emotion and modest middle-class aspirations. As the series of rhetorical questions in the first stanza suggests, for the Hitler family and its neighbors, “tiny baby Adolf” represents raw potentiality, a hope for the future that remains open to numerous possibilities for meaningful action. On the other hand, unlike the community of Braunau imagined in the poem, which seems without exception to cherish an avuncular affection for the young Hitler, we as readers know exactly what he will become. “Dictator,” “mass murderer,” and “megalomaniac” are conspicuously absent from the list of community-sanctioned identities that comprise the opening stanza, but these are the labels most readers immediately associate with the man that has become the poster-child for radical evil. The poem thus stages a clash between our own historical hindsight and the naïve optimism of the people of Braunau envisioned by Szymborska.
Yet the poem’s dramatic irony also prompts a crucial question, namely, how did Hitler happen? Given the putatively ordinary circumstances attending his birth, how did Hitler go so extraordinarily wrong? Who, or what, is to blame for the fact that this seemingly commonplace child would go on to become not a doctor of the law, “an L.L.D.” (3), but its destroyer? These are difficult questions precisely because the poem insists on both Hitler’s and Braunau’s “normality.” What we as readers want and perhaps even expect are stories about the young Hitler torturing cats or the deplorable abuses of family and village, but neither Szymborska’s poem nor history allows for such convenient answers. The poem does, however, provide at least a partial answer to such questions in its final image of a yawning history teacher:
And Braunau is a small, but worthy town—
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs or fate’s footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework. (28-33)
This image, I suggest, constitutes Szymborska’s answer to the question of how Hitler happened, and her answer, in a word, is boredom. That the image connotes boredom is signified most obviously by the teacher’s yawning, a common symptom of ennui, but also by the instructor’s loosening of his collar, a gesture that signals a desire to break free from the task at hand and possibly the very profession of teaching. The task at hand, of course, is the evaluation of student homework (zeszytami, lit. ‘notebooks’)—an activity that, as every teacher knows, involves a great deal of repetition. In fact, a sense of entrapment and repetition are frequently cited as triggers for boredom.16 Even Szymborska’s retreat from the ominous “howling dogs” and “fate’s footsteps” of line 31 to the prosaic picture of the history teacher functions as a kind of deflationary maneuver that, by subjecting readers to the anticlimax of the mundane, reinforces on an affective level the experience of boredom depicted in the image.17
But how, one might ask, does the vision of a history teacher evidently bored with his job explain Hitler? According to Spacks, boredom may be defined most simply as a “failure of full attention.”18 On a spectrum of perceptual recognition, it resides somewhere between a total lack of awareness of and an enthusiastic absorption in a given object’s existence.19 Yet, as Michael Raposa argues, boredom also constitutes a judgment directed toward this object: “My failure to find some event or activity interesting is the result of an interpretation. Boredom is the result of semiosis.”20 To declare that something is “boring” is to deem it unworthy of one’s concern or to interpret it as devoid of a certain kind of relevance or meaning. Boredom, in short, is a morally significant act of interpretation. The problem with Szymborska’s teacher, then, is that he no longer grants full attention to his subject. He has ceased to find the study of history interesting or meaningful. Nor, we can infer, does he find satisfaction in teaching his students, for grading homework has clearly become a monotonous chore. The teacher’s failure to pay full attention both to his subject and his students is especially problematic since he is a teacher of history and not, say, of math, music, or chemistry. As a history instructor, he is, or ought to be, a custodian of the collective lessons of humankind—lessons that include countless examples of the personal will-to-power and widespread collusion in tyranny. Hitler was by no means the first murderous despot to appear in history, and if anyone should be capable of spotting the warning signs of radical evil, or at least reminding people of the existence of such evil and the need for vigilance, it is the teacher of history. Boredom, however, threatens such vigilance at its source. A bored instructor, the poem intimates, fails to communicate the important lessons of the past to students, thereby creating the conditions not only for history to repeat itself but also for the otherwise ordinary children of a “worthy town” like Braunau to become accomplices to one of history’s most horrific crimes. According to the logic of “Hitler’s First Photograph,” yawning can lead to genocide.
One must take care at this point not to mistake the link that Szymborska draws between boredom and mass murder for the conventional wisdom, noted at the outset, that boredom motivates crime. In the latter instance, crime ostensibly results from one’s desperate attempt to flee a meaningless reality. In a life barren of all vitality, deviant behavior, like drugs or alcohol, delivers a heightened stimulation that serves temporarily to allay an individual’s feelings of sterility. As this description implies, moreover, the typical connection between boredom and crime often assumes that the boredom in question is a form of hyper- or existential boredom rather than the more quotidian variety. In “Hitler’s First Photograph,” by contrast, boredom is not that which drives one to a life of crime (at least not directly) but rather that which enables the atrocities of others. Moral deviance, even on a geopolitical scale, arises for Szymborska when average people permit indifference to enfeeble their powers of attention. Likewise, there is nothing about the yawning history teacher that necessarily indicates the presence of existential boredom. For all we know, he may find other aspects of his life perfectly fulfilling. Indeed, it is at just this point that Szymborska increases the stakes, for in attributing moral and sociopolitical significance to situative boredom, she implicates even the most innocuous experience of tedium. To many observers, the close ties between existential boredom (with its nihilistic orientation) and moral turpitude are fairly obvious. Situative boredom, on the other hand, has frequently been seen as morally and politically inconsequential. But if one can trace a line from the situative boredom of the history classroom to genocidal dictators like Hitler, as Szymborska’s poem encourages us to do, then no moment of boredom is potentially without ramification.21
This principle is evident as much in the townspeople of Braunau as in the history teacher himself, for the yawning instructor can, in the end, be read as a synecdoche for the community itself. Teachers, it is true, may have a special role to play as the historical watchdogs of society, but Szymborska does not confine her indictment to educators. The main subject of the poem is neither Hitler nor educators per se but the citizens, the “obliging neighbors,” of Braunau. Like the history teacher that serves as their representative, the people of Braunau, as Szymborska envisions them, are characterized by a “failure of full attention,” or what one might classify as a relatively mild form of boredom. Such “mild” boredom, however, has dire consequences. Of course, to charge the townspeople of Braunau with a dangerous strain of boredom may at first glance seem counterintuitive, especially since they appear to take such a pointed interest in baby Adolf and his future. If anything, their approach to Hitler’s birth strikes one as over- rather than underdetermined, with some even attributing a kind of cosmic significance to the event: “While he was being born, a year ago, / there was no dearth of signs on the earth and in the sky” (12- 13). In reality, however, such statements are the result of intellectual complacency rather than genuine attention.
For Szymborska, in fact, there exists a close relationship between boredom and complacency.22 In her 1996 Nobel lecture, she takes up the question of “inspiration” and its connection to meaningful work. “Inspiration,” she argues,
is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists. There is, there has been, there will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. … Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it.23
“Inspiration,” “love,” “imagination,” “adventure”—boredom haunts this passage, for such terms imply the possibility of a dark alternative, a life suffused with meaningless tedium. In the following paragraph, Szymborska makes this alternative explicit. Whereas inspiration visits the few, the majority of “earth’s inhabitants” find themselves condemned to a life of “Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t got even that much.”24 Boredom and inspiration, it would seem, are mutually exclusive modes of being. But exactly what is this “inspiration” that has the power to dispel boredom? For Szymborska, inspiration has nothing to do with Platonic notions of divine madness or Romantic conceptions of original genius; rather, it consists in the repeated acknowledgement of one’s epistemological limits: “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’”25 Inspiration has less to do with the reception of superior knowledge and more to do with the recognition that human knowledge will never reach completion; it is potentially available to anyone who possesses the requisite modesty to say, “I don’t know.” In formulating inspiration this way, Szymborska takes aim at intellectual complacency and the absolutism to which this complacency both owes its existence and gives birth. In her view, persistent questioning is a virtue, a safeguard against autocracy and domination, while complacency, or the illusion of sufficient knowledge, is the mark of tyrants and extremists:
All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues…“know,” and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all…. But any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.26
What makes dictators and fanatics so dangerous is their complacency—the false sense of satisfaction that derives from the uncritical conviction that they know all they need to know.
Szymborska’s discussion of inspiration points to a subtle connection, a family resemblance, between boredom and complacency. Both concepts stand in clear opposition to Szymborska’s notion of inspiration, or the continual willingness to say, “I don’t know.” It is impossible, on her account, for a person to be both inspired and bored at the same time, just as it is impossible for a person to be simultaneously inspired and complacent. This is not to suggest that Szymborska equates fanatics like Hitler with those consigned to a life of “boring work.” She plainly sympathizes with those who, for various reasons, must endure “one of the harshest human miseries.”27 Nevertheless, her logic does suggest some commonality, however small, between the uninspired worker and the uninspired fanatic, or between boredom and complacency. This common thread is perceptual stasis. The bored worker and the ruthless dictator, albeit for different reasons, have ceased to say, “I don’t know”; they have ceased to raise questions about themselves and about the world in which they live. In so doing, they have foreclosed on the possibility of fresh knowledge, assuming instead a position of false cognitive clarity. Whereas inspiration entails a perpetual openness to revision, complacency rests easy with the status quo, and so too, in a sense, does boredom. In withholding full attention from an object, boredom in effect dismisses this object to the margins of one’s field of perception or interest.28 But this dismissal is, oddly enough, also a kind of closure, for to claim that something is boring is to claim that one knows something about an object. It is in fact to claim that one knows everything one needs to know about it in order to judge its relative worth.29 Like complacency, boredom is a totalizing move that excludes the potential for further questioning. After all, one need not ask questions—one need not confess, “I don’t know”—about that which one certainly knows, and for Szymborska this is the capital sin. “Let’s do a little speculating,” she writes in one of her reviews:
Let’s imagine some horrifically distant future in which humanity—if it’s survived—will finally know everything. All questions will dry up, since there’ll be no reason for them. No mysteries, hypotheses, doubts, even down to the smallest detail. … Omniscience strikes me as an incomparable disaster, paralysis of the imagination, universal silence. Since what is there to talk about if everyone knows the same things and for certain?30
In this imaginary future, the stasis that in the present world so often accompanies complacency is not chosen but imposed since there is nowhere left, intellectually speaking, to go. Yet one can also detect the presence of boredom in this description. What for some would qualify as a utopia—a universe in which all of one’s nagging questions have at last been answered—is for Szymborska a depressing prospect. A “utopia” in which there no longer exists anything to exercise the mind would invariably result in boredom. Both boredom and complacency, Szymborska implies, are postures of indifference and cognitive immobility predicated on the erroneous assumption of pure epistemological transparency and the false security that accompanies it. Both, in short, represent a “paralysis of the imagination.”31
It is this paralysis of the imagination, this boredom-complacency, which characterizes the “obliging neighbors” of Braunau in “Hitler’s First Photograph.” Initially, the temptation is to see these neighbors as innocent bystanders. One has little difficulty picturing their own sense of horror when, in the not-too-distant future of the poem, little Adolf turns out to be a killer. In the end, however, the poem complicates any such understanding of the townspeople of Braunau. Like the history teacher appointed to educate their children, they too have succumbed to a fatal failure of attention. In the second stanza of the poem, Szymborska describes the “signs on the earth and in the sky” that, from the perspective of the town’s inhabitants, supposedly attend Hitler’s birth:
spring sun, geraniums in windows,
the organ-grinder’s music in the yard,
a lucky fortune wrapped in rosy paper.
Then just before the labor his mother’s fateful dream. A dove seen in a dream means joyful news—
if it is caught, a long-awaited guest will come. (14-19)
The very reference to “signs” underlines the inherently hermeneutical activity of the townspeople. They are engaged not only in interpreting these signs but also, on an even more foundational level, determining what, within a vast field of perceptual possibilities, constitutes a “sign” in the first place. In short, they must decide how and on what to bestow their collective attention. And on the surface at least, their choice of signs and their interpretation of them appears unequivocally positive: “A dove seen in a dream means joyful news” (18). From our own vantage point as readers, however, some of these same signs prove far more ambiguous. The mention of an “organ-grinder,” for instance, sounds macabre in light of what we know of Hitler’s barbarism, as does Szymborska’s reference to the “fateful” nature of his mother’s dream. Similarly, the very meaning of the dream, which the people of Braunau read positively according to folkloric tradition, seems ominous upon closer inspection. The dove, a traditional symbol of peace, “is caught” (19). This figurative imprisonment of peace is followed in turn by “a long-awaited guest” (19) and a “knocking” on the door: “Knock, knock, who’s there, it’s Adolf’s heartchen knocking” (20). Visions of the Gestapo, one might say, lurk just below the surface of this apparently cheery stanza. In addition, the mention of a “black hood” in stanza three—“The camera will click from under that black hood” (26)—while superficially associated with late-nineteenth-century photography, prefigures the executioner that Hitler will become even as the seemingly harmless allusion to the “smell of yeast dough, of gray soap” (30) conjures faint images of concentration camp crematoria.32
Once again, Szymborska generates dramatic irony by obliging us as readers to jockey back and forth between the hermeneutics of the townspeople and our own. Because of our retrospective knowledge of Hitler, we are attentive to objects-as-signs that escape the notice of the inhabitants of Braunau. Just as importantly, we glimpse the limitations of the townsfolk’s interpretations; we see what they do not. Yet how, one may ask, can the townspeople be blamed for failing to attend to that which we attend to only by virtue of our place in history? The answer is that they are blameworthy because of the boredom and intellectual complacency that have led them, hastily and recklessly, to locate baby Adolf at the margins of their interest. To be sure, the people of Braunau show a certain kind of interest in young Hitler—the whole poem is in fact a disturbing mock-nativity ode—but this interest turns out to be perfunctory, serving only to mask the absence of a deeper and far more vital form of attention. Braunau’s error is that it has failed to remain perpetually open to alternative possibilities; it has, in the terms of Szymborska’s Nobel lecture, ceased to say, “I don’t know.” For a judicious and active attention, the people of Braunau have substituted stale custom, timeworn platitudes, and bourgeois myth. The poem itself is rife with hackneyed phrases—“Precious little angel” (11), “Knock knock, who’s there” (20), “thank God and knock on wood” (22), “like a kitten in a basket” (23)—all of which hint at the habituated perceptions of the town. Even the cosmic significance (“there was no dearth of signs” ) which family friends attribute to Hitler’s birth is nothing other than thoughtless superstition—more social fashion than genuine metaphysical conviction. Viewed through the lens of the townspeople of Braunau, baby Hitler looks like an enormous cliché, and in fact their entire treatment of him constitutes a gross misreading.
Still, do the inhabitants of Braunau really bear an ethical responsibility for their failure to consider the possibility that a seemingly normal child could grow up to become a despot? Szymborska’s poem answers affirmatively. By populating her text with multivalent signs that exist within the diegesis of the poem but that also point forward in unmistakable ways to what Hitler would eventually become, Szymborska raises the possibility that the people of Braunau could have known. The relevant signs, in other words, are present in their field of perceptual possibilities even if “No one” in Braunau “hears howling dogs, or fate’s footsteps” (31). The very presence of such signs, however, implies that perhaps they should have. If nothing else, they should have been open to the possibility that baby Adolf, like other children who have grown up to be oppressors, had the capacity to become something other than a tenor, a doctor, or any of the other respectable middle-class professions that monopolize their thinking. Braunau, it seems, prefers the prepackaged banalities of the Romantic Cult of Childhood to the troublesome task of unflagging watchfulness. The townsfolk, in fact, seem to typify the sort of “thoughtlessness” that Hannah Arendt associated with “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”33 To be clear, Szymborska’s charge is not so much that the people of Braunau have missed a series of obvious cues that point conclusively to Hitler’s brewing malevolence but rather that they have failed to satisfy the basic conditions of accurate moral perception: they are not really seeing in any meaningful way at all. By permitting complacency and boredom to forestall their questioning, they have floundered at the level of epistemic virtue. This floundering, in turn, leads to profound moral consequences for humanity. Moreover, as the poem’s final image reminds us, history itself bears witness to the rise of dictators and megalomaniacs, and as such it offers possible lessons for the future; yet the people of Braunau, from Hitler’s parents to the teacher of history, fail to attend to this past. The person who yawns at history, Szymborska suggests, risks repeating it, just as those in Braunau have unwittingly done. In this way, the poem’s description of the townspeople as “obliging neighbors” (29) may finally be Szymborska’s most powerful double entendre and her most devastating indictment of the naïve optimism of late-nineteenth-century Austrians. Their boredom and complacency have made them too obliging—too ignorant of the potential for evil in their midst.
Szymborska, however, does not confine her critique of boredom to nineteenth-century Austrians. Rather, she highlights the hazards of boredom for all of us living in the modern age. This, too, is evident in her portrayal of the yawning history teacher. Szymborska’s bracketing of this image at the end of the poem, together with her use of both the indefinite article (“A”) and the present tense (“loosens” and “yawns”), produces a suggestive temporal ambiguity. Is this history teacher a member of the community of Braunau depicted in the poem, as my reading has hitherto assumed, or is this a generic history teacher whose existence may be anywhere? The answer, of course, is both. The temporal ambiguity of the poem’s final image serves to drive home the pervasive seduction of boredom and the enduring ethical threat that such boredom poses to both individuals and societies in our modern world. We in the 21st century are by no means immune to boredom, to radical failures of attention that effect critical ruptures with a past that may hold vital, if imperfect, clues to our future. If anything, we are probably more prone to such failures, living as we do in an era when information is abundant but personal meaning scarce.34 As “Hitler’s First Photograph” suggests, however, our ignorance of the past is more often engendered by apathy and ennui than lack of intelligence.35
If Szymborska’s poem cautions us to resist the perennial boredom of the history teacher, it also admonishes us to beware of the complacent mythologizing of today’s obliging neighbors. Boredom and complacency can together lead either to historical ignorance or, for Szymborska more dangerously still, historical dogmatism. As Clare Cavanagh argues, Szymborska is a tireless critic of “master plots” and “Great History”:
Time and again she warns against both clear-cut histories derived from hindsight and foregone futures constructed with the help of one ideology or another. More than this: she mistrusts narratives as such, the human proclivity, as she views it, for using more or less Procrustean storylines to tidy a recalcitrant reality.36
It is not that Szymborska believes a careful examination of the past is futile per se. Although our efforts to understand history will always be incomplete, the image of the yawning history teacher is a poignant reminder of the need to try.37 At the same time, however, we must guard against the ways in which boredom and complacency can lead to the spurious acceptance of understandings that may appear complete but are in reality reductive and ideologically motivated. “Trimming history to fit present needs,” Szymborska insists, “is an iron rule of all satraps.”38 Taken as a whole, “Hitler’s First Photograph” exposes our own propensities to surrender to just this sort of thinking. Like the townspeople of Braunau, we also run the risk of misreading even Hitler himself, for Hitler, too, can pass into myth. Hitler, too, can become the stuff of self-interested master narratives and ossified interpretations of the past begotten by boredom.
We can, in fact, glimpse something of the danger Szymborska has in mind even in our tendency to speak of Hitler as the incarnation of “radical evil” (a term I have used more than once in this essay). From one perspective, it seems ridiculous to question such a term. If Hitler does not embody radical evil, then who does? From another perspective, however, this term begins to look like a convenient distancing measure designed to reassure ourselves of the breach we insist must surely exist between Hitler’s transgressions and our own. In this view, Hitler becomes a larger-than-life figure intelligible only through extraordinary, even biblical archetypes, or what Cavanagh, following Frank Kermode, calls the “anthropomorphic paradigms of apocalypse.” In the process, though, this apocalyptic version of Hitler serves to distract us from our own immorality. As Cavanagh writes, “Apocalyptic history lets us off the hook. The Antichrist’s brand of evil is Evil with a capital E; it is qualitatively different from our own petty flaws and peccadilloes….Szymborska’s poem suggests otherwise.”39 That “Hitler’s First Photograph” effectively closes the moral gap between Hitler and us as readers is yet another consequence of Szymborska’s insistence on the normality of baby Adolf and his neighbors. If an ordinary child in an ordinary town can turn out to be Hitler, then so can we. By the same token, if the conjoint boredom of a common village can pave the way for mass murder, then it can for us as well. Cavanagh’s broader point here, however, concerns our stubborn tendency, in Szymborska’s view, to rely on prefabricated storylines to make sense of our world instead of engaging in the hard work of inspired questioning. For Szymborska, boredom, complacency, apathy, and indifference are the conditions of all master narratives. The genius of “Hitler’s First Photograph” is precisely its ability to disrupt our entrenched conceptions of Hitler, to shock us into reconsidering what we think we know about history’s most infamous villain. In this way, the poem both diagnoses our complacency and boredom, and impels us beyond them.
The Value and Limitations of Szymborska’s Approach
Szymborska’s poem serves as a useful embarkation point for thinking about—and helping students to think about—boredom and its implications. Above all, “Hitler’s First Photograph” demands that we regard boredom as a pressing moral and social problem rather than a minor irritation. If any attempt to combat student boredom must begin with helping students to see boredom as something that needs to be combatted—that is, as something more than a benign, if periodically bothersome, fact of existence—then Szymborska’s ingenious exploration of the etiology of genocide offers a powerful means of doing so. Of course, not every classroom yawn leads directly and inevitably to killing, but Szymborska’s poem jolts us into an awareness that if such a thing is possible at all, then we excuse boredom at our peril.
In a similar vein, Szymborska’s emphasis on the ethics of boredom ought to resonate with Christian readers in particular. Her dogged insistence that the most “trivial” forms of boredom can have far-reaching consequences serves as a timely reminder that even seemingly harmless attitudes may interfere with the ability truly to love one’s neighbors as oneself. If yawning can lead to genocide, then Christians, of all people, should think twice before complaining that they are bored. Szymborska’s reminder of the personal ethical dimensions of boredom is especially salient for the simple reason that this kind of perspective has already entered the ranks of the counter-cultural. Although ethical approaches to the problem of boredom, following in the tradition of medieval discussions of acedia, predominated in the 18th and early 19th centuries, such “moralizing” approaches now seem passé. As Spacks observes, “From time to time, even now … we acknowledge ethical issues implicit in the concept of boredom, but for the most part we have lost a sense of their urgency.”40 How often, for example, do we feel a need to repent of the sin of boredom? Granted, one may grasp intuitively that in a perfect world there would be no room for boredom, but rarely does this intuition rise to the level of principled conviction. Szymborska’s poem, however, challenges readers to revisit these assumptions and to rethink their personal accountability in relation to ennui. Contrary to popular belief, boredom and apathy are not victimless crimes.
“Hitler’s First Photograph” is also invaluable in rethinking boredom because the poem directly implicates the classroom. Although it does not confine its critique of boredom solely to educational contexts, its emphasis on teaching and learning is nonetheless important. This, indeed, is another of the key lessons of Szymborska’s text: what happens inside the classroom matters, for better or worse, outside the classroom. Unfortunately, what too often happens inside the classroom is boredom. I am not concerned here with the recurrent problem of whom to blame for this fact, though it is perhaps worth noting that no one (neither teachers nor students) escapes the sweeping judgment of the poem. What matters is the poem’s identification of the classroom as a space where boredom must be routinely contested and where, by extension, students must learn to cultivate a receptivity and attentiveness not unlike that famously commended by Simone Weil.41 Szymborska’s decision to conclude her poem with the image of a yawning history teacher suggests that the classroom may in fact be ground zero when it comes to battling boredom. How, practically, to wage this war on a daily basis, like the question of culpability, is a problem for another (longer) essay.42 But for students and teachers alike, the yawning history instructor challenges us to re-evaluate our attitudes and behaviors in the classroom. Be vigilant, the poem charges, for the uncomfortable truth is that one may never really know how spells of boredom might inadvertently contribute, through repeated indulgence or by way of some concealed mechanism of cause-and-effect, to the horrors of an Auschwitz.
For all her welcome insights into the problem of boredom, however, Szymborska must remain, for Christians, only a starting point. We may learn much about the repercussions of ennui from this winsome poet, but there are limitations to her vision. For one thing, Szymborska’s tenacious commitment to saying, “I don’t know” leaves little room for the truth claims of the Gospel. To the extent that this program of ceaseless negation enjoins us to bear in mind our susceptibility as fallen human beings to epistemological hubris and lazy thinking, we can and should commend it. On a pragmatic level, moreover, this strategy may have localized methodological value as an aid to intellectual exploration. As an exhaustive blueprint for approaching the world, however, it is finally inconsistent with Christian truth. Christians may be rightly suspicious of the Enlightenment’s wholesale attestations to epistemological certitude, but abandoning all knowledge claims in postmodern fashion is not the answer either. Presently, “One sees through the glass darkly,” notes Bruce Ellis Benson, “though one still sees.”43
Differentiating Szymborska’s philosophy from a Christian one is an essential task because, outwardly, the two can look and sound very much the same. Near the end of her Nobel lecture, Szymborska extrapolates the logic of “I don’t know” to arrive at the following conclusion:
The world—whatever we might think when we’re terrified by its vastness and our own impotence or when we’re embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants … whatever else we might think of this world—it is astonishing.
But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We are astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness to which we have grown accustomed. But the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se, and it is not based on a comparison with something else.44
This passage is Szymborska’s answer to the problem of boredom. If the world is “astonishing” per se, then nothing can ever be objectively dull or lifeless. Individuals may be bored in a world like this, but nothing can ever be boring. More importantly, though, Szymborska’s pronouncement of the inherently astonishing quality of the world sounds initially not unlike the Christian claim that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”45 Upon closer examination, however, this parallel proves illusory. While Hopkins would no doubt have agreed with Szymborska’s conclusion that this world is intrinsically astonishing and therefore non-boring, his grounds for such a conclusion would have differed dramatically. For Szymborska, the astonishing character of the world is grounded in the perpetual absence of any “universally acknowledged norm.” When once we realize our lack of certainty regarding just about everything—when we glimpse “the potential endlessness of the universe” and “its vastness which cannot be comprehended in its entirety”46—constant amazement becomes an inescapable fact of life. For Hopkins, by contrast, the astonishing character of the world is predicated on a robust conception of divine plenitude. The world is astonishing because it is everywhere saturated with the power and majesty of the inexhaustible Triune God. If indeed “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” as Hopkins elsewhere declares,47 boredom begins to take on something of an absurd quality. In a world permeated by the glory of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, how can one be bored? And if one is bored in such a world, what convincing apology can possibly be offered in one’s defense?
It is at just this point that one can detect both the limits of Szymborska’s theory of boredom and the beginnings of a distinctively Christian one. In Szymborska’s view, boredom, even in its seemingly mildest strains, is not something that ought to be taken lightly. For all its genuine wisdom, however, Szymborska’s vision predictably falters at what, for Christians, is the pivotal point: God himself. Her theory fails to attend to humankind’s answerability, as his creatures, to God and his truth. What is more, it fails to address what may be the real underlying problem with boredom—namely, its status as an innately anti-Christian discourse. As Goodstein suggests, “[T]he language of boredom is secular, materialist, and resigned to the loss of meaning.”48 If such a diagnosis is correct, as I believe it is, then “I’m bored” is not only a morally but a theologically fraught statement. Not surprisingly, Szymborska takes no account of this problem. Though her emphasis on the ethical and social ramifications of boredom is deeply compelling, her vision ignores the higher standard to which Christians are called: the glory of God. Thus, what Christian students and teachers ultimately need, I would suggest, is a comprehensive theology of boredom. This need is particularly urgent in the context of the classroom, where boredom persists as a latent but very real menace to the Christian educational enterprise. After all, meaningful conversation about the integration of faith and learning, or the human condition, or the grace of God, is a non-starter if students are too bored to care. The uncomfortable reality is that boredom continues to have a widespread, corrosive effect on our culture, even among Christian students. In fact, it is all too easy for cherished Christian truths, which ought to guide our educational endeavors, to become little more than bromides. When core convictions begin to seem dull and when foundational communal practices begin to feel like nothing more than going through the motions, we can be sure that boredom is among us. And when boredom is among us, perhaps it is time to ask whether yawning is a luxury we can really afford.49
Cite this article
- On boredom’s omnipresence in modern western culture, see Orrin E. Klapp, Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society, Contributions in Sociology no. 57 (New York: Greenwood, 1986), 11-33; Patricia Meyer Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 2; and Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, trans. John Irons (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 27, 37.
- See Klapp, Overload and Boredom, 27-28. For a critique of this view, see Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 51-56.
- Despite its pervasiveness, boredom is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Many scholars agree that boredom is a product of modernity (see Seán Desmond Healy, Boredom, Self, and Culture [Rutherford, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1984]; Klapp, Overload and Boredom; Spacks, Boredom; Michael L. Raposa, Boredom and the Religious Imagination, Studies in Religious Culture [Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999]; Elizabeth Goodstein, Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005]; and Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom; though see also Toohey, Boredom, 146-156; and Yasmine Musharbash, “Boredom, Time, and Modernity: An Example from Aboriginal Australia,” American Anthropologist 109.2 [June 2007]: 307-317). The word “bore,” in both its noun and verb forms, did not exist in English until the 18th century, while “boredom” did not appear until the mid-19th. There were, of course, pre-modern antecedents to contemporary boredom—the taedium vitae and horror loci of the ancient Romans, the acedia of medieval monastics and theologians, and the melancholia of Renaissance writers like Robert Burton—but the etymological evidence suggests that, whatever the forms of internal malaise suffered by people before the Enlightenment, human beings were not, strictly speaking, bored. (On the etymology of boredom, see Goodstein, 3; Klapp, 24; Spacks, 9, 13; and Edwards Peters, “Notes Towards and Archaeology of Boredom,” Social Research 42.3 [Autumn 1975]: 493-511. On modern boredom’s precursors, see Ian Irvine, “Acedia, Tristitia, and Sloth: Early Christian Forerunners to Chronic Ennui,” Humanitas 12.1 [Spring 1999]: 89-103; Reinhard Kuhn, The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976]; Peters; Raposa, 11-40; Svendsen, 49-52; Toohey, 107-142; and Siegfried Wenzel, The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967]). The appearance of boredom during the Enlightenment resulted from several contemporaneous developments, including 1) the differentiation of “leisure” and “work” as unique psychosocial categories; 2) the increased attention among Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers to subjective experience and individual autonomy; 3) the growing rationalization, bureaucratization, and “banalization” of ordinary life; and 4) the decline of orthodox Christianity at the hands of skeptical philosophies and the concomitant dissolution (via industrialization and urbanization) of the social structures reinforcing traditional beliefs (see Goodstein; Healy, 74-98; Klapp, 52-70 [“banalization” is Klapp’s term]; Musharbash, 307-309; Spacks, 14-24; Svendsen, 20-36, and Toohey, 152). To oversimplify matters somewhat, these forces conspired to create a culture in which increasingly isolated individuals had ample time to scrutinize their feelings about life in an ever more monotonous and meaningless universe.
- Many scholars have noted the tendency to see boredom as trivial. See Klapp, 26 and Healy, 9.
- Healy, 11, 10.
- The division of boredom into two or more types is a longstanding one. See Haskell E. Bernstein, “Boredom and the Ready-Made Life,” Social Research 42.3 (Autumn 1975): 513-515; Healy, 44; Klapp, 37; Kuhn, 5-9; Svendsen, 41-42; and Toohey, 4-5.
- Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, trans. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 196-197. References to specific line numbers are noted parenthetically in the text.
- Other important poems in which Szymborska addresses boredom include “The End and the Beginning” (in Poems, 228-229) and “List” (in Monologue of a Dog: New Poems, trans. Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak [Orlando: Harcourt, 2006], 82-87). Scholarship on Szymborska (in English) has focused much on her anti-hierarchicalism, skepticism, de-centering of human perspectives, and rejection of dogmatic, totalizing narratives. See, for example, Edyta M. Bojanowska, “Wisława Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist,” Slavic and East European Journal 41.2 (Summer 1997): 199-223; Bogdana Carpenter, “Wisława Szymborska and the Imporance of the Unimportant,” World Literature Today 71.1 (Winter 1997): 8-12; Anastasia Graf, “Representing the Other: A Conversation among Mikhail Bakhtin, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wisława Szymborska,” Comparative Literature 57.1 (Winter 2005): 84-99; Justyna Kostkowska, “‘The Sense of Taking Part’: Feminist Environmental Ethics in the Poetry of Wisława Szymborska,” Slavonica 12.2 (Nov. 2006): 149-166; and Joelle Biele, “Here and There: Wisława Szymborska and the Grand Narrative,” Kenyon Review 35.1 (Winter 2013): 168-184. To my knowledge, Szymborska’s view of boredom has not received any sustained critical attention.
- On both of these trends, see Goodstein, 22-23 and passim. In calling for a moral reconsideration of boredom, I do not deny that it is often affected by various somatic and environmental factors. The presence of such factors, however, does not, in my view, make boredom an amoral issue.
- See, for example, Jonathan A. Plucker and Stuart N. Omdal, “Beyond ‘Boredom,’” Education Week (18 June 1997): 32; Gad Yair, “Educational Battlefields in America: The Tug-of-War over Students’ Engagement with Instruction,” Sociology of Education 73.4 (Oct. 2000): 247-269; Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossy-Bass-Wiley, 2010), 27-28; and Barkley, “The Case for Boredom,” American School Board Journal 198.4 (2011): 33.
- See Healy, 9.
- Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Kevin Hood Gary, “Boredom, Contemplation, and Liberation,” Philosophy of Education (2013): 427-435. There is much in Gary’s essay especially that resonates with my own. He rightly characterizes boredom as “fundamentally a problem with the self” and criticizes the assumption that “teachers and students should avoid boredom at all costs”—a trap into which much of the “engagement” literature commonly falls (427). In writing of “the value of boredom” and the need for boredom to “be endured” (429), however, he does not, in my view, sufficiently account for the moral and social hazards highlighted by Szymborska. See also Joseph Brodsky, “In Praise of Boredom,” in On Grief and Reason: Essays (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995), 104-113; Teresa Belton and Esther Priyadharshini, “Boredom and Schooling: A Cross-Disciplinary Exploration,” Cambridge Journal of Education 37.4 (Dec. 2007): 579-595; Jan-Erik Mansikka, “Can Boredom Educate Us? Tracing a Mood in Heidegger’s Fundamental Ontology from an Educational Point of View,” Studies in Philosophy and Education 28 (2009): 255-268; and Toohey, 174.
- See “Make It Meaningful!,” Educational Leadership 68.1 (Sep. 2010): 8; and Barkley, “The Case for Boredom.”
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Teaching for Justice: On Shaping How Students Are Disposed to Act,” in Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education, eds. Clarence W. Joldersma and Gloria Goris Stronks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 146.
- See Toohey, 38.
- See Toohey, 8-17; and Svendsen, 93.
- Yawning, of course, can also signal physical fatigue. It seems highly unlikely, however, that Szymborska concludes her poem with an image intended to suggest that the atrocities of Hitler could have been averted by regular exercise and a good night’s sleep.
- Spacks, xii; see also Raposa, 15.
- Boredom, one might argue, is a species of attenuated awareness that holds to an object in the very act of distancing it. For various attempts to formulate this dynamic, see Healy, 58; Raposa, 55; and Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, trans. Thomas A. Carlson, Religion and Postmodernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 115-119.
- Raposa, 36; see also Svendsen, 22.
- Simple boredom becomes damaging on a sociopolitical level when it turns chronic. The trouble is the ease with which everyday experiences of boredom can grow habitual, thus imparting to these ostensibly “tolerable” moments a profound moral relevance.
- I am not suggesting that boredom and complacency are precise psychological equivalents—only that, for Szymborska, they often co-exist and lead to comparable outcomes. Recent social scientific studies have pointed to a similar connection. See Mary L. Cummings, Fei Gao, and Kris M. Thornburg, “Boredom in the Workplace: A New Look at an Old Problem,” Human Factors 58.2 (Mar. 2016): 281, 282, 285.
- “The Poet and the World,” in Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, xiii.
- Ibid., xiii, xiv.
- Ibid., xiii.
- Ibid., xiv.
- The idea of boredom as “dismissal” is based loosely on Marion, 115.
- This perhaps helps to explain the frustration teachers feel when students enter their courses already assuming that the subject, or the teacher, is “boring.”
- Wisława Szymborska, Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, trans. Clare Cavanagh (New York: Harcourt, 2002), 226.
- See also Raposa, 3, 125.
- Teresa Bruś, “Fathoming Snapshots and Poetry,” Belgrade English Language and Literature Studies 2 (2010): 215.
- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, rev. ed. (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 252. Significantly, Arendt points to Eichmann’s use of clichés as evidence of his inability to think for himself (48-49). On Arendt’s notion of “thoughtlessness,” see Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 4-5.
- See Svendsen, 31.
- See also “The End and the Beginning,” in which Szymborska describes the aftermath of war. Although initially knowledge of the conflict remains fresh in people’s memories, eventually “others are bound to be bustling nearby / who’ll find all that / a little boring.” Ultimately, boredom leads to utter forgetfulness as “Someone” unknowingly sits on the former battlefield “with a cornstalk in his teeth, / gawking at clouds,” thus preparing the way for history to repeat itself.
- Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 176; see also Biele, 171.
- See Cavanagh, 193.
- Szymborska, Nonrequired Reading, 180.
- Cavanagh, 185, 189.
- Spacks, 33.
- See Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (1951; reprint, New York: Perennial, 2001), 57-65.
- Of course, introducing students to Szymborska’s poem would be a good place to begin.
- Bruce Ellis Benson, “The End of the Fantastic Dream: Testifying to the Truth in the ‘Post’ Condition,” Christian Scholar’s Review 30.2 (Winter 2000): 158.
- Szymborska, “Poet and the World,” xv-xvi.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, ed. W. H. Gardner (London: Penguin, 1985), 27.
- John Freedman, “The Possibilities and Limitations of Poetry: Wisława Szymborska’s Wielka Liczba,” Polish Review 31.2/3 (1986): 146. Cf. Graf, 88.
- Hopkins, “As kingfishers catch fire,” in Poems and Prose, 51.
- Goodstein, 5. Similarly, Spacks associates the language of boredom with a “culture of narcissism” (8).
- I am grateful to Michael Jacobs and the reviewers at CSR for their helpful comments on this essay.