I started to think of ennui/boredom during the pandemic. This was probably because of the way in which the lockdown period was featureless. Day followed day and it was often difficult to tell what day of the week it was. It reminded me of what it is like standing on the East African plains, the Serengeti for example, and noticing an endless sea of grass that went on and on and interspersed only by irregularly spaced thorn trees. This was what ennui was like during the pandemic.
Alberto Moravia who himself had suffered from ennui wrote a novel, La Noia, translated into English as Boredom. William Weaver who knew Moravia would sometimes encounter Moravia as he took his walk in Rome and would ask him how he was and Moravia would answer ‘Mi annoio’, ‘I’m bored’. So, what is it to be bored? Dino the protagonist in Moravia’s novel describes boredom as being like a too short blanket on a sleeping man on a winter night: he pulls it down over his feet and his chest gets cold, then he pulls it up onto his chest and his feet get cold, and so he never succeeds in falling properly asleep. Or, to put it in another way,
My boredom resembles a repeated and mysterious interruption of the electric current inside a house: at one moment everything is clear and obvious- here are armchairs, over there are sofas, beyond our cupboards, side tables, pictures, curtains, carpets, windows, doors; a moment later there is nothing but darkness and an empty void.
Or, finally to put in a different way,
My boredom might be described as a malady affecting external objects and consisting of a with the withering process; an almost instantaneous loss of vitality just as though one saw a flower changing in a few seconds from a bud to decay and dust.
This latter description of boredom is wholly analogical, and therefore is extraordinarily difficult to fully comprehend. This is another way of saying that the feeling of boredom is incommunicable or indescribable. In the novel, Dino’s father also suffered from boredom, but in his case, the boredom was dissipated by constant movement, by constant wandering from one country to another, and in this way, he was able to change the features of the world so that he retained some visceral response to the novel changes in the external features of the world. This probably explains something about the impetus that some people have to be constantly exploring and discovering new places and new habits.
I think a much better description of boredom is captured in these few words,
Boredom, was for me, like a kind of fog in which my thought was constantly losing its way, catching glimpses only at intervals of some detail of reality: like a person in a thick mist who catches a glimpse now of the corner of a house, now of the figure of a passer-by, now of some other object, but only for an instant, before they vanish.
We have here, a sense of evanescence, of dew rapidly evaporating in the early morning sunlight, of temporality and impermanence. It is both a sense of mist standing in the way that the world impinges on our senses and also of how whatever it is that invigorates the world with light and passion, whatever is the thing that resides in our spirit ready to electrify the world was dormant, deeply asleep in Dino. For Dino, our protagonist, he felt that boredom had corroded his inner life and that it also meant that he was dissatisfied with himself. He said,
Anything I wished to do presented itself to me like a Siamese twin joined inseparably to some opposite thing which I equally did not wish to do. Thus I felt that I did not want to see people not yet to be alone; but I did not want to stay at home nor yet to go out; that I did not want to travel or yet to go on living in Rome; that I did not want to paint nor yet not to paint; that I did not want to stay awake nor yet to go to sleep; that I did not want to make love nor yet not to do so; and so on.
To fully comprehend what boredom is not, is to recognise what our normal experience of the sensory world is like, to appreciate what the -taken-for-granted-world is like. I think Moravia fully appreciates the sensory world because he knows from personal experience what ennui does to the vitality of the lived world, how ennui not only corrodes it but bleaches it of colour. This passage speaks to the re-awakening of Dino’s world,
The details of her figure seemed by some miracle to be more visible than usual, in fact to be visible on their own account- visible, that is, even if I did not look at them and examine them- the light, crisp, brown mass of her hair, more like the intricate untamed fleece of the groin than a combed head of hair; the motion of her neck, which could not be seen because it was hidden, but which could be felt, at the same time querulous and graceful; the movement of her long, loose, hairy green sweater around the bust which I knew to be naked underneath it, with the full, firm breasts and their delicate points exposed to the friction of the rough wool; her short, narrow black skirt which displayed the rotundities of her hips, shifting and undulating at every step; her whole body, in fact, seemed to attract and swallow up my glances with the avidity with which the dry earth swallows the rain. But beyond these outward appearances which leaped to my eye, I realised that for the first time after a long period I was enabled to perceive a reality- how shall I describe it? – a reality of second degree, that is, something which gave a soul to these vivid, emphatic forms. Finally I understood what this reality was: In every part of that body in movement there was, as it were, an unconscious, involuntary force that seemed to urge Cecilia forward, as if she were a sleepwalker with closed eyes and darkened mind. This force drew her away from me and consequently made her real to me.
In another novel, Contempt, Moravia deals both with the question of boredom and that of melancholia. There is a similarity with Boredom, in that the protagonist this time, Molteni, is a person whose time is spent being hyper-conscious of his environment, to the degree, that one can say that he is estranged from it. Or, to put it in another way, that he is able to perceive the world in wholly novel ways, forms in which the usual sensations are slowed down and exaggerated, rendered unfamiliar and bizarre.
First, there is a sense of numbness, then boredom, but not as described in the novel Boredom. It is a boredom driven by complacence, an unawareness of happiness or love because like air, it was freely available, not in short supply, hence unappreciated. So, this is a different kind of ennui, an ennui of the spirit that is driven by a life that is unexamined, a life that becomes commonplace, exactly because there is an absence of reflection, an automatism as Moravia calls it, that is much like how we do not notice that we swing our arms as we walk, or that we breathe at all until we have a severe chest condition that turns breathing into a feat.
So, yes, there was boredom during the first lockdown, during the pandemic. Boredom that was occasioned by the featurelessness of life, an unbroken monotony and routine, that was at once safeguard against the threatening world but yet was itself threatening to the need for change and adventure in daily life.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
One thought on “Alberto Moravia’s La Noia”
I think of a passage from Lavengro by George Borrow about how if only we could feel the wind on the heath even having lost our sight, then “who would not want to live forever.” Ennui or immersion is the wonders of a zephyr. The Yin and Yang of perceptions span a vast emotional distance.