"Anyhow, you'll see that it will be one of my most successful Wednesdays. I don't want to have any boring women. You mustn't judge by this evening, which has been a complete failure. Don't try to be polite, you can't have been more bored that [sic] I was, I myself thought it was deadly. It won't always be like to-night, you know! I'm not thinking of the Cambremers, who are impossible, but I've known society people who were supposed to be agreeable, and compared with my little nucleus they didn't exist. I heard you say that you thought Swann clever. I must say, to my mind it's greatly exaggerated, but without even speaking of the character of the man, which I've always found fundamentally antipathetic, sly, underhand, I often had him to dinner on Wednesdays. Well, you can ask the others, even compared with Brichot, who is far from being a genius, who's a good secondary schoolmaster whom I got into the Institute all the same, Swann was simply nowhere. He was so dull!" And as I expressed a contrary opinion: "It's the truth. I don't want to say a word against him since he was your friend, indeed he was very fond of you, he spoke to me about you in the most charming way, but ask the others here if he ever said anything interesting, at our dinners. That, after all, is the test. Well, I don't know why it was, but Swann, in my house, never seemed to come off, one got nothing out of him. And yet the little he had he picked up here." I assured her that he was highly intelligent. "No, you only thought that because you didn't know him as long as I did. Really, one got to the end of him very soon. I was always bored to death by him." (Translation: "He went to the la Tremoilles and the Guermantes and knew that I didn't.") "And I can put up with anything except being bored. That I cannot stand!"
Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain, pp. 1003-1004
Mme Verdurin launches a long screed on her hatred of boredom, and in the process manages to insult Marcel's late friend Charles Swann (who dominated so much of the early stages of Remembrance of Things Past; I found it oddly sad to hear him described in the past tense). Boredom is something I've thought about a lot over the years, not because I'm often bored but because I seldom bored. First off, what does boredom even mean? If you think about it, a protestation of boredom is in many the very definition of White Privilege, both from Mme Verdurin and from petulant teenagers (and petulant not-quite teenagers and, even worse, petulant post-teenagers and petulant dramatically post-teenagers). The vast majority of people who ever lived didn't have time to be bored because too much of their time was devoted to surviving. Plus, it can, obviously, be pretty subjective. Years ago when my wife Brenda and I lived in Cincinnati during graduate school there was this, even then, fairly dilapidated little theater, which I'm sure was demolished or re-purposed years ago. It would often show that rarity of rarities in today's world, the double feature. Since we were poor as church mice we would occasionally go, and one time they had the odd double feature of Top Gun and Witness. They made sense on a timeline of 1980s movies, but could not be more different thematically. I remember being bored stupid by the Tom Cruise movie featuring fighter jets and liking every moment of Harrison Ford helping the Amish to build a barn. When I was a teenager I remember my Mom telling me quite clearly that it was not her job to entertain me, which should have elicited the appropriate teenage eye roll but somehow resonated with me. Now, that may have made sense because I grew up in a different age, and in the middle of a cornfield, and was a voracious reader, so turning inside myself was a very easy and natural option, and I think even today I live inside myself to an extraordinary degree. So could the issue of boredom can be something as simple as whether one lives more externally or internally? I have a marked tendency, which my girlfriend (and doubtless every girlfriend I've ever had or will ever have) can attest, to "disappear," although as I think of it is less a case of trying to removing myself from the presence of someone I find boring or distasteful but rather my own natural inclination to retreat into my own mind. I'm talking about this because it makes me think of Mme Verdurin's critique of Swann: "Really, one got to the end of him very soon." Of course, people's perceptions of you can be odd if not comically incorrect. Jo Ames, one of my students, happens to know a couple who are old friends with my girlfriend, which surprised her (I suspect because students assume that we actually only exist in our office or classrooms, or in her case, the streets of Madrid and Lisbon). They told her that they considered me a very quiet and humble man, which she found pretty hysterical; in turn, this led to me explaining to her that maybe in their presence I was that way, not that it is my natural state of affairs, but because they weren't my students and thus I wasn't in my Scudder performance piece mode. In regards to Swann, my supposition is that he found her crowd tedious and hence didn't interact and instead retreated into his own mind, or maybe he just turned into a mirror and reflected back whatever he saw. Either way, Swann is the character I've always felt the most affinity for as the novel has unfolded.