Boredom, p.2Alberto Moravia
Actually I suffered from boredom between the ages of ten and twenty to a perhaps greater extent than in any other period of my life. I was born in 1920; thus the time of my adolescence was spent beneath the black banner of Fascism, that is, of a political regime which had been erected into a system by the incommunicability both of the dictator toward the masses and of the individual citizens between each other and toward the dictator. Boredom, which is the lack of a relationship with external things, was in the very air one breathed during the period of Fascism, and to this social boredom must be added the boredom of dull sexual urgency which, as is liable to happen at that age, prevented me from making contact with the very women who I believed could afford me relief. But my boredom saved me from the civil war which was to devastate Italy for two years. This was how it happened. I was in the army, in a division stationed in Rome, and as soon as the armistice was declared I took off my uniform and went home. Then a proclamation was made bidding all soldiers rejoin their units on pain of death. My mother, characteristically obsequious to the authorities, who at that moment were Fascist and German, advised me to put on my uniform again and report to headquarters. She was anxious for my safety, but in reality she was urging me toward deportation and probably death in a Nazi concentration camp—as happened to many of my comrades in arms. It was boredom, and boredom alone—that is, the impossibility of establishing contact of any kind between myself and the proclamation, between myself and my uniform, between myself and the Fascists—it was boredom from which I had suffered for twenty years, and which now caused the great empire of the fasces and the swastika to be entirely non-existent in my eyes, which saved me. Despite my mother’s prayers, I took refuge in the country, in the villa of a friend, and there I spent the whole period of the civil war, painting—which is as good a way of passing the time as any other. It was then that I became a painter; that is, I hoped to be able to re-establish contact with reality, once and for all, by means of artistic expression. In the first sense of relief brought about by my enthusiasm for painting, I did indeed almost convince myself that my boredom had been nothing more than the boredom of an artist ignorant of his vocation. I was wrong, but for some time I deluded myself with the idea that I had found a remedy.
At the end of the war I went back to live with my mother who, in the meantime, had acquired a big villa on the Via Appia. I had hoped, as I said, that painting had overcome boredom once and for all, but I realized almost at once that this was not so. I started suffering from boredom again in spite of my painting; in fact, since boredom automatically interrupted painting, I became conscious of the intensity and frequency of my old trouble more acutely than before I had started painting. Thus the problem of my boredom presented itself again, unchanged. I started asking myself what could be the reasons for it, and by process of elimination arrived at the conclusion that perhaps I was bored because I was rich and that if I were poor I would not be bored. This idea was not as clear in my mind as it appears now on paper; it was a question, not so much of an idea, as of a kind of haunting suspicion that there was a connection, obscure but indisputable, between boredom and money. I do not wish to linger too long over this exceedingly disagreeable period of my life. Since I was bored, and when bored could not paint, I began to hate with all my soul both my mother’s villa and the comforts I enjoyed there; it was to the villa I attributed my boredom and the consequent impossibility of painting, and I longed to leave it. But since it was a question of a mere suspicion, I could not bring myself to say clearly the one thing I ought to have said to my mother: I don’t want to live with you because you are rich, and being rich bores me and boredom prevents me from painting. Instead, I sought instinctively to make myself intolerable, in such a way as to hint at and to some extent to force my departure from the villa. I recall those days as days of unending ill-humor, of obstinate hostility, of determined non-compliance, of almost morbid antipathy. I have never treated my mother worse than I did during that period; and thus, to the boredom that oppressed me, there was added on top of everything else, a feeling of pity for her, incapable as she was of finding any explanation for my rudeness. Worse than anything, I suffered from a kind of paralysis of all my faculties, which made me mute and apathetic and dull, so that I felt as if I were buried alive inside myself, in a hermetically sealed and stifling prison.
My sojourn at the villa and my consequent state of mind would have probably been far more prolonged if, luckily, my mother had not come to believe that she recognized in my boredom a feeling analogous to that which had ruined her relations with my father.
My father was a born vagabond—from what I have been able to make out, putting two and two together. He was one of those men who fall gradually silent when at home, lose their appetite and in fact refuse to go on living (rather like birds which cannot endure to be shut up in a cage); but who, on the other hand, once they find themselves on the deck of a ship or in a railroad train, recover all their vitality. He was tall, athletic, fair-haired and blue-eyed, like me; but I am not good-looking because I have become prematurely bald, and my face, generally, is gray and gloomy; he, however, was a handsome man—at least if one can believe the boasts of my mother, who insisted on marrying him willy-nilly, in spite of the fact that he kept telling her that he did not love her and that he would leave her as soon as he could. I saw him only a few times, because he was always traveling, and the last time I saw him his fair hair was almost gray and his boyish face was all furrowed with fine, deep wrinkles; but he was still wearing the carefree butterfly bow ties and check suits of his youth. He came and went, that is, he ran away from my mother with whom he was bored and then came back again, probably in order to get a new supply of money so as to run off again, for he himself had not a penny, although, in theory, he was in the “import and export” business. Finally he came back no more. A violent gust of wind in the sea off Japan overturned a ferryboat with a hundred passengers on board, and my father was drowned with the rest of them. What he was doing in Japan, whether he was there in connection with “imports and exports” or for some other purpose, I have never known. According to my mother, who loved scientific or seemingly scientific definitions, my father suffered from “dromomania,” in other words the passion for movement. It was perhaps this mania, she used to remark thoughtfully, that explained his passion for stamps—those small, brightly colored evidences of the vastness and variety of the world—of which he had gathered together a fine collection, still preserved by her, as well as his talent for geography, the only subject he had seriously studied at school. As far as I could understand, my mother looked upon my father’s “dromomania” as a purely individual and therefore fundamentally insignificant characteristic, but I could not help feeling a kind of fraternal pity for that pathetic, faded figure, more and more faded as time went on, in whom I seemed to recognize—at least in his relationship with my mother—certain features in common with myself. But these were external features, as I realized on thinking the matter over: my father, it was true, had also suffered from boredom; but in him this suffering had been dissipated by happy wanderings in one country after another; his boredom, in other words, was the ordinary kind of boredom, in the sense in which the word is normally used, the boredom that asks no more than to be relieved by new and unusual sensations. My father, in fact, had believed in the reality of the world—in the world of geography, at any rate; whereas I could not manage to believe in the reality even of a tumbler.
Anyhow, my mother did not indulge in any great subtleties; she believed she could recognize without any possible doubt, in my boredom, the superficial tedium which had previously made her relations with her husband difficult. “Unfortunately you take after your father more than after me,” she finally said to me one day, in a brisk manner. “I know that, when this thing attacks you, the only remedy is to send you away. So go away, go wherever you like, and when you’ve got over it you can come back.”
I answered, with relief, that I had no intention of going away; t
There remained the question of money. We were rich, as I have said, and up to this time I had enjoyed more or less unlimited credit; I drew upon my mother’s bank account whenever I needed it. But now my mother, foreseeing a repetition with me of the experience she had already had with her husband, to whom she had always given enough money for him to run away but never enough to stay permanently away from her, informed me dryly that from now on she would give me a monthly allowance. I replied that I asked nothing better; and when, with a kind of angry remorse, she announced the amount of the sum she intended to allow me, I told her at once that I would be satisfied with half of it. My mother, who had been expecting an argument of the sort that she had formerly carried on with my father, to whom the money she offered had never been enough, was very much surprised at this unforeseen disinterestedness on my part. “But you can’t live on as little as that, Dino,” she exclaimed almost involuntarily. I replied that it was my affair, and in order to avoid giving myself the airs of an ascetic, I added that in any case I hoped soon to succeed in earning a living by my painting. My mother looked at me with incredulity; she did not believe in my artistic abilities. A few days later I found a studio in Via Margutta and moved there with my belongings.
My change of dwelling caused no alteration in my state of mind. Once the initial relief due to change had worn off, I started to be bored again at intervals as in the past. I ought to have foreseen that boredom would not disappear simply owing to my moving house; in any case I was rich not because I lived in the Via Appia, but because I possessed a certain amount of money. The fact that I did not want to make use of it mattered, fundamentally, very little; there are rich people who are miserly and who spend a very small part of their income and live poorly, but no one on that account would think of calling them poor. And so my first idea, or rather my first obsession, that my boredom and consequent artistic sterility were due to living at home with my mother came gradually to be replaced by a second and more serious obsession; that it was impossible to renounce one’s own wealth. Being rich was like having blue eyes or an aquiline nose; a subtle compulsion bound the rich man to his money, and gave the color of money even to his decision not to make use of it. In short, I was not a poor man who had been rich, I was simply a rich man who was pretending, to himself and to others, to be poor.
I proved to myself that this was true in the following way: What does a really poor man do, if he hasn’t any money? He dies of hunger. What would I do in such a case? I should go and seek help from my mother. And even if I did not do so, I should not on that account be considered poor; not at all, I should merely be considered mad. But, I reflected, mine was not an extreme case. It was an intermediate case, since it was true that I allowed myself to be supported by my mother, even though I limited such support to what was strictly necessary. Thus, in comparison with the really poor, I found myself in the privileged, treacherous position of the rich gambler in relation to the poor gambler: the former can lose to an unlimited extent, the latter cannot. But—even more important—the former can really “play,” that is, amuse himself; whereas the latter can only set out to win.
It is difficult to say what my feelings were as I thought over these things. There was a sense of some kind of petty witchcraft, against which I could do nothing, because it was impossible for me to tell when or how or where the spell that enmeshed me had been woven. Sometimes I thought of the saying in the Gospels: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” and I wondered what being rich meant. Was one rich because one possessed a lot of money? Or because one had been born into a rich family? Or because one had lived, and still lived, in a society that placed riches above all other good things? Or because one believed in riches, desiring to become rich or bewailing the fact that one had been rich? Or because—as in my case—one did not want to be rich? The more I thought about it, the more difficult did it seem to me to define precisely, in my own mind, the feeling of compulsion, of predestination, that wealth aroused in me. Of course this feeling would not have existed if I had succeeded in freeing myself from my initial obsession that my boredom resulted from wealth, and my artistic sterility from boredom. But all our reflections, even the most rational, originate in some obscure basis of feeling. And it is not so easy to free oneself of feelings as it is of ideas: the latter come and go, but feelings remain.
It may be objected at this point that when all was said and done I was nothing more than an unsuccessful painter who—which is perhaps unusual—was conscious of his own failure, and that was all there was to it. Quite right, but up to a certain point only. Certainly I had failed, but not because I was unable to paint pictures that other people liked; it was rather because I felt that my pictures did not permit me to express myself, in other words to deceive myself into imagining that I had some contact with external things—in a word, they did not prevent me from being bored. Now the fundamental reason why I had started painting was to escape from boredom. If I went on being bored, why go on painting?
I left my mother’s villa, if I remember rightly, in March 1947; a little more than ten years later, as I have related, I took a knife and slashed my last picture and decided not to paint any more. Immediately my boredom, hitherto kept at bay to a certain extent by the exercise of painting, attacked me again with incredible violence. I have already observed that boredom consists, fundamentally, in a lack of contact with external things; during those days it appeared to me that there was a lack of contact, not only with things, but with myself. I know that these matters are difficult to explain; I will not go further than to suggest my meaning by use of a metaphor. During the days following my decision to give up painting, I closely resembled, in relation to myself, some individual, for various reasons intolerable, who is found by a traveler in his own railroad car at the beginning of a long journey. The car is of the old-fashioned kind, without any communication with the other coaches; the train is not going to stop until the end of the journey; and so the traveler is forced to remain with his hateful companion without hope of escape. In reality, and leaving metaphor aside, boredom had thoroughly corroded my life during those years, down below the surface of my job as a painter, leaving nothing unimpaired; so that once I had given up painting I felt I had been transformed, without noticing it, into a kind of shapeless, truncated fragment. And the main feature of my boredom was the practical impossibility of remaining in my own company—I myself being, moreover, the only person in the world whom I could not get rid of in any possible way.
And so at that time my life was dominated by a feeling of extraordinary impatience. Nothing that I did pleased me or seemed worth doing; furthermore, I was unable to imagine anything that could please me, or that could occupy me in any lasting manner. I was constantly going in and out of my studio on any sort of futile pretext—pretexts which I invented for myself with the sole object of not remaining there: to buy cigarettes I didn’t need, to have a cup of coffee I didn’t want, to acquire a newspaper that didn’t interest me, to visit an exhibition of pictures about which I hadn’t the slightest curiosity, and so on. I felt, moreover, that these occupations were nothing more than crazy disguises of boredom itself, so much so that sometimes I did not complete the errands I undertook. Instead of buying a newspaper or drinking coffee or visiting an exhibition, after taking a few st
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