Well, not much really – but it turns out that it’s quite interesting to find out how and when it arises.
According to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary boredom is a result of ‘unnatural detachment’ characteristic of the left hemisphere of the brain. Indeed, the whole book is an epic exploration of the battle between the left and right hemispheres. Traditionally, the left hemisphere has been seen as the rational side and superior to the frippery of the right. However, McGilchrist turns this view on its head, so to speak, arguing that that the right side is the more holistic, organic and insightful, and should actually be the senior partner while the left should be seen as its invaluable analytical servant.
Just as an example of his argument – and it should be said that the book covers a huge range of topics and adduces a vast amount of evidence to support his case – he writes that the left’s need for certainty leads to ‘devitalisation’. The author draws on the work of Patricia Spacks in her book Boredom: the Literary History of a State of Mind in which she makes the claim that boredom arose in the 18th century and relates it to ‘the dreariness of non-engagement’. Now, as with so much of McGilchrist’s book, one has to be cautious here. Spack’s book is about the literary manifestation of boredom and is not a sociological treatise. Taking her too literally produces absurd claims that boredom didn’t exist before the 18th century. But, with that caveat in mind, McGilchrist goes on to write: “I would connect the rise of the concept of boredom with an essentially passive view of experience; a view of vitality as mediated by novelty, a stimulant force which comes from the outside, rather as the power supply comes to the computer.” His reference here to a computer is particularly apposite because it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to understand how the modern person seems to crave external stimulation, whether it be from television through to the continual absorption of social media and self-confirming algorithms. It’s the sight of the modern zombies, plugged in and head bowed in silent homage to the tech giants as they check their ‘phones – completely oblivious of the real world around them and rendered stupefied by the external stimulant.
McGilchrist makes his point most clearly when he writes: “Devitalisation leads to boredom and boredom, in turn, to sensationalism.” And again: “Since the rise of capitalism in the 18th century, when according to Patrician Spacks boredom as such began (and here we need to recall the earlier caveat), an appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitement has lain at the heart of successful bourgeoise society, with it’s need above all to be getting and spending money.” This analysis seems to speak to our times as McGilchrist builds his argument that the Servant (the left side) is making a play to take over the Master (the right). There is a sense in which McGilchrist appears to refer to the two sides of the brain as though they were two characters in a book or play, and this takes on an epic, and possibly strained, sweep when he scales this up to involve such movements as the Reformation, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism and post-modernism. He can also be guilty of cherry-picking at times and this is most apparent when he picks on the two ultra-rationalists Jeremy Bentham and Rene Descartes to make his point, while ignoring those who tend to undermine his case like Voltaire, Hume and D’Alembert. The latter thinker, in response to similar criticisms of the Enlightenment, rejoined: “In sum, even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point to the disadvantage of human knowledge, which is far from our intention here, we are even farther from believing that anything would be gained by destroying it. Vices would remain with us, and we would have ignorance in in addition.” And as Anthony Gottlieb writes in The Dream of Enlightenment ‘because the philosophes repeatedly stressed the weakness of the human mind it is probably misleading to refer to the Age of Reason, which ought to be the Age of Trying to be more Reasonable’, although Gottlieb acknowledges that this would be a less than snappy title.
There is also an element of the ‘just-so’ about the book when his analysis of the relationship between the left and right sides of the brain sometimes just happens to fit his criticism of the modern world.
Nevertheless, and despite some major flaws, The Master and His Emissary makes a seductive case that seems to underpin many of the perceived ills of modernity. It’s the sort of book that needs to be taken as a whole. That does not mean papering over the cracks but seeing them as part of this flawed but majestic edifice. If we follow McGilchrist’s advice and try to read the book with the two sides of the brain working in harmony, then it has the potential to be, if not life-changing exactly, then definitely perception-shifting.