Sunday 3 November 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

When it comes to raising children there are a few theories with which it would be churlish to disagree. Support them with their school work from an early age, ensure they eat healthily, encourage them to look after the environment and prevent them from getting bored. Actually, that last one might be a bit contentious.

I used to think that boredom was the enemy of creativity. I was brought up to believe that you should never have a dull moment. An active mind was better than an idle one. That is the reason why, the minute I became a father, I made sure that my children always had something to do. However, a recent article by Evgeny Morozov (it was actually a review of three books) has made me rethink this specific parental strategy. It has also made me wonder whether sometimes a bout of ennui is good for the creative mind.

Morozov is the author of the Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. He has written extensively about the effects of modern technology on our social behaviour. So, I was interested in his opinion about what he called “the anti-boredom lobby”. The example he used in his article was Siegfried Kracauer, a renowned figure in the arts in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. Siegfried remarked that the bourgeoisie of his time “are pushed deeper and deeper into the hustle and bustle until eventually they no longer know where their head is”. Replace “bourgeoisie” with “people nowadays” (regardless of class status) and “hustle and bustle” with “social media”, gadgets and ads and you will find yourself at the heart of Morozov’s theory.

For Morozov our lives today are lived in a “state of permament receptivity”. Smartphones and social networking sites have created a culture of “interestingness”. It is a world in which, according to Eric Schmidtm Google’s chairman, and whom Morozov quotes in his article, “you’re never lonely, because your friends are always reachable”. That is a scary thought. Sometimes I need to be away from my friends for a while. All friendships benefit from some breathing space, methinks. The cure for this lack of boredom, according to Morozov is the equivalent of what Kracauer suggested back in 1924: draw the curtains and get to know your sofa. In today’s modern world parlance that could be translated as unplug your computer, turn off your (smart)phone and forget about updating your profile on Facebook. One of the side-effects, according to Morozov, is a boost to your creative power.

Wait a second. Boredom as a conduit for creativity? Well, Evgeny has a point. By sheer coincidence at the same time I was reading Morozov’s feature, I was listening to Giant Steps, John Coltrane’s 1960 masterpiece. A few days before I had seen a documentary on Sky Arts on the American musician and this led me to dust off my Coltrane records and remind myself the reasons why I love jazz so much. The programme, narrated by the inimitable Morgan Freeman, was part of a series looking at key figures in the development of blues and jazz. Coltrane’s sound was highly influential – and controversial – at the time. His style was harmonic, but also very adventurous. When you listen to Giant Steps you’re confronted with the music of someone for whom, to quote Nat Hentoff, co-editor of The Jazz Review and who sang the album’s praises in that publication, there was an obsession “to play all he can hear or would like to hear”. This approach to composing chimes with Morozov’s ideas about information overload. One of the reasons why Coltrane was able to create his unique sound was that he wasn’t busy checking his Twitter feed or updating his Facebook profile, maybe because neither was around when the saxophonist was alive. Although I haven’t got any evidence to back my theory, I imagine Coltrane sitting down after a long, full-on session/concert playing with Miles Davis and just looking into space with  blank expression on his face, exhausted, still and silent. En brèf, I picture Coltrane feeling bored. Yet, it is from this idle state that we get the emotional strength of songs like Naima, the playfulness of a melody like Syeeda’s Song Flute and the loping bass hook of the title track, Giant Steps. Coltrane’s boredom was like a landing in a long set of stairs. The respite before the ascendance.

The form of boredom we suffer from nowadays, however, is of a different type. It is the kind that doesn’t give us time to reflect. It is the sort of ennui that provides us with so much information that we find ourselves slaves to it. In order to satiate this craving we, then, consume even more information. We are the hamsters on the wheel of modern technology. Of course, the antidote could be to draw one’s curtains and get acquainted a little bit more with our sofas. But what happens when we finally step outside? Just take a minute to glance through your window and imagine, if you can, that world out there with not hoardings, no billboard and no signs of any kind. Close your eyes, concentrate, see if you can really visualise it. I don’t think you will be able to. The irony is that many of the apps and devices developed to avoid this onslaught of information are provided by the same companies that created this unwelcome distraction in the first place. This is a point made by Evgeny in his article.

It is certainly amusing for me that having reached the “interestingness” stage of our development as a species, some of us want our boredom back. Amusing, because as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was raised to believe that dullness was equal to laziness and laziness was a trait to be found amongst the moneyed classes in capitalist, bourgeois societies. However, I look at my children now, especially my son with his smartphone, always checking his texts and e-mails (even when we are watching a film as a family) and I find myself wishing for a moment of non-activity, a lull in the constant, never-ending flow of information. Preferably accompanied by a loping bass hook.

© 2013

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 6th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. i think those moments of pause in our lives can def fuel the creative process...we have this false belief as creative types that the muse should listen to us, that we can command it as does not work that way...i do think we can find inspiration anywhere, so it is not an inspiration issue to me...there are times i def dont feel like writing...when it is not flowing...i usually write anyway but it is usually an indication that i need to be living my life more and let inspiration come as it will...

  2. I clicked over to your blog and was listening to John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." Jazz use to be one of my favorite forms of music but now it holds the #1 spot. I hardly listen to anything else. And I'll have to give some pause to Evgeny Morozov's theory. Sounds quite plausible.

  3. Yes, the need to pause, to reflect, to contemplate the bigger picture and often lost in the rush, rush ...of every day life as so many people now live it. Time out in nature has a way of balancing things for me at least and sadly, I don't do enough of that. This was an excellent post with a lot to consider.

  4. i think that boredom is an awesome source and well of's those times when our mind has time to wander to places where it cannot go in the everyday hectic... really... my kids did the most awesome things when they were bored (ok, sometimes some stupid things as well but...) but yeah - in our smartphone and online time it's difficult..

  5. I can understand why people in business use every means known to mankind to promote and to advertise themselves, but, to be honest, I cannot understand why any adult falls into the trap of using a multitude of systems for social networking. I almost have to believe there is some manner of psychosis at work. I think it might be healthier for the individual than becoming a social recluse, but, in some ways, it is almost the same thing.

    As for children using electronic gadgetry for interaction with other children, that seems to me to be quite natural. To be liked and popular and to have countless friends is the goal, dream and most active pursuit of most children. Whether this is good or bad for most children requires observation of the individual child, which, unfortunately, not all parents spend enough time doing and, generally, are not particularly talented at communicating with their children.

    As a personal side note, for as far back as I can remember and continuing until I was about age nine or ten, my mother required me to sit down or to lie down for thirty minutes after lunch each day if conditions permitted, with no book, no telephone, no television. If I napped, that was fine. If not, she wanted me to begin thinking and see where my thoughts led me. Afterwards, we would talk about it for a few minutes. Was this beneficial to me in a long-term sense? I think so, but I cannot explain it in only a few words. I will say, though, what began as an exercise in boredom turned into boundless curiosity.

    Another fascinating post, CiL. I might close my reaction to it with the thought that beyond modern communication technology reducing boredom in our lives, it fundamentally is turning us into more self-centered, boring, lemming-like creatures.

  6. a little bit of looking around and thinking of what can be found is good for the soul and away the muse will stroll

  7. I need disconnected time. Without it my mind races and my heart follows suit. Time alone, to sit, to be...
    And I am worried about the philosophy that says we need to be entertained at all times. Such a passive thing. Why can't we entertain ourselves?

  8. There have been many articles in the Swedish press for at least a decade claiming that being bored is good for children.

    And I've certainly noticed when all mobile devices are off that my own two kids start using their imaginations in creative play.

    So here's to boredom that allows the imagination to come to the forefront!

  9. A little boredom can go a long way...too much...brings trouble.

  10. Personally, I couldn't exist without time to sit quietly and just be.
    I suppose we all tend to want to be entertained at times, but the danger comes when we stop thinking for ourselves and rely on technology etc.
    When I write, I have to be away from intrusion from outside influences, otherwise I find it impossible.
    I think children need this "Me" time even more, in order for their unique talents to surface in a balanced way.
    If only this was taught more often in schools!
    Many thanks:)

  11. Each generation tries to find the happy medium.

    I've read that our youth has been deprived of sensory balance, missing real encounters with nature that allowed them to use their imagination and their cooperation. Everything they experience is mediated by adults at all times.

  12. Interesting that John Ruskin was not allowed playmates as a child (he was an only child) and he had precious few toys too. He had rather odd parents! He apparently remembered spending all morning just looking at the same things, and this inspired him massively. He was a bit odd himself, but nobody could say he wasn't profoundly creative.
    At art school too we might have to sit and draw the same boring looking thing for several days on end. It was very good for us. I don't like feeling bored myself though - but do value a lot of time with nothing specific to do in it.
    I really think that everyone's different, though, and it doesn't much matter what parents do.

  13. Being bored does force us to think. When you are doing nothing, your mind takes over. But I think we become bored too easily. We are usually doing several thing at once and get used to that stimulus.

  14. Words true to my heart! In boredom I turned to books as a child and later as adult to write them.

  15. I do worry about the younger generation constantly looking downwards onto their screens.

    Creativity needs quiet, solitude andreflection,daydreaming ....whendo they ever get time for that?
    I don't equate these things with boredom though - I have never been bored in my life, as long as I can read, think or dream......

  16. Many thanks for your wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.



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