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March 15, 2013

It's time to take boredom seriously, says Stanford literary professor

Stanford English scholar Saikat Majumdar traces the roots of modern literature to a fascination with the mundane.

By Corrie Goldman

In his latest book, Stanford scholar Saikat Majumdar examines the works of four writers who lived during or in the aftermath of British colonialism. (Photo courtesy of Stanford University)

Our digitally saturated culture makes boredom seem like a rarity. These days you might consider a few quiet moments a luxury rather than tedium.

However, through a study of modern and contemporary literary works, Stanford scholar Saikat Majumdar has found that boredom, as detailed by some of the great novelists of the 20th century, has been a far cry from leisure time.

In his latest publication, Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire, Majumdar examines the works of four writers – each of whom lived during or in the aftermath of British colonialism. In stories about the vast suburban spaces of colonial New Zealand, the dreary streets of late-colonial Dublin, the bureaucratically ensnared city of Calcutta and the grinding anxiety for liberation in late-apartheid South Africa, Majumdar has identified a cultural history of the British Empire in narratives about the "daily drudge" and "oppressive monotony."

Attention to the prosaic, which began to gather momentum in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, "came to define the very spirit" of modern literature, Majumdar noted. "When my students ask me, 'What do you think makes for really modern literature?' I say that there are obviously many other factors, but one really important factor is to be able to make the trivial central."

Majumdar wants to draw attention to a body of English-language fiction from early-20th-century Dublin to early-21st-century Calcutta that explores a "kind of suffering that is rooted in the ordinary experience of the everyday, where apparently trivial emotions like boredom mark a condition of dispossession."

As Majumdar, an assistant professor of English, has discovered, fictional depictions of the mundane reveal poignant truths about the human condition.

Majumdar, who specializes in world literature in English, is no stranger to boredom. Growing up in India he spent a lot of time waiting for the power to come back on and standing in long lines for buses. It was then that he first developed an interest in the "daily, dreary aspect of things not working," or what he described as "the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the everyday."

A novelist himself, Majumdar noted that some of the themes in his book Silverfish overlap with his current research. Part of the Silverfish story, he said, is "about bureaucratic realities in Calcutta, and how one can spend a whole day, or a good part of one's lifetime, chasing papers which never show up," a phenomenon that he attributes to "a sort of a hangover from colonial bureaucracy."

Boredom born out of deprived desire is a reality of our modern existence. And while the supposed notion of literature has been "to counter that, to engage and excite," Majumdar said it's time to think more critically about that relationship.

Perhaps most striking about the authors he studies, Majumdar said, is how they each turned an examination of an "impoverished mental state into a radical and innovative storytelling mode."

According to Majumdar, the development of tales about tedium in four British-ruled colonies is no coincidence. Modern literature's "preoccupation with the banal cannot be fully understood without attention to the colonial anxiety of being left in the backwater of progress and excitement."

These stories reveal how the people in the colonies "experienced local and immediate life as lagging far behind in progress, devoid of eventfulness, and generally stifling, claustrophobic and dull," said Majumdar.

Such is the famous Irish paralysis that Majumdar said "provided aesthetic material for James Joyce, one of the greatest innovators of modern fiction."

In works such as "A Little Cloud," Joyce articulated this "psychological consequence of imperialism," said Majumdar. "Turn-of-the-century Dublin was haunted by the anxiety of being a backward and boring place, a place left out of the narrative of historic progress, a petty and provincial place far from the cosmopolitan glamour of London and Paris."

Majumdar added that Joyce's sense of the ordinary is "inseparable from his sense of Dublin as this kind of peripheral place where nothing happens."

A preoccupation with the mundane

In her short story "Prelude," author Katherine Mansfield presents a sobering account of the "masculine fantasy of colonial expansion," Majumdar said. Alone in a far-off outpost of colonial New Zealand, the main character, Beryl Fairfield, suffers in a state of "social and cultural isolation," Majumdar said, after being led to believe that her new settler life would be one of "exotic romance."

"Boredom," Majumdar said, "thus becomes the emotional index of her cramped and constrained life under the strictures of white settler society."

In South African writer Zoë Wicomb's short stories, Majumdar found that boredom is often associated with waiting, which he views as "a recognizable allegory for developing nations who seem to be doomed to an eternal 'wait' for progress."

In a short story from her collection You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, Wicomb writes about a mixed-race girl waiting for her turn to be seen by the doctor who can only attend to her after he is done with all the white patients. "It is a wait that is demarcated by the racial hierarchy of apartheid law," and the character's boredom signifies both an "unfulfilled desire for modernity and a racially conflicted emotion," Majumdar said.

It's time to take boredom seriously

Majumdar said he selected the four authors to study in Prose of the World "because their slow, sensual and poetic mode of writing" personally appealed to him, but also because they demonstrate a kind of writing that "requires a mode of attention that often seems lost today in a world of quick aesthetic gratification."

If readers give the less obviously dramatic stories "the attention they deserve," Majumdar said, they would find "poignant stories about the state of mind from which none of us in the modern world feel we can escape."

Although some of the social sciences, like cultural anthropology, have investigated the marginal aspects of everyday life, Majumdar pointed out that questions of the ordinary and the mundane have only "recently started to invigorate literary criticism."

Majumdar noted that he is one of the first literary scholars to study boredom as "a kind of colonial, psychological effect, and see it as a global phenomenon."

"Perhaps," Majumdar said, "because literature's traditional mission is to engage and excite the imagination, the inescapable reality of the banal and the boring has been overlooked in literary thought." But, he added, "We need to take boredom a little more seriously."

Literary accounts of suffering and oppression have predominantly focused on spectacular events such as wars, riots and genocide, but Majumdar said his research presents "an understanding of suffering, oppression and poverty as an everyday, ordinary experience, as opposed to something that can only be understood as a grand spectacle."

For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

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Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu

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