Among the many effective ways to evade ennui is to spend an afternoon googling ennui.
To the uninitiated, ennui may seem to be a tiresome word. Its meaning: listlessness; tedium; world-weariness, does little to counter that. Ennui is a feeling I’ve experienced and a word I’ve encountered on many occasions, most recently in my French class last Friday.
Yep, ennui, like so many English words, is French too if you say it with an accent. Actually, to be more accurate, it was French first. To discover its origins, let’s take a quick trip to France in the year 1660.
A leap year that began on a Thursday.
The year that Blaise Pascal’s ‘Lettres Provinciales’, a defense of the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, was ordered to be shredded and burned by King Louis XIV.
The year that Samuel Pepys had his first cup of tea and wrote about it in his diary.
The first year of the decade during which ennui, meaning annoyance, first appeared in old French. It later came to mean annoyance, problems and boredom.
Ennui was co opted by English in the 18th Century, possibly by the bourgeoisie who sought a fancy way to say they were dissatisfied.
Ennui is a special brand of boredom. It refers to a general disinterest in the matters of daily life. Not so much a boredom resulting from a lack of preoccupations, but a listlessness despite them. See exhibit A: cat lolling on a shelf when it could be reading any one of those interesting books all around it. A person in the thralls of ennui may resemble the cat, sprawled or leaning on some inanimate object, unable to take pleasure in that which surrounds them.
Ennui is a state of affairs, and to an extent a state of mind. For example, in his novel ‘Breathe’ (which I thoroughly recommend), Tim Winton evokes the ennui of adolescence in small-town Australia. At the same time, you could say that the characters are driven to destructive decisions by their ennui.
Paradoxically, ennui has been a source of much artistic inspiration across the centuries. It has been the subject of artworks, poetry, music and writing. Check out Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire. Imagine all the hours of ennui which were eased by the dedication to its portrayal! I reckon it was many.
See how the woman is surrounded by the accoutrements of daily life, but is completely disinterested? Ennui.
This painting by Walter Richard Sickert, also entitled ‘Ennui’, is perhaps more evocative of the dismay which can go hand in hard with ennui. The pervasive blandness of another long afternoon waiting for the rain to stop, smoking with the windows closed with your back turned to your lover? Ennui.
I’ve heard it said that ennui is becoming a bit passé in this age of 24 hour online shopping, bright pop music and constant media bombardment. That concerns me. There is something poetic about ennui that I don’t want to lose. Jeff Nunokawa agrees – and he studied Oscar Wilde, so he must be cool. He wrote ‘The Importance of Being Bored: The Dividends of Ennui in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’’, an entire essay dedicated to the phenomenon of ennui within the text and its construction. I also came across a French article which lamented the deficits of a society free from ennui.
My own exploration of ennui killed several hours today as I trawled the internet, thoroughly absorbed in this phenomenon. Yep, today ennui gave me the gift of enthusiasm and vigor.
Ennui, despite its somewhat negative connotations, can inspire contemplation and reflection. If we lose the capacity to revel in ennui, we may sacrifice much in the worlds of art, philosophy and literature.
So, ennui. Self indulgent? Maybe.
The opiate of the middle class? Quite possibly.
Frustrating to watch? Yes.
But I still think it could be a worthwhile part of life, and deserving of a place in our future sentences 🙂
And even if it isn’t, it sure inspired some cool songs:
In peace and wordliness.