Camus On Boredom And Awareness Of Time

By Liana Raguso

“‘Query: How to contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in a dentist’s waiting-room; by remaining on one’s balcony all of a Sunday afternoon; by listening to lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling by the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course standing all the way; by lining up at the box-office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.’”

Albert Camus

The relationship between boredom and perception of time is usually construed in a negative light. We complain about how boring experiences seem to take forever and use the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” as an endorsement of fun. However, Camus reconstitutes this relationship with his claim that only when we are bored are we not wasting time. Camus’s words imply two linked claims about the relationship between boredom and time: First, boredom makes us fully attuned to the passage of time; second, time is wasted when we are not fully aware of it. From these two premises, Camus draws the controversial conclusion that the best way not to waste time is to spend it bored.

Though Camus’s argument is surprising—and not meant to be taken entirely seriously—it is not without its merits. This passage comes from the opening chapters of Camus’s novel The Plague, in which a lethal plague forces an entire town into lockdown before killing a large portion of its population. Later on, the foremost goal of the characters of The Plague will be the prolongment of life. In this context, boredom’s capability to seemingly lengthen periods of time, or at least to make sure they are experienced in their entirety, becomes a powerful asset. Most of us have at least once considered the question, what would you do if you knew you had only one day left to live? Typical answers include spending time with loved ones, getting final affairs in order, enjoying a favorite activity for the last time, and so on. Camus offers an unconventional alternative: Spend the time bored, so as to live as long as possible.

Camus’s ideas on the merits of boredom apply to less life-or-death situations as well. Part of Camus’s argument hinges on the idea of what it means for time to be wasted. When we keep busy with activities that require our attention, time slips by without our notice, resulting in hours or perhaps entire days feeling “lost.” There is something to the idea that time is wasted when we do not explicitly strive for an awareness of it. The more intensely we experience events that take place in time, the less we experience time itself; we can even imagine time as a substance that must be either measured or lost as it flows by. Though most of us are unlikely to seek out boredom the way Camus’s character plans to, Camus shows us how to take a more positive view of our inevitable experiences with boredom by appreciating the “full awareness” of time it allows us.

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