King Arthur: Consult the Book of Armaments.Now why’s that funny? Obviously there’s the snazzy Pythonesque cross-cutting of sacred and contemporary diction – “And the Lord did grin,” “who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.” Those contemporary idioms act as punctuation to the more uncomfortable humor of the repetitive, incantatory verbiage which pretty evilly apes the language in which the AV renders ritual instruction: “Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three…”
Brother Maynard: Armaments, chapter two, verses nine through twenty-one.
Cleric: [reading] And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy." And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large chu...
Brother Maynard: Skip a bit, Brother...
Cleric: And the Lord spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.
Brother Maynard: Amen.
Tedium can be funny, as the Pythons demonstrate repeatedly (and cf. Borat singing the endless Khazak national anthem to a stadium of bemused then uncomfortable minor-league baseball fans). But in eccelesiastical settings – as in my childhood, when each church service began with a line of young boys reading, seriatim, five or six verses of scripture apiece (and I assume that this goes double or treble in temple when they’re ploughing thru the census data in Numbers) – tedium is simply tedious.
I think Michael Peverett is right to see tedium as having become, with the modernists, a fundamental component of certain literary texts, an aesthetic element in its own right:
Somewhere along the line the bizarre aesthetic appeal of long screeds of boredom got into modernism - someone got tired of books that were too straightforwardly digestible. I think it begins with Portrait of the Artist - that chapter where the hellfire sermon just goes on and on, (judged by the standards of what earlier novelists and readers would have considered tolerable - they'd have extracted about a page, merely enough to make the narrative point). Must have been a reaction gainst conventional ideas of what was considered proportional (I guess that behind Joyce lay Flaubert, Bouvard and the Tentation... authors intoxicated with pursuing parodic lines far beyond the limits of anecdote - and then there was Ulysses...Michael’s genealogy of tedium, then, involves a Blakean pursuit of parodic excess – the obvious example being the “Nausicaa” and “Eumaeus” chapters of Ulysses, each of which takes a parodic joke way beyond the limits of what any earlier writer would have dreamed. And then there's Samuel Beckett's early novels...
One can I think set aside the question of intentional versus unintentional tedium. “Eumaeus” is clearly intended to be tedious, while Pound felt that the Chinese history Cantos were really great stuff, as dreadfully dull as most of his contemporary readers find them. More interesting is to look at tedium from the side of the bored reader.
One clear taxonomical distinction can be drawn on the basis of understanding. That is, there are passages that we find boring, even as we understand precisely what they mean: "Eumaeus," most of Leviticus, etc. And then there is a sort of boredom that accompanies the reading of a text that one simply can't understand. I don't want to sound like one of my undergrads here – "I couldn't understand Paradise Lost I, so it was sooo boring" – but there's a kernel of truth there: linear meaning is one of the most prominent pegs – historically, the preëminent peg – upon which to hang a reader's attention, & solicit her or his potential enjoyment. (Marianne Moore: "We do not admire what we do not understand.")
The various modernist poetries – and here I'm thinking much more widely than Anglo-American "high" modernism; think Dada, Zaum, Merz, usw. – often worked to set aside linear meaning in the vulgar sense (ie, a coherent discourse that could be attributed to a single lyric voice, or that could be traced out & however reductively paraphrased [both Ben Jonson & Yvor Winters felt poetry should be paraphraseable]). In the wake of these modernisms, we have a variety of poetries that resist meaning in various ways.
Now it's not that the resistance to meaning is in itself boring or productive of readerly tedium: but one might argue that meaning-resistant poetry tends unintentionally to solicit readerly boredom in ways analogous to those in which KJV repetition and Eumaean banality solicit readerly boredom. When I read an obdurately meaning-resistant text, my linearly-trained reading skills have been deprived of one of their primary objects of pleasure (that would be the pleasure of sheer decoding, of learning things); in return, that text must provide me some other sources of pleasure – striking juxtaposition, shiny complexity, a challenging polysemic surface, etc.
And while those pleasures are all very real, when I confront a 150- or 200-page poem composed of nothing but juxtaposition, I'm likely to fall into the boredom produced by repetition ("Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three...") That's often my own failure, my own shortness of attention. Sometimes, however, it's because a poetry of radical disjunction simply can't hold one's attention in the long run unless it has some other qualities of interest, & too many poets (modern & contemporary) have found disjunction to be an end in itself.
Back in the day there was a discussion on the Poetics List about the aesthetics of boredom, and a couple of folks (I won't name names because I don't remember who it was) were arguing for an aesthetics of boredom – that is, of dullness as a kind of textural quality of the poem. That, like the aesthetic of the Chrysler K car and the fact that some people actually buy Britney Spears records, I don't really understand – sort of like arguing the merits of Kenny G over Ornette – or rather, arguing that time spent listening carefully to Kenny G is somehow equal to time spent listening carefully to Charlie Parker. I spend plenty of time reading poetry – not enough – but I begrudge every minute where the poem before me isn't engaging me to my utmost.