''Joseph, you have a problem,'' the woman's voice declares softly but firmly.
''I have a problem?'' the man's voice replies, stalling for time.
''Yes,'' the woman continues, ''I'm bored.''
''And that's my problem?'' the man asks, now thoroughly confused.
Poor chap! This mystified anti-hero in a radio commercial obviously knows nothing about the rules of the game. The paid-for message is that he should take his troubled lady to a certain posh hotel on the weekend, when all the expense-account types vacate and even the best establishment is haunted by the prospect of empty rooms. But the subliminal message runs deeper. It may be paraphrased thus:
Boredom is not one's own fault. Other people are accountable.
This is an astonishing, even revolutionary assumption when you think about it. Hitherto the only people who dared to point a bored finger at somebody else have been aristocrats and very young children. Emptiness -- the barren imagination, the unoccupied heart -- has been thought to be a self-indicting state, a terrible comment on one's character and personality.
The petulant cry of ''Entertain me!'' may not have been entirely restricted in the past to sheiks, late Roman emperors, and the more decadent French kings. But boredom has been taken to depend on a well-filled stomach and lots of spare time -- two things most people have not shared abundantly throughout history.
If boredom is not a modern malaise, it certainly requires the modern sense of self-consciousness. Ancient languages are rich and precise in words describing weariness and fatigue and every variety of physical and mental suffering. But boredom? Even the Greeks did not have a word for it.
The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations lists 24 instances of Bore, Bored, Boredom, Boring, but none of them pop up until well into the 19th century.
Byron, who can sound so late-20th-century, may be considered the literary godfather of boredom. He was definitely bored beyond the resources of a weekend with room service. From the depths of his yawn he wrote: Society is now one polished horde, Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and the Bored.
The Danish theologian Kierkegaard concurred in this Byronic division of the world into two parts, adding the rule: People who are never bored tend to bore others, while people who amuse others are inclined to be bored themselves.
What to do with one's life? How to find a sense of Purpose? Questions like these -- the questions of a calling, a center to existence -- are the questions that run through modern literature. Over a century of novels and plays, and later, films, treat the classic cases of ennui -- the Madame Bovarys and the J. Alfred Prufrocks, the characters staring off into some middle distance and asking: Is this all there is? The star-crossed faces that haunt us -- Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr -- seem to express boredom at a romantic pitch of wistfulness, anger, or despair.
Call it ''cool'' if you will, but boredom has almost become our style.
As time has gone by, more and more ordinary people have claimed the elitism of the deep sigh. The housewife, the male facing midlife crisis, the retired person, the adolescent in full groan -- almost every subdivision of the middle class has been singled out as a specialist in boredom. Regions of the country even compete for the championship of monotony -- that extra bland something that drives inhabitants to New York or Paris or Tahiti.
Cross-country skiing, cable TV, package tours to the Himalayas, a weekend with room service -- we are familiar with all the remedies. Alas, we are also familiar -- to the point of further boredom -- with the fact that they seldom work.
But no summary of the history of boredom prepares us for that awful line, ''Joseph, you have a problem'' -- which, no doubt, Joseph will treasure up and apply in reverse a week or a month or a year later. This is something new -- not simply to blame others for our unhappiness, but to do it with a sense of social justice. It is as if freedom from boredom has been proclaimed the latest human right that Somebody Else is violating.
Let us declare ourselves victims of anything, but no, Joseph, let us not declare ourselves victims of boredom. If we are not responsible for our own boredom, what are we responsible for?