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Friday, April 22, 2005

Attention Must Be Paid

Posted by Sean McCann on 04/22/05 at 03:37 PM

I love Amardeep’s long quotation from Johnson.  It makes me want to abuse the privileges of the blogger and repose a question I asked in the long thread that followed on John’s Barbarians post.  Somehow, I got passed over.  Technical glitch, I suppose.

The question I want to ask people like Daniel and Ray—or really anyone who wants to defend literary purism or disinterested aesthetic experience or who fears that literature will be swamped by extraneous concerns—is this:  would it do any violence to your view of the difference between good and bad reading to say that what you really want is for readers to pay attention? 

That is what Johnson’s talking about, isn’t it?  Most readers are distracted and, in fact, reading for distraction, which in his worldly manner he’ll assume isn’t the greatest thing in the world, but not the worst either.  But what you really want is a reader who will be devoted and scrupulous—who will be in the Jamesian formula one on whom nothing is lost. 

And really, when complaints are made about overdetermined readers who bring inappropriate agendas or inadequate tools to books, isn’t the complaint that they’re being distracted by trivial or misleading concerns from noticing what’s truly germane?  (The fact that what counts as germane will vary from case to case, and that it will be subject to constant reevaluation, wouldn’t change the fundamental goal in this view.) The reason this matters, of course, is because there’s a price to be paid for not paying attention.  Something’s lost when you don’t have your eyes open, or your ears on, or what have you.

The virtue to putting things this way is that it avoids the contortions that arise when you attempt to rule some concerns categorically in or out of the bounds of acceptability.  After all, no one would say that knowing something about theology wasn’t important to appreciating the full meaning or experience of Renaissance painting, while in fact you might well want to say that viewers who were aggressively formalist in that case (“notice the large central mass in the Raphael”) were not paying sufficient attention.  Something important would be lost on them. 

To my mind it’s all Kant’s fault that we get tied up in these knots.  Without him, would we even be considering the contrast with which Amardeep frames the Johnson quotation—pure utility vs pure aesthetic appreciation?  I think Amardeep’s right to suggest that Johnson would believe this a fatuous distinction.  It seems one to me.  The problem with bad reading isn’t that it seeks utility.  It’s that, by being insufficiently attentive, it wastes the value it might find. 


Indeed, the attention problem is so widespread that if a student were to submit an essay that was tendentious and partisan, but that used the literary work skillfully to push the agenda, it would be a joy to read. Fewer kids have the capacity to read a 200 page book in a week’s time. Faced with a piece of verse, they find it irritatingly opaque. Of course, they can multitask and interact at length if the activity involves media and Internet.  A Kaiser study found that 8-18-year-olds consume 8 1/2 hours of media per day in their leisure time (of only 6 1/2 hours). With digital hyperactivity suffusing young adults’ lives, the old reading distinctions and debates--objectivity vs. ideology, aesthetic vs. political, etc.--are fast becoming irrelevant.

By on 04/22/05 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder if literary purism as you put it isn’t something more like taking existing conventional wisdom on reading for granted.  Johnson in his critical approach asks overall questions: is this believable?  Is this good writing?  Does this pass the laugh test, or the sniff test?  Is this just plain good advice? English profs will tend to dismiss these questions and ask us to focus on the metaphorical structure or what-have-you.  But this doesn’t answer why T.S.Eliot’s poetry looks worse with each passing year, or why, if you look carefully at Exra Pound’s modernist pronouncements, his most devoted pupils don’t seem to have taken them to heart—and maybe that’s a good thing anyhow.  The current conventional wisdom is that all canonical literature is internally consistent, and correctly read, an infinite number of cogent statements can be made about it based on its internal consistency.  If we allow, though, that Hemingway was mostly too drunk to do a fully competent job in his writing, then we have to allow for errors and internal inconsistency, in which case we need to bring other sets of questions to bear on his writing.  This would apply if we allow any piece of writing—like Paradise Lost—to be imperfect.  I think this is one of the premises from which Johnson starts.  He is, of course, a professional writer and comes to his subject from a pragmatic perspective.

By John Bruce on 04/22/05 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it would be really interesting, theoretically, if anyone did believe that “all canonical literature is internally consistent,” but I’ve never seen any reason to think this was so.

By Jonathan on 04/22/05 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the post, Sean. I intended to respond, but my response isn’t short, so I didn’t put it in comments. The short answer is: yes, there are varieties of inattentiveness, to which this sort of purism seems a healthy corrective. (You remember my Nietzsche line: “sometimes we remain loyal to a cause merely because its enemies do not cease to be insipid.” Or however it went.) When hermeneutics of suspicion tips over into the hermeneutics of just making accusatory shit up; when Theory is very bad, or when it declines into thoughtless eclecticism which is interesting neither as philosophy nor as anything else. Then aesthetic purism seems preferable. At least in a retributive sense. Punish this other bad stuff by taking the other side. Even when purism doesn’t actually make conceptual sense. This is a very dicey way to proceed. Leaning on something that can only stand up by leaning against something bad, by way of keeping the bad thing from falling over and crushing something good.

It is better, as you say, just to get past some distinctions that have passed their sell-by date. Kant gets the blame. Fortunately, he gets so much credit that he can afford to pay his debts, thereby rendering satisfaction to those who have been wronged. (But that’s certainly too much for a comment box.)

By John Holbo on 04/22/05 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I’m afraid the thread you’re picking at on my jacket winds deep(-winded) and wide(-mouthed), all the way through my pants and up again through the underwear. A full answer would give us a very long thread and leave me shivering naked. So I’ll try for ridiculous brevity instead.

“Would it do any violence to your view of the difference between good and bad reading to say that what you really want is for readers to pay attention?”

No, because violence is not something that’s done to views. Also because I agree that attention to what’s there (as opposed to what one expects) is part of good reading. It wouldn’t say everything about my view, though.

(At my own site I’ve posted a fairly conciliatory, fairly limited, essay, Intermediate Hedonics. Quote: “Pleasure, like pain, is a signal to pay attention.” Something more resembling that pile of ex-jacket-and-longjohns can be found under the general heading of Neuraesthetics.)

John Bruce: I agree that non-writing readers often naively overassume a godlike command by the author. But your debunking seems even worse. By assuming that Hemingway was drunk and that drunk guys don’t write “compentently”, you’re refusing the actual gifts of the text. (Similarly, “Unmarried women have no life experience,” “Multitheists must be insane”, “Perverts write perversion and it’s like totally catching”, “Tories repress the poor”, “People without TV or cell phones talk funny”, and so on.) It’s a naive arrogance, which, as Miriam pointed out elsewhere, often requires effort to unlearn. I think “Difficulties are provisionally my fault” is a more fruitful starting hypothesis when approaching a text. (Which is not to say that I’m particularly fond of Hemingway. But some of the authors I am particularly fond of were just as drunk.)

By Ray Davis on 04/23/05 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On second thought, Sean, I think I can be even briefer:

I agree with you.

By Ray Davis on 04/23/05 at 10:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To Jonathan, I think there’s at least one very good example of a scholar believing, or wanting to believe, all canonical literature is internally consistent, and that’s Stanley Fish in Surprised by Sin, trying to find a way for Milton not to be “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”, a standard complaint against Paradise Lost.  Fish has to assert that Milton in effect wanted things that way, that was his creative intent.  Thus we can go on examining PL as an artifact, like a chemical compound, about which we can make predictive observations.  If it’s flawed, if one part doesn’t correspond exactly to the other part, we can’t make such observations.  I think in fact that this assumption dominates most Eng Lit style scholarship and criticism—it is not, though, the Johnsonian assumption.

By John Bruce on 04/23/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul
-Malebranche via Simone Weil

posted by a non-writing reader who believes reading Yeats or Plato is a an activity of the soul, but not the sole way of reading. When I read Lear(Edward) there is laughter. When I read to my children, there is a engagement with others.When I read liner notes on Julia Wolfe’s string quartets it is for information.When I read package inserts its for information/instruction.

By on 04/23/05 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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