The art of attention

The peculiar vividness of the world becomes clear when we slow down and attend, learning to see all things anew

by 4500 4,500 words
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Illustration by Thomas Danthony

Illustration by Thomas Danthony

Sven Birkerts is the director of the writing seminars at Bennington College in Vermont and editor of the literary journal AGNI. His latest book is The Other Walk: Essays (2011).

It starts with the slightly awkward heave — leg up and over the seat, feet locating the stirrups — and the indrawn breath that says ‘Let’s go.’ This is a new discipline for me, this stationary bike, and I make sure to pace myself. I tip from side to side, easily and rhythmically, with a hint of a pulse, my movements mechanical at first, each slight shift of the vista in front of me tied to the downstroke of my foot on the pedal. After a while it becomes mildly hypnotic, not that I recognise this, though at some point I do register that time has blurred, that two or more minutes have clicked off on the digital counter without my noticing — I’ve been too caught up in whatever is piping through the wire in my ear, or gotten completely fixated on something I’m looking at through one or the other of the two windows. And what do I see out there? Not much. Everything.

Looking is oddly different on the stationary bike. Before I sat on this machine, before the business with the hip, I walked. All the time, miles every day, and it was like I had my looking with me on a leash. That was why I walked, a big part of it anyway. I loved the feeling of the moving eye. The neighbourhood streets were mostly always the same, so I used to pretend my gaze was a lens fixed on a rolling cart, a camera dolly. I would try to walk as evenly as I could so that I could film everything I was passing. And this, for some reason, allowed me to see it differently, put things into a new perspective. It’s similar to that other game I like to play. Make a box shape with both hands using thumb and index fingers. Look through, click. There in the little box — or the walking Steadicam — is what you normally see, along with the idea of seeing what you normally see. Which makes it completely different. And this, I’m finding, is what happens when I get myself up on the seat and start to pedal.

How to think about this? It has to do with a certain boredom, a basic sameness endured twice a day for 20 minutes. I have the two upstairs windows, one peering down on the street below, a few spindly trees, a utility pole with wires, the visible parts of other people’s houses. The other window faces our neighbours’ house, into their bedroom window, through which I can see the slightly illuminated rectangle of the far window and, through this, the blurry shape of the next house. A clear line of sight. I get no privileged glimpses of domesticity, though the bedroom is being used by our neighbours’ grown daughter. Sometimes when I ride I can see her shadowy shape cross through the light. What might she be doing there, I wonder? There is so much time to work up hypotheses when you are spinning pedals round and round, waiting for the time to be up.

The sameness, yes. The sameness of the outer view, and then the sameness of what’s right here in front of me. I’ve put the bike in my son’s bedroom, in front of his desk. He’s away now for college and the room is just as he left it. That’s why I’ve put the bike here — to break the spell of that. I plant myself right in the midst. Tick-tock and wobble. The noise of the pedals makes it seem like I am an engine that’s running itself, an engine driving these jogs of thinking, these stretches of looking, all this thinking about looking. Open your eyes, I tell myself. Bear down so hard that you forget you are looking, and then let the thing, whatever it is, come at you.

I tilt this way and that. I am thinking of nothing, aware only of what feels like a rim of faint blurring all around the edges of my seeing. I don’t know how long I go like this, pedalling, listening as in a dream to the whirring of the spokes, the scratchy hiss of my jeans. But at some point I catch myself studying the tree with its bare branches reaching in toward the window, and the hedge down beside it, crusted with old snow turning purple in the evening light, and then I see how the pavement cracks and buckles just beyond. Things could not be more beautiful. How could they? What would I add or change? What could improve this desk right here in front of me, with its small pile of books, the folded-over sheet of newspaper, and that most curious oblong, that thing that looks for all the world like a dragonfly that has fixed itself there. Each point, I think, is a centre around which a world can be drawn. It’s all about attention, I decide. Attention. On the street, in the spot where the pavement dips, a puddle filled with sky. Gray, blue, perfect. How have I been sitting here all this time, looking this way and that, and not seen that glowing patch of changing light? No end to looking, I think, as the room tips lightly from side to side.

The world might be, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, everything that is the case — but the case is bigger than it was: the number of things available for our regard has increased beyond belief

To pay attention, to attend. To be present, not merely in body — it is an action of the spirit. ‘Attend my words’ means incline your spirit to my words. Heed them. A sentence is a track along which heeding is drawn. A painting is a visual path that looking follows. A musical composition does the same for listening. Art is a summoning of attention. To create it requires the highest directed focus, as does experiencing it.

The French philosopher Simone Weil said: ‘Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.’ To attend, etymologically, is to ‘stretch toward’, to seek with one’s mind and senses. Paying attention is striving toward, thus presupposing a prior wanting, an expectation. We look at a work of art and hope to meet it with our looking; we already have a notion of something to be had, gotten. Reading, at those times when reading matters, we let the words condition an expectation and move toward it.

Side to side, the room lightly, steadily rocks. The aperture narrows down. What catches me here sometimes, provokes me, is the smallest thing, the most neglected thing, one that would escape anyone’s general regard — mine, too, except that for some strange reason it becomes my mission to consider it, to make it the centre of my looking. Zeroing in on that unlikely shape, that zipper-pull, that dragonfly, I feel the speed and imprecision of most of my looking. Right now there is nothing else. I fix it in the centre of my vision and I direct myself at it. And having identified it, I see it. The gun-metal-coloured tab that widens out from its hinge, with its curved bordering, this — what I can still almost persuade myself is the wing of that insect — is designed to be taken between thumb and forefinger, and then the hinge, connected to the grooved attachment that accepts the two elongated zipper ends, that hinge slides either up or down, pulling the teeth from both sides together so that they mesh. A feat of engineering, but overlooked because so small, so common, another of the innumerable things in the world that are as nothing until, for whatever reason, the need arises. How that changes things! I can imagine looking everywhere, turning the house upside down, because it is the essential thing, the coat must be worn, and Where did I see that thing, I saw it somewhere? For that one moment it is the answer to the question; it is wanted. After which, of course, it falls back out of awareness, into its former near-oblivion. As it has to. What would our lives be if we were forever paying out such regard? We can only distribute attention as we need to, on what we deem to matter most. And what we attend to gives a picture of who we are. One person pays the closest heed to details of dress and domestic furnishing, but gives little thought to animals; another person sees nothing but. And so on.

In previous times, there were fewer things to make a claim on our attentiveness. The world might be, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, everything that is the case — but the case is bigger than it was: the number of things available for our regard has increased beyond belief. No longer are there just the primary material basics, but a whole mad universe of images and signals, figments and streams of information arriving through devices, all of which affect attention itself, altering its reach and intensity.

I put myself through the identical rituals every time, getting on with the same movements, adjusting the earbuds, checking the time — what a tiresome creature I am. I even think this every time. But regularity soothes the soul, and didn’t Gustave Flaubert insist that a writer had to be regular and orderly in his life, like a bourgeois, so that he can be violent and original in his work. Yes, I think, pushing into the first rotation — violent, original. Violent. Original. And soon I am spinning along, fine as you please, once again taking up my slow scan of what’s in front of me, the two windows, the desk with its rattan-backed chair, before letting myself focus in again on the things on the desk.

But — and here you can envision a non-demonstrative man’s non-demonstrative double-take — the dragonfly zipper-pull is not where it was! It’s there on the desk, but all askew, at a completely different angle. If this were a film, there would be a bowing of bass strings. I fixate: just how did the thing get from point A to point B? If no one else has been here — but then, with a pang of disappointment, I remember. The cleaners, they came yesterday, the desk was obviously dusted — and now I suddenly think of Sherlock Holmes, the stories I read one after another, what it was that so intrigued me. It was precisely this: that the solution of a case, any case, without exception, would turn on the most trivial-seeming bit of business, the merest detail. As if Arthur Conan Doyle were testing to see how much could depend on how little. One boot-heel, Holmes discovers, is slightly more worn than its counterpart; a nearly microscopic shred of a certain kind of tobacco is found on the stairway; a document — or a zipper-pull, say — has been moved from one part of the desk to another, indicating, of course, the precise irrefutable sequence of events, the exact trail, and the malefactor. But indicating also — and this is the deeper thing — that nothing, nothing, can be discounted. The action of the world maps itself exactly on its surfaces. If a thing doesn’t necessarily matter in itself, it might matter because of what it shows about something else. And the dragonfly zip-pull? What is it showing me, there — here — day after day? Why am I staring at this scrap of metal instead of any one of the dozen other things in my field of vision — from the little Buddha statuettes on the dresser to my left, to the books on the desk to the rattan of the chair and its particular pattern? I can’t say for sure. Might it be the shape of the thing, the fact that it looks so much like something it’s not?

I am getting off-track, even as I sit, immobilised. This detail — incidental, trivial — is just a stepping stone. What really compels, of course, is consciousness, the mind’s movement through the world. I consider what the American philosopher William James called the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’, the swirl of undisciplined awareness — from the morning’s early action of thumb and forefinger squeezing toothpaste onto the brush; to the automatic, incremental movements of measuring water for coffee; to the search through pockets for the keys to the car, and on and on. We are many things, some of them quite noble, but we are also, so very often, mired in the moment’s particulars, and so are our perceptions. And if consciousness is to be presented credibly, it must to some good extent comprise awareness of minutiae. If you want a more exalted term for this, call it ‘phenomenology’. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov all planted the flag of their aesthetic here. But whatever the art, whatever the genre, the moves must be strategised. For it happens that attention paid to large subjects is usually taken right up into their thematics. We adjust our focus. Contemplating a canvas of a magnificent panorama, or an arresting portrait, is about engaging the subject — the artist is presenting it to us as important for itself. Staring at a canvas of an apple and a curl of lemon peel inevitably becomes a consideration of perception itself. And so, with the zipper.

Cycling back to my earlier thought, there is a state that precedes attention, a desire or need that makes it possible. Thinking of the ways that I look at art or listen to music, I easily distinguish between the dutiful and the avid. In front of the battle scene, the mythological set-piece, I make myself pay a certain kind of attention. I take in the shapes and colours, obey the visual indicators that guide my eye from one point to another; I know to make myself mindful of the narrative, its thematic intention. I can even experience certain satisfactions, noting and feeling the balance of elements, the accuracy of execution, the expressiveness of certain gestures and features. All of this betokens one kind of attention. But I am not at attention. I do not engage out of my own inclinations so much as obey a series of basic directives, much as when I read a novel that is solidly characterised and plotted but that, for whatever reason, does not have me in its thrall.

Other works — certain paintings, novels, pieces of music — activate a completely different set of responses. When I move into the vicinity of a canvas by the 17th-century Dutch artist Jacob van Ruisdael, for example, even before I have looked, when I have seen only enough in my peripheral vision to suggest that it is one of his, I experience what feels like an inclining toward; I ready myself to attend. I feel myself heightened in a Ruisdael way — which is different than a Vermeer way or a Giacometti way. It’s as if I dilate my pupils to absorb the particular colour tones, the marks that are his way of drawing trees, the strategies he uses to create distance in his landscapes. I am looking, moving my eye from point to point, sweeping along the width and breadth of the surface, but what I am attending to is more general, deeper, and hardly requires the verification of intensive looking. The paintings I love induce reverie. With Ruisdael, it’s easy: I draw the landscape fully around me. I suck it into myself, so that I might absent myself from whatever daylight spot I occupy in whatever gallery or museum. I am tantalised by its tones, the strokes of execution, but also by its profound pastness. Not its particular century or period, simply that it is a version of a bygone world.

There is a big difference between our attempting to pay attention to something and having our attention captured — arrested — by something. That capture is what interests me

Here attention meets distraction or, better yet, daydreaming. They are not the same thing. One is the special curse of our age — the self diluted and thinned to a blur by all the vying signals — while the other hearkens back to childhood, seems the very emblem of the soul’s freedom. Distraction is a shearing away from focus, a lowering of intensity, whereas daydreaming — the word itself conveys immersed intensity. Associational, intransitive: the attending mind is bathed in duration. We have no sense of the clock-face; we are fully absorbed by our thoughts, images and scenarios. Daydreaming is closer to our experience of art.

‘Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.’ I keep coming back to this — it chafes. The more so as I don’t think of myself as a believer, even as I grant that being is a mystery beyond all reason. The word ‘prayer’ — I had to look it up — has a Proto-Indo-European origin. It is a fervent plea to God; it is an expression of helplessness, a putting of oneself before a superior force; it is an expression of thanks, of gratitude, to God or an object of worship. However the action is defined, it involves a wanting or needing. Modifying Weil, I would say that attention is not a neutral focus of awareness on some object or event, but is rather an absence looking to be addressed — it is, in most basic terms, a question looking for an answer. There is a big difference between our attempting to pay attention to something and having our attention captured — arrested — by something. That capture is what interests me.

Side to side, I am making my motionless way through space, listening to music, putting myself into a rhythmic trance of a sort, and I am taking in whatever is in front of me, registering the house opposite, the trees, the street, my son’s desk with its pile of books, looking yet again at the one-time dragonfly, the zipper pull. Even with the mystery solved, I’ve stayed attuned. I’ve been given a metaphysical nudge: I have by way of my dissociation become aware of the thingness of the thing I am looking at. When it was stripped of familiar context — a dragonfly that couldn’t be — it was, how to put it, nakedly present to me. Something of that estrangement still persists. And it infects me, for as I look up from the desk, yet again taking in the windows, trees, books, they all seem different, hanging in a clearer air — not held together by me as parts of some picture or story, but separate existing things that I am next to. And I feel then — before they fall back into the familiar — that I could just keep looking and looking.

Marcel Proust wrote somewhere that love begins with looking, and the idea is suggestive. But if that’s the case, the reverse might also be: that true looking begins with love. There’s the quote that I used to repeat like a mantra to writing students, from Flaubert: ‘Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.’ Again, the distinctions, the questions of priority. Is it that the looked-at thing becomes interesting, or that its intrinsic interest gradually emerges? Is the power in the negotiable thing or in the act of looking? If the latter, then the things of the world are already layered with significance, and looking is merely the action that discloses.

The digital counter, marking time, marking distance, clicks off imperturbably, the one number going up as the other drops. I focus in, make some imprecise and speculative calculations, but soon enough I turn away, and — again — confront the room and windows and street and trees, everything fitted back into the old frame, the picture swinging lightly from side to side, the push of my breathing, the numbers just a minuscule eddy in the corner of my vision, and that soon displaced by something else, a new perturbation there — as if the sheerest wisp of a cloud had just blocked the sun, but coming from the window opposite. A shape, for an instant cutting off the light from the room’s back window. Eleanor, of course. Moving from one side of her room to the other, I’ve seen it a hundred times, but this once, who knows why, I suddenly get the view reversed. She looks up and notices me here. She pauses. I consider the optics, the relative positions of our separate windows vis-à-vis the day’s light, guessing whether she can see him quite clearly: her hulking neighbour, the man in his black T-shirt and jeans, sitting with his hands laced behind his back, tipping slightly from side to side.

To be seen, to know or imagine ourselves the object of another’s attention — how that feels depends on so many things. In part on the nature of that attention — whether it is neutral, the waitress coming over to the table and smiling pleasantly with her pad in her hand; or irritated, as when we are blocking the intersection with our car and drivers on all sides start hitting their horns.

But really the perspective, the vantage point of another, is so unnatural, so hard to hold. How readily it flips back, becomes again the I looking at the other, who might or might not know she is visible. And of course I’m always checking. Every time I get on my bike, usually right as I’m getting settled, fixing my earbuds, finding my pace, I take a glance into the window opposite, to see. This is not about voyeurism — though I won’t pretend that I’m above staring at some person who is unaware of being stared at. There is nothing more interesting than beholding the other — pretty much any other — in his or her native habitat of assumed privacy. But this is not like that. I’m only here in daylight hours, and though I am sometimes aware of the blurry shape that I know to be Eleanor, or maybe sometimes her mother, I never see anything distinct. But the awareness does make a difference. Even if the person is facing away, is known to me only as a smudge moving though the faint light — I still feel different than I do if there is no one in the room.

I was lying in bed just before dawn, awake, as so often happens now — suddenly alert with the sensation of ‘This is it — this is my life!’ which usually arrives and then just vanishes, but I lay there, eyes closed, and held it

I get an image in my mind. I remember being very young and being in a big European city — old streets, old buildings — with my parents, and thinking, with a child’s special pang, that if I lived in this place, here, on this street, in that great brown building, I would never again feel alone. Here I would always know myself safe, always just a few feet from other human beings. And I can still get the same feeling in certain cities, or in certain parts of cities I know. I think: ‘How could anyone living here on Commonwealth Avenue ever feel truly alone?’ I ask it even though I know that there can sometimes be no feeling lonelier than being in a room in a crowded hotel, hearing the muffled sounds of others on all sides.

Eleanor’s blurry outline — there is nothing joining us, she is very likely unaware of me on the other side of two sets of windows, but the wisp of her outline affects me. I sometimes make it my focus, first just idly wondering what it is she is doing there — if she is in her window seat, what she could be reading with such absorption, assuming that she is reading, but then considering the situation more broadly: why she is living at home now, how does she fill her days (no sign of a day job) — but then, more abstractly, more existentially, who is she, what kinds of thing preoccupy this young woman whom I have watched from the time she was a baby just home from the hospital? I realise I know nothing at all about her. Nothing.

I was not on my stationary bike when it came to me what I’ve really been wanting to say, though ‘came to me’ makes it sound like I’ve arrived at this — this thought or recognition — for the first time, which would not be at all true. Rather, it might be the fundamental live-with-every-day understanding of my middle age. But I know that there are insights so fundamental, so close to our core, that we walk in their vicinity seeing everything but. Not that we don’t at some level know — of course we do — but we still get a feeling of real surprise when we catch them again, and affirm to ourselves again: ‘This time I won’t forget.’

I mean attention in the larger — I want to say ultimate — sense. Attention paid to the life, to the fact of the life, to events and people, their enormous mattering — all the things that could not be more obvious when we’re brought awake, but that really do get slurred away by distraction, sometimes for long periods, so that when the feeling does come again, it seems like something that needs to be marked, sewn à la Blaise Pascal right into the lining of your coat — where you will always see it and remember.

I was not on the bike when the recognition came this most recent time, though recognitions often come during these trances, when the mind is so susceptible. I was lying in bed just before dawn, awake, as so often happens now — suddenly alert with the sensation of ‘This is it — this is my life!’ which usually arrives and then just vanishes, but I lay there, eyes closed, and held it. And I knew right then that I could turn my mind to any part of my life and bring it alive. Anything: the water fountain at my first school, the feeling of walking with my friend in the pine woods near my house, bouncing up and down at the end of the diving board at Walnut Lake, waking in a tent on hard ground in a dew-soaked sleeping bag, knowing the weight of my newborn son when I held him up over my head. I could point my mind to anything in my life and have it savour it there in the dark, even as I was telling myself that this must not be forgotten, that it absolutely has to be attended to, that my life will make sense only when every one of these things is known for what it was, or is. I think back on it now, holding myself straight, in purposeful motion, but not moving at all, staring in front of me as the world tips lightly from side to side.

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