Attention: Fair and Awry
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the final section of Eli Siegel’s great Mind and Attention. In this 1949 lecture, Mr. Siegel has used Scott and Landor, Coleridge and Shakespeare, to show what attention is, and what in a person interferes with his or her giving of attention. “Attention is,” he says, “the desire for knowledge, concentrated, aware” (TRO 1333). And I think there is nothing more important about the human self than the fact that we have this desire—and can give that so intimate, inner thing, our thought, to something outside ourselves, and have that outside thing find a home within our mind. Attention is a tremendous joining of the opposites self and world, in keeping with this landmark principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Other opposites that authentic attention always puts together are universe and object. We cannot see what an object of our attention is unless we want to see how it has to do with other things in that universe of which it is a part. In order, for instance, to see what a cloud is—that particular wisp of cloud in the western sky near twilight—we have to see how it meets sky, light; how it is like and different from other clouds; how eternal forms make up its wistful scraggliness: straight line and curve and something approaching a thin, frail ellipse. And this cloud is inseparable from those mighty things, space and time, and rest and motion.
A scientist knows that to see this delicate cloud as it is, is to see also water, dust, a certain relation of heat and coolness. And when Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1820 wrote his poem “The Cloud,” he showed how much a cloud went through and met. He showed that to be attentive to a cloud is to see that it stands for the largeness of the world and one’s own hopes—that a cloud is saying, with true, resounding music:
I am the daughter of earth and water,
And the nursling of the sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
I am using an unpretentious cloud to illustrate what Mr. Siegel wrote in the preface to his book Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems: “the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things.” Yet one of the huge mistakes people make about attention is: they give “attention” to a particular thing as a means of making the rest of the world unimportant and getting away from it. The chosen object of unrelated and therefore fake, perilous “attention” can be anything from a sport to a human being, from a field of scholarship to the décor of one’s home. And so, prefatory to the final section of Mind and Attention, I mention three instances of attention awry: attention that is a concentration on something yet a non-seeing of it, because one has taken it out of relation to a whole world with which it is connected.
This use of something against the rest of reality is a form of contempt. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” He showed: contempt is that in a person which weakens the person’s mind; contempt is the desire from which every injustice in human history has come.
Eating and Attention
The first instance I give of attention awry is very ordinary. It is the going at food with a certain avidity one does not feel about other things. Food should be relished immensely—if we don’t have that relish we are not fair to food and the world it comes from—and relish is a kind of attention. But it happens that people have unconsciously looked on food, not as a means of seeing value in the whole world, but as a means of solace for it and conquest of it. People have gone at a pastry or steak or mashed potatoes with an organic attentiveness that arises from the feeling, “Now at last I can kick out the demanding world and have something that will please me without my having to think. These potatoes, giving themselves over to me, are the world mine at last, making much of me as they please me, doing what I want—and I can turn the rest of the world into nothing!” A person who overeats is obviously giving a false attention to food; but so is a person who eats moderately yet prefers what he is eating to 99 percent of reality.
The Attention Children Long For
The second instance of false attentiveness has confused and beleaguered children for thousands of years. It is the same falsity that Mr. Siegel, early in Mind and Attention, described in relation to man and woman:
A man can give thousands of attentions to a woman and not give her any real attention—because to give attention to a person would mean that your job was to see that person completely and clearly. [TRO 1333]
Similarly, millions of children are being made much of by their parents. They know they are exceedingly important to these parents; and a little girl in Kansas felt yesterday, when she fell from her tricycle, her scraped knee had a significance for her mother larger than anything else happening to humankind anywhere. Yet a child can get abundant attentions, including many presents over the holidays, and feel her parents are not interested in who she is at the very depths of her; they are not interested in her feelings to herself.
They are not interested in these because they are not interested in the universe aspect of their child: what she has to do with everything—from the history of the English drama to a puzzled little boy in Kenya. They have made her just theirs. She likes their attentions, many of which are important and valuable. And, out of conceit, she can go along with her parents as they make her superior to everything that exists. Yet she feels profoundly mixed up and angry, sometimes flailingly angry, because—though she can’t articulate it—she feels her parents are not interested in the self she really is. They are not trying to see the thoughts in her that range and swirl. She is receiving attentions but not attention. She is getting terrific devotion but a deep neglect.
Attention and Sex
A tremendous field for mishaps of attention is the field of sex. And that matter which, because of the drug Viagra, is more than ever a subject of public discussion, happens to be a drama of organic attention and inattention. What has been called impotence can be described as an inability to give a certain completeness of physiological expressive attention, even though one may seem ever so attentive or stirred.
Mr. Siegel explained over 50 years ago that the vicissitudes of sex are matters deeply, intricately, simply, beautifully of ethics and aesthetics: of how our self wants to welcome, honor, and give attention to the world. The following can be said—and people long to know it—about the non-release which Viagra is meant to treat, and a similar non-release in women:
1) If a person feels that this world is not good enough to give himself to, he can unknowingly refuse to pay to a representative of that world the tribute which an orgasm can represent: the organic giving of oneself; a fullness of corporeal attention. The desire to be superior to reality, the feeling oneself should be the unsuperseded object of one’s attention, can make one unresponsive in love. (It can also make one yawn as one hears great music, or get fidgety reading a book.)
2) While a certain stoppage in sex can come from contempt, from the feeling reality is undeserving of our attention, it can also come from respect for the world, from a desire not to dishonor our relation to reality. We can use sex, like food, to lessen the world, to see some representative of the world as serving us, as silly about us, as making us more important than anything. And if we do this, something in us can say, “I won’t go along! I won’t let this contempt succeed! You were born to care for the world and be just to it, not to use attention to and from this person to conquer the world and spit at it! So though you’re getting what you think you want right now, I, the depths of you, don’t want it, because it interferes with your liking the world and respecting yourself.” There can be a deep refusal of self in sex for the same reason persons in a factory can refuse to work and can shut down the place: because they feel something unjust is going on.
As we conclude our serialization of the 1949 lecture, I am very happy to say: Aesthetic Realism is the result of the largest, most respectful attention ever given to reality: Eli Siegel’s attention. And so humanity in the coming years will thank him, as they learn every day from his ever so living thought.