The Tumult about Attention
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue serializing a work of great kindness and importance: Mind and Attention, a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel. We print too “Love: Wisdom or Disaster?,” by Aesthetic Realism consultant Joseph Meglino, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this September. And I am grateful to comment on some big mistakes women make about love and attention. Men, of course, make them too, but since Joseph Meglino is writing about men, for now I’ll speak mainly of women. Aesthetic Realism is that which explains those mistakes, and enables people at last not to make them!
Put crudely, the chief reason women give themselves for their pain about love is: they are not getting sufficient attention. They feel the man they are close to does not make enough of them; or (if they’re unattached) they tell themselves the “right” person is not attentive to them, though they may get plenty of attention from people who aren’t the “right” person.
A young woman—we can call her Amy—complains to a friend that Mike, whom she has been seeing for two years, doesn’t want enough to kiss her, doesn’t tell her how pretty she is, and hasn’t given her a present since last Christmas. Amy is distressed, and feels that if Mike praised and hugged her more and took her to a “romantic” restaurant, her distress would end: she would feel loved. The magazines she reads confirm this view. But it and they are wrong.
Aesthetic Realism magnificently shows that the central reason we suffer in love is this: there is a great and needed kind of attention which we are against getting; and which we do not want to give. That unwelcome attention is the true attention: it is the being known exactly and fully as we are; and it is our trying to know a person and the world exactly and fully.
In the first part of Mind and Attention, Mr. Siegel defines real attention as “the desire for knowledge, concentrated, aware.” And he explains:
People have wanted attentions but haven’t wanted attention. Attention is for the purpose of finding out about a person. But most persons want attention for the purpose of feeling important. There is a big difference: we want attention, but we don’t want to be known. [TRO 1333]
Where the Trouble Begins
Aesthetic Realism explains that a woman’s tumult, mix-up, and misery about attention and love begin with the fact that there is a fight in her as to how to see the world itself. Eli Siegel is the person who described that central fight within every human being. And his doing so makes him great both in the history of philosophy and the history of kindness. He showed that the deepest desire of every person is to like the world honestly; but opposing that desire within us is another. This other desire is for contempt—for an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” He showed that contempt, this everyday feeling that we are more by lessening the outside world, is the beginning of all cruelty and of mental weakness. And it is our contempt for the world that makes us wrong about love and attention—that makes us foolish, pained, and also mean on the subject.
For example, take Alison, the friend to whom Amy is complaining over coffee in Des Moines. Alison, these days, is exceedingly concentrated on a man: she thinks about him ever so much; she imagines his embraces while she seems to look at her computer screen at work; he is her preferred subject of conversation with her friends, and she doesn’t listen so well when they speak of something else. Alison thinks about what she can wear that will make Darren’s heart beat faster, and her thought on this matter has made, for instance, happenings in the news seem farther away and dimmer to her.
Alison seems very attentive to Darren. But she doesn’t know that this concentration on him has really come because she does not want to be attentive to the world itself. It has come because she has contempt for the world. She feels the world is a pretty cold, dull place, unworthy of her. She is looking for a person with whom she can make a world apart from everything, who will show her she’s better than everything and everyone. She has taken Darren to be that person, and is giving him the enormous “attention” that consists of making him into the whole world, having him drown out the significance of about everything else. And she is doing that because she has set him up as a future adorer of herself, through whose worship of her she will like herself without her having to be fair to a damned thing.
It Isn’t about Him
Further, it happens that for all Alison’s centering on Darren, she is really not attentive to him. She thinks about him constantly, but her thought is not about who he really is. She is not interested in how he sees and what he feels about the world in its fulness. And so she is not thinking about him. She is thinking of Some-person-who-exists-to-make-Alison-better-than-everything. This terrific “attention” that is not attention—either to reality or to the person—is going on in millions of women right now. And with it come pain, shame, and deep unsureness.
Then, as Mr. Siegel describes—Alison, while longing to get sweeping attentions from Darren, does not want the true attention of his really knowing her. She is not proud of her purposes, with him and with people as such, and would not want those purposes to be seen. She wants to manage Darren, and if he knew her, she could not. If he, or anyone, were trying to comprehend her at her depths, she would have to respect that person—and she prefers to see a man as impressive yet as someone to whom she can feel superior.
Alison gets her fervent wish: Darren comes to be much taken by her. His attentiveness is large. He has sent flowers to her at her office. He has told her she is beautiful and intelligent. And there is no question about the fact that he wants her body close to his. Yet Alison does not just feel good. She is nervous, gets irritated with Darren in a way that surprises her, and apparently for no reason.
But the reason is that this thing which she has abjured and feared—the being known at her depths—is also something that she aches for, has to ache for. To be known is part of her deepest desire, to like the world. This great principle, stated by Eli Siegel, is true of her: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Alison, like everyone, is made in such a way that she needs what is within her to be outside too; she needs her deepest self to be not hers only, apart and hidden, but in the world—through being known by persons representing the world. So without her being clear about it, she resents Darren for not wanting to know her—even as she does not try to have him know her. The elaborate attention of his embraces intensifies the fact that he does not really know her, nor does she know him. Sex, with Alison and Darren, as with millions of people, including married people, has been a relation of lavish attentions and absence of a desire to know. And so, after sex, along with her triumph, Alison feels an encompassing emptiness, resentment, and self-dislike.
I love Aesthetic Realism for showing that the purpose of love is to give true attention to the world. The purpose of knowing a person is to think more richly and deeply about other people, books, ideas, happenings, objects. “The purpose of love,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole” (Self and World, p. 171). I love Aesthetic for explaining that an embrace, a kiss, the largest physical closeness to a person, should represent our desire to know and be known by this person, and to know the world which he has to do with in thousands of ways.
Eli Siegel himself gave to reality and people the fullest, most beautiful attention. He was grandly, gracefully, passionately untiring in his desire to understand a person. And he succeeded. In my opinion, his desire to know was the greatest love that has ever been.