Classical Thought for Contemporary Culture

The Arts & The Education of Attentiveness

The Arts & The Education of Attentiveness


From the Winter 2017 Issue

The smallest things often spark the greatest alterations; our happenstance changes and choices, like pebbles dropped in still water, ring their way outwards till the whole of life’s encircled. Had you been a reflective Italian tradesman in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, your attention may have been captured by the wonderful and terrible Great Events happening all around you: the city-states finding independence from the papacy, sublime cathedrals springing towards the skies, a whole new class of merchants bridging the class divide, rumors of a Black Death prowling nearby. And with your whole world convulsed in the eager pangs of a new birth, a Renaissance, perhaps you would not have assigned much significance to the changing of the bells. 

It solved the problem, anyway, and that was a good thing. With the rising merchant class came an increase in trade, and that in turn had to be supplied by an increase in production, which stirred up plenty of quibbles regarding the laborers’ hours, wages, and expectations. The bells at the monastery had done well enough to mark time before, but a day divided into prayer could not be neatly divided into work. The new bells, ringing on the hour instead of the Daily Office, made things clear and simple and—best of all—efficient.

But when working bells replaced the old monastic and city bells, not only the bells would change. As Kelly Johnson described in her Christian Reflection article, “Hurry and the Willingness to Be Creatures”:

The sort of bells that emerged to govern work hours differed from the monastic bells, marking the community’s commitment to the liturgy of hours, and also from the old bells of the cities, which had rung to warn of a crisis or announce a festival. Those bells served and preserved a sense of time that was for the purposes of seeking holiness and fostering the life of the town. The new bells created ordinary, predictable divisions to everyday life, unrelated to any specific purpose. This turn created a sense of time much more akin to our own experience of the objective, relentlessly ticking backdrop to our days. This way of marking time makes it universally measurable, predictable, and exchangeable, which is to say it makes time capable of functioning as a commodity. 

Ironically, these quaint medieval bells, meant to increase discipline and efficiency, also helped inaugurate the culture of distraction that plagues us today. 

It is a common complaint: a student finishes history homework in math class, a teacher plans his answer rather than listening to the student’s question, a child texts instead of participating in family conversation at the dinner table, a friend scans the crowd behind you as you speak to her, a husband watches football while his wife waits in the room to talk to him . . . such scenes are familiar because the habit of distraction has been formed in us all, inculcated by the very patterns of our daily lives, even though it hinders our ability to live well.

What attentiveness requires is a different sense of time, an alternative education to re-shape the sense our cultural liturgies daily press upon us.

We point to the usual suspects—technologies, media, the factory model of education, the frenetic pace of life. Yet, though these demystified gremlins doubtless find all manner of ways to disrupt our attentiveness, the most pernicious may be the one birthed by the new bells: an alteration of  our sense of time.

After all, attentiveness, the opposite of distraction, is a way of functioning in time; time is its medium. Attentiveness, or the setting of one’s thought and care on a particular object for a length of time, is a distinguishing and wonderful human faculty. It is kin to focus, single-mindedness, listening, solicitousness, contemplation; it is foe to distraction, inattention, boredom, belligerence, heedlessness. Unlike paying attention—an isolated act without much moral depth—the faculty of attentiveness, rightly nurtured, becomes an intellectual and social virtue imbuing one’s very way of living. But the way one understands time limits his capacity for attentiveness, and the understanding of time implicit in modern living militates against this virtue. 

In the first place, as the medieval bells demonstrated, modernity commodifies our sense of time. Our language about time is economic: we save time, spend it, waste, invest, lose, and buy it. In our actions as well as our vocabulary, time becomes a commodity which we seek either to produce or consume. Our goals for its use become efficiency and fulfillment, and opportunity cost becomes the evaluation of that use. More simply: doing one thing always means not doing another thing—that’s the opportunity cost—and one should always aim to choose the more efficient or fulfilling activity. 

But within this framework, true attentiveness is well-nigh impossible. Attentiveness itself becomes subject to opportunity cost: as soon as we encounter something seemingly more worth our time, we attend to it instead, and in T.S. Eliot’s inimitable phrase, we become “distracted from distraction by distraction.” 

Additionally, attentiveness is undermined by self-interest. True attentiveness involves freely surrendering oneself to the object of one’s attention, but when time is a commodity that must yield maximum benefit, we tend to view attentiveness as condescension rather than gracious encounter. You know—the students who do you a favor by paying attention, the friend who listens only to perform a good deed. 

Yet paradoxically, running counter to commodification, modern society also tends to obliterate our sense of time through our limitation-defying technologies. We can talk to almost anyone, almost anywhere, at almost anytime, via phone or email or chat or text or Skype. We can be cooking dinner while doing laundry and watching TV and talking on speaker phone. We can travel almost anywhere with incredible speed—and we complain that the traffic of our hurtling vehicles is too slow, the line to the heavens-gliding airplane too long. We begrudge time for not completely disappearing, as our speeding and multitasking seem to imply that we think it should.

But again, this atmosphere cannot sustain attentiveness. By definition, attention cannot be focused upon one particular object if it is being demanded by ten. Fuzzy focus and short bursts of “paying attention” replace true attentiveness. 

What attentiveness requires, then, is a different sense of time, an alternative education to re-shape the sense our cultural liturgies daily press upon us. This education must be compelling enough to unsettle our assumptions and rich enough to replace them; it must train our minds to think differently about time while also exercising our spirits and bodies to live differently within it.

For such an education, we could hardly do better than turn to the arts. They have been sadly neglected of late on almost all fronts: at the public schools, they are being crowded out of the budget; at home, they are drowned out by the blaring of television and iTunes; at church, they are subjected to confused attempts at assortment into “sacred” (or unoffensive and often unsubstantial) and “secular” (some variety of inaccessible, unlikable, and unacceptable). Even classical educators, while valuing the arts, have rarely had attention to spare from selecting the curriculum and shaping the pedagogy. Yet the arts remain foremost among the disciplines in their power to move both mind and body, compelling enough that even a passing encounter might disrupt our quotidian assumptions, while richly embodying human experiences of, struggles against, and resolutions with, time.  

Recall the list of economic expressions we apply to time: saving, buying, spending. Despite their prominence, our active vocabulary still includes some expressions that work under different metaphors, and these often describe the arts. Whatever it means to “keep time” with music, this does not have to do with the clock. Nor does a twist of the plot that happens “in the nick of time.” Nor does the feeling that “time stopped” as we viewed the majestic paintings of a Giotto, or the folds of Michelangelo’s Pieta, or a Hudson River school landscape. Our language testifies that the arts press us to encounter time in different ways than the clock does, ways free of commodification or obliteration.

In literature, our sense of time is transformed from a progression of moments to the working-out of a plot: literature narrates time’s purposiveness. Events which could be marked on a timeline to indicate mere sequence are, through literature’s art, situated within a plot to become a meaningful progression. They do not merely follow one another as moments on a stopwatch, nor are they related only through cause-and-effect like a row of falling dominoes. Rather, they become part of a whole, formed from the interweaving of characters’ decisions; the circumstances of setting; and the ever-present, inexplicable mystery that the Greeks called Fate and the Puritans, Providence. 

The power of the arts lies in the that they shape us as we do them, not as we understand them.

Within a plot, time cannot be only a vehicle conveying us from one accidental occurrence to the next; time rather becomes the medium in which meaning is worked out of chaos. As the Greek tragedians knew so well, a plot effects catharsis, which philosopher Paul Ricoeur explains in Time and Narrative, Volume 1 as the making of all “discordant incidents . . . necessary and probable,” which actually “purifies . . . or better, purges” those incidents. A plot molds meaning out of moments that otherwise seem accidental, even horrible. This is a kind of redemption.

If literature redeems time’s accidents, music resolves its dissonance. Dissonance is to music what conflict is to plot: the driving force and center of meaning. But dissonance occurs at more levels than the notes with which we usually associate it. Exploring what music can teach us about time, musical theologian Jeremy Begbie points out in his book Theology, Music, and Time that any musical work operates at an array of levels simultaneously; there are the pitches (notes), rhythms (beat), and colors (sounds of different instruments), to name the major ones. Each of these will be driven by its own forms of dissonance and resolution, so that, for instance, the notes of the melody may be coming to resolution just as the rhythm changes abruptly, creating a new dissonance. In addition, each of these will continually move between introducing new elements and echoing old ones—old melodic motifs, old rhythmic patterns. 

As Begbie puts it, music thus “exhibits not the temporality of a single straight line but that of a multi-level matrix of waves of tension and resolution, in which the temporal modes interweave within an overall directionality”; that is to say, it reveals the fullness of time. Much as we might like to, we do not have the luxury of dealing with anything “one thing at a time.” Every moment is crammed full of living, and living’s a many-layered business. Moreover, no moment really is independent; the present is born out of the past and gives birth to the future, so that we live somehow in all times at once. And yet—music plays out the ways that time’s fullness does not finally crush, collapse, or overwhelm, but comes to rest. 

And what of the visual arts? Painting, sculpture, architecture—these transfix time’s transience. Unlike literature and music, which unfold in time, a work of visual art can be experienced as a whole in a single moment; it portrays but a single moment. One moment’s longing glance endures agelessly in oil paints, and the leap of a flying buttress is suspended for centuries in midair. Like Keats’s Grecian urn, these “tease us out of thought / as doth eternity;” they give the sense of time that is rarest of all, yet no less true—the sense that whatever is vital in each passing moment somehow endures eternally. 

AS I HAVE presented it here, the arts’ embodiment of time sounds abstract indeed—a game for the mind, perhaps, but hardly the sort of thing that shapes perception or cultivates virtues. But really, I’ve cheated by trying to put it into words at all. The power of the arts lies in the way that they shape us as we do them, not as we understand them. 

By reading and telling stories, we will begin to sense time as a purposeful narrative that must be lived out, not milked for profit; in which we have real agency, but not complete authorship. By hearing and making music, we will begin to sense time’s many layers of tension and resolution and reoccurrence, to listen for the beauty in the complexity, and to wait patiently for the harmonies to reach home. By contemplating and creating visual art, we will begin to recognize and to treasure the seed of eternity in the soil of passing moments. 

And, shaped by this sense of time, we may finally unlearn distraction. Whether we are contemplating art or practicing it, whether we are in the classroom or the home, the arts place us in the posture of waiting, watching, hoping, receiving, appreciating: that is the posture of attentiveness.

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