4. Pay Attention to the World

coverThis is topic #4 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honest relationships, #2 was about experiencing what is actually happening, #3 was about being patient and loving the questions, and this one is about paying attention to the world, taking a close read of Susan Sontag’s lecture titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” which was collected in an anthology called At the Same TimeIf you want to read the chapter, I found it online, so click here for the pdf.

Of course if anyone is going to advise you to pay attention to the world and carry any authority on the topic, it would be Susan Sontag. Whether you agreed with everything she said or not, few would argue that she brought her quite fierce intelligence to the world and changed the way so many people thought about the topics she discussed. Camp. Photography. Illness. She shaped so much of the discourse about those subjects.

So, to begin, here is the relevant excerpt from the Brain Pickings post:


Reflecting on a question she is frequently asked — to distill her essential advice on writing — Sontag offers:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

But these tenets of storytelling, Sontag argues, aren’t just writerly virtues — they are a framework for human virtues:

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.


These ideas are offered to writers, but importantly they are extended outward to everyone — a framework for human virtues. The chapter presents a speech Sontag gave in one of her last public appearances, a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004. Gordimer, whose work dealt with moral and racial issues, especially apartheid, said:

Bannings and banishments are terrible known hazards a writer must face, and many have faced, if the writer belongs where freedom of expression, among other freedoms, is withheld, but sometimes creativity is frozen rather than destroyed. A Thomas Mann survives exile to write a Dr Faustus; a Pasternak smuggles Dr Zhivago out of a ten-year silence; a Solzhenitsyn emerges with his terrible world intact in the map of The Gulag Archipelago

The greater context, then, of Sontag’s comments exists squarely in the concerns of writers and alongside Gordimer’s — but her thoughts do have relevance for those of us whose days and quotidian concerns are smaller than Presenting the Political Reality of X. When I first saw the ‘resolution’ “pay attention to the world” I thought the point was to be aware of people and worlds beyond our own. But that’s the easy bit, whether and how well we do that. The harder part, and the element that I’d like to adopt as one of the ‘resolutions’ from this project, involves Sontag’s comments about deciding what the story IS. This is important.

You do this in your own life, and so do I. I take an extremely complicated and complex world and say “this is what happened.” Or “this is the part that matters.” Or “you/I are this.” Or “you/I did that.” We make those pronouncements with such great ease we don’t even think about what we’ve done — or rather, I do that. I don’t know about you. I’m a pronouncement-maker. A decider. A summarizer. This is. That was. You are. We are. They aren’t. I am. I’ve actually thought and written about this a lot, with a variety of shadings, but I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about the moral implications of the pronouncements. She’s right. As soon as we isolate a story, it collects weight as a thing. As a true thing, or at least as a mostly true thing. I wrote this at the end of 2012, and I think it’s relevant here:

So basically, the deal is this: the landscape in front of you, and all around you, is full of more stories and information than you can absorb. Hell, we humans can’t even see beyond the light spectrum we have identified. Our rods and cones do a fantastic job, but they only pick up a little bit of the available information. And then when you add all the human bits, the motivations (what is, and what we think is, and what the other people think is), the drives and longings and urges and agendas, well: infinitely complex. And it’s all right there, happening. We want to make sense of it, so we rely on our feeble little minds, and our pet little stories,* and we say “this is what IS.” But the truth is that there are so very many ways we could see and say what IS, versions that completely contradict the story we choose to tell, versions that go with ours but obliquely, and versions that are kind of similar. And then there’s chunking — where we decide to start the story. I start the story where Person X wronged me, so my behavior is merely a response to that. But of course Person X starts the same story at the point where I wronged him or her. Same set of events, wildly different story (cf  Israel and Palestine).

Cambodia: 1175 column inches. Timor: 70 column inches. Oh? You don't know about what we did in East Timor? THERE YOU GO.
Cambodia: 1175 NYT column inches.
Timor: 70 NYT column inches.
Oh? You don’t know about what we did in East Timor? THERE YOU GO.

The media has a moral obligation to take this much more seriously — it looks like they are reporting on what’s happening, but of course they’re telling us what to pay attention to. By making a huge thing out of a topic they’re telling us it’s a Big Deal (and so….the Kardashians?), but more disturbing, by not paying attention to a topic they remove it from our understanding of the world, unless we are diligent about digging for ourselves. We have to know about the existence of something to learn that we need to go investigate it, so their power is potent. Noam Chomsky’s famous example of the NYTimes coverage of the Khmer Rouge vs their coverage of the US-funded and supported atrocities in East Timor — both horrors happening at the same time — makes this point exactly.

Even for “regular” people, I don’t think Sontag would be satisfied with a passive endorsement of her position — well, just remember this — but instead I think she would deem it to be an active moral stance. Be vigilant! Pay attention to the world and embrace your moral responsibility by thinking carefully about how you identify the story being played out! That makes me a little bit tired, and a little bit grateful that I don’t hold a position on any global stage — or even national, or even state-wide, or even county-wide, or even city-wide, or even neighborhood — but I think there is something I can take away for myself:

Don’t be lazy. Don’t mindlessly accept the world as it is storied for me, and when I tell a story of any kind, never forget what a big thing I am doing. I am being a Creator, speaking a whole world into being and endowing it with truth and reality.

In this project, I’m also interested in thinking about how the various ‘resolutions’ go together, if only because 16 is a lot to hang onto. I can actually see a melding of this with the first three, can you? Be honest about yourself and what’s happening, and don’t rush to an answer. The story you will tell can be world-changing or defining. So far, all four of these topics dwell in the importance of complexity — acknowledging it, experiencing it, being patient with it, resisting a quick and simple version, and incorporating the complexity in the telling.

So to date, my understanding of the four ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about is:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships.
  2. Experience what is actually happening.
  3. Be patient, and live and love the questions.
  4. The stories you choose to tell have great moral weight.

I’m very interested in your thoughts on these topics, if you have any to share. Maybe you see the topic very differently — or you entered it at a different place, or left it somewhere else. My own biases direct me in a predetermined way, but I very much want to think about these things so I’d love to hear your thoughts if you wish to share.

And now I’m off to topic #5, “make room for fruitful monotony,” which will take me to Bertrand Russell’s chapter called “Boredom and Excitement” in The Conquest of HappinessI doubt I’ll be too bored. I’m wondering if this topic will sit easily with the first four, or if it’ll veer off into its own topic.

p.s. If you’re interested, here’s a talk Sontag gave at the 92nd St Y: