What happens to us when we are reading a good story?
Would it be true to say that we enter a half-conscious state characterised by an absence of response to external stimuli?
If a story is gripping enough, it seems to literally absorb our attention. People can speak to us, screens or music can be on in the background, things can be whizzing by (if we are in a car or on a bus or train) and we don’t pay them any attention.
That’s one definition of the word ‘trance’. The word itself comes from the Old French transir ‘depart, fall into trance’, from Latin transire ‘go across’.
Reading is an odd thing, when you think about it. It’s an abnormal state of wakefulness in which a person is not self-aware and is at least partially unresponsive to external stimuli (an official definition of 'trance') but is nevertheless capable of following along what is being read, generating the required mental imagery, and experiencing emotional responses. While we might normally associate going into a trance with such things as hypnosis, meditation, magic, or prayer, it seems clear that something of the same kind happens to us when we are drawn into a really good tale.
Human beings are always filtering the information coming in through their senses. In a trance, it might be possible to argue that a person is altering the way this sensory flow of information is perceived to a more noticeable extent, in effect ‘turning down the volume’ on the outer world and paying closer attention to an inner one. In reading, it could also be argued that, instead of reducing attention - something which it is said trances normally do - the attention is being redirected.
And so we reach that state desired by all authors: Focused Attention. It is the condition in which readers are so absorbed by a book that they pay it more heed than anything else.
I recollect that once, in my youth, I was getting towards the end of the second volume of C. S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, called Perelandra or Voyage to Venus. In it, the protagonist Ransom, a humble philologist from Earth (allegedly modelled, by the way, on Lewis's friend J. R. R. Tolkien) has been transported to the world of Venus - otherwise known as Perelandra - in order to take part in a titanic struggle to save that world’s innocence. Towards the end of the novel, he partakes in a song which turns into a collective meditation in which some of the other participants are angels, and finds himself moving through other planes of consciousness. I was so focused on these final passages that I kept reading, even though night was closing in. Not wanting to move to switch any lights on, I continued to read, totally immersed in the book. I reached the end of it, only to look up and find that the room in which I was sitting was in total darkness. Somehow, I had managed to read the words on the page even though there was no light.
Here’s an excerpt from that section of the book:
And now, by a transition which he did not notice, it seemed that what had begun as speech was turned into sight, or into something that can only be remembered as if it were seeing. He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated. He could see also (but the word “seeing” is now plainly inadequate) wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells -peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilisations, arts, sciences and the like- ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished. The ribbons or cords themselves, in which millions of corpuscles lived and died, were things of some different kind. At first he could not say what. But he knew in the end that most of them were individual entities. If so, the time in which the Great Dance proceeds is very unlike time as we know it.
The passage goes on and Ransom’s experience grows even richer and more unearthly. I often think of this passage when I ponder Focused Attention and what it means.
But this kind of ‘trance’ is possible across the range of literature. It is brought about through the concentrated application of Meaning - meaning that leads a reader on, that draws a reader in, that echoes with relevance for a reader - all adding up to a vicarious experience of some kind which becomes part of a reader’s own experience.
Here’s a small excerpt from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as another example:
And the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!”, Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!”
He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears.
“They are not torn down”, cried Scrooge, folding one of his bed–curtains in his arms, “they are not torn down, rings and all. They are here—I am here—the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will!”
His hands were busy with his garments all this time; turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, tearing them, mislaying them, making them parties to every kind of extravagance.
“I don’t know what to do!”, cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”
As this part of this famous story features the moment of epiphany, when Scrooge, having been shown his past, present and possible future, returns to normalcy and encounters joy and happiness for perhaps the first time in his life, we can expect the content of the text to be largely about fulfilment. Here, at the end of the story, there is no great drive to move the reader forward - rather, the emphasis is on the moment. Look at the rhetorical tools used to create ‘vertical’ meaning, to pull the reader into the text: in the first sentence, ‘And the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!’, ‘his own’ is repeated four times; notice how many other repetitions there are in the same passage: ‘on my knees’, ‘not torn down’, ‘I am as’. Repetition, of course, is a rhetorical tool precisely because it creates rhythm, and rhythm, carefully utilised, induces trance.
Dickens also uses description to create a sense of comedy - ‘His hands were busy with his garments all this time; turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, tearing them, mislaying them, making them parties to every kind of extravagance’ - and comedy could be defined as a sense of warm inclusion.
Apart from being drawn in to the viewpoint of the protagonist by these devices, the passage is full of potential contextual relevance for the reader: Scrooge is a character, but also represents Everyman in his spiritual growth from coldness to revelation.
There is much else that could be said about this passage, but naturally literature is full of many other examples of focus-inducing texts.
We'll look at some more in forthcoming articles.