The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 13
When we read, then, we enter a kind of trance - but this is not the kind of trance which results in an immobility of mind as well as of body. As in other trance conditions - hypnosis, meditation, prayer - physical stillness is part of the package when we read, usually. But whereas in other trances our minds are also emptied and still, when we read something quite different is happening: we are pulled forward through something; we are attracted closer to something; we are made to reflect upon the contextual implications of something. And that all adds up to a distinct experience of some sort and quality.
To show you what I mean when I talk about the Focused Attention that results from reading a high quality piece of writing, here are some famous passages of prose to be analysed.
The first is from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
The extended sentence leads us on until we reach its verb, pulling us forward through half a dozen images to find out what the narrator is getting at. Note that each of these images contains a little ‘vacuum’, a small negative or departure from a desirable pattern, each of which possesses the same pull of a physical vacuum, in miniature: ‘growing grim’, ‘damp, drizzly November’, ‘pausing before coffin warehouses’, ‘the rear of every funeral’, ‘knocking people's hats off’. These tiny gaps or voids create a momentum, pulling our attention forward to the end of the passage.
In common with other passages we have examined, we find the use of repetition to engage us with each part of the description by creating a diminutive hypnotic rhythm: ‘whenever’ preceding each clause, and each clause getting slightly longer. The images painted are dark - grim, damp, drizzly, with coffin warehouses and funerals - but also slightly exaggerated, creating a comic effect, until our picture of the narrator ‘stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off’ is explicitly funny. These factors all have the effect of drawing us closer to the text (comedy being inclusive) in what I call ‘vertical meaning’.
Contextually, as the portrait builds up of a narrator struggling with increasing depression, restlessness and disaffection, we as readers recognise something of the same condition, whether or not we are personally subject to it at the time of reading.
Collectively, this adds up to a powerful little passage of prose which produces Focused Attention on our part.
It’s not that Melville sat down and constructed this piece in the same way that I have deconstructed it. Few authors work in that way. The truth is that the creative mind operates multi-dimensionally, blending momentum, mystery and morality to produce meaning on levels which we can hardly plumb in purely analytical language. Nevertheless, picking apart these strands gets us closer to seeing exactly how our attention is controlled as we read.
Here’s another example, this time from Donna Tartt’s book, The Secret History:
It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
The emphasis here is on vertical and contextual meaning, by which I mean the creation of imagery that draws the reader in closer to the text and relates that content to the reader’s own condition. It helps that the subject of the passage is beauty itself, as the highest form of Meaning could be said to be beauty. But Tartt achieves her aims in specific ways, firstly by mentioning Greece: ‘It’s a Greek idea’ immediately conjures up for the educated reader the phantom framework of ancient Greece, with its pre-Christian philosophy, poetry and mythology. The passage goes on to evoke the notion of a complete loss of control, ‘To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves’. ‘To be absolutely free’ is an almost universal concept, something which makes sense to and has an appeal for almost every reader. The impassioned sentences are punctuated with exclamation marks:
But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal!
Vertical meaning has much to do with the creation of mysteries and the question ‘What is really going on?’ Here, Tartt is explicit - ‘These are powerful mysteries’ - before going on to summon up a series of poetic images - the bellowing of bulls, springs of honey bubbling from the ground - images which speak of luxury, rampant sexuality, and abundant passion. By equating Beauty with Terror - a kind of oxymoron, commonly used to draw readers in - the author has linked the normally negative sensations associated with fear to the transcendent elevations connected with extreme beauty, the contradictions winding together to make a divine consummation, passionately destructive:
If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones.
After long, complex sentences, she finishes off the passage masterfully with the short, almost perfunctory, but powerful ‘Then spit us out reborn.’ In the case of this passage, vertical and contextual meaning have carried us forward on a wave to that final moment of rebirth.
In the act of writing, as with the earlier example, it is not as though Tartt started with the thought ‘I am now going to create vertical and contextual meaning’ and then built things step by step precisely in the reverse order that I have taken them apart above. More likely, starting with the concept she wanted to portray - spiritual rebirth - the images came first, then the structural connecting of those images, then the punctuation and syntax needed to make her required impressions. Her intention as an author, though, would have been to draw in attention; her constructive actions would have been guided by this need to ‘rip away the veil’ between her idea and the reader.
More examples will follow soon. In all of them, you will see how to focus attention so that the reader is gripped and entranced.