The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 15


The Holy Grail for writers is the final level, Deep Attention, and it’s safe to say that not many writers will ever reach this point.

Deep Attention occurs when Focused Attention has been so effective, and possibly prolonged over a whole work - or certainly significant proportions of it - that its contextual meaning spills over and actually transforms the way the reader views life.

It’s the kind of level of a religious scripture - something that, once read, changes the way the reader looks at things. Authors able to produce Deep Attention usually have as their themes the meatier topics of literature - the meaning of life, the role of mortality and suffering, and so on. In addressing these things through fiction, they not only focus the reader’s attention but create a ripple effect on the reader’s life.

This is obviously affected by the condition of the reader to begin with, as well as the conditions under which a book is read. Certain states of mind outside the book or around its reading can clearly influence its impact upon an individual. But in terms of the power of literature to produce such lasting epiphanies, what we are examining here is how master authors create the level of Meaning necessary to grasp, hold and mould attention in readers even beyond the parameters of their work.

It’s probably best explained through examples. Here’s a passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace (an aptly named book, given its grand themes):

Just as in the clock the result of the complex action of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely the slow and regular movement of the hand marking the time, so the result of all the complex human activities of these 160,000 Russian and French - of all their passions, hopes, regrets, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear and enthusiasm - was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the battle of the three Emperors, as it was called; that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.

The passage sums up a large part of Tolstoy’s ideas, and the novel is a composite study of selected individual characters and their adventures during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812, as well as a kind of extended essay about philosophy and history. It should come as no surprise, given these parameters, that Tolstoy addresses major concerns about Life in the book. How he does so is exemplified above.

The image of the clock, like most images in fiction, acts ‘vertically’ to pull the reader into the text. Familiar images - like clocks - often work better, especially when they are used to explain complex subjects, in this case perhaps the most complex subject of all - Life, as we experience it as human beings. As we are drawn into the ‘complex action of innumerable wheels and pulleys’ and Tolstoy connects it with the ‘passions, hopes, regrets, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear and enthusiasm’ of 160,000 people, an epiphany can result, which is obviously the author’s intention, made explicit at the end of the passage: ‘that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history’.

The cumulative build-up of such passages makes War and Peace not only an engrossing work of fiction but also a treatise on reality as we experience it. Through several main characters, all of whom have differing parts to play in the vast drama of the invasion, Tolstoy grasps our sympathies; through the unfolding of dramatic events over a decade or more, he pulls us forward through a lengthy story; but with images and metaphors like this, he creates contextual meaning on an equally grand scale, resulting in Deep Attention on the part of the reader.

More soon.

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