Wisdom Of The Week – PAY ATTENTION TO THE WORLD

  
In a terrific 1992 lecture, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) asserted that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” But this observant attentiveness to the world, Sontag believed, is as vital to being a good writer as it is to being a good human being something she addresses in one of the many rewarding pieces collected in the posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom. 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. 

 

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