“The whole world stops as this stunning dancer rises,” Alessandro said, “and its beauty puts to shame all our doubts.”
As Alessandro, the protagonist in Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, prepares to leave for university, his father tells him, “You’ll learn more in your journeys to and from Bologna, if you make them on horseback, than from all your professors combined.” Alessandro’s narratorial voice adds, “he had almost been right.”
A Soldier of the Great War is the tale of an Italian veteran of the First World War who recounts his life story years later during a long walk with a young man he meets by chance. It is, among other things, a book about beauty and the kind of attention to the world necessary to recognize it. Alessandro believes in the redemptive power of beauty and throughout the story he shows himself to be remarkably attuned to the instances of beauty that permeate our experience. Not only the beauty of a majestic moonrise, but also the beauty in more prosaic scenes.
In her absence, and in the absence of anyone like her, he was drawn to many things that, in being beautiful, were her allies — the blue of the stage-set in the floodlights, the grace of a cat as it turned its small lion-like face to question a human movement, a fire that blazed from within the dark of a blacksmith’s shop or a baker’s and caught his eye as he passed, a single tone arising from a cathedral choir to shock a jaded congregation with it unworldly beauty, the mountaintops as snow was lashed from them by blue winds, the perfect and uncontrived smile of a child.
In his Kenyon College commencement address from 2005, David Foster Wallace, with the kind of earnestness that he was uniquely capable of pulling off, similarly insisted that
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
Attention again. Attention to beauty, attention in order to love well. My worry is that the habits we form in a wired, connected, networked, always online, linked in world combat the sort of attention that Alessandro practices as well as the kind of attention that Wallace advocated. Nothing captures this more than the posture we are all so adept at striking now: head down, focused on a small screen, with the world going by all around us — unnoticed, unattended.
The devices themselves don’t demand this, and there are ways of using them so that they do not become the enemies of attention. Nonetheless, there does seem to be a propensity toward uses and practices that form habits of misdirected and fractured attention.
Helprin and Wallace, each in their own way, push us to look up and take notice; to come up out of the digital waters for breath and for beauty and for love. To see, to really see the world around us and to get out of our heads long enough to be attentive to others — that is our challenge.