Saturday, June 21, 2014

On Attention and Art -- 2 Nephi 2: 13

"O that ye would awake, awake from a deep sleep..." (2 Nephi 2: 13)

Reflections on the Mormon Lit Blitz, Week One 

Viktor Shklovsky's 1917 essay "Art as Technique"  begins with a simple observation: that as things become habitual, our minds tend to make them automatic and unconscious. Maybe you've noticed this while driving a car along a route you take all the time or while listening to a child bless the food during a bedtime prayer. There are certain tasks, we joke, that we could do in our sleep--and that we tend to perform with as much attention as if we were sleeping.

In many ways, this automation of the habitual is necessary and helpful. By not thinking about things we constantly repeat, our minds are able to apply more attention and energy to dealing with unfamiliar and new problems.

At times, though, our minds' insistence on automation comes at a steep cost. We can take familiar things for granted to the point that they disappear almost completely from our awareness. I can still remember my professor, Kim Abunuwara, reading out Shklovsky's counting of the costs: "And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habituation devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife..."

On my mission in Germany, I once found myself translating a stake conference talk for an English-speaking visitor. By the middle of the talk, I found the ideas expressed to be so familiar I could finish translating a sentence before the speaker finishing saying it. By the end of the talk, the man I was translating for recognized the patterns of speech so well he'd only need a few words of each sentence to follow.

There have been moments in my life, I suppose, when I was glad my faith had reached the level of automatic, unconscious reaction. But I am frightened by the danger of habit devouring my faith instead. There have been times in my life when it eats up even the words of God, when I look up at the end of a page to realize I've glossed over everything. Do we reach a point when all the once-startling truths that should transform us become little more than vain repetitions? Can we come to take for granted even the idea that we are intended to become Gods?

We all fall, again and again, into the sleepwalk of habit. But perhaps, Viktor Shklovsky suggests, we can be awoken by art. Art that interrupts our habits, jars us out of our rote perceptions, and makes the familiar unfamiliar enough for us to see it once again.

I've felt blessed this week by art like that.

Art that invites me to look at exaltation as something that can happen when a shell breaks.

Art that takes an ancient warning and gives it fresh force.

Art that lets me see a familiar setting from the sky for the first time.

That gives pain new names.

That finds holiness through simple juxtapositions.

That straight-up offers me different eyes with which to see.

I've felt blessed this week by art that allows me to re-engage with parts of the rich heritage I've been given. And I've felt privileged to be able to share it.

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