Noticing

Dot writes: In her wonderful book Findings Kathleen Jamie has a chapter about her husband’s serious illness. She’s a stern Scottish secularist and even in his extremity, she doesn’t pray. But she notices.

Could I explain to Phil that – though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger – I had not prayed? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs, and the shoaling light and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?

Findings, (London: Sort Of Books, 2005), p. 109

I was thinking about this passage (secularism and all) during the sermon on Sunday, when the rector was talking about Creation and asking us if we knew what the current phase of the moon was? Did we know what kind of trees grew in our street? Could we visualise their leaves or their bark? Because it was this kind of noticing that was needed, if we were to care for the world and not just use it. It was a pretty fierce environmentalist sermon. I felt a little ashamed because I don’t know the names of the trees or the current phase of the moon; I’ve been hurrying along with my collar up and my head down, from door to station and station to door, to indoors. Though I conceive of myself as someone who loves to be out under the sky.

I’m not good at the names of things sometimes – names of trees, anyway. My head refuses to hold them, though it’s fine with strong verbs. I do look, though. I could picture the leaves. I was wondering about how much we use language as the tool of our noticing. For me this is indeed important, and I want to focus on things by talking about them – talking about literature, which I do pretty well, and talking about music, which I do a lot less well but as well as I can manage. (I’m best at noticing human things.) Talking, however, is sometimes a way of interposing a layer of yourself and your interpretation between yourself and the thing, so that your lovely verbal image subtly takes over as the object of your pleasure. I don’t think that’s what Kathleen Jamie does – or rather, her precise noticing becomes a way for others to notice too. But the ideal, the noticing that’s like prayer, is to stay receptive, not to impose. To find the right word and no more, and if there is no word, to hear and feel and look. I’m not sure I’d call it prayer, though. I think I’d call it love.

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6 thoughts on “Noticing

  1. Mairi Jay

    Many thanks for your beautifully expressed and thoughtful reflection. It invites all sorts of thoughts from me. I very much agree with the point: “Talking is sometimes a way of interposing a layer of yourself and your interpretation between yourself and the thing . . .” So true. One of the things I deeply disagreed with about the ideas of Foucault is the notion that language creates reality (I know he didn’t actually say that, but it was the implication of most of his writing). I agree that language focuses attention and thereby shapes what one sees and thinks, but pre-language babies are learning a reality that is shaped by actions, movement and senses. I think one of the disciplines of Buddhist meditation is to reduce the distance between the seer and the seen, to try and see without words.

    1. Dot

      I hadn’t thought to relate this to Foucault, but that’s a really interesting insight. However, I’d want to strike a balance and not reject the positive potential of language as a way of knowing the world, partly because this also connects to my ongoing inner conversation about the value of learning, and trying to think of a non-instrumental, non-monetized way of justifying scholarship.

      I think seeking to know things in detail, to separate and label them, is a way of honouring the distinctiveness of the people, animals and objects around us, and language is an important tool for that. The baby may learn a pre-linguistic reality but it isn’t an ideal or complete reality – there is much the baby simply does not grasp, and the baby (according to theories like Klein’s, anyway) knows the world insofar as it relates to him/herself and his/her needs. Language can be a way of knowing things while remaining separate from them, not requiring to ingest them – that distance, that surface, can be a space of giving things their selfhood. And I wondered again about my conclusion, saying noticing was love rather than prayer, since love often is a process of blending and exchanging and I find value in letting things be. There are different modes of noticing, I suppose (and different modes of love: the best love allowing a degree of separateness to the loved one, even as it acknowledges that none of us is sealed, none of us sternly impermeable). But my point about substituting the verbal artefact for the object behind it stands.

  2. Mairi Jay

    I wonder if people have different modalities of learning, perceiving and constructing the world. For some, language is their primary reality and they are intensely responsive to language and the way it shapes attention and thought. I wonder if its the same, though, for people who are more visual or tactile. I’m thinking of the emoticons; how intensely clever they are as visual communicators; do the people who design emoticons and such like view the world in the same way as proficient language speakers. Or artists and photographers, who attend to the world in a very visual way.

    I’m also recollecting a book by Karen Fowler “We are all completely beside ourselves”. It’s written from the point of view of a human child, Rosemary, who grew up as the twin of Fern, a chimpanzee. From birth until about 5 both infants are raised together and for Rosemary the chimpanzeeness of Fern was completely irrelevant; she related to Fern (and Fern to her) in a way that was the product of their interactions, not their language.

    You are definitely pushing me to the edge of my mental capacities with this discussion; I agree that its virtually impossible, for me, to think without language but I’m not yet convinced that the way I personally perceive and relate to the world is primarily shaped by language.

  3. Mairi Jay

    I was mulling over this question a bit more on my walk with the dogs this morning. I have a vivid memory of walking in the fields with one of the farmers when I was doing my PhD field study. We were walking along and the guy made an observation about a particular patch of soil – that it was dry or poor, or had missed out on fertiliser or something. I asked him how he knew and he said: “See the hedge there? It’s gone and lost its leaves.” Only if I looked really hard could I see that there was any difference between the bit he was looking at and the rest. On another occasion, I heard an old Maori woman describe how she was able to judge the state of the mudflats in her harbour; if there was popping sounds coming from the mud, she knew it was alive and well; no popping sounds meant it was suffering from silt or pollution.

    I think we pay attention to what is important to us, whether a mother’s face as a baby, or a farmer who needs to understand the workings of the soil and the health of his cows, or a woodturner who needs to understand the grain of the wood, it’s dryness or sappiness, the sharpness of his/her tools etc. I think language is immensely important for conveying abstractions but not necessarily for constructing ‘reality’ and understanding or relating to the physical world.

    1. Dot

      These are such great comments, Mairi. I’d like to write some more in return but I think I need to mull a bit more myself. But I realise I am very verbal and that others notice in a less verbal mode, but still with great precision (though of course the farmer and the Maori woman both articulated their noticing to you verbally!)

  4. Mairi Jay

    Hi Dot, I was musing some more on the role of language as shaper of reality about 2.30 this morning; it nearly stopped me from going back to sleep. A couple of thoughts came to mind: firstly, that language and physical reality intertwine. The wood turner, the doctor, the farmer or whatever, are members of a community of speakers. Those speakers will develop a language to describe and explain the phenomena that impinge on their lives i.e. jargon. That language will be relevant to the physical and social realities of the speakers and in turn shape what speakers pay attention to.

    Secondly, I thought, language gives a certain mastery over the world of things (and of people). I was thinking this in relation to children who have suffered neglect and are language poor. I’ve read somewhere, that one of the greatest gifts parents can give their children is to speak to them and with them; that a lot of the young men and women who end up in jail are language-poor and that their poverty of language tends to make them more prone to violent emotion (if they can’t insult the enemy, they will bash the enemy). I guess language helps us from being swamped by the complexity of physical reality.

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