Pray Attention

… am reading Ron Hansen’s Hotly in Pursuit of the Real and so for a moment do you then read with me.

The title is from a line of Flannery’s I didn’t know but that is no matter; I didn’t know of Hansen’s book until a week or so ago, nor his A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, his riff on Cain’s Double Indemnity.

Hansen seems to have a fine life but what do I know … seems to write whatever he darn well wants … has anyone looked at his work for connecting gossamer? Apart from. a couple on the Western side of things … this ain’t no never mind neither; I would say the exuberance of the varietals is the connection, the this bit of life and that one over there like flowers in a field, not necessarily plucking them but noticing, attending, giving account.

In a selection from the Pursuit called ‘Seeing Into the Middle of Things’ there is this

The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.

A line from Thos Hardy which reminds me of Mr. Dooley’s description of the role of the newspaper

to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable

except Dooley, the fictional creation of Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne apparently didn’t put it ‘zackly that way and the way he did say it was in a litany of expostulatory exasperation with the overreach of the journalistic enterprise.

But again, never mind — either line sees to the middle of it, sees not exactly the same as to the nub though not unrelatedly either.

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I have known a Chicago journalist or two in my time and they are hard-barked men and to a man — no doubt the women are as well but I have known only the male sort — they have been hotly in pursuit of the factual, which is not exactly the same as the real but not unrelatedly either. One in fact told me explicitly to let the facts speak and there’s an end on’t and I’m not real sure he was fully right but he was closer than most.

You have to be committed to the facts to let them speak, for instance; rarely indeedly do we let facts speak for themselves … I feel it a fearsome business most of the time not to put my two cents’ interpretation on the facts (though I find it easy enough, instead, to excise others’ qualifying rounds fired when I’m doing the editing).

Don’t call a hotel ‘low-end’ was the specific injunction; just say it’s sixty-nine bucks a night and let the reader decide where it ends. Of course there are some burgs where that isn’t as low-end as another but really on balance he’s right: better to trust to the facts.

I fancy even that my own locution shared liberally with younger cubs new to the newsroom — ‘ruthless for the reader’ — isn’t unrelated to what I learnt if not at the feet then at least sometimes bent over the knee of better journalists than me.

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Hansen lauds the facts as well.

He says John Ruskin believed ‘faithful observation of the facts of existence’ were enough to render ‘fresh disclosures’ of God, resulting in great art — that is, praise. Get the facts right and great art and knowledge of God will follow. Hansen follows this with some lines on his poet Hopkins and the Jesuit’s work flowing from ‘how Hopkins so acutely saw the world.’

This is quite far afield from the ‘so much the worse for the facts’ line which may or may not have been spoken by Hegel (Lukacs said it was Fichte), or a similar one perhaps by Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog T.H., not A.), or Einstein’s about changing facts to fit the theory.

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Annie Dillard, Martin Buber, Simone Weil and Mary Oliver make appearances in the essay as well, as do the craft of silversmithy and accounts of the blind who’re by medicine’s marvels returned their sight.

There is, for instance, an entire poem before Oliver’s oft-quoted line

Tell me, what it is you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

which poem I didn’t know. It is here, if you didn’t know either, and here is Mary Oliver reading it.

Weil speaks on the only need the unhappy have which is for we to give them our attention, and certainly they us, when a different day. And so there is much before the French mystic’s oft-quoted line

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.

And if we give them our attention we pray with them and what we pay attention to is what we love and whom else to love but the one, as someone said in a different context and prolly meant in a very different way, we’re with.

Hansen wants us ‘to attend to and confront the world honestly, unblinkingly’ as it relates to both beauty and creation as well as ‘confusions, distortions, and sins.’

This calls to mind E.B. White, who in a piece on Rachel Carson and Silent Spring noted that we must tell the truth about the world we see, and that this includes what Carson saw, as well as, when true, that the sunset is beautiful or the person, maybe the one we’re with even. It can even be neither, in a sense: take Dallas Willard’s take on the importance of ‘paying attention to our pansies,’ by which he meant attending to the supposedly but a’course not really small things in our chats — not so grand as our conversations perhaps, but nonetheless crucial and perhaps more so and in either event more numerous — with neighbors and others.

Willard and White are two fellows not in the essay, though they well could’ve been, all things considered.

‘Our continuing goal,’ Hansen writes, ‘ought to be that we become truth-tellers and truth-seekers … without squeamishness or defensiveness or false piety and reserve.’

Yes. And another thing …

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