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    monks chopping a tree with axes

    Paying Attention

    Caleb Smith’s Thoreau’s Axe and Jamie Kreiner’s The Wandering Mind revisit the age-old problem of human distractibility.

    By Shira Telushkin

    July 11, 2023
    • David Quackenbush

      Thank you for this, careful, fascinating and sapiential review of a most fruitful and distracting topic. It is so good to discover how many of us are thinking and hoping about these things. To be connected to friends from the past, and reminded that it is not a new and apocalyptic situation, is very encouraging. I look forward to reading both of these books with your guidance.

    In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites to prepare cities of refuge once they enter the land of Israel, to house anyone who unintentionally kills another person. To give an example, he describes one who “goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the blade slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies” (Deut. 19:5). A senseless tragedy, the death an accident and yet the killer not quite blameless. The blade should not have slipped from the handle.

    It is a passage I have never fully understood, or even realized I inadequately understood, until I began to read Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture, a recent book by Caleb Smith, an English professor at Yale University. “The piece that secures an axe’s metal head to its wooden handle is called the wedge,” he begins his introduction, somewhat unexpectedly. “If the wedge rots or wears thin, the handle will narrow, and the head will rattle, coming loose. If you are not paying attention to your work, the head will fly completely off – and this is what happened, one day toward the end of March 1845, to the borrowed axe that Henry David Thoreau was using to cut white pines for timber as he built his house by Walden pond.”

    Smith goes on to describe how Thoreau was in the midst of cutting a new wedge, “soaking it in water to expand it, slowly tightening the bond between handle and the axe-head” when he noticed a snake. This snake, and Thoreau’s reflection on its alert attentiveness, the languidness of burgeoning spring, is where Smith begins his introduction in earnest.

    But I found myself still caught by the axe. Though Smith never mentions the biblical connection, it is hard to hear this description and not think of the classic example of one who is sent to the cities of refuge. So this is how one loses control of a blade. “If you are not paying attention to your work, the head will fly off completely.” A crime of inattention. The man Moses evokes is one who was not paying attention, and the person who does not pay attention to his work is a danger to society. He should be sheltered and, also, kept away. Later on, Smith asks: “When is distraction a sin, and when is it something less than that?”

    It is a question that humans have been asking for a very long time.

    The omnipresence of these questions in human history, and concerns about distraction, slipping attention, information overload, and how to regulate society in the face of such concerns, is a useful reminder today, when we are subsumed with books on the subject.

    Smith’s is one of several new books on the market which look to the past for insight. Jamie Kriener’s The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us about Distraction, is another. The two authors have gone searching for answers to modern problems in two different time periods – the early Christian monks of late antiquity, and the nineteenth century. Both are invested in showing how similar the struggles of those ages were to ours (and how, by extension, non-singular we are in our woes), an approach whose appeal seems obvious: it is comforting to imagine that no matter how bad things seem, humans have gone through it before, and come out all right. In a typical example, Kreiner considers how some monks were skeptical about the spread of books, once invented, because learning from written texts was a “faulty substitution for memory. And unlike face-to-face, from a teacher, reading from a book … did not involve any dialogue – the pedagogical gold standard of the ancient world.” Sounds like modern fretting about online education, no? As books and commentaries proliferated, she notes how readers of the ancient world became “daunted” by the amount of reading they were now required to master, and responded by composing anthologies, compilations, and best-of editions. The comparison to the curated newsletters, digests, and round-ups that crowd the modern inbox is obvious. It is a slant Kreiner is eager to document: these concerns are not new. Smith hits a similar note, writing, “We may think that our distraction is unprecedented; so did many poets, preachers, and activists in the days when trains and cheap newsprint first moved across the continent. They believed they were living in a new era, the age of machines and money. Distraction was their name for how it hurt.”

    But is there something, then, to learn from how our predecessors responded to the same human foibles that have plagued us from time immemorial?

    Kreiner argues yes, though it is an argument that sustains only part of the book, most of which is simply a fantastic, readable overview of early Christian monastic history and practice. At several points I found myself wondering if Kreiner, having hit upon a particularly in-vogue concept, tried to structure her book on monastic history around it, and it is hard to argue otherwise. The section on community, for example, is full of interesting asides – apparently rural families in Ireland at one point took monastic vows en masse in order to preserve their land by designating it a monastery – but by page eighty-seven, I was still at a loss to find distraction as the organizing interest for the material thus far. Later, a chapter on books opens up, aptly enough, with a consideration of how monks saw reading to be both spiritually useful and also a possible source of distraction, as mentioned above. But by the time the chapter ends, with a detailed description of notable book projects at the time, an intricate explanation of contemporaneous political timelines, and a consideration of how Arabic calligraphy began to incorporate a cantillation system (not to mention the introduction of punctuation and spacing to manuscripts more generally), one wonders if the chapter was simply about the evolving role of books in late antiquity, not about the distraction they provided or forfended. The book seems determined to be a quick intro rather than a deep exploration of a topic – stories are often given without dates or sources, and there is little exploration of more niche referenced topics, such as the heresy debates between different sects. But for one who wants to get a feel for how monastic life was lived, and considered, in its early formative centuries, it is ideal.

    monks using axes

    Anonymous, Cistercian monks at work, twelfth century

    Two chapters, however, offer sustained engagement with the promised topic. In “Mind” and “Memory,” Kreiner brings the reader into the specific methods by which the early monks approached the problems of attention and distraction, offering guidelines for how to discern between a good thought and a bad thought, or avoid being led astray by a thought that seemed worthy but was actually unhelpful. We learn how when John Cassian of the fifth century found the poetry of his youth intruding on his mind during prayers, for example, the desert father Nesteros encouraged him not to try to empty his mind but to “restock it and organize it,” imagining his mind as a room furnished with sacred objects including two stone tablets, two guardian angels, and more.

    The book is at its best in these moments, detailing the specific solutions and approaches the monks developed to stay focused on the task at hand. Elsewhere, again discussing distraction during prayer, Kreiner rounds up solutions offered by a number of early church fathers, from setting goals to conjuring tears to contemplating the afterlife or imagining the attention one might give a human king during an audience. Monks such as Evagrius, Pachomious, and Isaac share specific Bible verses they use to jolt them back to attention. These practices of meditation, recitation, and repetition – as well as insights into how to avoid cluttering the mind with images and details that can be distracting and hard to remove (Pachomious is particularly incensed when a monk mentions it is grape season, since now monks would be consumed by the desire for grapes) – give the book a wealth of detail that grounds its ambitious thesis.

    They also help modern readers appreciate elements of medieval Christian texts which are often inscrutable today. Kreiner outlines the historical use of mnemonics, visual aids, and memory devices that informed monastic approaches to learning, putting into context the mindset with which readers would have approached the works. “Monks knew that memories were tightly associated with places,” Kreiner explains, describing how they tested and researched a variety of theories that helped them understand the tricky methods which made insights stick. As a result, they “often read and wrote about things that mattered to them in the form of geographic narratives – voyages, pilgrimages, cosmographies, mapped catalogs – as a way of anchoring knowledge spatially. Moving through those spaces in the imagination helped set information in order and allowed monks to recall it later.”

    Medieval monks had a very clear, urgent focus to their attention: unification with the divine.

    She situates these methods within modern understandings of memory science, such as the practices of building a memory palace and anchoring memories or insights in specific senses or associations. It is a fascinating look at how monks and scholars, working without the aids so many of us use today, were able to keep intricate thought processes in mind. She describes “the standard angelic device” derived from the Book of Isaiah, in which monks traced major ideas or categories onto one of the six wings of an angelic being, and then imagined offshoots of those ideas as particular feathers, and designated subdivisions for each feather. As she notes, “The angel was as much a subject as a scaffold. And once it was set up within the mind, a thinker used it to plunge deeper into an analysis of the topics and subtopics she had fastened to it.” She brings numerous examples of texts and images that explore how such devices were used. In another example, she explores how “strings of biblical quotations” which one often finds at the end of medieval texts are often “ingenious recollections of passages that shared multiple elements in common … assembled without the help of an index or word search” to demonstrate the textual mastery of the writer, and help a medieval reader keep in mind the various themes at play. Even if today we largely skip over such endings, confused by their worth or purpose, it is helpful to remember they had a specific historical role.

    But what is most striking about Kreiner’s book is the reminder that the monks had a very clear, urgent focus to their attention: unification with the divine. Even as she describes the sometimes extreme methods they undertook to stay focused (remaining in a cell for decades, forgoing bathing, never once in thirty-two years glancing at an adjacent river), and how hard it was to keep distraction at bay, it is always clear that the monks knew to what end all of this effort should lead. There was a very clear purpose to cultivation of attention, and the lists and the verses and the physical torment all had a goal. “What was distinctive about monks’ own cosmic contemplations was that they were the centerpiece of a cognitive program aimed at total concentration on the divine,” Kreiner writes, describing the inherently paradoxical but still preeminent desire to “reconnect with a divinity that was inherently undivided,” meaning that the momentarily glimpsed moments were worth it, even if “the mind, as a created thing among other created things, was bound to split again.”

    As a modern reader, the clarity of this focus stands in sharp contrast to the lauded efforts against distraction today, which are rarely grounded in a clear goal.

    This more ambiguous approach to the moral purpose of attention is reflected in Thoreau’s Axe, even though the books are intended for different audiences. Where The Wandering Mind is a fun, breezy read, Thoreau’s Axe is dense and demanding. This meditative, lushly written book is less a sustained argument about distraction and attention in the nineteenth century and more a collection of primary texts from the period, accompanied by analysis, context, and reflection. It requires attention, and focus, and Smith is little concerned with bringing the reader back to an overarching theme. This is particularly confusing, at times, since the scope of subjects is so wide: Smith includes chapters on Moby-Dick, Edgar Allen Poe, Frederick Douglas, education reform, prison reform, Walt Whitman, mesmerism, hunting, and other topics, all intended to capture the variety of places where people think about the benefits of attention and the limits of distraction. Though difficult to consider on the whole, each chapter is relatively short, and one advantage of this wide-ranging lens is that it allows Smith to muddle the categories of attention and distraction – is noticing a beautiful tree while taking a walk outside an example of distraction (as the monks might say), or is it paying attention to what really matters (as a romantic poet might argue)? Does cinema cultivate attention and focus or is it an example of societal distraction? While Kreiner likewise acknowledges the slipperiness of her categories, the historical distance makes it harder to resonate, and Smith’s engagement feels less pat. He is arguing, with more success, that this is the lens by which one must examine the entirety of modern society: “As a critical historical study, this book is my effort to describe how so many American conflicts came to be imagined as problems of distraction or attention, as if they could be solved by retraining people’s dormant capacities to see clearly and feel intensely.” If Kreiner’s attempts to cast all monastic history as a question of distraction fall somewhat short, Smith seems more committed to the project.

    monks chopping a tree with axes

    Alexander of Bremen, Cistercian monks at prayer and at work, thirteenth century

    But what has clearly changed for Smith’s subjects is that they grapple not only with the difficulty of paying attention, but with the variety of new ways to be distracted: theater, cinema, music, and machinery all pull at their minds, making it impossible to not be full of unwanted thoughts. And in this post-Enlightenment and post–Industrial-Revolution era, attention becomes nearly indistinguishable from discipline in several areas, including slavery, education, factory work, and prison. There is the new question of who is demanding attention – an employer, teacher, prison warden? – and how that impacts the perceived virtue of its cultivation. The focused clarity of a God-driven goal has become splintered into a moral imperative that seems more human rooted and widely enforced than the self-selected efforts of Kreiner’s monks, and thus more dubious. Everyone now is required to contend with distraction, and there is no option to opt out.

    This makes the moral distinctions between the two even harder to sustain. Smith describes how the Industrial Revolution forces the worker to pay acute attention at every moment to his factory tasks, so that “it is as if an outside, hostile will, at odds with the worker’s own, takes hold of him, using his attention to manipulate his body so that he can execute its plans. Attention means subordination.” Whereas repetition at a physical task was promoted by some early Christian monks as a route toward deep focus – basket-weaving was particularly common in the Egyptian deserts – this outside, hostile will registers not as an ideal, but as a demonic force which should be fought. Though he offers few solutions, Smith’s examples of attention being demanded rather than sought forces the reader to consider more carefully the goal of cultivating attention, and who benefits from such attention.

    It is a question he leaves unanswered. In the afterword, Smith evokes Walter Benjamin’s well-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” describing how Benjamin believed the critic would need to either “indulge in a reactionary nostalgia for older media like literature and painting” which demand that one cultivate attention and concentration or “embrace new media, especially cinema” which demand little from the viewer, promoting societal distraction through overstimulation. Benjamin, ultimately, came down on the side of embracing the new, hoping that distracted masses would be less susceptible to fascism: they would simply be unable to care enough. Distraction had now become a possible antidote to the human proclivity toward harm and evil, though we know, of course, the folly of such hope. Instead, the reader is left to understand that distraction is easy, attention is hard, and humans are now burdened with figuring out to what end they should cultivate and devote their attention, even if such a process requires, in and of itself, a focused and disciplined mind.

    In some ways, it is comforting to see how very much we are not alone in our problems. And yet, one wonders if the popularity of books about attention and distraction, and guides to conquering both, persists because there is a part of us which remains hopeful that somebody else did, somehow, find a solution to all of this – the monks, Thoreau, maybe some start-up whiz kid. We want to believe somebody has an answer, and we can simply plug ourselves into the system. Kreiner notes how Augustine of Hippo “wistfully … wished he knew how the Apostle Paul had divided up his day” so he and other monks could have the useful example of an ideal daily schedule. “Antony was remembered to have said that switching between work and prayer and work and prayer was the solution to distracting thoughts,” and countless other monks’ schedules were widely shared, perhaps not unlike the popularity of those “How I Spend my Sunday” or “My Morning Routine” news items that circulate today, detailing how fitness gurus or successful CEOs divide their time. The answer might be hard work, disciplined efforts, and the urgent, aching desire to achieve what such discipline allows. But we’d rather read a book. If nothing else, Kreiner’s book convincingly demonstrates that retreat from society – that one-stop-shop answer – did not solve the problem of attention. The monks, as she points out, soon realized that “renunciation and conversion were not instantaneous” and even after the total abandonment of the world, they still needed to continually work at disengaging from the “possessions, social ties, daily dramas, and other priorities that had consumed their attention up to that point.”

    We are convinced distraction is a modern problem. It is not. But what does feel modern, by the close of the book, is how vaguely we can define or even describe the goal of our efforts to regain attention. The monks wanted to unite their minds with the divine world through unceasing prayer. We want … to not hate ourselves?

    The crime of inattention surely still has a victim. (One thinks of the artist Bo Burnam’s refrain about the internet, “Can I interest you in everything / all of the time?”) And while both Kreiner and Smith describe the rich variety of individuals who fought against distraction, they fail to bring the reader fully into their longing. What do we desire, today, from our distraction-free states? If we don’t know, we will likely find it hard to summon the will power or enthusiasm that motivated the monks, or even Thoreau and the impressive litany of individuals Smith brings to our attention. And without that internal motivation, we might fail – as a society, as individuals, sometime soon – to hear the rattle of our thinning axes. And who knows where the blade might land?

    Contributed By ShiraTelushkin Shira Telushkin

    Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, art, meaning, and all things beautiful. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many other publications.

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