Like most humanities professors—at least those of us on the uncertain and perilous “non-tenure track” — I sometimes wonder what on earth I’m doing with myself. Then I do things like go hear Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 and Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony with two dozen eighteen-year-olds at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater on a surprisingly spring-like February afternoon, and all doubt, all second-guessing drifts away. The outing is for class. They will write up a brief, informal response essay afterward. There is, admittedly, a pragmatic and evaluative element to our presence at this symphony. But in this moment, sitting in the darkened theater with the busts of Wagner and Beethoven looming over us below a knock-your-eyes out chandelier suspended a hundred feet above our heads, this is a festival.
The class is a Freshman Honors Seminar called “Claiming our Attention.” We’re spending a term thinking about how incredibly wealthy companies in this age of the smartphone and social media try relentlessly – and very successfully – to capture our attention, our gaze, our very consciousness. While this might not be terribly bad – we have to pay attention to something after all – in class we deliberately focus on how these new technologies and ways of being in the world (Conversationes, to use the old term) are based fundamentally not in distraction (as so many people bemoan) but in the short, the surface, the mediated immediate, and, very often, the trivial. How to resist? The primary answer I offer is attention to long-form argument and long-form art. Works of art like Carole Satyamurti’s version of The Mahabharata and a longish novel like Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, long arguments critiquing our ad- and screen-saturated socio-cultural moment like Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: these works demand sustained attention and an ability to hold various strands in suspension while complexity develops, evolves, resolves (Also, they demand we look away from the screen.) In this way, we try for a bit of time each week to claim our attention back from intensely successful companies who trade in our very consciousness.
Luther at the MSO has gotten us stupendous seats—just a few rows back, we can clearly hear the grunts of the pianist as he runs up and down the keyboard, a bare arm betrays the tendons and musculature at work on a cello, set in relief by the house lights. One way into all the various strands of the class is starting with what this very physical and concrete aspect of the symphony clearly points to for me, here in this audience with these hundreds of other people – the “festival” of the arts and the blessedness of our spare moments of attention in the world unhooked from economic productivity and its analogue in the culture industry (tritely: working hard and playing hard). The festival and the spare moments free of electronic communications technology, the internet, and consumerist entertainment resist the Enlightenment’s instrumental rationality that Horkheimer and Adorno so criticized (most notably and bleakly in 1947’s Dialectic of Enlightenment) and the relentless American work ethic that together view everything (even our leisure time) in terms of efficiency and productivity. (By the bye: in class we temper this pessimism with healthy doses of Habermas’s 1962 Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and Gadamer’s 1977 “The Relevance of the Beautiful.”) Here in the dark on a Sunday afternoon, we frivolously celebrate a festival with Mendelssohn and Beethoven. With the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. With one another. And with hundreds of perfect strangers. And we’re all here listening to these utterly useless—except in Shelley’s sense of “true utility” (Defence of Poetry § 32-35)—kaleidoscopic masterpieces of harmony and melody. And it is great and glorious.
Contrasting with the pretended gravitas of the internet — that elusive quality that makes millions upon millions of human beings feel regularly throughout their days as if they’re missing out on life if they’re not somehow tending to the virtual garden — the synchronous movement of fingers and bows; the light playing off dark fabric to the time of some of the west’s most exuberant and lofty aural sculptures; the placid expression of the violist’s face, ringed with unkempt white whiskers; the earnestness of the young fourth violinist; the sheer effortless movement of so many bodies that creates this saturated deluge of exulting sound all has an actuality, a weight, a reality that is unavoidable, inescapable, present. What more can there be in the moment one encounters such a happening? Such a festival?
Far from being abstract (“the work” in its ideality), for me it is precisely this sensual and imaginative nature of art — how concrete and present it is — that makes it a kind of sacrament of eternity. In its very passingness, art draws us into the present moment — the only moment that is actual, an ever-present shadow of the great now of eternity. If we linger on what the bassoon was just doing, we miss where the violins are taking us. If we wonder whether we’ll hear that delightful theme from the first movement again, we cannot hear the flute’s answer to the timpani’s triumphant return in the third. In art’s transience, our attention must be immersed and inundated, or we miss the work in all its sensual and imaginative splendor. (Please be advised—I do not personally think the classical repertoire has a monopoly on such splendor; I feel similarly about the Rudra Vina and Frank Zappa’s classical works…)
It may be a largely futile gesture to work against the totalization of the internet’s and screens’ claims on our attention, with its default to the short, the quick, the gut punch to the base of the brain stem and the commodification of human consciousness. I realize some of my students (many of them?) can’t stop thinking about what their friends are doing on Instagram. I realize some of them are bored to death. But they’re here, part of this festival, whether they enjoy it or not. For those of us who think that long-form art matters, that immersing ourselves in the actual world rather than the virtual world matters, that simplicity and custody of the senses matter intrinsically, can we not at least plant a seed and say we tried?
Jacob Riyeff is a translator, poet, and scholar whose work focuses on the western contemplative tradition. His most recent book is an edition of _The Poems and Counsels on Prayer and Contemplation_ of the seventeenth-century Benedictine Dame Gertrude More. Jacob teaches in the English department at Marquette University and lives in Milwaukee, WI.