After reading David Marno’s beautiful and rich Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention, I was tempted to look for a number of books on the shelves. I was drawn to read again what exactly Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Georg Simmel were talking about when they discussed the problem of distraction and the impossibility of an attentive stance toward the world in early twentieth-century culture. And, on the other hand, to go back to Richard of St. Victor who assigns attention (attentio) a key role in the art of “enlarging the mind” in its advancement toward the contemplation of the divine. We will now have to engage with David Marno’s book in all these cases in order to understand the stakes and to think further about the very relation between attention and distraction—and, especially, the intrinsic entanglement between the two that we often tend to forget.
In analyzing John Donne’s devotional poetry, and in bringing it into conversation with early modern philosophy (Nicolas Malebranche and René Descartes, among many other voices), David Marno shows that attention in prayer and thought has to be understood in a common light, namely as an “art of attending” and a practice where thought and prayer tend to converge. Thus, both Malbranche and Descartes inherit from a tradition of prayer not the discipline of attention but the very focus on it. The art of attention is, as Marno makes us discover, not just a way of concentrating on something, but the return to a point zero where we grasp thoughts and spiritual truths in their moments of emergence. Attention, to put it succinctly, is the point—I am tempted to say the point of self-emptying—where something emerges as evident in spite of its entanglements and of our necessary distraction. What we should understand by “attending,” then, becomes clear not primarily on a theoretical or philosophical level, but in and through Marno’s close readings and his generous and intensely focused analyses of Donne’s poetic practice.
We often think and argue that poems can be read, even in modern times, as forms of spiritual exercises, inheriting a kind of performative aspect that we—since Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault, among others—usually associate with the philosophical schools of late antiquity and the monastic cultures of the Middle Ages. This performative aspect can, in these contexts, be understood in terms of a formation of the life of the soul, of sensation, of the affects, and cognition in specific ways.
With Marno’s work on Donne, and particularly with his close readings, we learn much more about the specific structure of such spiritual exercises, its very nature, and its relation to the practice of writing poetry. The key aspects of Donne’s poetics, both deeply indebted to the traditions of contemplative exercises and radically intent on reforming or even reinventing them, turn thus always also into elements of a reflection on the very idea of spiritual exercises. What we see on one side is a use of poetic devices that is anchored in and saturated by the history of prayer, the mental and the vocal forms of it, and the strategic regulation of affects that are being evoked. On the other side we observe a foregrounding of the problem of attention that can be read in terms of both an engagement with faith and doctrine, but also with the philosophical question of truth.
Distraction and attention have always been a general matter of concern in both the philosophical and the devotional context. Often we are inclined to understand attention as a matter of discipline. In Donne, however, Marno shows, we get to grasp and understand (maybe for the first time in this form) the very careful and elaborate approach to what it means to attend to matters of faith and doctrine in a new way that foregrounds attention itself. It does so not as a matter of pedagogy or discipline anymore, but as a form of engagement that configures language, affect, and thought anew. Thus, the focus on attention in Marno’s reading of Donne mobilizes both a radical iconoclasm and a “declension” of all possible forms of images—and thus also of figures of subjectivity that live through and in these images, that is, in their creaturely state of distraction.
What I find remarkable is the fact that here, once again but maybe for the first time in such an explicit and reflected fashion, the iconoclastic—or, if we want, critical—nature of attention does not have to be understood in terms of a strategy of getting rid of images. Instead, it is a strategic mobilization of images that provides us with moments of experiential evidence where we allow for the experimental devotional poetics to happen. Most prominently, we can grasp this in Marno’s wonderful—and, at least for this reader, most surprising—chapter on “Sarcasmos,” where we observe the (paradoxical) moment of a deployment of a Protestant emphasis on the state of sin and the sinner in elaborate rhetorical terms. Incarnation, sacrifice, and redemption have no other place here any more than the language in which these moments of Christian doctrine unfold under the sign of attentiveness. This attentiveness, however, is not an attentiveness toward something, but a form of writing that allows for the deployment of poetic devices in a way that turns them into an embodied experience of redemption. At no point, though, can this redemption be fixed. Instead, it is what comes about as evidence in the act of attending that transforms the word, so to speak, into spirit.
When David Marno points to the fact that “Donne was interested in what we might call a secular spiritual body . . . a spiritual body that exists in time,” he makes us aware of the fact that devotional practices are not meant to produce something entirely new but to discover “an affinity with the spiritual body in the very body one lives in.” What I find remarkable here is the hint, we could say, of a spiritual materialism that, in Donne, serves a deconstructive purpose as well. Most pairs of opposites—spirit and letter, spirit and matter, attention and distraction, to name just a few—fall away in the focus on a practice of writing and a poetics that in its “experiences of attention foreshadows the experience of being in the resurrected body.” This production itself evokes, according to Marno’s reading, the very evidence and proof it is looking for.
When we think of the ways of “generating an experience of full attentiveness” in devotional contexts we often tend to distinguish between affective and intellectual modes, and to produce typologies that are structured by this very axis. This, too, is something we will have to reconsider. What Marno teaches us with his reading of Donne’s devotional poetics is a new way of perceiving the correlation between sensation, affect, and cognition. Attention, as I see it now, forms a key to this. It is to be seen as a movement of the mind that creates the “spiritual body” as the empty space of a temporal interaction of these three seemingly disparate realms that, in devotional poetics, converge in a transformation of human existence.
Obviously, a historical question ensues at this point: Do the early modern pressures on faith and doctrine evoke this new profile of attention, i.e., the foregrounding of “attending to” as the very act in which prayer turns into the place where doctrine and faith are being transformed and where attention survives in the distractions of the world. We might be tempted to say that faith and doctrine lose their unbearable weight in a poetics that produces, in its call for an “art of attending,” the evidence that faith can never really grasp without turning into an idol. As Marno points out, both the fact that in Donne’s poems “the speaker experiences a given doctrine as his own thought when this thought occurs to him” and that the poems “represent the process of seeking faith by making the reader experience what it feels like to think a thought” are to be read in terms of such a transformation.
This, once again, has consequences for our thinking about the reconfigurations of the secular and the devotional in early modernity. Hence Marno observes that “the precedent for attention’s role in thinking is holy attention’s role in prayer and poetry.” He likewise notes that both Descartes and Malebranche—still close to the traditions of prayer—participate “in the process of appropriating a religious ideal,” and “simultaneously enact the art of holy attention and begin the process of secularization.” Marno thus indicates that at the core of modern philosophy itself the role of attention points to a place where the secular and the religious, the material and the spiritual, cannot be distinguished. With Marno, and starting with this book, we have to conceive of these areas not as opposed but as deeply entangled—as are distraction and attention (outside the promised land of pure attention).