Saturday, March 26, 2005

Pay attention

Why should the ability to write well about landscape matter? Surely, it might be objected, there are more interesting and important things to be written about? Or, with the world proceeding so adamantly towards a final wrecking of the environment, discriminating between types of landscape writing might seem like choosing between deckchair patterns on the Titanic.

Iris Murdoch, unexpectedly, can be of help here. Murdoch's ethical vision was based upon a concept which she, after Simone Weil, called "attention". "Attention", Murdoch proposed, is an especially vigilant kind of "looking". When we exercise a care of attention towards a person, we note their gestures, their tones of voice, their facial expressions, their turns of phrase and thought. In this way, by interpreting these signs, we proceed an important distance towards understanding the hopes, wishes and needs of that person.

This "attention", Murdoch noted, is the most basic and indispensable form of moral work. It is "effortful", but its rewards are immense. For this attention, she memorably wrote, "teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self".

Murdoch's ideal of "attention", of a compelling particularity of vision, obtains to landscapes as well as to people. It is harder to dispose of anything, or to act selfishly towards it, once one has paid attention to its details. This is an environmentalist's truth, as well as a humanist's.

-- From Robert Macfarlane's short essay on writers & landscapes in today's UK Guardian.

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