Friday 11 July 2008

On Paying Attention

Walking to the station this morning, along a path beside the railway, I stopped for no obvious reason - and had a wholly unexpected, heart-lifting encounter with a comma butterfly, which was basking on a bindweed leaf not 2ft away from me. Now this, with its ragged wings, is just about the easiest of all British butterflies to identify, but it got me thinking about this recent post by Bryan, which Frank Wilson also picks up on, identifying with me as, well, an identifier.
There's a lot to be said against the identifying tendency. Advanced twitchers, for instance, seem to reach the point where they barely deign to notice anything but rarities - and those they notice only to tick off their list. My identification skills are limited, but I find myself effectively dismissing the commoner species once I' ve established what they are, unless they have some special beauty, like the increasingly common speckled wood. In other words, skill at identification can prevent you seeing, or even bothering to look. The danger is of not paying attention, and this, I think, is the root of the case for identifying, for distinguishing one creature from another.
It's a bit of a stretch, but surely this principle applies in the human world too. There's a famous passage in Proust, where the narrator, anxious about his grandmother, races to Paris to see her. When he arrives, she is not expecting him and he witnesses, as it were, his own absence. In that absence, what he sees, shockingly, is not his grandmother but a florid-faced, mad old woman, sitting in a chair reading. Momentarily, he has not identified her, in the act of loving attention in which she is, not that mad old woman, but his beloved grandmother. Loving (ideally) attention is what makes us what we are - what, in every sense, distinguishes us - and without it, as King Lear demonstrates with horrific vividness, we are no more than bare forked animals.
Glad I saw that comma, anyway.


  1. Thought provoking for a Friday afternoon Nige, the micro vs the macro. Striking the balance as ever is the route to happiness. Imbalance, as Macawber so succinctly put it, in financial terms, leads to sad faces. All of my life I have avoided joining groups because of the very reason you state, "anorak" being the modern term. Trying to step back and look in has led so many people down the path of holding their fellow man and woman in disdain, too far up into the stratosphere also leads to sad faces. Look what happened to Hoyle and Russell. Elberry hit the nail smack on the head, ordinary, and therefore reasonably well balanced people just shrug.
    Why not start a shrug party, the worst that can happen is we will lose our deposit.
    Can you recommend a good bug book please, fed up guessing.

  2. Well once you're away from the butterflies, Malty - only 60-dd British species - things get mighty complicated - thousands of moths, thousands of beetles, flies, etc. The Collins guide (Insects of Brit and N Europe) is usable, but still a heck of a lot of species in there. I've got some old Wayside & Woodland guides, which are lovely to look at, but little practical use. Bugs Britannica will be great, I'm sure, but it'll be a damned thick square book, no pocket guide.

  3. Thanks Nige, Amazon here I come, incidentally we have a (tatty) copy of The Birds of the Wayside and Woodland, a little treasure but pants as an aid to identification.

  4. What a brilliant post, Nigel! It also explains why so many people are unhappy. When they were small, they were not "identified" -- they didn't get the attention mirrored back to them from their parents or others that made them feel "seen" (acknowledged, understood) and whole. Indeed, I wonder if identity can even be achieved without the outside force of others who pay attention to you, name you, shape you. In any event, it's certainly a dynamic of inside forces and outside pressures that make us who we are.

    Speaking of bugs: We suddenly have a herd of beetles tramping through my back yard. Some are iridescent green, about an inch long, others are nearly two inches, black, with tusks. What's going on???

  5. i can't tell you how much quiet satisfaction it gave me to find someone able to read Proust well; normally the only refs to the man are of the "well of course nobody reads Proust, they just pretend to" stuff, most annoying.

    A post worthy of a Proust reference, say i.

  6. I get the same feeling when going round an art gallery. Does one look frst at the pictures? Or does one look first at the name of the artist on the small plaque alongside? Does the identification of a Picasso precede the pleasure of seeing such a rarity in real life, or does it confirm one's good (or bad) taste in appreciating or disliking the work? I have for a long time wanted to stage an exhibition without identifiers, reaped from the amateur to the exceptional. It would be interesting to leave the viewers without any reference. Nice one, Nige.

  7. That's an excellent idea - one that wld really focus the attention on the thing itself. I also have the problem with labels, explanatory captions etc in galleries - and have often thought, if I didn't know this picture was by X, would I give it a 2nd glance - might I not rather dismiss it altogether? (I have Cy Twombly in mind, but there are plenty of others).
    Welcome aboard, Mac!