Notebook

Attention Demanded

Treasures can be found in unexpected places. One doesn’t normally look to the daily press for sapiential nourishment — but sometimes we find it there, to our delight and astonishment. An example is this essay by Katherine Rundell on John Donne (1572-1631) published in the New York Times a fortnight ago (it takes me a while to catch up). Rundell writes of Donne’s ease with extremes, of the way in which this supremely sensitive man could delight in life while looking on death fearlessly. From his practised capacity for tension sprang curiosity, sympathy, compassion, above all determined attention:

‘Wake, his writing tells us, over and over. Weep for this world and gasp for it. Wake, and pay attention to our mortality, to the precise ways in which beauty cuts through us. Pay attention to the softness of skin and the majesty of hands and feet. Attention — real, sustained, unflinching attention — is what this life, with its disasters and delights, demands of you.’