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“That Eye-on-the-Object Look”

I want to comment on this post of Rod’s.

Annie Dillard tells the story of a young person who asked a distinguished author, “Do you think I could become a writer?” “I don’t know,” came the reply. “Do you like sentences?”

I wonder whether any great work of art — any truly significant intellectual achievement of any kind — has ever been created out of a desire for self-expression, or a determination to follow your heart. I doubt it. Now, artists and scientists and inventors might realize at some point after achieving something really valuable that they had been following their hearts, and had expressed something of themselves in the work. But that’s a very different matter.

I have never done anything great, but anything of value that I have ever achieved came when I was not thinking of myself but of the task to be done: the idea to be thought through, the knowledge to be pursued, the sentences and paragraphs to be crafted as well as I could craft them. I didn’t need to be following my heart, I needed to be following the challenge of the task, the demands of the craft.

In “Sext,” the third poem in the sequence called “Horae Canonicae,” W. H. Auden writes about this:

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

Because it is the object that matters, not the one perceiving it. “To ignore the appetitive goddesses,” Auden continues, “what a prodigious step to have taken.”

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?

There should be monuments and odes to these heroes because they forgot themselves: they became absorbed in some task that didn’t meet basic human needs — or what we call “basic human needs,” anyway. Czeslaw Milosz says somewhere that in circumstances like those of the Warsaw Ghetto in the Nazi era “poetry is as necessary as bread.” But the poet didn’t know that when he was making his poem, and probably the people around him thought he was wasting his time. But he paid no attention to them; nor did he pay attention to himself. It was the poem that he had to get right, and on that task he turned the whole of his attention. Only “that eye-on-the-object look” is capable of achieving true greatness.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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