Life offers up to us a surfeit of detail. Even when we are doing little, we are inundated by impressions. Details continually form themselves together to construct our memories. We pare the surplus information down through perceptual and cognitive filters. These become honed and refined over time on the basis of what has worked well for us in the past. This means we don’t need to reinvent our responses to everyday events every time we encounter them. However, by relying on these habitual modes of seeing and thinking, we can create within ourselves a fixed orientation, a mental rut that limits how we act in, and react to, the world around us.
In this blog post, I discuss the ways in which education needs to promote what I call ‘perfecting attentiveness’ to the details of the world. This attentiveness to detail is a necessary and fundamental feature of learning. It forms the bedrock of one of the fundamental kinds understanding we aim to develop in students through education. To illustrate, I offer a collection of examples from cinema and literature.
Washing away the dust?
Reality tends to fade, to recede from us. We tend to see our surroundings in autopilot mode, in the ways we’ve come to expect. These filters are highly limiting. They impede our abilities to observe or accept ideas that conflict with our assumptions. We become accustomed to inert routines.
But when the world surprises us with an unexpected detail, our brains are wired to pay attention. Our familiarities are broken up. If the encounter confounds our expectations, we have evolved neural mechanisms that promote learning. We therefore need educational experiences that offer new perspectives, which are punctuated by shocks of awareness, that serve to engage our attention. To break up our familiarities and to wash away from our soul, in Auerbach’s words, ‘the dust of everyday life’.
How can we make stone stony again?
Degas asserted that art is not what you see, but what you make others see. It is the job of the writer or artist to help us to see. By taking pains to look hard they can guide us back to our senses. Books and films jumble together images into more or less realistic narratives, placed before our eyes, vying for our attention. An artist selects and shapes which details do their job. They select those details that might snag on our minds and those that might leave threads. It is these telling and beautiful details that transform a text, film or painting, shedding new light on what we see.
When we engage with great writing, such details help to establish what Blake refers to as the ‘minute particulars’, and Hopkins calls the ‘thisness’. The essence of a scene is conveyed to us through these pellets of precision. Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde refers to that attention to detail which is a species of love. This is a powerful suggestion about how personal and transformative such attention can be.
What do cinematic sensibilities offer us?
In the hands of the great noticers of genius, details are offered, never to be forgotten. Da Vinci argued that, ‘if you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details’. The Chekhovian eye for the selection of the biting detail that seems to stand out in its own right, shining from the page or screen, must surely be regarded as the distinguishing factor between great and poor writers and cinematographers. After all, film almost literally strings itself together as a necklace of noticings: we are just watching a series of still shots that are composed and then linked frame by frame in a reel of film. We are navigated into and through a scene by these stars of detail. Such carefully chosen celluloid details lunge at us, in the same way that a writer’s choice and active selection of a particular scene’s DNA helps to bring us closer to their reality.
‘Cinematic prose’ is a versatile metaphor. Some writers seem to prefer particular cameras, swooping or cutting from high to low, from huge landscapes to extreme close ups, whilst others have a seemingly more casual and calm approach. It is the power of the editor to create a filmic reality, with nature providing simply the raw material.
Both cinema and literature can therefore act as our educators. They can help us decide what we really need to see, register, remember and learn. They can help us see which are the telling details that sit up before our eyes, and why they matter more. They can help us to better understand the plausibility of what surrounds us in our lives. George Saunders uses this idea when he talks about how ‘the part of the mind that reads a story (or watches a film) is also the part that reads the world’.
Bringing reality alive?
Film, fiction and art privilege a high degree of visual noticing. Brilliant cinematic examples abound in literature. Portraying Jay Gatsby’s parties through his narrator’s eyes, Fitzgerald writes, ‘In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars … while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains’. Here the writer presents Nick, his narrator, as a detached stranger looking in, intently observing other worlds. The use of metaphorical language, like moths, like the brisk yellow bug, creates a feeling of a scientist watching a strange, new world. The setting is described in a deliberately surreal cinematic way, with the narrator sweeping his eyes over several locations – and this sense of movement from one setting to another establishes a feeling of energy, further suggested by the use of phrases like ‘came and went’ and ‘scampered’. Seeing through these eyes, we are granted the dislocation of the outsider, gaining an insight into other worlds.
In a similar way, Bellow’s beautiful compression of colours and moods in Zetland borrows this cinematic sensibility, with its precise attention to telling visual and auditory details: ‘Just then from straight ruled Chicago, blue with winter, brown with evening, crystal with frost, the factory whistles went off’. At five o’clock precisely Bellow creates in a single sentence the city location shot, panning from a distance the melancholy wintery scene. With mood and setting established, we can begin our journey. Each detail seems to be almost frozen in its gel of chosenness. And through the multiple appeals to our various senses, we are shocked awake.
So to the glimpses of an exploited world in Lolita. Nabakov draws our attention to his young heroine in a beautifully written tribute to the great film noirs that he loved. ‘Lolita turned her head and stared at me through the striped shadows…her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave grey eyes more vacant than ever’. We are physically ‘there’ as a reader, being intently observed by and observing the young girl. He calls us to notice the shadowing of the bars that surely represents both her shadowed life, her imprisoned status and her inevitable ‘bad’ ending. As well as the literal foreshadowing of Lolita’s likely ‘fate’ at the hands of the monstrous Humbert (and to Nabakov himself, Humbert’s equally dangerous puppet-master manipulator and creator).
Even in Raymond Chandler’s parody of the ‘dark and stormy night’ meteorological cliché in Red Wind, the exact details are used to create a harrowing yet funny scenario that places us immediately into the potential action and its sense of threat:
‘There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.’
Chandler’s use of the possessive ‘your’ (hair, nerves and skin) serves to bring us right into the scene. We are there, we know that wind, we belong there. Our senses are engaged through the sharpness of the writing, and the edge of that carving knife.
Perhaps the description of Sally Bowles in Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is the most illustrative of this type of writing. Up until now in the story, Sally has been anxious to portray herself as sophisticated, cynical and bored. An exotic creature of Germany in the 1930’s. By dropping just a single detail into the narrative, Isherwood transforms what we now must think, and beautifully manipulates our response to her:
‘I noticed that her finger-nails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s.’
With that last brilliant and beautiful focus, we suddenly see her as she really is. She becomes a blustering naive child again, all acting up, desperate to cover her vulnerability and prove her adulthood, and in that same moment our sympathy is engaged.
How do artists disguise and distort randomness?
Famously, Christopher Isherwood spoke about the role of a writer as being,
‘a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed’.
But this seeming passivity seems suspicious, unlikely. Whilst it matters to record significant details, we need to break away from the view that writers are simply helpless cameras. The ‘casually scanned’ scenes are anything but; the selection is ruthless. It is important to recognise that there is merely a disguised randomness apparent in their focus. It is part of an artist’s job to bring to the page or screen the minute particulars of a situation or experience. But, of course, the established reality that is being presented is both distorted and amplified. Much is left out.
Given details are offered to us, but they are not a simple record of how a particular creator bumped against the world. The details that remain with us will have the fingerprints of the writer and director all over them, sometimes drenched with the stench of midnight oil. If we detect that the impressions are also done on purpose, we reject them. We need to understand why some details seem to be off duty, do not seem to have a role or function in the writer’s act of persuasion. It is important that we educate ourselves to become more expert at seeing which details have the greatest impact and then interrogating them.
How education helps us to read the world
We are all pretty terrible noticers. As we have seen, we make a number of assumptions about anything new we encounter based on a wealth of previous experiences, which constrains the possibilities that we are prepared to consider. Psychologists refer to this as ‘dogmatic cognition’. Through this process, we allow our learning to solidify into fixed certainties, or what Hannah Arendt calls frozen thoughts – scripted perceptions and behaviours and passive acceptance of the common sense view, our defensive associations, our preference towards safety and accommodation.
Writers agree that attention is the key. In ‘Preoccupations’, Seamus Heaney talks about the way carelessly gathered details are rarely ‘consciously savoured at the time’, but he can ‘delight in them as verbal music’, which means that they were ‘bedding the ear with a kind of linguistic hard core that could be built on some day’. What he has seen, heard, and read builds to form the basis of a metaphorical understanding of the world – as well as a factual one.
This is what education does. It promotes attentiveness and helps us ‘read the world’. As D. H. Lawrence argues, thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges; thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.
But this attentiveness requires effort. Nabakov argued that in high art and in pure science, detail is everything. Malebranche’s belief that attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul can usefully serve as a reader’s credo.
Does the formation of attention drive our education?
So how we distinguish between what matters, what we need, what we can discard, even what is probable, will have a huge impact on the way we see our lives and the world around us. Every act of looking might rightly become an act of analysis. Learning needs to involve a tireless and precise attention to detail, which forms the bedrock of understanding that we all hope to experience and to replicate. Without this prolonged effort there can simply be no learning. It is a required first stage. And during that stage, we can perhaps discover a greater readiness in ourselves to find the strange and the singular in what surrounds us.
Meaning is in all things – learning to see it clearly can release within us multitudes of unexpected and brightly lit moments. We need to be in a continual process of interrogating reality through our senses, marrying the concrete and the abstract, the intuitive and the cognitive. This is the basis of understanding and thought.
An earlier version of this blog post was posted on the London Gifted & Talented blog in February 2021.
 Berthold Auerbach, On the Heights: Volume 2 of 3 (trans. F. E. Bunnett) (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauhnitz, 2019), p. 64.
 Jane Munro, Degas: A Passion for Perfection (Fitzwilliam Museum: Yale University Press, 2017).
 William Blake, The Poetical Works: Selections from ‘Jerusalem’ (1908), pp. 48-53 & 60-6.
 From Duns Scotus’ concept of haecceitas, quoted in David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (New York, NY: Vintage, 1964), p. 306
 Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci (London: Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 520.
 George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), p. 5.
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, NY: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000), p. 43.
 Saul Bellow, Collected Stories (New York, NY: Viking, 2001), p. 329.
 Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (London: Penguin, 1955), ch. 32.
 Raymond Chandler, ‘Red Wind’ in Trouble is My Business (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1992), p. 164.
 Christopher Isherwood, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ in The Berlin Stories (New York, NY: Vintage Classics, 2010), part 2, p. 1.
 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (London: Faber & Faber, 1980), pp. 41-60.
 D. H. Lawrence, The Complete Poems (Herefordshire: Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994).