Summer Reading Series – David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud

We live, many say, in an age of mass distraction — but distraction has long been with us. In Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention, Cal English professor David Marno considers how the Renaissance poetry of John Donne offered a model for battling distraction and for inviting a state of open attentiveness that was allied with grace. Asking why Christian prayer requires attention in the first place, he uncovers a tradition of wrestling with distraction that spans from ascetic thinkers and Church Fathers to Catholic spiritual exercises and Protestant prayer manuals. Through an analysis of Donne’s poetry, he invites the reader to consider the devotional precedents of literary criticism and the kind of knowledge it is supposed to yield. 
Below you can read an excerpt from the introduction to Death Be Not Proud.

What kind of agency do we have in thinking? I say, “I think.” But also, “a thought occurs to me.” This is not a caprice of language. Between the passive and active voices, there lurks a familiar experience: in thinking, I perform an action; but when a thought occurs to me, I become the witness of an event, and suddenly I look back on my thinking as preparation for an event that was never in my control. Writing at the end of the early modern era, the philosopher Nicolas Malebranche pondered this experience of limited agency by comparing thinking to prayer. In each, he suggested, the outcome of the action is beyond our control, in the hands of a sovereign power. Thinking is like prayer because truth is like God: we can only hope “that it may discover itself unto us; but this Soveraign Truth doeth not always answer our expectations, for we do not know how to make our addresses.”

But if in this sense both prayer and thinking imply a limited sense of agency, Malebranche was all the more fascinated with the question of what the subject could still do within these limitations. In the Conversations chrétiennes, he suggests that the answer lies in the act of attention. Prayer and thinking are analogous activities because “attention is the natural prayer that we make to inward truth.” Neither philosophy in the sense of dialectic nor prayer as conversation with God, acts of attending are in Malebranche’s vision a preparation for both. Attention is the cultivation of a passive disposition, a solicitous waiting for a conversation to happen. It is by attending that the subject can fill up the confined but still existing space of agency in thinking and prayer; indeed, it is by attending that he can probe the boundaries of this space. For Malebranche, attention is the foundation of philosophy because it admits the limitations of agency in the production of thought without abandoning the practice of thinking.

In Malebranche’s association of prayer with the philosopher’s search after truth, there is also an invitation to see religion and philosophy as analogous. Positing some sort of easy continuity between the two would be both banal and misleading; banal because there is no need for any reminder that seventeenth-century philosophy learned from the theologies and devotions of the time, and misleading because Malebranche’s point is that philosophy wasn’t a good enough student: it didn’t learn how to pray. This might sound like a half-serious admonishment offered by a priest-philosopher (Malebranche was a member of the French Oratory) to modern, secular philosophy, were it not for the additional analogy Malebranche draws between prayer and attention. This is the real core of Malebranche’s remarks: what prayer could teach to philosophy isn’t a general sense of pious reverence before a sovereign Truth but a specific expertise in attention. The unsaid premise behind Malebranche’s characterization of attention as “natural prayer” is that prayer itself is artificial attention, as it were, that prayer includes an art of attending. What Malebranche wants philosophers to emulate is an art of “holy attention.”

The purpose of this book is to reconstruct the art of holy attention by following the ways John Donne’s devotional poetry enacts it. If in Malebranche’s view attention is a hidden connection between religion and philosophy, poetry is the middle realm where this connection may become visible. Most of Donne’s devotional poems do not immediately appear to be prayers, and one way of reading them is as poetic meditations in preparation for prayer. Therein lies their promise: for a study about devotional attention, the question is how they prepare for prayer,what their preparation involves.

Let me evoke Donne’s “Death be not proud” as an example. Like many of Donne’s devotional poems, the sonnet ends with the speaker’s reiteration of a religious commonplace, in this case a phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that denounces death on the grounds that the resurrection of the body will end its reign (in Donne’s paraphrase, “And Death shalbe no more”). This raises the question: how does the poem’s reiteration of a religious thought differ from the thought as it was given before its integration into the poem? For example, what is the difference between the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, on the one hand, and the poem’s use of the doctrine, on the other? A possible answer is that while in the former case the doctrine is a general statement that may or may not apply to any one individual, in the poem’s case the speaker reiterates the doctrine as his own, personal belief. But how does a poem allow its speaker to appropriate a doctrine? What can a poem as a linguistic artifact do to help one apply a general doctrine to his singular case?

This question of application isn’t unknown to scholarship on post-Reformation devotion and devotional poetry. The conventional wisdom is that in this regard the goal of devotion and devotional poetry is to allow the speaker to “feel” a religious thought, to respond to it emotionally. While this emphasis on emotion bears out in the poetry of George Herbert and other seventeenth-century devotional poets, it helps little in making sense of Donne’s lyrics. The reason isn’t that Donne’s poems are worse than, say, Herbert’s, but that we haven’t been reading them on their own terms: the affect these poems seek to produce has less to do with emotion and more with intellection. My suggestion is that in poems like “Death be not proud,” the speaker experiences a given doctrine as his own thought when this thought occurs to him. The transition from the general to the personal is still a matter of moving from an abstract idea to a personal experience; but the experience in Donne’s case isn’t primarily one of emotion but of cognition. To put it bluntly, Donne’s poems represent the process of seeking faith by making the reader experience what it feels like to think a thought. This is what makes them valuable for a study of devotion: while the term “affect” is usually associated with desire and emotion, Donne’s poems highlight the other, cognitive aspects of affective devotion.

The key to this cognitive side of affective devotion is attention. While the occurrence of the thought in the poems must feel like an unexpected event for the speaker, the poem itself is a careful preparation for this occurrence. There is a teleology at work here: the goal of each poem is to generate a state of pure, undistracted attentiveness in which the speaker may feel as if the given idea is occurring to him for the first time, as a cognitive gift given specifically to him. To be sure, a poem may not succeed at producing pure attentiveness, or it may succeed in unexpected ways. We will encounter these complications in the following chapters. What I wish to emphasize for now is how the poem’s engagement with attention echoes Malebranche’s admonishment to philosophers: in both cases, the goal of action is to invite an event, an experience of thought. Following the intricate ways in which Donne’s poems prepare for the occurrence of a thought will help us see that there is a specifically devotional model of thinking involved in them, a model in which the condition of thinking something with certainty is neither pure understanding nor pure feeling but something in between: attention as a condition of gratitude. How much one thinks a thought depends, in this model, on how much one becomes capable of attending to it; and perhaps the most interesting question I’ll be trying to answer in the chapters is how devotion distinguishes between different quantities and qualities of attention.

* * *

To look for signs of devotional attention in Donne may sound counterintuitive. T. S. Eliot, for instance, accused Donne of habitual distraction and found Donne’s religion for that reason impure. It is true that Donne often spoke of distraction. When for instance in a sermon he gives a list of possible distractions in prayer, the items include not only sense perceptions but memories, expectations, and imaginations of any kind: “A memory of yesterdays pleasure, a feare of to morrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine.” What readers from Eliot onward have missed about this and similar passages is that the interest in distraction here is part of a broader investment in attention. The point of the list isn’t to include particularly blameworthy sources of distraction but to illustrate how easy it is to get distracted, to demonstrate the mind’s inherent proneness to distraction. There is a great deal of theologically inflected epistemology implied in this seemingly personal passage; like his favorite Church Father, Augustine, Donne identified distraction and the resulting scattering of the self with the fallen human condition.33 But for the same reason he also thought of the experience of being attentive as a minor miracle. Indeed, as I will show in the last chapter, for Donne being attentive in this life was a miracle comparable to the miracle he considered the most important element of the Christian faith, the resurrection. While in the resurrection God miraculously collects the dissolved parts of the human body, in experiences of attention it is the self whose scattered parts are miraculously reunited. Transient and unsustainable, experiences of attentiveness nevertheless have one advantage over resurrection: they belong to this life.

The thirst for the experience of being attentive appears often in Donne’s letters and provides some of the most memorable passages in the sermons, moments when Donne abandons the role of the preacher and talks to the audience in a far more intimate voice, appealing to their shared experience of distraction and desire for attentiveness. The gesture is of course ingenious because it capitalizes on the audience’s experience of distraction and turns it into attention. But at stake in such passages is more than a rhetorical strategy to keep the audience attentive: Donne is intrigued by how much attention one could possibly have. The love poems of the Songs and Sonets are also attempts to imagine moments of wholly absorbing, undistracted attentiveness. Indeed, one of the ways in which he casts love as a religious experience is by drawing a parallel between the exclusive attention that lovers pay to each other and the holy attention that Christian prayer pursues. But while in the Songs and Sonets Donne plays with the idea of holy attention, in the devotional poems and particularly in the Holy Sonnets the game becomes altogether more serious. In these poems, Donne seeks to bring about the undistracted attention that the Songs and Sonets only imagine.

* * *

Holy attention has a long tradition, and the authors and texts that I treat in this book range far and wide: from early Christian ascetic authors to Petrarch, from Aristotle to Descartes and Malebranche, from Thomas Aquinas to Shakespeare. The challenge of reconstructing holy attention is that it is an ideal that has remained mostly latent throughout its long and scattered history. Holy attention is not a doctrine, and though attention is a term that appears frequently in devotional texts, it never receives the kind of explicit theoretical foundation that other theological and devotional terms from “God” to “prayer” usually do. Instead, holy attention is primarily an art that lives in a range of practices from prayer and meditation to liturgy and devotional poetry. Presumably, one could write a straightforward intellectual history of holy attention by arranging into a narrative the scattered statements that authors from the Church Fathers to Donne’s contemporaries make about attention. My goal has been different. I wanted to find out why and where attention has a role in Christian devotion’s internal logic, how acts of attention support devotion’s purpose.

In the past century, Simone Weil argued that devotional models of attending should serve as models for modern thought in education, ethics, and philosophy. On the other hand, Walter Benjamin suggested that religious ideals of attention were obsolete and the modern world required a different, distracted sensibility. But neither they nor any more recent authors have actually offered a full account of attention’s role in Christian devotion; instead,it is too often assumed that religion posits an unproblematic distinction between the virtue of attentiveness and the vice of distraction. As I will try to show in this study, the extended attention that Donne’s poems pursue has in fact a lot in common with Benjamin’s “reception in a state of distraction.”

How the poems search for this extended, holy attention, and how in this search they make devotion and thinking converge in poetry, is the subject of this book. I follow the ways in which the Holy Sonnets attempt to pray by gathering attention; the ways they often fail to do so; the ways they think about their distractions; and ultimately the ways in which they sometimes succeed in accepting them. In sum, this is a book about poems that pray, prayers that think, and thinking that attends, a book that tries to extend Donne’s poetic invitation to rethink each of these three categories.


Reprinted with permission from Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention by David Marno, published by the University of Chicago Press.
© 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.