Focus on days gone past

One thing that always impresses me about classical music is the great depth of its construction. Such tremendous care was taken to place interlocking melodies together in precise ways. And then, on top of it, some of these pieces go on for 20 minutes. And this approach is prevalent in much of the art of that era (I guess were talking about the 14th to 18th centuries.) That’s when you had the epic novels that went on for 2000 pages detailing the rise and fall of a family. Or gigantic paintings that were detailed down to the quarter square inch. Or ornate cathedrals covered with miniature sculptures that are themselves works of art. (The epitome of this in my mind is always the Duomo in Milan.)

It’s really the extended focus required to create such works that impresses me. It’s hard to conceive of spending 8 to 10 hours a day for weeks, months, perhaps years, working on the same thing.

Of course, when you think about life back then, it becomes easier to understand. After all, what was there to do? You had to take care of your meals, and maybe chat with neighbors, but if you were a professional composer or painter, you had a large chunk of basically uninterrupted time to fill. And there was no television, radio, Internet midget porn or telephone to fill it.

My suspicion here is that people of this era — an era devoid of many of our modern distractions — were capable of much greater focus and constant attention than we are. In our era — whether we want to focus on something or not — it’s inevitable that we will be distracted by some piece of meaningless bullshit. (It’s no coincidence that I got started thinking about this topic while working on a piece of music and being interrupted by two telephone sales calls in the space of five minutes.) And I think the art of our era has been affected by this. Our songs are shorter and require less attention to detail; our “stories”, which are mainly our movies, are totally immersive, but also take much less time to consume then a 16th century novel. Our architecture largely lacks the ornamentalism of previous eras.

And I’m not necessarily knocking the art of our era. I tend to find ornamentalism unnecessary and ostentatious. And I love pop music and movies partly because they get right to the point. But, I can’t deny that I’m kind of jealous of artists of earlier eras. I’d like to be able to sit down and really focus attention on a single project all day, for days or weeks. I imagine that there would be a real catharsis in letting the outside world drift away as you focus on your work. On rare occasions I have managed something like this for short periods and there indeed was a kind of bliss to it. You become so focused on the act that you’re not even thinking about it. You’re just doing it.

I’m reminded of something I blogged about before. There’s a particular historian who’s argued that as recently as 3000 years ago, the average man did not have consciousness. This seems hard to fathom. After all, these people had created some technology and culture and how can one create anything without consciousness? But maybe I’m misinterpreting what consciousness is. We’re certainly aware that we have a kind of inner dialogue which we use to keep track of what we’re doing, where were going, what’s coming up etc. It’s a constant mental chatter, and probably only getting more spastic as we are interrupted by ever-increasing communications and channels of information. So let’s envision a world 3000 years ago. Again, no phones, no TV, no Facebook, no e-mails etc. Maybe there was simply much less of a need for this mental chatter. In fact, maybe there was no need at all. People were able to place such focus on whatever they were doing, that they simply did it without thinking about it. Maybe that’s what a lack of consciousness is.

8 Responses to “Focus on days gone past”


  1. John Saleeby

    I believe with this post you have succeeded in writing something without thinking about it.

  2. Wil

    You are an ectomorph!

  3. John Saleeby

    I just drowned in the hurricane flood waters. Don’t you feel bad now?

  4. Wil

    Sink or swim baby!

  5. John Saleeby

    I can’t swim, I’m dead. And all you do is make jokes. I’d tell you to fuck off but they haven’t decided if I’m going to Heaven or Hell yet. I don’t want to get in trouble.

  6. Wil

    I know God – don’t piss me off and maybe I’ll put in a good word for you.

    Ha ha – get it? “good word”? God?

  7. John Saleeby

    That’s good.

    I got up in the middle of the night to see if it was still raining. It’s still raining. I’m going back to bed.

    The orange cat who lives way on the other side of the block runs around in the parking lot outside my apartment at night. I just told him “I know it’s your turf but there’s a hurricane and you should be home.” He told me “It’s not a hurricane anymore and I gotta maintain my territory.” I said “That’s your imperative.” Ha ha – get it? “imperative”? Territorial Imperative?

  8. at My So-Called Penis

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