Paying Attention

July 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland.

“And here came Frenesi Gates’s reverse shot. Prairie felt the two women shift in their seats. Frenesi’s eyes, even on the aging ECO stock, took over the frame, a defiance of blue unfadable. ‘Never,’ was her answer, ‘because too many of us are learning how to pay attention.'”

I’m writing this on a laptop from a room on the University of Virginia’s Lawn, in a building designed by Thomas Jefferson. I’m here for the week at Rare Book School, learning about “The American Book in the Industrial Era, 1820-1940” from Michael Winship, Mr. American Book in the Industrial Era himself. And things have come together: the key, he’s told us, is being interested and then paying attention to what interests you.

Then Peter Stallybrass, a prof at Penn, gave a talk tonight on the reuse and recycling of woodcuts in the 16th-18th centuries. It was incredible in a number of ways, but it built to this incredible crescendo in which he found that a particular woodcut initial letter was used a number of times in the 1570 Bishop’s Bible, seemingly whenever an “I” or “J” was called for, only a small and crude figure intended to represent either Christ or God was excised from the initial when it was used to begin a chapter in Isaiah interpreted as a prophecy of Christ: the purely functional and formal become meaningful, political, ideological, if only to the compositor.

Looking close, paying attention. It’s something of a paradox in Vineland, with its seeming scorn for those who look too much at the Tube. And the quote above comes from Prairie, Frenesi’s daughter, watching a film of her mother, another of Pynchon’s tricks with flashback and the intrusion of past into present. (It’s another tour de force chapter, actually, and another great piece of film-writing from the guy who seemingly perfected the form.) But the fact remains that I think Pynchon’s sympathies (and perhaps pity, too) lie with those who pay attention. It sometimes drives them mad, and Frenesi was clearly wrong (she’s responding, it seems, to a question from a local TV news reporter about the dangers of her work in 24fps, a guerrilla film collective documenting injustice; she’s saying, I think, that they will never stop, that people are waking up, when of course, if they were, they went back to sleep, or faded into living death, a la the Thanatoids), but paying attention still seems to be the only way Pynchon sees to break the system.

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