Sublimation and Self-Possession

Bearing witness to life’s weirdness

Ana Schwartz
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

From "Distraction and Attention," a folio of responses to Caleb Smith's Thoreau's Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture. To read the entire folio, click here.

Pay attention to what you pay attention to, I tell my students at the start of most classes I teach. It is quirky and recursive enough to catch their ears. I pitch it as a strategy and an encouragement. No one else in this world, I tell them, can say what you need to say for you. I suspect that this sort of advice, like youth, is wasted on the young, but through no fault of their own. They might not even really be listening to me or remember what I say.

This pedagogical risk is but one instance of a larger social risk. In the introduction to Thoreau’s Axe, Caleb Smith makes a modest observation about “how attention really works.” It moves “restlessly, reflexively, usually away from commands, especially when they come cloaked in disavowal.” Attention is fugitive, in the sloppiest, least heroic sense of the word. In the classroom, that flight finds extra energy in skepticism toward instruction from elders.

But the advice I give my students is nothing I don’t tell myself. I remind myself to notice my noticing often. Attention about attention is my strategy to live a less governed life, as Michel Foucault would describe it. But I am not really aiming for absolute mental transcendence from the world of the material, as if by making the best and most self-conscious observations, I could elude the coercive systems that govern our world. I probably can’t. (Smith reminds us that even the most rigorous critiques of the world around us that claim to return our focus to the “true, structural causes of human misery” often end up doing their “own moralizing about attention.” Your attention to attention is misplaced, critics of “therapeutic self-care” seem to say; attend to capitalism instead.) As most of the insightful theorists of distraction that Smith introduces us to point out, individual attention seems to long to lose itself, to attach to another person or thing out there. Fantasies of mental self-mastery clarify themselves against the id-like intransigence of our own perceiving selves.

It turns out that our critical devices for organizing attention, our own and that of others, might also participate in that fugitive impulse. Maybe. This is one way I have been metabolizing the generative frustration of Smith’s book. The chapters are weird. Each takes off from a single quotation, mining its implications and elaborating its context, usually by way of biographical information about the quoted figure. But they invariably stop short of a full account or conclusive argument. They are short and disappointing, a lot like life, from which we tend to want, as readers and also as selves, narratively coherent and rewarding stories.

Like our autobiographies, formal and anecdotal, our expository units tend to lean toward arcs that offer some sort of takeaway or redemption at the end. Proficient inheritors of Protestant techniques of self-examination and self-disclosure, we comb through our own lives and those of others to make a plausible story of causation. Our scholarly monographs, built from these smaller truth claims, tend to subordinate the weirdness of individual life—the things that keep you up at night and nag you again in the morning before the world’s irritations drown them out in volume—to a satisfying argument that our introductions succinctly summarize, in order best to direct readers’ attentions through the historical experiences that we claim to represent.

Freud would call that practice of organizing unhappiness “sublimation,” and it is not unreasonable or reprehensible. No one enjoys paying attention to irritants that will yield nothing to the ego. Still, such narrative plots risk being “convenience machines,” as Lauren Berlant lately put it, that “provide successful surrogates for thinking.” They promise closure, which feels comfortingly coherent. They also promise relief from the attention we might otherwise pay to unhappiness and dissatisfaction that don’t have an answer yet, and might not, for the foreseeable future.

Yet to be free, W. H. Auden reminds us, is often to be lonely.

Smith’s book, self-consciously, exercises our mind in that strange witnessing. Its brief chapters feel weird to read because most of us don’t have a lot of practice, most of us aren’t very familiar with this genre of sitting with other people, or even ourselves. Not comprehensive, rarely polemic, these chapters withhold the illusory gratification of the feeling of knowing, comprehensively and at a distance, the historical patterns that have determined other peoples’ lives.

Most of the protagonists of these chapters, Smith shows in sensitive and detailed close readings, at very least intuited something perplexing about the bind they were in. For the converts, convicts, reformers, pupils, and freedmen who populate Thoreau’s Axe, attention functioned both as a technique for greater exploitation and as one strategy to attempt to elude that conscription. Incarcerated individuals like Austin Reed, for example, understood that the institution that circumscribed him physically was only one expression of the reformist attempt to circumscribe and discipline him mentally and spiritually, too. Outside of the prison, he knew he'd be expected to work diligently—this was the cost of formal freedom. Yet few of these individuals had our keywords to diagnose the ills that beset them. Like us, they often struggled to trace a phenomenon from cause to effect, not necessarily because of some failure of attention but because the world itself is confusing, opaque, and full of phenomena that will turn out to have been distractions only in retrospect. In the face of the world’s refusal to be transparent, the challenge of lucidly witnessing anyone else requires practice, discipline, ongoing exercise of the mind.

In return for this exercise, these chapters reveal a quiet, slowly polished, yet powerful gleam, a glow that this critic sees in these lives and wants us to see, too—the gleam that would catch your attention as it flees “away from commands,” as Smith puts it, and “toward the charisma of other people’s self-possession.” My mind was wandering the first time I read this sentence, which appears late in Smith’s introduction. I reread the page before turning it and disbelieved myself for missing that line the first time: toward the charisma of other people’s self-possession. That self-possession’s charisma should be so compelling, authoritative, and forceful is an American story we are still learning—and still learning, furthermore, to tell.

In our everyday lives, we tend to think that what draws others to us is the stories we tell about ourselves. We seem colloquially to believe that we can know ourselves and that what we say about ourselves should matter to others. That we think this in a world clouded by confusion is not illogical, but it is much weirder and sadder than we tend to want to sit with. Most of us, I suspect, wrestle in different ways with the knowledge that we are not, at the end of the day, really that compelling or interesting. This knowledge would be unimportant except for the fact that the historical challenge of being what political theorists call a “possessive individual”—an intensely, though not exclusively, American challenge—is the challenge of living happily in a world where no one is really obliged to you, does not recognize any consensual responsibility to care about you.

I’m thinking here of an example from early America who doesn’t make it into Smith’s book: the exemplary individuality of Venture Smith, trying after his manumission to oblige others to him, to pay attention to him fairly, two hundred and fifty years ago, along the Connecticut River where it flowed through Mohegan-Pequot lands. Recalling his life for a white amanuensis, Smith understood that numbers were the idiom with the best chance of making sense to Anglo-American colonial readers, and so he described his experience of injustice according to quantitative logic: how much his freedom cost, how much his family cost, how much his love for the life he’d rebuilt had cost him. Venture Smith knew that the inalienable right to pursue happiness was not much more than the right to alienation itself.

In the American context, the charisma of self-possession is, historically speaking, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it names the attraction we feel toward people who seem to have, with respect to this profound loneliness, figured their historical situation out. On the other hand, quietly, soberly, the charisma of self-possession might name the effort, out of that loneliness, to hold the attention of other people for at least as long as it takes you to say what no one else can say for you. The command to pay attention persists so tenaciously at least in part, I think, because most of us long to live in a world where others will be skilled, ready, and consensually obliging to pay attention to us.

I confess to students all the time that I am a bad reader—or rather, I have restless and easily waylaid attention. When I say, “pay attention to what you pay attention to,” I know that this is strange and elusive work, and I know that my own goal is not freedom or liberation. Maybe those goals are attainable; maybe not. Even Foucault seems not to have reached confidence in that matter before he died.

There are happier—or, at least, less bleak—reasons to pay attention to my own habits of attention. It reminds me of the company I keep. Reading with Caleb Smith, I noticed that I wondered what Freud might have thought of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, told and retold in Thoreau’s Axe, about teeth. I noticed that I wanted to send a cell phone picture of the passages from Austin Reed’s autobiography to a colleague who studies nineteenth-century abolition. I noticed that I wished I could share Smith’s short anecdotes about a churchgoing Arkansas childhood with my own four siblings or with the fellow truants I cut class with in high school two thousand miles west in California. Yoking my mind to theirs often felt like a way to get closer to freedom, be it from boring classes, from a version of literary studies strangely alien to the world I saw around me, or from the lurking self that circumscribes my waking mind and only ceases to elude me in the occasional inexplicable dream.

Yet to be free, W. H. Auden reminds us, is often to be lonely. In this land of the lonely, then, Smith offers a slower saunter along the paths of distraction. His book invites us to partake in a cloud of witnesses, better noticing ourselves and each other in more thorough acts of devotion.

Ana Schwartz is a teacher and writer. A specialist in American literature, she is the author of Unmoored: The Search for Sincerity in Colonial America.
Originally published:
May 23, 2023


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