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On Not Paying Attention

Stephen Arata

Victorian Studies, Volume 46, Number 2, Winter 2004, pp. 193-205 (Article)

Published by Indiana University Press

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Access provided by Cambridge University Library (21 Feb 2019 14:58 GMT)
On Not Paying Attention

Stephen Arata

would like to begin by drifting idly down one river and then
rowing vigorously—but not at all strenuously—up another. The
ultimate destination of both journeys is a certain abstraction of
mind. That abstraction, I will argue, is an important component of the
aesthetic theories of two important late-Victorian writers, Robert Louis
Stevenson and William Morris. Using them as touchstones, I will make
some general claims about the place of mental abstraction and of atten-
tion in late-nineteenth-century theories of reading. At the moment,
however, those claims are all still well downstream. So let us embark.
First, upon the river Oisé, site of Stevenson’s 1878 travel narra-
tive, An Inland Voyage. The climax of that book comes when Stevenson
and his unnamed traveling companion, paddling effortlessly with the
river’s current through long empty eventless days, finally achieve what
Stevenson calls “the apotheosis of stupidity.” Now, he writes,

when the river no longer ran in a proper sense, only glided seaward with an even,
outright, but imperceptible speed, and when the sky smiled upon day after day
without variety, we began to slip into that golden doze of the mind which follows
much exercise in the open air. I have stupified myself in this way more than once:
indeed, I dearly love the feeling; but I never had it to the same degree as when
paddling down the Oisé. It was the apotheosis of stupidity. (110)

In this golden doze, somewhere “between sleeping and

waking” (112), the muscles, even the voluntary ones, perform their
duties without supervision, and the brain goes off-line altogether. “The
central bureau of nerves,” Stevenson writes, “what in some moods we
call Ourselves, enjoyed its holiday without disturbance, like a Govern-
ment Office. The great wheels of intelligence turned idly in the head,
like fly-wheels, grinding no grist” (113). Impressions from the land-
scape impinge on the senses, but no answering consciousness rises to
meet them, and so they drift unattended in some interior space
Stevenson can give no name to. Likewise, “thoughts presented them-
selves unbidden,” but they are not his own thoughts, because he is not


there to think them: “I considered them like a part of the landscape”

(114). Moreover, as Stevenson contemplates “the depth, if I must not
call it the intensity, of my abstraction,” he notices that it leaves him with
“less me and more not me than I was accustomed to expect” (113). He
responds to this secession of the me with a benign placidity that never
quite amounts to actual interest. Landscapes glide by, thoughts arise,
impressions impinge, and someone paddles a boat. An “ecstatic
stupor,” Stevenson calls it. Cultivating it, he says, was “the farthest piece
of travel [we] accomplished.” All in all, “this frame of mind was the
great exploit of our voyage” (114).
An Inland Voyage is an odd book. It does almost none of the
things travel books usually do. It is not a voyage of discovery in any
conventional sense. Stevenson takes, literally, only passing interest in
the topography he traverses, the communities he encounters, the
people he meets. Nor does he take more than a passing interest in
himself: this is not an inward journey into his own psyche. Instead the
book seems to have been written in precisely the state of ecstatic stupor
it describes. And, if I may take my own experience as representative, it
seems designed to induce a like frame of mind in readers. This is not a
criticism. I take seriously Stevenson’s claim that achieving such utter
mental abstraction was a goal of his voyage, as it would be a goal of many
of his subsequent travels. It is a state of mind Stevenson was intrigued
by, and one he pursued assiduously.
In An Inland Voyage he suggests that this “calm, golden, and
incurious” mental state is akin to what Buddhists call Nirvana (114).
Maybe, but I think there are other more relevant contexts closer at
hand. Here is where we embark on the second inland voyage I
mentioned, on the Thames this time, headed upriver, and accompa-
nied not by Stevenson but by Morris, or rather by William Guest,
Morris’s alter ego in News from Nowhere (1890). The second half of that
book depicts a long beautiful journey up the Thames from London to
Morris’s beloved Kelmscott Manor. During the journey Guest finally
gives himself over, not just intellectually but physically, emotionally,
and spiritually, to the utopian world he has landed in. Rowing up the
river, he momentarily succeeds in producing in himself the state of
consciousness appropriate to that utopia. Like Stevenson on the Oisé,
Guest learns to cultivate an emptiness that is not vacuity but instead a
kind of balance or integration of body and psyche. His traveling
companion, the wise and lovely Ellen, echoes Stevenson when she


counsels Guest not to confuse this condition with “mere dreamy

musing” (204). She proposes a better definition: “repose amidst of
energy” (204).
Rowing is a perfect example of what she is talking about. Her
larger point—and Morris’s as well—is that all activities in Nowhere are
so defined. Indeed, at the heart of Morris’s socialism is the belief—as
he puts it in his 1889 essay “How Shall We Live Then?”—that we must
be “free to enjoy all . . . exercises of the body without any sense of
shame” and “without any suspicion that our mental powers are so
remarkable and godlike that we are rather above such common things”
(261). One name for these exercises of the body is, simply, work—not
useless toil or degrading labor but genuine work, which, as Morris
writes in “How We Live and How We Might Live” (1884), we experience
at a deep level as the pleasure of “moving one’s limbs and exercising
one’s bodily powers” (17). What in News from Nowhere he calls “work-
pleasure” (134) is for Morris the source of all human value, and it is
among other things the precondition for art. Yet work-pleasure is
precisely what the modern world no longer offers us. That alone, says
Morris, is a sure sign of our degradation. By contrast, he says, imagine
a social order so arranged that every human act is one of “repose amidst
of energy.” That would be utopia. It would be the earthly paradise.
To bring together Morris and Stevenson—unlikely partners in
most respects—in this way is to begin to see an important continuity in
their respective aesthetic theories. Those theories are grounded in turn
in a political insight. I am not suggesting that Stevenson was a socialist
in Morris’s sense. But the two men do share an interest in a cluster of
keywords that they invest with a weight and a significance—political and
aesthetic—that is likely to strike us as counterintuitive.
Consider, for example, both writers’ seemingly perverse insis-
tence on the value of not paying attention. Stevenson on the Oisé,
William Guest on the Thames, both slide into states of mind in which
they no longer attend consciously to their surroundings or to them-
selves. At best their attention is diffused, not centered on any one object
or set of objects or ideas. We have all been in that state and can attest to
its pleasures. But its value? The value—as our parents, teachers,
mentors, and employers have always told us—lies precisely in learning
to pay attention, in cultivating the discipline needed to accomplish that
always-difficult task. The idea that paying attention is at once a virtue in


itself and the fount of other virtues is so deeply ingrained in our

thought that it is difficult to see the connection as anything but natural.
Yet it was not always so. For a long time—from, roughly, the late
eighteenth century to the early twentieth—attention was a problem, or
rather it was the site of a series of problems that cut across intellectual
disciplines. During this period, attention attracted the attention of
numerous thinkers, great and small. To confine ourselves simply to the
last decades of the nineteenth century, the roster of contributors to the
topic is an impressive one: William James, Henri Bergson, F. H. Bradley,
John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, Théodule Ribot, James Sully, G. Stanley
Hall, and Gertrude Stein. Reach back a generation, and the list expands
to take in Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, Henry Maudsley,
Alexander Bain, and Karl Marx. These are just the best known of the
many writers who devoted at least part of their intellectual life to the
myriad problems surrounding attention. What is attention, anyway?
How is it produced? In what contexts is it needed, and why? How might
it be prolonged? How is it related to will? To discipline? To education?
To temperament? To physiology? To environment? These and related
questions were posed by philosophers, physiologists, political econo-
mists, aesthetiticians, psychologists, and sociologists, as well as various
interested lay observers, all of whom were for different reasons
attempting to define and to theorize this phenomenon, this problem,
of attention.
There were some practical incentives for doing so. It is no
coincidence that attention emerges as an object of inquiry during a
period when new forms of industrial production were transforming the
conditions and experience of work. In the first volume of Capital
(1867), Marx points out that factory managers had long since recog-
nized that the conditions of factory- and mill-work made attentiveness a
problem (407–17). For industrial workers, paying attention was essen-
tial but often nearly impossible to do. For their own safety, mill-hands
needed to concentrate as they interacted with ever larger, ever more
complex machines. Yet the very nature of their tasks fostered inatten-
tion, since those tasks were often literally mind-numbing in their
tedium and repetitiveness.
In Morris’s terms, industrial labor under these conditions is the
epitome of useless toil. Concentration is required, but no other facul-
ties of mind are engaged. Indeed, the intensity of the concentration
required of industrial laborers leaves no room for any other mental


activity. The need to pay attention drives out everything else: drives out
even, paradoxically, attention itself. In his influential 1889 book The
Psychology of Attention, the French physiologist Ribot pointed out what
everyone already knows, namely that the act of paying attention,
prolonged past a certain point, inevitably produces a state of mind
precisely opposite to that of attention. Concentration too long
sustained leads to daydreaming, reverie, fuzzy-headedness, and finally,
in Ribot’s words, “a kind of intellectual vacuity.” This, says Ribot, is due
to “the radical antagonism of attention and normal psychical life” (9).
What Ribot calls “learned” or “voluntary” or “artificial” attention is, he
contends, unnatural. Unlike spontaneous attention, which Ribot asso-
ciates with children, voluntary attention is “a product of art, of educa-
tion, of direction, and of training” (39). The human organism resists it,
the human psyche cannot easily accommodate it, yet its cultivation is an
essential precondition of civilized life. “The pupil in the classroom, the
workman in his shop, the clerk at his office, the tradesman behind his
counter all would, as a rule, prefer to be somewhere else; but egotism,
ambition, and interest have created by repetition a fixed and lasting
habit. Acquired attention has thus become second nature, and the arti-
ficial process is complete” (39).
It is precisely this “second nature” that Morris wants to undo.
In his utopia, all forms of useless toil have given way to genuine work,
which always involves the integration of body and mind in tasks that
engage the full range of human faculties. Genuine work engages the
attention, but it is always a multiple, relaxed, and diffused attention
rather than a focused and intense one. The craftwork Morris most
enjoyed called for an attentiveness that still allowed plenty of room for
attending to other things too. Morris was of course himself famously
adept at multitasking: making sketches for wallpaper patterns at the
same time that he was mentally composing poetry, all while engaged in
conversation. Far from finding this taxing or wearying, Morris was invig-
orated by it, in part because his faculties were agreeably dispersed
across a range of objects and endeavors, in part because like Stevenson
he found a release in being decentered, in giving himself over to the
“not-me,” which for him was a defining effect of pleasureable work.
Repose amidst of energy.
For most of Morris’s contemporaries in the 1880s and 1890s,
the idea of a “diffused attention” would have been close to a contradic-
tion in terms. By its very definition, attention seems to preclude its


being paid to more than one thing at a time. You can of course be aware
of many different things simultaneously, but being aware is not the
same as being attentive. According to James L. Hughes in How to Secure
and Retain Attention (1890), his handbook for secondary school
teachers, at any given moment one has only a certain quantity of atten-
tion. If you divide it, you lessen its intensity and effectiveness. “It is one
of the highest duties which a teacher owes to his pupils to train them to
be able to fix their undivided attention on one subject” (13). True
attention, he writes, is undivided, it is fixed, and it is intense. “The
extent to which a man can rivet his attention . . . decides the standard
of his intellectual power” (13). As Hughes’s words suggest, the domi-
nant model for understanding attention was an inhibitory or repressive
one. The act of paying attention, it was argued, involved the suppres-
sion of one’s conscious awareness of all stimuli, both internal and
external, apart from the object or thought being attended to. Indeed,
this extreme focusing or narrowing of the field of perception seemed
the very essence of attention. Writing in the 1850s, the physician James
John Garth Wilkinson described one of his patients as being “at the
summit of attention, with no object left,—a mere statue of attention,—
a listening, expectant life,—a perfectly undistracted faculty, dreaming
of a lessening and lessening mathematical point, the end of his mind
sharpened away to nothing” (qtd. in Braid 55).
The increased interest in attention grew in part from a sense that
the world was more full of distractions than ever before. To live in
modern times was to be prey to distraction. Stimuli bombarded you from
every direction, and many doubted that the human organism was
equipped to process it all. For us the text that comes most quickly to mind
in this context is probably Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay “The Metropolis
and Mental Life.” But Simmel had plenty of company. Innumerable late-
Victorian accounts of the malady of modern life make their way round to
the issue of sensory overload: too many images, too much noise, way too
much information, all of it too often resulting in nervous collapse,
neurosis, dysfunctions of various kinds. The corollary to the sensory-
overload diagnosis is the problem of paying attention: in the modern
world paying attention has become extremely difficult but also more
necessary. A social Darwinist model underpins many late-century discus-
sions of both attention and distraction. To succeed, you have to adapt.
To take just one example, the importance of adaptation is the
take-home message of a pamphlet Charles Leland wrote in 1891 titled


“Quickness of Perception.” This was the second volume of the “Memory

and Thought Series” issued by the publishers of a bimonthly journal
called The Memory. Journal, series, and book were all aimed at a popular
audience. Leland himself was one of the period’s great popularizers of
scientific knowledge. In “Quickness of Perception” he draws on “recent
physiological theory” (6) about the way the brain processes and stores
information in order to develop a series of techniques and exercises
designed to increase memory capacity. Quickness of perception,
Leland writes, is the “faculty of rapidly understanding and remem-
bering . . . what is perceived by any of the senses” (19). This cannot be
achieved through “mere cramming” or even “hard study,” but instead
requires developing a certain “nimbleness of attention,” an ability to flit
rapidly from one perception to the next in such a way that each is
imprinted indelibly on the brain and is, moreover, available for imme-
diate retrieval whenever needed (7). “He who is excellent at remem-
bering,” Leland writes, “will be quick to perceive; he who is quick to
perceive will be prompt to compare and associate, and he who can do
this is best qualified to reason and originate” (7).
By that definition, Marius the Epicurean has quickness of
perception; so does Sherlock Holmes. But neither of those character
types represents Leland’s implied audience. He is instead addressing a
rising professional class interested in the latest news from the worlds of
science and medicine but also eager to know how those developments
might be turned to practical use. Leland’s emphasis is on data
processing and retrieval rather than, say, on self-culture. Efficiency is
the engine driving the whole enterprise, attention its fossil fuel.
Leland’s implicit model for the human brain is of a great storage ware-
house. It needs to be stocked properly, but, just as important, its
contents need to be inventoried and catalogued for rapid access.
It is at this point, where a potentially Paterian investment in an
aestheticized attentiveness transmutes into a wholly functionalist
commitment to mental organization, that I want to locate Morris’s and
Stevenson’s insistence on the value of learning not to pay (a certain
kind of) attention. Both men recognized that theoretical interest in
attention was being driven by the need to produce a certain kind of
worker, that the mode of consciousness we find being coached in a
work like Leland’s was especially suited to the needs of the modern
world. For Morris especially, learning not to pay attention is conceived
as an act with potentially political consequences. In a properly ordered


world, social and economic relations would be so arranged that the

kind of attention required by modern factory or office work would no
longer serve any function. In the world as it is presently ordered,
refusing to submit to the regime of attention might be a gesture of defi-
ance, an indication that one recognizes the need to pay attention as a
symptom of larger social ills.
Though it may seem we have drifted rather far from literary
matters, the issues I have been raising bear directly on important devel-
opments in literary theory over the last half of the nineteenth century.
During this period, the activity of reading—what it is, how it is best done
and by whom, and to what ends—began to be theorized in new, indeed
in unprecedented, ways. Among other changes, this was the moment
when many kinds of “secular” reading began for the first time to be
described not as idleness but as work. To call reading work, to give it that
dignity, is to invest it with all the virtues Victorians associated with the
term. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of that shift.
It has already taken place in John Ruskin’s vastly influential
1864 lecture “Of Kings’ Treasuries.” Broadly speaking, “Of Kings’ Trea-
suries” is about the education of boys, a topic Ruskin addresses by way
of “a few simple thoughts about reading” (27–28). Throughout the
lecture Ruskin stresses the hard labor that goes into proper reading. “It
is severe work,” he says at one point (38). The rewards are great, to be
sure, but the labor is fearsome. Ruskin’s favored metaphor is of reading
as gold mining: to get at the treasures buried in books you must be
willing to “work as an Australian miner would. Are my pickaxes and
shovels in good order, and am I in good trim myself, my sleeves well up
to the elbow, and my breath good?” (35). A good author’s words are
“the rock which you have to crush and smelt” if you want to get at his
meaning (35). Late in the lecture, Ruskin puts aside the metaphoric
language and offers an exhortation of a kind that is likely to sound quite
familiar to us. “You must get into the habit of looking intensely at words,
and assuring yourself of their meaning, syllable by syllable—nay, letter
by letter. . . . [Y]ou might read all the books in the British
Museum . . . and remain an utterly ‘illiterate,’ uneducated person;
but . . . if you read ten pages of a good book, letter by letter, . . . you are
forevermore an educated person” (35). We all probably hear in
Ruskin’s language not-so-faint echoes of our own exhortations to
students to read more closely and attentively. But the sentiment’s
current familiarity should not hide its eccentricity in 1864. Ruskin


himself claims not to be echoing current sentiment. What he offers he

offers explicitly as a new conception of the activity of reading, one he
expects his auditors and readers to find unfamiliar almost to the point
of strangeness.
By the 1880s, however, the idea that reading, properly done,
constituted a form of labor had passed into the realm of common sense.
While the prospect of pleasure may prompt us to pick up a book, claims
J. J. Wright in his 1891 book on behalf of the National Home Reading
Union, So Many Books! So Little Time! What to Do?, pleasure alone is not
sufficient motivation: “We all know—those of us who are trained to
habits of study know it too—that really profitable reading is work—not
play—and we require some motive power to set us to it and keep us at it”
(11). The motive power is the promise of self-improvement, which
Wright defines in recognizably Ruskinian terms. Wright’s implied
readers are working-class men and women with large intellectual aspi-
rations but limited time at their disposal. So, he counsels, draw up a
schedule that you can stick to: place a clock by your armchair and read
for thirty minutes a day, four days a week, fifty weeks a year. Aim to read
ten pages a sitting, and at the end of a year you will have read 2000
pages—which, as Wright enthusiastically points out, could translate
into the Iliad, the Aeneid, Paradise Lost, and all of Shakespeare’s history
plays; or, should your tastes run in other directions, into On the Origin
of Species, Emerson’s collected essays, Carlyle’s The French Revolution, and
Adam Bede.
It is the scheduling that interests me here, the way that the
project of self-improvement comes to be placed in the context of time-
management systems. Sentiments similar to Wright’s likewise animate
Lucy Soulsby’s Stray Thoughts on Reading (1897), one of the more popular
of her numerous books addressed to young women. Like Wright, Soulsby
insists on the importance of routine, of having a regularized plan of
reading: in this case, thirty minutes a day in an uncushioned straight-
backed chair—“I have no faith in reading that is compatible with an
armchair,” she says (6). Atlas and dictionary should be close at hand,
along with a notebook and a commonplace book, both of which are to be
supplied with an alphabetical index once they are filled. “It is the duty,
not the pleasure, of reading that I wish to dwell on here,” she writes (10).
What I wish to dwell on is the way that, for Soulsby, the locus of self-
improvement has migrated from the books to the activity of reading
itself. The content of what is read is of great importance, just as it is for


Ruskin and for Wright, but even more important, according to Soulsby,
is reading : reading properly, that is, reading as a form of self-discipline.
“Read that half-hour steadily for one year, and you will then know that
nothing else could have [promoted] such searching self-denial and
discipline—the very irksomeness of it will have strengthened your moral
fiber in a way no manual drudgery could have done” (13). Finally,
Soulsby contends, we read “not for the sake of the information conveyed,
but because of the moral qualities acquired by steady reading” (12). “I do
not see how you can honestly try to be good, and yet neglect . . . such a
method of self-discipline, as reading” (10).
At moments such as this, reading has passed into the realm of
“toil” in Morris’s sense of the term. Both Morris and Stevenson had
significant reservations about such regularization—we might call it the
bureaucritization—of reading, its assimilation into structures of self-
discipline and self-control, its increasingly overt links to routine, to
time-management. Of the two, Morris was the more thorough and self-
conscious in his resistance to these developments. Despite his great
admiration for Ruskin, Morris rejected the Carlylean definition of work
that underlay so much of Ruskin’s social criticism. For Morris, genuine
work is the means by which we express our pleasure in our capacities as
fully human beings, rather than the irksome occasion for strengthening
our moral fiber. For these reasons, Morris resisted the migration of
literary studies into the university. In 1877 he turned aside an opportu-
nity to become Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and in 1886 he was
among the very few to oppose the establishment of Oxford’s first chair
of literary studies, the Merton Professorship of Literature. Morris
objected to the creation of a new class of “professional” readers—the
very class whose authority Matthew Arnold, for instance, continually
appeals to in “On Translating Homer” (1862), his most famous lecture
during his own tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. As Morris
recognized, by the 1870s reading—not in the sense of mere literacy, but
as a set of higher-level skills having to do with judgment, taste, percep-
tion, sensibility, discrimination—had become something you could be
“trained” to do. You could be evaluated at it, and you could earn profes-
sional credentials with it. You could make your living by it. In a letter to
the Pall Mall Gazette in 1886 Morris outlined his objections to the
creation of the Merton Chair (Letters 2: 589–90). Those objections had
largely to do with his suspicion of institutionalizing the practice of
reading. To professionalize literary study would inevitably make the


writing and reading of literature simply a set of tasks imposed by the

dominant culture for its own purposes and ends.
By contrast, in his own writing from the 1860s onward, espe-
cially his poetry, Morris consciously endeavored to produce works that
could be read without effort or concentration, works that could, in
effect, be read idly. Needless to say, this runs utterly counter to some of
the most basic of our own notions of literary artistry. As I mentioned
earlier, Morris often composed his verses while he was doing other
things. His attention was dispersed, not concentrated, and it was
precisely this dispersal that facilitated his creativity and enhanced his
pleasure. “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving a
tapestry,” Morris is reported to have said one day, “he had better shut
up, he’ll never do any good at all” (qtd. in Mackail 1: 186). The plea-
sures Morris’s poems offer to readers are never intense. Instead they are
placid, continuous, and very much attuned to the rhythms of the body.
I suspect that Morris had in mind the practice of many traditional
craftsmen—weavers and cobblers especially, if the period’s working-
class autobiographies are accurate indications—of propping up books
beside them to read while they worked. Poems composed by a body
occupied by the rhythms of tapestry-weaving might best be read by a
body occupied by rhythms of a similar kind. For the most part, Morris’s
poems of the 1870s and 1880s do not repay the word-by-word reading
that Ruskin coaches in “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” which is one reason they
are so seldom today read by academic readers. What we find scandalous
in Morris’s method is precisely that he is not giving his full attention to
the act of composition. He is weaving, and he is composing. But
perhaps we should instead call his a different mode of attention, one
that works to integrate body and mind, hand and brain. To appreciate
the products of that labor might require a more diffused attention, a
somatic attention, perhaps.
Stevenson presents a more complex case, and in some ways a
more interesting one. Regrettably, in the United States today Stevenson
is known almost exclusively as a writer of children’s books and of one
famous Gothic novella. His earlier reputation was quite different. Henry
James considered him one of the two or three most accomplished stylists
of the age, and he was not alone. In the twentieth century, Stevenson has
been the subject of admiring comments by, among others, Marcel Proust,
Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge-Luis Borges. In all, not a bad fan club.
Unlike Morris, Stevenson was thoroughly committed to the virtues we


associate with modernist literary artistry: elegance, austerity, indirection,

compression, irony, and so on—the kinds of things you cannot achieve
without paying close attention to what you are doing. And as a result
Stevenson’s works amply reward our close attention as readers. Yet often
Stevenson seems actively to discourage that kind of readerly response.
Instead he asks us simply to revel. The commitment to stylistic perfection
is in his case wholly in the service of pleasure, of literature as play, of
reading as idleness. As his essays and letters repeatedly show, Stevenson
did not see literature as a vehicle of moral improvement, as an instru-
ment of useful knowledge, or as a form of engagement with one’s histor-
ical moment. Indeed he can seem positively Nabokovian in this respect.
Unlike Nabokov, though, Stevenson committed himself to popular
culture and to mass-market genres. He did so because he saw in popular
literature a (perhaps) last refuge from the routinization of reading.
Indeed, it took another century for such literature to become the object
of professional readerly scrutiny. Like Morris, Stevenson tries to relieve
us of the burden of paying attention, or more precisely, he encourages us
to reimagine attention as a more dispersed and decentered phenom-
enon, one capable of inducing that ecstatic stupor he so valued. Reading
ought not to be work, though writing must be. It is that combination
which makes Stevenson so intriguing. It is also one source of the chal-
lenge he offers to contemporary critical theory. At the close of An Inland
Voyage, having paddled idly down the Oisé to the end of his journey,
having so carefully cultivated a state of pleasurable mental abstraction,
Stevenson suddenly discovers “I was weary of dipping the paddle. . . . I
wished to get to work” (134–35). That work presumably refers to the
writing of An Inland Voyage, and it is the sole acknowledgment within the
book of the labor that went to produce it. Yet it is labor that seeks to efface
itself, and in so doing coaches us to remake ourselves as readers, to repo-
sition ourselves under the sign of pleasure, not work.
University of Virginia


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