On not noticing

Thinking about the infinite distractions of contemporary affluent life, Laura Miller glosses Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, thus:

Your very self, “stored in your memory,” is the product of what you pay attention to, since you can’t remember what you never noticed to begin with.  [Via Andrew Sullivan.]

Much depends here on what “remember” and “notice” mean, I guess, but this doesn’t sound right.  There’s a certain sense in which it’s clearly true: some kinds of intellectual content, for example, you probably need to become aware of before you can remember them.  (This is why, in class or in a paper, it helps to make something a problem.)

But the experience of sustained intimacy, whether based on families, love relationships, or friendships, suggests a host of exceptions: The experience of not being aware of something until it’s gone is proverbial.  There’s also a different kind of memory: The lived memory of habit and attitude, built up reflexively, and sometimes non-consciously (avoiding unconscious here to forestall a distracting argument about Freud, who’s probably relevant here).  When you first live with another person, and they ask “how come you always X?”–the reason is a kind of memory.  Sometimes it’s explicit–“In my house, we *always* puree the cat for dinner, never breakfast.”  But lots of times it just reflects the built-up years of making largely unreflective inferences about people, based on hints and guesses.

We can also borrow Wordsworth: “the best portion of a good man’s life” are his “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.”

In the main, I agree with Miller (and Gallagher, as presented by her): attention matters.  After all, Wordsworth recoils from the busy city streets into communion with nature.  But I’m not as sanguine about collapsing selfhood into “things we’ve consciously noticed.”

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