The loss of intention

The loss of intention

Paul Greenberg

Each, he explains, has an essence of its own that speaks to us. A sense of place, a Southerner might say.

Newport certainly has one. Its seaside mansions still echo the names of 19th century tycoons. As for this century, images from The Great Gatsby keep recurring – the anonymous open-ended party, the green light at the end of the dock, the landlocked yachtsmen, the voices full of money in a town full of busboys. Newport’s is not my language; but it’s definitely speaking.

Something else William Zinsser says – a single word – gets me to thinking of the essence of things. He tells his listeners that we should be writing with, among other qualities, intention.

Intention. Years ago, going through my father’s effects after the funeral, I came across a letter from someone thanking him for all the years he led weekday prayers at the synagogue. “You davened with kavanah,” the letter said. Translation: You prayed with intention.

To do good work is consciously and continually to know what one is about. Whether praying or writing, cooking a meal or doing sums, keeping the aim in mind is important, and like the runner in Philippians, to look neither to the left nor right and, forgetting those things that are behind and always reaching forth, pressing on to the mark.

Instead, the everydayness of the world first distracts, then traps us. Simone Weil says in her essay on education that every time we really concentrate, we destroy the evil in ourselves. And when we don’t, when we just go through the motions, without following thought where it leads but cut it short, or write around a difficulty rather than concentrate and resolve it . . . then our work becomes part of the everyday dross of the world.

The sense of honest search is lost, and with it the possibility of discovery. We are writing without intention.

My father did two things, I realize as the years pass, that I will never get around to learning, lost in everydayness as I am: One is how to pray well, and the other is how to fix a pair of shoes. He had been a shoemaker, and he would never be as happy again in his work after he went into a series of other businesses. Maybe because they didn’t require the same kind of concentration. To put on a decent pair of soles and heels, to have the work take shape right before your eyes, to be able to see it and feel it done right, that takes . . . intention.

I grew up assuming that kavanah meant holiness, having heard the word only in the context of prayer. Only later did I learn that, in the literal Hebrew, it means intention. Intention has a way of lending holiness to any activity.

As punditry supplants writing in journalism, a different definition of what is significant now supplants the old. The change is striking – half appalling, half hilarious, but only if it is noticed. Most of the time it isn’t.

It happens unobtrusively, unremarked, as the concept of The Media replaces that of The Press. What’s the difference between the two? It’s the difference between the kind of shiny, cardboard shoes on sale at standardized outlets across the country and the real leather kind you used to buy once and keep in repair for years. Now we look for shine and style in our opinions, rather than support and wear. Ours becomes a throw-away society, and sure enough, it keeps producing lots of stuff – including opinion – that needs throwing away.

The increasing absence of serious intention on the part of our political literati is reflected in the coverage of the past presidential campaign, which never got deep enough to generate much traction. We heard a lot of media-talk about the incidentals of politics – who was winning, who was losing – and little about what any of it meant.

If anything characterized the media’s coverage of last year’s campaign, it was a grand indifference to the truth or falsity of what was being said. What counted was how the script played. After all, this was only politics, only words.

To quote James Bowman of the London Times, who is just enough removed from American politics to see it plainly, “There is hardly any hint of moral taint attaching to the candidates’ falsehoods and distortions. The assumption seems to be that no one could have expected them to have been more truthful. . . .”

We have all come to know the game so well that we’ve forgotten its object. We have lost touch with its intention.

Outside the hotel window here at Newport, the waves still crash ceaselessly against the rocks, oblivious to our chatter. Some things, it is good to be reminded, don’t change.

But to notice them you’ve got to pay attention.

NCEW member Paul Greenberg is editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. This is an edited version of a syndicated col

COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of Editorial Writers

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