All-Seeing

Recently one of my students mentioned in class that she felt she included too much detail in her stories, that she never knew how to focus on what to keep and what to leave out.

I responded that she did indeed know how to do this, and that she did so every minute of every day. Our field of vision is filled with innumerable detail, but we have learned to focus on what is most important before us: the person who is speaking, or a car driving past recklessly, a tree especially blazing with color, the sound of unexpected footsteps. Everything else fades into the background, if only momentarily. If we couldn’t continually improvise this ongoing dance of focusing and filtering, we wouldn’t be able to survive.

The Italian writer Alberto Moravia has written a wonderful short story, “All-Seeing,” about a man who loses this capacity to filter, and what this loss does to his life. It’s from a collection with the overly dramatic English title Command and I Will Obey You (much more exciting than the original Italian Una Cosa e una Cosa–which I guess might translate as something like, One Thing After Another).

In this story, a man declares that “I am worried by my growing and irresistible capacity for seeing several things at the same moment, that is, by my all-seeingness.”

He continues: “One day, as I was walking along a street, I distinctly heard a voice calling me: “Lucio!” I stopped. looked up, and and found myself staring at the façade, all green glass and brown metal, of a very modern building. Then as my glance traveled up over the glossy surface, I became suddenly aware that I was seeing, simultaneously, everything that was going on behind all the windows of the building. This plurality of vision had, as I immediately felt, a significance which was, to say the least, disconcerting: since I saw everything, I was unable, in fact, to isolate, to distinguish anything.”

Life goes from bad to worse for poor Lucio. His telephone out of order, he slips into the jewelry shop next door to make a call and he sees “one by one, all the minute objects that filled the showcases, each of them in its own little box of red morocco lined with white silk.” He sees the clock and the framed pictures on the wall, the Chinese vase on an ebony stand, an open safe, and the dead body of his neighbor, Alessio, who had been robbed minutes before. He sees all of this equally, and so misses the drama of his friend’s murder.

Later, at a picnic in the park with his wife, the sights and sounds of nature are of equal importance to him as a nearby car crash, and his lack of reaction appalls his wife, who thinks he’s become a monster. She then embarks on a love affair, and when once Lucio walks in on the lovers he sees everything in the room and yet sees nothing amiss. His lack of concern further enrages his wife, who divorces him. Then on he continues with his life, where all that he encounters seems “equally worthy of attention, equally important.”

Unlike Lucio, everyone else enjoys the unconscious talent of filtering out the trivial and concentrating on what most demands attention. When a writer works to become more conscious of this ability, then the dilemma of choosing significant detail for a story, or a significant memory for an essay, begins to lose some of its daunting mystery. Simply (simply!) adapt what you already know how to do in your daily life and apply it to the page.

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