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Divided Attention

[First published in RetroFuturism #16, March, 1992.]

In an old book of magic tricks written by Harry Blackstone (but ghostwritten, I suspect, by Walter B. Gibson, noted writer on stage magic and creator of the pulp hero the Shadow), I find the following quotation: "We know that a person's attention can only be centered upon one thing at a time. Divided attention is never close." For the stage magician, this quotation is of much value, for it makes clear how a magician hoodwinks his audience. He divides their attention between two simultaneous actions so they are unable to see what he does not want them to see--they are unable to see closely.

Those in other arts can do the same by simultaneously presenting two items/facts/images to the audience. In music, two words can be spoken at the same time--overdubbed--to heighten an effect or slip something past the censors. In theatre, any number of actions can be performed at the same time at different points on the stage. In writing, a single sentence can mean several different things if filled with metaphorical language.

Only the stage magician, however, desires to distract his audience in order to slip something past them. Only the stage magician needs to do this. A playwright does not want his audience to miss an action or his play might become confused or meaningless. A writer does not want to distract his reader from one meaning of his sentence while emphasizing another. Either both/all meanings are clear to the reader or one of the meanings is missed entirely. And if it is missed, then there has been no effect produced. A double entendre does not "work" if the sexual connotation is not recognized, for example.

The major problem with the written word, in particular, is that it exists outside of time. Unlike a stage performance or a film, the written word can be enjoyed at any speed. The reader can even go back and reread sections of the text or skim paragraphs or underline significant passages. The reader is in command of how the text will be read; the writer merely creates it. He can suggest, with sentence length and structure, how the words should be read, at what pace, but there is no way to force a reader to read any text in any particular way. The writer is therefore in a weaker position than are the stage magician or filmmaker, who can control exactly how their work is perceived and experienced. The writer has less control over his material and over his audience.

The only trick the written word has is the same trick it has always had. It guides the reader into an interior world where the writer's voice is speaking. The writer's voice, the text as it is read, then becomes the silent thoughts of the reader. And so, in the act of reading, the reader becomes an unwitting hypnotic subject of the writer, controlled by him, led along from word to word, paragraph to paragraph, until, finally, the end of the text is reached and the writer allows him to go free.

But even then, I cannot prevent you from rereading the above words.

--Thomas Wiloch