The Art of Concentration

Great art requires concentration from the artist, and demands concentration from those experiencing it. Artists concentrate their minds and energies for years in order to compose, paint, write or otherwise create work that reveals unusual sensitivity and mastery. Artists tend to have the talent and training to experience ‘flow’ or be ‘in the zone’. Education teaches concentration. Self-control is often said to improve your long-term career prospects (think of the Marshmallow Test). Concentrating fully on a single task is often more difficult than multitasking: it requires the whole body to move towards a single goal.

Literature demands and rewards concentration too. I was asked to talk about the following passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Chapter 20) in an admissions interview at Cambridge. In what I now (but not then) understand as a deep, almost mystical insight into concentration, the narrator says that ‘keen vision and feeling’ allow you to push at the horizons of reality, to experience the world more fully:

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.


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