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Good Letters

Decades ago, when I was being drawn from atheism through agnosticism toward Christianity, somehow Simone Weil’s writings came into my hands. Literally into my hands: so struck was I by her words that I copied pages and pages of them into my journal. Weil became my spiritual director. She led my spirit to eventually embrace Christianity.

One of Weil’s strictures (and her strictures were countless, so uncompromising was her view of the spiritual life) was that prayer is impossible without developing the faculty of attention. So I naturally thought of Weil when I saw the title of poet Robert Cording’s essay in Image 101: “Acts of Attention: On Poetry and Spirituality.”

Cording draws on a fascinating range of writers to explore what he sees as crucially important about “attention:” Frost, Thoreau, Heidegger, Ruskin, and more. But he doesn’t draw on Simone Weil. I was a bit surprised by this omission from Cording’s very fine and otherwise comprehensive essay. Surprised for a couple reasons. Cording does know Weil’s work: he has written a poem incorporating quotes from her, with the very Weilian title “Against Consolation.” Furthermore, many of Cording’s points in this essay are core to Weil’s philosophy.

Attention, for Cording, requires first of all the disappearance of the self. Being able to see “the fullness that exists in each moment,” he writes, “is an exercise in overcoming one’s self, in attending to something quite particular other than oneself.” And his essay concludes by quoting the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, who says that our “interesting planet… deserves all the attention you can give it” — “attention to a thing existing in excess of itself.” Cording adds:  “For me, attention in general, and the artist’s loving attention more specifically, is always a commitment to that excess, that sense of how the world we live in exceeds mere functionality or need. In such moments, we attend entirely to something else, disappearing in the process.”

Weil could not agree more. For her as well, the self (the ego) is the part of us that gets in the way of attending to what is real. To look with true love at another person — say, someone who is suffering — means, for Weil, to look with an attention in which “the soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.”

This quotation is from Weil’s essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” This essay is her most extended treatment of the immeasurable value of “attention;” and it’s the essay from which the remainder of my quotes of Weil’s will be taken.

But to return for a minute to Cording. He writes that “attention is simply a loving look at what is.” He then quotes the poet Czeslaw Milosz: to contemplate “tree or rock or a man” may bring us “to comprehend that it is, even though it might not have been.” I wish that Cording had gone on to quote my favorite lines of Milosz’s that illustrate this point. The lines are from his poem “With Trumpets and Zithers”:

I wanted to describe this, not that, basket of vegetables with a redheaded doll of a leek laid across it.

And a stocking on the arm of a chair, a dress crumpled as it was, this way, not other.

I wanted to describe her, no one else, asleep on her belly, made secure by the warmth of his leg.

It is training in this particularity of attention that Weil posits as the indispensable value of school studies. But “in order really to pay attention, it is necessary to know how to set about it.” In one of the few passages anywhere in Weil’s work that makes me smile, she explains:

“Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one’s pupils: ‘Now you must pay attention,’ one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles.”

Rather, she insists, true attention is a “waiting.”

“Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached: empty and ready to be penetrated by the object.… Our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.”

And the ultimate object (or being) that must be waited for is God. Look at how Weil begins the essay on school studies:

“The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.

It is the highest part of the attention only which makes contact with God, when prayer is intense and pure enough for such a contact to be established; but the whole attention is turned towards God. Of course school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention. Nevertheless they are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention which will be available at the time of prayer, on condition that they are carried out with a view to this purpose and this purpose alone.”

On condition that… this purpose alone: Weil’s strictures again.

Robert Cording doesn’t go here in his essay on “Acts of Attention” — since his focus is on the sort of attention required to create great art. But knowing Cording’s other work, I can picture him nodding in assent to these words of Weil’s.

As she would nod in assent to Cording’s contention that “the best art always involves such loving attention to what is before us.”

“I would argue,” he goes on, “that art is not about the will; that making art should push aside the ego and desires of the artist; and that this pushing aside can only take place in the absorption of the artist by what is actual.”

If I didn’t know that the author of this sentence was Robert Cording, I’d be sure it was Simone Weil.

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