Paying Attention with Simone Weil

Paying Attention with Simone Weil.

Well known, at least among those who study Weil (perhaps a few thousand), is her concept of attention.  Less well known is the way in which Iris Murdoch, Oxford don and novelist, adapted the term.  The idea is a good one, but Weil gets it mixed up with self-denial, her desire to be nothing more than “a certain intersection of nature and God.” (Love of God, pp 462-463)

For Weil, attention (attention) means to suspend thinking, leaving one’s mind detached, empty, ready to be entered by the other.  Attention means not always trying to know, not categorizing, but waiting, as though the other could participate in forming the idea we have of it.  “Attention is the highest and purest form of generosity.”  Attention is the opposite of a thought that has seized upon some idea too hastily, and thinks it knows (Weil, Reflections, pp 48-49).  For Weil, attention requires self-emptying.  In attention,

the soul empties itself of all its contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all its truth. (Reflections, p 51)

Weil is mistaken.  I have no other way of knowing an other’s suffering (or joy) except by trying to find comparable experiences in myself.  It’s the only way we can know: to be open but not empty.  I know others not by knowing myself, but by feeling myself resonating with the experiences of others.  The more in touch with my feelings, the better I can experience the feelings of others.

Iris Murdoch

The term “attention” was adapted and adopted by Iris Murdoch, who was deeply influenced by Weil, more so than by any other woman.

The enemies of art and of morals, that is the enemies of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis.

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Simone Weil and Donald Trump, the world as force and affliction

Simone Weil and Donald Trump, the world as force and affliction.

Simone Weil wrote during the years leading up to the Second World War.  She died in 1943.  There is much that is curious and troublesome about her life—and death.  She died of starvation by her own hand.  Born a Jew, Weil is generally regarded as a Christian mystic.  Until the end of her life she refused baptism.  I see her as a woman with deep insight into the experiences of force and affliction.  We all know who Donald Trump is.

The Iliad, a poem of force,” her most well-known work, addresses the founding document of Western Civilization.  Generally seen as an epic of war and heroes, Weil reads it as an account of what force does to people: those who use force, and those who suffer it.  It subjects both to the empire of might. 

Whoever does not know just how far necessity and a fickle fortune hold the human soul under their domination cannot treat as his equals, nor love as himself, those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss.  The diversity of the limitations to which men are subject creates the illusion that there are different species among them which cannot communicate with one another.  Only he who knows the empire of might and knows how not to respect it is capable of love and justice. (p. 181)

We live in an age of force, and contempt for those who suffer it.  “Loser” has become a common term of abuse.  About the concept of a loser, Weil reminds us that Christ was the greatest “loser” of them all.  He lost so that we might be saved.

Weil’s is a heretical reading of the New Testament.  Christ is the incarnation of God, come to earth to suffer as men and women suffer, and to die as testimony to this fact.  The resurrection, so central to Christianity, is unimportant to her.   

If the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s Resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me.   (Weil, Letter, p. 55)

Resurrection is not important because Christ represents not God’s power, but his willing weakness, a rejection of all who equate God with might.  Instead of being a God of might, God is the one who becomes one with the victims of history.

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