Simone Weil: Attention as Generosity

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Simone Weil (1909-1943; pronounced vay) was an extraordinary person. If you do not know her life story, I highly recommend watching Julia Haslett’s moving and deeply personal movie, “An Encounter with Simone Weil.” The movie opens with the filmmaker channelling Weil to ask, “What response does seeing human suffering demand of us?” 

Weil believed it demanded virtually all that we had to give: “always do what will cost you the most.” Her unflinching commitment to activism on behalf of “the afflicted” was a factor in her early death. It is not clear exactly how she died. It seems to have been tuberculosis exacerbated by poor nutrition. One story surrounding her death is wholly consistent with the way she lived. The story goes that on diagnosing her illness, Weil’s doctor ordered her to rest and to eat well–the only known remedies at the time. She refused, however, to eat more than people living on the most meagre wartime rations. (Years earlier, she had refused to heat her apartment in solidarity with soldiers sleeping outdoors in the winter.) So, her death was ruled a suicide. In any case, perhaps the most important thing to know about Simone Weil is that, as one of her biographers wrote, “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give, it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.”

The love that she died of was for workers and the poor in her native France and beyond. She even went to Spain in 1936 to fight against the rising fascists, joining the anarchist unit known as the Durruti Column. Later in life, her love was directed toward God. 

Reading that word, “God,” I imagine that many readers may, like filmmaker Haslett, feel “betrayed by Weil’s turn towards God.” You may share the dismay of her leftist comrades when Weil embraced what can only be termed mysticism. Discussing this strange feature of Weil’s otherwise materialist thought will allow me to make some important points about what I feel are deficits in anarchist practice, pedagogical and otherwise. I hope to thereby create a useful resource for educators.

We can pose the problem as a question: Can theological materials be of value to a rigorously this-worldly pedagogy? For, if there is one assumption woven throughout this site it is that we desire to find real-world, rather than supernatural, solutions to the problems confronting us in our schools. So what might theology offer us?

I’d first like to ask you to consider Theodor Adorno’s concept of “inverse theology.” This concept holds that we need to turn on its head the traditional understanding of the work preformed by theology. Theologian Paul Tillich said that our troubled world presents questions—what is justice? how should we treat one another?—to which theology provides answers. This rigid top-down correspondence creates an unbridgeable chasm between absolute and actual. Worse, it ignores and perpetuates the very social conditions that make the theological concepts necessary to begin with.

Adorno’s solution is to invert this correspondence. I understand him to be asking us to think of the theological ideal (justice, redemption, forgiveness, utopia, love) as a kind of virtual Platonic form that challenges and, indeed, questions, the “damaged world” itself. Our task is to actualize these forms by constructing concrete immanent realities out of idealized transcendental images. 

In this manner, theology offers us vital materials for acting on the world. (I will discuss the idea of the classroom as a “concrete utopia” in a future post.) One crucial element in Adorno’s thought is that of the Bilderverbot, or the Jewish prohibition against images of “the divine.” When we craft “idols” out of these “divine” concepts by reifying and codifying them (ironically, just as theology does) we have bound and gagged them and rendered them unfit as socially applicable ideas.

I think that Simone Weil’s use of theological ideas offers us the most when understood in a similar manner. She was adamant, after all, that “The object of my search is not the supernatural, but this world.” She refused, even, to idolize the school curriculum that she was obligated to fulfill as a high school teacher. Rather, she reasoned that if she taught her students “to love the truth,” the rest would follow. (Elsewhere she wrote, “What is necessary is not that the initiated should learn something, but that a transformation should come about in them which makes them capable of receiving the teaching.”) It likely would not follow, of course, as the French government envisioned it; but it would follow in terms of fostering students with integrity. (The consequence of not sticking to the curriculum, together with her activism, was that Weil was constantly being transferred to different schools.) 

So, when we read “God” in a Weil text, we are encountering the very inversion of an anthropomorphized or spiritualized image. By forbidding such an image, we are, somewhat paradoxically, preserving it as a virtual, applicable, material. In a remarkable passage from the chapter insightfully titled “Atheism as a Purification” in Gravity and Grace, Weil writes.

A case of contradictories which are true. God exists: God does not exist. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.

Let’s say that “God” is the image of a person (or indeed an animal) wholly free from oppression, entirely removed from the endless harassments of the world. We can do the same with other theological concepts. For instance: love, redemption, justice, forgiveness, heaven/utopia. In each case, we are speaking of possibilities that we know exist, virtually, at least, because we, precisely, have the very concept and yearn for its fulfillment. (Indeed, it is we who have created these concepts, these possibilities, ourselves, out of our need.) We also know that it does not exist in actuality. We know this, first, because of the state of the “damaged world,” and second, because of the subsequent persistence of that yearning. What exist as worldly actualities are, rather, injustice, hatred, punishment, hell, etc. It is our task to assemble lived environments from the impossible perspective of the absolute. It is crucial to keep in mind that this is “impossible” only in the sense of what anarchist author John Clark calls “Possible Impossibilities:” “Possible Impossibilities include things that are possible only in ‘another world’ beyond the present system of social determination and social domination.” Indeed, as James Baldwin insists, “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”

How is this a resource for educators? Simone Weil gives us a very specific practice to inject into the very atmosphere of the classroom. It is a practice, moreover, that aims to cultivate the subject, the person, who is fit to engage in such a possible impossibility. It is also a practice derived from theology, if somewhat heretically so. Weil also insists on a Bilderverbot, in Adorno’s words, in order not to over-define the concept and overdetermine the practice, both of which would be extremely counterproductive. 

I will follow Weil’s example here, and present the idea in only a suggestive way, presenting her own words mainly. The rest is up to you. Three quotes from Gravity and Grace:

We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will… Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer… It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If words like these were coming from anyone other than a committed activist and sophisticated political analyst like Simone Weil, I would be the first to dismiss them as passive to the point of colluding with the brutal agents of the damaged world. Rather, I understand them as calling for a kind of a priori, or pre-condition, for the work of assembling the world according to the impossible absolute. This pre-condition calls for a contemplative practice in which “the will,” arguably a faculty that is complicit in the damaged world, is rendered lame and mute. This abduction permits another faculty, that of “attention,” which is “something quite different.”

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of near-by objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them. To beg for them is to believe that we have a Father in heaven [i.e., the impossible absolute]. Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

I particularly love the line “Or should we cease to desire them?” Why would you want to think, to dream, to conceive, and to construct without concepts like justice, love, and utopia? Indeed, is not “education” itself such an impossible absolute that names…what, exactly? 

Most significantly, for Weil, attention fixes our awareness of what she calls “affliction,” the seemingly intractable suffering of humanity.

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

This way of looking is first of all attentive. 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.

Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

In “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” Weil gets more specific:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains.

Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

Weil believed that “Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worth while to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it.” This precious pearl is attention. The fact that the student “solves” the geometry problem is secondary to the practiced quality of open, rather than willed, attention that is potentially present in such an exercise.

In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it. There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution or to the words of a Latin or Greek text without trying to arrive at the meaning, a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.

It is in this manner, she says, that “Every school exercise…is like a sacrament.” Weil is deeply aware of the school as, in Louis Althusser’s term, an ideological state apparatus. In the classroom, subjects are being fashioned for the brutal capitalist machinery that is the students’ fate. Hence, Weil’s concern is not, in the first instance, “getting the right answer.” For, someone with the capacity for attention together with an actual need, that knowledge will follow. It can be learned, moreover, from a YouTube channel or from a robotic app. 

So it comes about that, paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the
supreme moment of his need.

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