In Simone Weil: An Introduction to her Thought, John Hellman shows that Weil's concept of attention is not simply some kind of effortful application of concentration (Weil: "Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort ... [a] kind of frowning application") but rather "the link between several aspects of her thought: her ascetic intellectualism, her love for mathematics, her concern for the poor and oppressed, her innovatively focussed politics, and her unusually empathetic sensitivity." Attention, then, is a complex, compound term with several overlapping concerns. Whilst singularity of focus and uncluttered thought are obviously part of the definition of attention, Weil also says, "Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object." Our thought, she says, "should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything." So too for prayer, of course ("prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.")
In Robert Pippin's After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism, Pippin writes: "in the case of pictorial art, the ability of painting to arrest time and thereby to 'make present' can render aspects of human action available" to us like nothing else. Life rushes past, but art pays attention. In the same footnote, Pippin goes on to write: "Hegel can also be summarized by saying that art has the task of the 'Vergegenwärtigung des Absolutes', the bringing of the Absolute to presentness."
Art – and Pippin is arguing about pictorial art here, but I'm applying this more loosely and broadly – pays attention, and gifts to us the complexity of a present moment (and the present, of course, is doused, drowned, in God; the Absolute in German Idealism is a term that is not simply a synonym for God, but that can comfortably stand in for the divine, amongst other things.) We need to be fully open to art to attend to it completely in order to hear all that it is saying. It is, perhaps, Eliot's still point in a turning world: where the dance is, where past and future are gathered, where our attention has to lay if we are ever to find the wisdom appropriate to our own confusions.
Eliot and Weil are, of course, profoundly religious writers. Hegel formulated his system within the explosion of theological debate at the beginning of the 19th Century. (And it is noteworthy that the post-Kantian aesthetics of German Idealism flower at this particular moment of theological crisis.) Using any of these thinkers to help one articulate something, anything, about aesthetics leaves its traces, of course. Or, more positively, reveals a truth: aesthetics are undergirded by the human truths contested in ethics and theology. Aesthetics isn't masquerading as something it is not, but if we pay attention it turns out to be more than we often think it is. It feels, actually, like an ethical demand. Like Levinas's call of the Other - something finally unknowable, but exigent. It cannot be ignored. Reading closely, then, is perhaps a paradigm of engaged engagement. It is about paying attention to paying attention and realising that such can take us well beyond the words on the page.
This all leads me to want to discuss Blanchot, Levinas, Object Oriented Ontology-inspired ideas about "withdrawal" and a host of other things because all of them nourish and inform how and why I read, and how and why I respond to what I read in the way that I do. But before I address such, I want to say a little more about Weil, Pippin and modernism...