ReadySteadyBlog

Simone Weil's life is fascinating. Left-wing activist with a critique of both Orthodox Marxism and Trotskyism she moves ever leftwards, soon finding herself arguing for a radical syndicalism. She then finds herself at – or, better, in need of – theology. She writes herself to self-understanding coming to a heterodox Christianity which sees in Greek thought, especially The Iliad, one of the highest expressions of human wisdom. (For more on the life see McLellan's Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil, Pétrement's Simone Weil: A Life, and Cabaud's Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love.)

In her life and work politics, literature and philosophy, and theology are each tested – and found wanting. Nothing of this earth (hence accusations of her Manichaeism) quite lives up to her demand for Truth, but the Truth which Weil finds in Christ can, to some extent, be found in attention and, by extension, neighbourliness. She writes: "Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance... The capacity to give ones attention... is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle."

So, these two concepts (attention and neighbourliness) can be brought together under the concept of love. Weil's god is not an apophatic abstraction (although her mysticism sometimes feels like apophaticism, for sure) but rather radically approachable, perhaps even attainable, through attention. Attention's neighbourliness brings Weil's late thought back into contact with her earlier radical syndicalism. Neighbourliness might just be another word for solidarity. Solidarity is certainly another word for love. It is a love that has to be radically honest about its object. It has to be able to critique ideology. It has to pay the closest of attention...

One part of that attention, for Weil, was directed at George Herbert's poem LOVE (III) (on George Herbert (1593-1633), John Drury's recent, lovely biography Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert is recommended). I almost think it is paradigmatic for her. Weil: "it played a big role in my life, for I was busy reciting it to myself at the moment when, for the first time, Christ came to take me. I believed I was merely resaying a beautiful poem, and unbeknownst to myself, it was a prayer."

Close reading, attention, moves here in two seemingly opposing but actually complementary directions: paying absolute attention is at the same time opening oneself up entirely. Attention on the object initially breaks it down (perhaps this is the move we see in deconstruction) but attention then allows the object wholly to be itself, allows the deconstruction to loop back from the object to the subject itself, in a move like a transference/counter-transference that we see in psychoanalysis. Transference, "the phenomenon whereby we unconsciously transfer feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present", from analysand to analyst, is met with feelings transferring back from analyst to analysand. The process of analysis works through the transference stage to get to the real relationship. It pays attention, and pushes past first, second, third impressions to something that is true, but a truth that has been created only after the hard work of attention. And this is work, in truth, that we all want to shy away from:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
     Guilty of dust and sin.

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...

I started ReadySteadyBook because I wanted to record my reading and to review books. I had reviewed for Amazon (where I had worked for a time) and was beginning to review in the TLS and for the broadsheets. RSB was to be a continuation and extension of all that. Perhaps a place where I could write at greater length, and certainly where I could engage with books that the papers showed no particular interest in. For many years it (more or less) served this purpose. Increasingly, however, over the course of the past decade, and particularly over the last four or five years, I've found reviewing books to be – well, for sure, a non-optimal way for me to respond to them...

Reviewing concentrates the mind. One reads more carefully than one might otherwise, pencil in hand, taking notes along the way - and then one makes one's evaluation. But such an evaluation always struck me as crude and incomplete. Not worthless, certainly – book reviews very often offer a fine service to the would-be reader and the rare really good book review can be a delight to read. So, I'm speaking very personally here. Book reviewing wasn't – isn't – an adequate response, for me, to the books that I read.

Certain friends – Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters – offer a solution. Both these enviably talented, incisive and intelligent writers seem to be able to respond, diligently and inspirationally, to the particular book under review whilst, at the same time, contributing to their wider project (each essay seems to reveal yet more of their weltanschaung). Both seem to be able to see the trees in all their glory and yet simultaneously cultivate their wood; I only ever seemed to misapprehend the tree and build nothing beyond it. I found myself alone, feeling foolish, looking in dismay at the blunted axe I'd just been wielding: destruction that was anything but creative.

My own failure in this regard is particularly upsetting because I do see each book I read as being both sui generis and yet part of a... call it "ethical whole" that I'm trying to deal with. Each and every book is a challenge. The first challenge is: how do I respond fully, properly, carefully to this? I think the answer has to be in writing. But for me it is not via something called "reviewing". I think Simone Weil's concept of the primacy of attention may help me explain this a little better...