I went to bed at 8 last night, as I had to get up at 3 for a flight. When I woke up, my watch said 9:30, and I flipped out! Why hadn’t my alarm gone off? I’ve missed my flight! I was all the way up and making the bed before I realized: p.m. In my defense, it was still light out.
I have been quiet. Trying to imagine what I could say that could possibly make any sense whatsoever of the horrors around us. Trying not to start crying for fear that I won’t be able to stop. It’s all just too much.
I hate conclusions.1
After yesterday’s search for the source of Simone Weil’s oft-quoted “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” went a bit Lot-49ish on me, I wondered whether I should just have been satisfied with that “attributed to.” But I’m glad I didn’t let it go, for a couple of reasons.
First, I did finally get ahold of a copy of a version of the actual source. The quote comes from a 1942 letter from Weil to poet Joë Bousquet, which from what I can tell was first published in a 1950 issue of Cahiers du Sud, and then subsequently in a volume of Weil and Bousquet’s correspondence. My library has neither of these, but thanks to the extraordinary institutional generosity of Interlibrary Loan, a scan of the Cahiers du Sud version landed in my inbox last night. (Seriously, can we all take a moment to be grateful for ILL?)
And second, the context of the quotation is even more important to my own context than I’d guessed it could be. Bousquet was in the hospital, suffering from a grievous war injury, when he and Weil corresponded. She’d apparently given him a piece of writing, on which he’d given her some kind of comment. And thus:
J’ai été très touchée de constater que vous aviez fait véritablement attention aux quelques pages que je vous ai montrées. Je n’en conclus pas qu’elles méritent de l’attention. Je regarde cette attention comme un don gratuit et généreux de votre part. L’attention est la forme la plus rare et la plus pure de la générosité.
I was touched to see that you had truly paid attention to some pages that I showed you. I did not take from that that they deserved attention. I regard that attention as a gift freely and generously given on your part. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Being closely read, and receiving careful feedback, may in turn be the rarest and purest form of attention. I owe the readers of Generous Thinking more than I can say.
Among the reading I’ve picked up thanks to suggestions from the most generous readers of the draft of Generous Thinking is a bit of Simone Weil. Alan Jacobs, who pointed me toward her work in a couple of spots, noted in particular that she “seems to have thought that [attention] is the primary form of generosity.” So I’ve been reading around in the places where her thoughts turn to attention, including Gravity and Grace and Waiting for God.
A quick search online for Weil and attention, however, surfaces a vast number of references to her most quotable quote:
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
But that quote is never accompanied by a citation; in fact, this incompletely answered question on Quora leads not to a source but to yet another quotation. It’s the free-floating nature of that aphorism that I suspect leads Alan to say that she “seems” to have thought this connection between attention and generosity.
So I find myself in an odd spot: The quotation, assuming it’s a quotation, perfectly describes the thing I am trying to explore. And yet this specific point is small enough, and there are so many other issues in revising the manuscript that also demand my attention, that I can only give so much time to running down the source, assuming there is one.
I’m opting to go with an “attributed to” reference, at least for the moment, but I’d be enormously grateful if anyone were able to point me to an actual original.
The return home, post-vacation, presented its usual challenges, not least the fragmentation and scattering of my attention in a dozen directions. I am working on recentering, even as I once again pick up all those neglected obligations.
I have somehow managed to achieve a state of vacation equilibrium that I previously thought mythical: Not a day too short. Not a day too long. Perfectly restful. So glad to be heading home.
Our lake house, not incidentally, came with its own bear.
Heading back home after an amazing two weeks spent writing and reading and staring at the lake. Just the fast reboot I needed to make the transition to summer.
We drove into this place on the northern coast of the Upper Peninsula two weeks ago tomorrow, and there was not a leaf to be found. Over the course of three days this week, everything went green. It’s the edge of summer here now. I so regret not having before and after pictures.