Generosity and Attention

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.

8 thoughts on “Generosity and Attention

  1. An update: the line, as the Quora note suggests, seems to come from a 1942 letter to the poet Joë Bousquet. That letter appears to be collected in The Simone Weil Reader, of which there is a copy in my very own library. Hopefully that will provide a reliable source!

  2. In her published work, perhaps the closest analogue comes in the essay on “School Studies” in Waiting for God: “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle” (p. 114).

  3. This, more than any of the other “Where did they actually say this?” conundrums, seems somehow emblematic of the topic.

  4. A-and — it’s not there. There’s a 1942 letter to Joë Bousquet in The Simone Weil Reader, but the line is not therein. Or at least I did not find it on my first reading, but I’ll admit that my attention is being sorely challenged by the very loud voice coming from the next room over…

  5. It’s becoming somewhat laughable. The letter is almost certainly in Correspondance, but my library does not have it and I only have search access via HathiTrust. It’s also quoted in Simone Pétriment’s Simone Weil: A Life, which cites a 1950 issue of Cahiers du Sud, which my library has in microform, but off-site, and apparently not that issue.

    This is becoming a little Lot-49ish. “Attributed to” is looking better and better.

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