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.