Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Attention


I mentioned Simone Weil in an earlier post. I continue to read her on and off, in wide loops that come and go. I'm at LAX, heading to Paris. (Airports some kind of do-nothing space, or spatial abeyance, where sometimes, taking a breath, I think: what next? I like writing this blog, and do it so rarely. So that's a good "what next".) Loops: so, for some reason, and difficult though I find her, I like reading Weil when I travel. Not even sure why. Now the more I think about it these days, the more I'm pretty sure that I'm an atheist. But I don't always feel like an atheist. This is not the same as being an agnostic; when I'm certain there is no God, I'm very certain. At times, though, I experience the world as being utterly, utterly godsoaked, for want of a better word to describe it. (One day I should describe more about what the hell I actually think I mean by this.) But mostly, when I investigate it rationally, it's just: of course this is all there is. Perhaps at those times all I'm really believing is that there is simply no continuance of a "self" in an "afterwards". (Continuance of self: sometimes the belief seems so narcissistic, at its core.) But when I'm deeply in that place, believing this is truly all there is: it makes the world so infinite,in its finitude; and so beautiful, even as that beauty so strenuously jostles, at every single instant, to slip through the fingers.

So I'm not sure why this regular returning to Weil, the Christian mystic. Since I don't consider myself a Christian. (I like the Christ story as a fundamental metaphor of inner divinity, but I tend to agree with Joseph Campbell that believing in the literal intended meanings of religion is the equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating the menu, not the food). Perhaps the fact of her being such a beautiful writer is enough. It's a bit like my relationship with the book Abandonment to Divine Providence by the 18th century Jesuit priest Pierre de Caussade: I mentally "subtract" the Jesus stuff, and it becomes this marvellous book about meditation and surrender.

So where was I? (Airports: kind of like white noise as three-dimensional space. It's easy to become moderately distracted.) Where was I? - Simone Weil. I guess I read her because she wrestles with things that seem to matter: how to be; how to be here, inside this extraordinary, and extraordinarily improbable, existence, inside space and time. In Gravity and Grace she writes: "We have to try and cure our faults by attention and not by will."

"Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love." Also: "Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man."

In one version of the story, "Act without inattention" were the final words the Buddha ever said (to his manservant) before he attained nirvana, and ceased to seek. A strange double negative - does he just mean "Pay attention - to everything" or is there more to it?

I love also how Weil's links often move sideways, and slightly skewiff, from what you might logically expect. In film, David Lynch does this with our expectations of narrative. You wind up in a weird place, and yet thinking, "It makes perfect sense that I am here. There could have been no other way." Here's one of those Lynchian Weil moments that seems to hover just tantalizingly out of the reach of my capacity to understand it, to really get just what it is she is trying to say:

"We liberate energy in ourselves, but it constantly reattaches itself. How are we to liberate it entirely? We have to desire that it should be done in us - to desire it truly - simply to desire it, not to try to accomplish it. For every attempt in that direction is vain and has to be dearly paid for. In such a work all that I call 'I' has to be passive. Attention alone - that attention that is so full that the 'I' disappears - is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call 'I' of the light of my attention and turn it onto that which cannot be conceived."

Elsewhere (in the chapter "Atheism as Purification"):

"A case of contradictories which are true. God exists: God does not exist.Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that nothing real can be anything like that which I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion."

Finally, as the boarding announcement sounds: here are two old poems, from my book Totem, that touch in different ways on this universal experience of travel, and time, and tenderness. (Though not Weil. Though perhaps God.) (P.S., the next post I do will be about the Werner Herzog seminar I attended two weeks ago in LA, the Rogue Film School, about which I've been bursting to write.)


(Fluorescent)

In the white tedium of airports
The door to the soul of the world is ajar.
I glide along walkways and ramparts
For days in transit and transfer

Like a shade, through an atmosphere
Fluorescent with dislocation.
The air hums with inanity.
In all my loveless circumnavigation

There I am behind me. And yet it is
Exquisite to hallucinate in sleep deprivation.
We punch through the clouds into absence; thus
It was not an airport but a space station.



(Arc)

Down again through slanting sun
Into holding patterns and Dublin rain.
The plane banks languidly. The Wicklow
Mountains shine. There is the moon again.

The clouds wait shyly at the coast.
We make small circles on the great arc;
It occurs to me that God is love.
The long dusk darkens into dark.

Last rays: the fields of horse studs flash
Like lakes. This morning was Athens.
Three hundred of us descend and the curve
Of our loneliness lessens.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Every moment of resistance to temptation is a victory. ....................................................

susan said...

A beautiful thing in itself, that essay....

Thank you

Matt Kay said...

Love your stuff, Luke. Became quite friendly with the Weil scholar Roy Finch years ago, and he, of course, turned me on to Weil. That quote of Weil's made me think of Nisargadatta:

Just look away from all that happens in your mind and bring it to the feeling "I am". The "I am" is not a direction. It is the negation of all direction. Ultimately even the "I am" will have to go, for you need not keep on asserting what is obvious. Bringing the mind to the feeling "I am" merely helps in turning the mind away from everyting else. When the mind is kept away from its preoccupations, it becomes quiet. If you do not disturb this quiet and stay in it, you find that it is permeated with a light and a love you have never known; and yet you recognize it at one as your own nature. Once you have passed through this experience, you will never be the same person again; the unruly mind may break its peace and obliterate its vision; but it is bound to return, provided the non-effort of relaxation and ease is sustained; until the day when all bonds are broken, delusions and attachments end, and life becomes supremely concentrated in the present.

Matt Kay said...

Love your blog. Love your writing. I have for years, since the first book of poesy - 20+ years ago. I have a signed copy of Absolute Event Horrizon. Hanging out a bit with the poet Paul Hardacre here in Chiang Mai - another very fine Australian poet (Paper Tiger Publishing). Got to know the Weil scholar Roy Finch (now dead) years ago who got me reading Weil. The quote in the blog reminds me of Nisargadatta - forgive me for quoting at length, but I think the similarities across culture and religion are striking (the bit at the end is my own addition which I could help!): Just look away from all that happens in your mind and bring it to the feeling "I am". The "I am" is not a direction. It is the negation of all direction. Ultimately even the "I am" will have to go, for you need not keep on asserting what is obvious. Bringing the mind to the feeling "I am" merely helps in turning the mind away from everyting else. When the mind is kept away from its preoccupations, it becomes quiet. If you do not disturb this quiet and stay in it, you find that it is permeated with a light and a love you have never known; and yet you recognize it at one as your own nature. Once you have passed through this experience, you will never be the same person again; the unruly mind may break its peace and obliterate its vision; but it is bound to return, provided the non-effort of relaxation and ease is sustained; until the day when all bonds are broken, delusions and attachments end, and life becomes supremely concentrated in the present. (Then, go out and LIVE the fullness of desire. Because life was never meant to be lived on pause!)

Totem said...

Dear Matt,
Thanks for this comment. And no, please don't apologise for quoting at length! That's a beautiful quote. It also reminds me of how shonky my meditation practise has been of late - and how I need to address that. What is it that makes my default state a kind of attraction to chaos and static electricity. It's so easy to fall into a kind of low-grade generalised distractedness; and yet it's not what I want. Give me the happy "non-'I-am'" of sheer presence, any day. Oh, and flow. Do you live in Chiang Mai? I was there for three months in around 1998. It was a great time -- lonely, but incredible. For a couple of weeks in the middle of all the isolation I met, and had an intense romance with, a Danish girl. The impetus for "Totem" sprang from that encounter, and the opening pages of "Totem Poem" are very specifically about her, the situation, northern Thailand etc. Well, metaphysically speaking. I just googled Roy Finch, curious. Is it Henry Le Roy Finch, who wrote a book called "Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace"? If not, what a beautiful coincidence. If so, great. I like how stripped back and mythic Paul Hardacre's work is. Reminds me somehow (an odd link, on the surface) of Geoffrey Hill, when he's at his most stripped back.