Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Some more words to live by

I’ve added a sentence from Simone Weil to the sidebar’s little gathering of Words to Live By. The sentence appears in a letter from Weil to the poet Joë Bousquet, April 13, 1942: “L’attention est la forme la plus rare et la plus pure de la générosité.” In translation: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” The sentence is widely available online in English, but with no indication of a source. An couple of hours in the library looking through a dozen or so Weil books was no help, and I began to wonder if Weil had indeed written these words. I finally found the source by translating the sentence into French and searching for that online. A snippet view in Google Books gave me the answer.

[Joseph Marie Perrin, Mon dialogue avec Simone Weil (1984). I found the 1942 date elsewhere.]

Weil’s sentence seems especially suited to early-twenty-first-century life. To pay attention, when so many things compete to distract us, is to make a gift of oneself. I present the sentence as standing on its own, detached from any larger relation to Weil’s thinking about prayer and the Godhead (in which the idea of attention played an important part).

For many years I had Weil’s sentence (in translation) on a little slip of paper taped to my office door. (It was one of many things taped to the door.) The sentence was once the subject of an amusing conversation with a student, who told me that The Site That Shall Not Be Named had a complaint about me that went something like this: “He makes you come to his office and he goes over your essay with you line by line.” The nerve! My student said that reading that complaint made him decide to take a course with me. Ha.

comments: 2

Fresca said...

I appreciate the attention you paid to finding the source of that quote--and how rewarding that it was truly Weil (as opposed to so many misattributed snippets).

Your student's complaint made me laugh out loud.

Michael Leddy said...

“Your student’s complaint made me laugh out loud.” Me too. I wish I’d known: I could have saved a chunk of time. :)