What Are You Going Through?

On July 26, 2020 by admin

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Prasanta Chakravarty

 

Secretum meum mihi: the absence of reticence among many modern writers, the taste for autobiography and confession, the habit of admitting the public to the innermost recesses of an intimacy stripped of all reserve have never failed to surprise and scandalize me.”

~ Gustave Thibon (Introduction to Gravity and Grace)

 

A human body that has surrendered to gravity, and therefore has experienced free fall, is a strange creature—at once a corpse and a throbbing entity. Her will, desire, or outcome is irrelevant once the inevitable routine for the fall is initiated. The significant aspect for the creature in the clutches of force is that even with some kind of a harness, gravity does not go away. Its presence lurks about.  A body under gravity realizes that it is subject to forces that are beyond its mastery. The universe, as it were, enters into the body in pain. How do we become mindful of such primal vulnerability without immediately seeking protection that refuses to arrive? Can we sustain corporeal integrity by resisting free fall? Isn’t such falling as natural as the falling of ripe fruits, water, or a meteor? And then the final act of gravity: to be pulverized into utter oblivion.

Gravity is an edict.

As a response to this conundrum about force, an astounding  claim has been made by Weil scholar  J. Heath Atchley: “If one could learn to live with the body rather than in it—if one were body through and through rather than a kind of ghost occupying an empty shell—would not that change things, somehow?”  Or, in Weil’s own words: “One does not consent to [affliction] with abandon, but with a violence exerted on the entire soul by the entire soul.” This is the sense we get when Weil refers to the soul-killing lacerating force that is manual labour. There is no explanation as to why the labourer was selected for such crushing alienation in thus eking out her life. As a manual worker, Weil herself was left “in pieces, soul and body . . . the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. . . . There [in the factory] I received forever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave.” Henceforth, to be marked to lead a life of the afflicted suffuses all her thoughts and pronouncements about love, fairness and justice in a world that is at once callously ruthless and also fated to affliction. Beings are at once perpetrators and sufferers.

 

The Quartering of the Self

Fated affliction is one of the faces of the divine. The other face is love. But there is a process of labour through which one might touch such grace. Weil gives it the name of attention.  How might attention look like?  Here is a clue how Weil thinks about the subject—

“Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it”

One can detect in the passage the playing out of two movements. The attentive being awaits the object of its attention to penetrate its body and soul. The being itself does not have any agency by which it can petition the object of attention so that it could be granted grace gratis. Instead, grace, if it ever appears, must surprise the beseecher. The other factor is even more crucial: the seeker does not actively seek, but her mind is receptive to waiting.  Waiting is the emptying of the self, a manner of ‘spiritual quartering.’ For naked truth to shine forth, grace must penetrate the soul of the receptor, but the receptor herself must remain passive. Using knowledge for understanding has nothing to do with attention. The key is to suspend all thought. Readiness to receive grace means cultivating a kind of severe lateral vision like the man atop the mountain— simultaneously looking forward and below.

Such passivity is required in order to counter our self-centeredness, which hopes to protect itself from the privations of body and soul. In such a state, one begins to see things only as one wants to see them or give in to a condition of fear and insecurity.  Weil says:

“The principal claim we think we have on the universe is that our personality should continue. This claim implies all the others. The instinct of self-preservation makes us feel this continuation to be a necessity, and we believe that a necessity is a right. We are like the beggar who said to Talleyrand: “Sir, I must live,” and to whom Talleyrand replied, “I do not see the necessity for that.”

I live by constantly inserting my personality in the world of relevance. To the world that is of little significance. Is there a way to reverse this process and speak incidentally of myself? Attention is this process by which we turn outside, away from our selves. It requires us to alter the direction of our heed and awareness. Attention makes us face the world on an altered gradient. What might we direct our visages to?

The act of love is the highest form of attention.  In love the creature is gratuitous and generous to the point of being disinterested, oblivious to the presence of the infinite.  Is attention that aspect of one’s being which is not tied anymore to the vagaries of necessity for it has already tasted its severity? And what is the proper object of attention?  That infinite object is certainly God. But Weil is not a believer. She refused to be baptized. In fact, she makes an untimely differentiation: “the Gospel contains a conception of human life, not a theology” This is a negative way of reaching the infinite. Susan Anima Taubes has drawn our attention to an agonizing paradox where “God, however negatively conceived, explains the world, explains the nothingness of God in the world.”  As a heterodox thinker, Weil shuns all dogma as exclusionary and resistant to individual mystical practice. She calls herself—anathema sit, one who is not allowed to enter the Church. She has decided to stay outside of dogma since she believes there is much to appreciate outside of any settled creed, which is also a world full of things that God loves: the heresies of true brotherhood, practices of other cultures, the spirit of humanism.

Is the infinite object a form of Goodness then? Again, Weil does not wish to skirt tormenting forms of Evil in order to prematurely touch the Good. There is nothing like an absolute and ultimate Good but there are contingent forms of Goodness that abounds around us. One cannot take a leap unto the Good by espousing some kind of penitent, frugal living, or by forcing oneself to conduct good acts. Is attention then a kind of frame of mind and body, a temper that helps us transcend the immediate by being intensely mired within the tableaux of the fleeting forms of the immediate? Is it a realization that all things that are brought about are not through purpose but through necessity? Impersonal causes of an inflexible order reign in the cosmos. And like a pendulum, the infinite oscillates between gravity and grace.

But if the infinite is the object that does not correspond to the reality of existence, how does one come to fix attention on to it, howsoever passive that might be? Here is the paradox about the infinite object: through absence it manifests itself.  Humans speak to and can hear God, the Good or the infinite grace of Love only by waiting limitlessly. In the temporal realm of destitution where crushing gravity rules, man begins to communicate with the infinite as two prisoners signal each other by knocking on either side of the wall. The wall separates them but also allows them to converse with each other. The absent presence of the infinite displays man’s true vocation.  But it is only through the crushing force of gravity that we are able to glimpse the infinite; not by being overtly pietistic. Attention is not a project. It is consent to nothing, which is another name for acute concentration. It involves the painstaking process of relentless digging at one’s soul so that one is able to come closer to apprehending totality, the world as a whole.

Every separation is a link.

Attention is a calling. It brings us within the ambit of our necessary connections and throws aside all extraneous forms of distraction.  And there is an essential porosity between the unconditioned object of attention and one who is in quest. Such is the intensity of attachment in the quester-perceptor that she is released from the object of attention altogether.  She is released as soon as she has put herself in the tracks of attention. But giving in to attention is hardly a benign or neutral process. Sharon Cameron, the Weil scholar, has most incisively examined the nature of a certain clinical and uncompromising violence done to one’s own self when it is led through the stages of attention. It is only a severe and lucid commitment to attention that allowed Weil the ability to resist suicide at different points in her life. The difficulty lies in the fact that such a depth perception through which the ego reduces its heft is so alien to the mental processing capacity that we flinch from meeting it in Weilian terms, even as we acknowledge her honesty and clarity of vision.

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Renouncing What Never Existed

Being attentive is the first step towards decreation.  To Weil, attention is foremost a practice (which has little to do with fastings or keeping vigils), to be cultivated for fulfillment. And the cultivation of attention is a naturalistic process. But how can cultivation be natural? The process involves a productive contradiction. From the side of the afflicted, the first step towards being attentive is to train oneself to turn irrelevant my gradually annihilating excesses of the self.  The second step is to wait: so that one is ready to receive the grace of infinity and with it, a sense of total order.  Denuding of the self is a meditative process. Cameron makes a subtle point not just about the process of decreation but about the proper attitude towards relinquishing self-hood: “Weil is constantly dramatizing the relation between these two nonequivalent positions—preserving an I that is nothing at all, renouncing an I that never existed.” What does it entail when she refers to the turning of our visage to the infinite? One way to think about the subtraction of the ego is to pledge to correct an error because all that exists is actually non-being. This will be a mode of gathering and preserving the self—a position that is not attentive to the godhead of goodness. Such a mode is rather about following one’s personal thoughts, which is a mechanical way to address mere grievance. Grievance has nothing to do with affliction. The other way to consider the issue is to realize that the question of the self does not even arise if one is to renounce selfhood that never ever existed in the first place.  Attention always penetrates the limits of personal thoughts. In such a state, the afflicted body, battered by force, simply waits. Grace may or may not arrive. That is all. The process of decreation begins here.

The other half of denuding pertains to the infinite and its responsibility to the beseecher. That is the reason we cannot pin-point its existence since the infinite cannot be restricted nor can its advent be predicted. But the infinite gets progressively reduced to nothingness, much like the self on the other side.  The facelessness of the infinite not only makes its arrival absolutely contingent; it also means that the denuded self cannot expect any consolation for affliction from such a reduced entity. The attention of the quester-perceptor has to be that much more naturally unfocussed so that it can prepare itself for such a power to arrive. To experience free fall is to be ‘like a fly against a pane.’ Affliction is compelling but it does not have any explanatory form so that there could be any possibility of easing. The relationship between the decreated and the afflicted selves are now in a suspended state.  But the divided selves continue to converse with each other like the prisoners in two adjacent cells. The dull sting of affliction persists even as the self alters its facing. In the eloquent words of Cameron: “we are up against what harms, without grasping the harm and also without escaping it.”

The idea of well-being is alien to Weil. Well-being cannot address a hallucinatory I. Rather, in order to meet the torment head-on, Weil recalls the words of Paul Valery—

A difficulty is a light. An insuperable difficulty is a sun.

To look directly at the source of insuperable difficulty is the only possibility to emerge from its tentacles. Only by tearing out all energy is one washed with light. Like the sun, force irradiates us with naked light and ferries us to a concentrated state of attention. We cannot circumvent its righteous glare. As the afflicted faces its torment, her orientation changes forever. As she considers her own change of fortune and its relationship with other lives, she begins to stand outside of perspectives and viewpoints. Weil calls such a state of turning anonymous. This is also a foundational state—one of discovery.

 

Rudiments of Attention

Weil provides a few fine and rudimentary examples for cultivating such a state. One such might be deduced from the following passage:

A little child who sees something bright is so totally absorbed in his love for the shiny object that his whole body leans towards it and he quite forgets it is beyond his reach…A child does not will to obtain the bright object or the milk, he makes no plans forgetting them; he simply desires, and cries.

Absorption is here reflected in the form of pure bodily inclination. Attention is a tendency, an alteration of posture. The leaning happens not owing to any will or plan on the part of the child. She simply desires the object. And her attention is so focused that she forgets that the bright object or the milk is beyond her reach. Hence, she begins to cry. But this is not a wail that manifests any hurt. Crying is the child’s prayer; a gesture of complete concentration for her object of desire. In order to attain the object, she has even forgotten the reach and limits of her little muscles. She must only learn to wait until the shiny object comes to her eventually.

The second example pertains to school studies like geometry problems or Latin lessons—initiatory but demanding forms of mental exercise.  In order to achieve the goal of mastering such problems, the pupil must be absolutely concentrated in her attention, be like someone in meditative prayer.  Such anatomy of training does not depend on the outcome. The very effort is rewarding in the sense that such a form of elementary concentration shows us the value of unalloyed attention that we might give our object of study.  We begin to develop an intrinsic interest in matters that occupy us.  Weil specifically says that such a form of attention goes beyond will power. It has nothing to do with the ‘stiffening of the muscles’ that makes us exert over success. We have to learn to wait until the solution to the geometry problem flashes before our mind’s eye.  Is such school exercising a form of the sacrament? Cameron has named this mode a kind of negative effort, something that keeps us away from tiredness or suffering.  This is what guardians actually mean when they ask young ones to be ‘attentive in class.’ It connotes submersion in the force of the problem that is at hand by keeping aside our instrumental selves for the time being. This is the starting point of effacing all peripheral concerns and getting rid of the pangs of primary narcissism.

The other instance of attention pertains to our behavior with the neighbour. Weil feels that one should be impelled towards one’s neighbour by the infinite.

The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say, What are you going through?

Weil and her brother Andre were greatly moved by the suffering of the soldiers in the First World War. At the age of five, she stopped eating sugar since the soldiers did not have access to such luxury.  The siblings would send letters, chocolate treats, and Easter eggs to the soldiers—their adopted godchildren.  At this time both decided not to wear knee-socks any more even at the coldest of months. This attention towards our neighbours, in quietly asking what they are going through is at the heart of all revolutions and transformations. This is how one tries to reach the source of the affliction of the persecuted, the scavenger, the migrant, the mutilated warrior, all who are daily humiliated—by placing soul upon the soul.  We change the relationship with the world as we approach our neighbour in the way a workman-apprentice changes his relationship with his tools. Loving one’s neighbour does not mean there is equal love for everyone. It rather implies that we initiate and nurture a relationship with the neighbour the way we do with the seasons and the stars. An attentive relationship with my neighbour is an exchange of vital matter in which both sides bathe.  Neighbourliness affirms the rhythm of life.

Weil is however alive to the fact that to be captivated by the object of our attention (geometry, the neighbour, beloved) does not mean a captivation of it. Denuding of the self is not the submission of self to the object of attention. Waiting for the infinite is not a state of enslavement.  The process is two way: the master also waits for the beseecher.  Attention is not bondage—though Weil sometimes comes close to it (“he will have become different, after being eaten and digested by God”).  Nor is it an ensnarement. This crucial question is how affliction or the working of force on our body and soul can be converted into attention.  Is the very separation from the object of attention also a possibility that can lead to inseparability: every separation is a link. Affliction is thus inextricably bound to love.  But the link is not constitutive of each other. I have no choice in being stunned and rendered immobile by the casual cruelty of the beloved-tormentor. But I have every choice to give myself to the love of my tormentor. Betrayals and devastations cannot transcend the afflicted as long as she is attentive to the creaturely condition as such. It is only that one must pass through such extreme points of devastation in order to gain clarity. Therefore Weil—

When the attention fixed upon something has revealed the contradiction in it…a sort of unsticking process takes place…Each thing that we desire is in contradiction with the conditions or the consequences attaching to that thing. . . . Contradiction is our wretchedness, and the feeling of our wretchedness is the feeling of reality. For our wretchedness is not something that we concoct. It is something truly real. That is why we must love it. All the rest is imaginary.

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The Green Emerald

When a contradiction cannot be resolved except by resorting to a lie, we are truly in front of a door, Weil says. The excruciating contradiction cannot be solved. But solving is merely an imaginary dispelling of a paralyzing condition. Attention is not interested in understanding a problem—like in geometry. To be attentive, we recall, is to be decrepit— to be able to remain in a state of immersion within the contradictory and the infinite. One comes to the infinite in spite of oneself, not voluntarily.  In many ways, Weil tries to impress upon us that only after privation and disorientation can endurance arrive. And eventually: fusion with the object of our attention which is also, paradoxically, sometimes the source of our affliction. The conditions of the real—wretchedness—cannot be transcended by an imaginary I, by means of skirting affliction. One must rather convert one’s inevitable bondage to force into freedom. And yet in that freedom one is left out and excommunicated—anathema sit.

Difficulty lies in the relation between “being insensible to every kind of grief and joy” and being “sensible to all the nuances of grief and joy.”

Weil does not give us the exact contours of decreation. She provides us certain oracular utterances through her aphoristic and denuded writings.  Like when she says. “I am God’s abdication. The more I exist, the more God abdicates. So if I take God’s side rather than my own I ought to regard my existence as a diminution, a decrease.” One is reminded how she took to George Herbert’s poem Love (1633) and would recite that again and again at various points in her life, devoting all her attention to the tender phrases of the poem. Herbert’s poems taught her the value of abdicating and submitting “to the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” Abdication is a relational obligation.  One consents to abdicate so that others can be.  The uncreated part of our existence is not autonomous. It belongs to the infinite. The rest is the created weight of the being. Decreation is the conversion of the created part of our being to the uncreated. We begin to shear off the weight of our care and prepare ourselves for the great gift to arrive as we face the truth. Those who have already faced truth either joyously by means of love or have been brought to bear terrible forms of truth by confronting and enduring force, have begun the journey of decreation.  Weil describes decreation as consent to stay anonymous and die—to submit wholeheartedly to fortune and necessity. The infinite presents us with two faces: love and necessity, Weil would say many times. Decreation is our orientation to these faces, an acknowledgment of the relationships that exist independently of us. It is not about accepting our utter vulnerability when facing love or destruction, but the acknowledgment that there is something, someone more important than us. In the process, all traces of the self are gradually obliterated. Grace means to be able to live with neighbours as one wakes to the sun and the birds every morning. Decreation is the consent to being a creature.

God loves, not as I love, but as an emerald is green…And I too, if I were in the state of perfection, would love as an emerald is green.

To be able to say “What are you going through?” means to love as an emerald is green.

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