on undoing the self and paying attention

Excerpted from this post at Wine, Women and Philosophy:

… And aren’t unsettling folk just like that? You think you’ve done them, ticked them off, when suddenly, you’re back to square one… This other quagmire into which we had unwittingly waded – the actual technicalities involved in “undoing the creature in us” so as to successfully “decreatea la Weil – required our immediate attention.

And so, spurred on by Anne Carson’s insight into how to go about actually paying attention – “Attention is a choice of where you put your mind…And looking at the object of your attention to the extent that you forget you’re doing the looking” – we embarked on a series of exercises designed to both instruct us on the ins and outs of destroying the “I,” and sharpen our skills in the attentiveness department.

Of course, there was a lot of preliminary discussion as to whether destroying the “I” was a desirable thing in the first place. In a sense, that Weilian notion of carving out a void in the space where the self normally resides goes counter to the rah-rah-be-your-biggest-and-best-self kind of rhetoric on offer in Self-Esteem for Dummies etc. In a culture where Self reigns Supreme, doing away with it is unnerving at best, terrifying at worst – even if this negation is, as Weil contends, a necessary move if one is to fully open oneself to Truth and Knowledge and Whatever Else Truly Matters.

For the self gets in the way. Like a shadow, it blocks out the light. Like unwanted baggage, it weighs you down. Like the elephant in the room, it takes up all the space. Clear the shadow, the baggage, the elephant, and you’re starting to get somewhere. A strange way to go about getting to the bottom of self-esteem, perhaps. But it seemed to offer something in the way of getting more out of life, and so we bit.

Simone Weil suffered from terrible migraines. She tried many ways of clearing them out of her head, but nothing seemed to work. One thing she knew for sure was that they got in the way of her being able to turn her full attention to what mattered. In April 1938 she found herself attending the Easter Mass at the Abbeye St-Pierre in Solesmes. She felt the Gregorian chanting of the monks enter her body, go straight to the space in her head filled with migraine. As the chanting poured in, her migraine did a peculiar thing: it emptied out. Soon, the space formerly known as migraine was awash with Gregorian Chant. It was a space rendered ready for paying attention: for “a patient holding in the mind,” as Weil referred to the act of paying attention, which in turn would make thought itself “available, empty, penetrable by the object.”

This is a radical take on the role of thought in the life of the mind: not the light bulb switching on as it encounters its object, but rather, the necessary conditions for the object to come to light. In Weil’s conception, thought must be suspended if the object of one’s attention is to find its way in, gain a proper foothold. If thought is busy thinking, the object just passes it by. If thoughtfulness hasn’t twinned itself up with attentiveness, the best we can hope for when it comes to thinking is a worrying – Weil would go so far as to say dangerous – mishmash of “partial attitudes.”

That, at least, is the theory. We obviously needed to put ourselves in Weil’s shoes to grasp what it felt like in practice. And so we experimented with filling our heads with the self-same Gregorian chants that had so impacted Weil, and making of the resulting void a luminous object-ready nesting ground. Yah, right. Weil, as I suggested earlier, was unsettling: not your average, run-of-the-mill, kind of gal.

But we gave it a go, and then turned our attention to other aural stimuli: a metronome’s steady tick-tocking, which brought the Weilian notion of time as “unvarying perpetuity” into the equation; a wind-up music box with its twirling ballerina and its ever-decelerating ditty, which prompted us to probe yet further how time, if invariably monotonous for Weil, could helpfully be categorized as either “time surpassed” – as in here comes the void, which is good monotonous – or as “time sterilized” – as in me just going round and round like “a squirrel turning it its cage” and never getting anywhere near the void, much less admitting to myself that I am going round and round (which for Weil is the worst sin of all, this kind of self-delusion) and which is, not surprisingly, bad monotonous.

This seemed as good a queue for a song as we were likely to get, so we broke out Anne Carson’s Duet of What is a Question from her Weil-inspired opera in three parts, Decreation (2005), and gave it our valiant best. Improvising the vocal arrangements – Carson had only supplied the libretto – provided us with the perfect opportunity to pay attention to each other, and hone our deep listening skills. As for getting us closer to the void, we were still a little in the dark. Enter American poet Fanny Howe (b.1940) and her beautifully observed prose poem, Doubt.

If Baruch Spinoza is the physicists’ philosopher, Simone Weil, it would seem, is the poets’ philosopher. Though it is easy to understand why Weil speaks to poets like Carson and Howe, the writing that comes of their interest in her ideas and her personal narrative is as tantalizing and challenging as Weil herself.

Sometimes, though, what poetry gives us that philosophy cannot is a line of such stark and heart-breaking beauty that knowing what the void, for example, actually is, or what it is to make one or find it or get there no longer seems to matter. For a very brief moment, we just feel decreated – like the creature in us has unraveled, like we have completely come undone.

anne carson – every exit is an entrance (2005)

anne carsonI want to make a praise of sleep. Not as a practitioner—I admit I have never been what is called “a good sleeper” and perhaps we can return later to that curious concept—but as a reader. There is so much sleep to read, there are so many ways to read it. In Aristotle’s view, sleep requires a “daimonic but not a divine” kind of reading. Kant refers to sleep’s content as “involuntary poetry in a healthy state.”

Keats wrote a “Sonnet to Sleep,” invoking its powers against the analytic of the day:

O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
. . . Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

My intention in this essay is to burrow like a mole in different ways of reading sleep, different kinds of readers of sleep, both those who are saved, healthy, daimonic, good sleepers and those who are not. Keats ascribes to sleep an embalming action. This means two things: that sleep does soothe and perfume our nights; that sleep can belie the stench of death inborn in us. Both actions are salvific in Keats’ view. Both deserve (I think) to be praised.

My earliest memory is of a dream. It was in the house where we lived when I was three or four years of age. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in an upper room.

That I awoke and came downstairs and stood in the living room. The lights were on in the living room, although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. It was the same old living room as ever, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad.

Later in life, when I was learning to reckon with my father, who was afflicted with and eventually died of dementia, this dream recovered itself to me, I think because it seemed to bespeak the situation of looking at a well-known face, whose appearance is exactly as it should be in every feature and detail, except that it is also, somehow, deeply and glowingly, strange.

The dream of the green living room was my first experience of such strangeness and I find it as uncanny today as I did when I was three. But there was no concept of madness or dementia available to me at that time. So, as far as I can recall, I explained the dream to myself by saying that I had caught the living room sleeping. I had entered it from the sleep side.And it took me years to recognize, or even to frame a question about, why I found this entrance into strangeness so
supremely consoling. For despite the spookiness, inexplicability and later tragic reference of the green living room, it was and remains for me a consolation to think of it lying there, sunk in its greenness, breathing its own order, answerable to no one, apparently penetrable everywhere and yet so perfectly disguised in all the propaganda of its own waking life as to become in a true sense something incognito at the heart of our sleeping house.

It is in these terms that I wish to praise sleep, as a glimpse of something incognito. Both words are important. Incognito means “unrecognized, hidden, unknown.”

Something means not nothing. What is incognito hides from us because it has something worth hiding, or so we judge. As an example of this judgment I shall cite for you two stanzas of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Man-Moth.” The Man- Moth, she says, is a creature who lives most of the time underground but pays occasional visits to the surface of the earth, where he attempts to scale the faces of the buildings and reach the moon, for he understands the moon to be a hole at the top of the sky through which he may escape. Failing to attain the moon each time he falls back and returns to the pale subways of his underground existence.

Here is the poem’s third stanza:

Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him,
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions).
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.

The Man-Moth is not sleeping, nor is he a dream, but he may represent sleep itself—an action of sleep, sliding up the facades of the world at night on his weird quest. He harbours a secret content, valuable content, which is difficult to extract even if you catch him.

Here is the poem’s final stanza:

If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

To drink the tear of sleep, to detach the prefix “un-” from its canniness and from its underground purposes, has been the project of many technologies and therapies—from the ancient temple of Asklepios at Epidauros, where sick people slept the night in order to dream their own cure, to the psychoanalytic algebras of Jacques Lacan, who understands sleep as a space from which the sleeper can travel in two directions, both of them a kind of waking.

If I were to praise either of these methods of healing I would do so on grounds of their hopefulness. Both Asklepiadic priests and Lacanian analysts posit a continuity between the realms of waking and sleeping, whereby a bit of something incognito may cross over from night to day and change the life of the sleeper. Here is an ancient account of one of the sleep cures at Epidauros:

There came as a suppliant to the god Asklepios a man who was so one eyed that on the left he had only lids, there was nothing, just emptiness. People in the temple laughed at him for thinking he would see with an eye that was not there. But in a vision that appeared to him as he slept, the god seemed to boil some medicine and, drawing apart the lids, poured it in. When day came the man went out, seeing with both eyes.

What could be more hopeful than this story of an empty eye filled with seeing as it sleeps? An analyst of the Lacanian sort might say that the one-eyed man has chosen to travel all the way in the direction of his dream and so awakes to a reality more real than the waking world. He dove into the nothingness of his eye and is awakened by too much light. Lacan would praise sleep as a blindness, which nonetheless looks back at us.

What does sleep see when it looks back at us? This is a question entertained by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, a novel that falls asleep for twenty-five pages in the middle. The story has three
parts. Parts I and III concern the planning and execution of a trip to the lighthouse by the Ramsay family.

Part II is told entirely from the sleep side. It is called “Time Passes.” It begins as a night that grows into many nights then turns into seasons and years. During this time, changes flow over the house of the story and penetrate the lives of the characters while they sleep. These changes are glimpsed
as if from underneath; Virginia Woolf ’s main narrative is a catalogue of silent bedrooms, motionless chests of drawers, apples left on the dining room table, the wind prying at a window blind, moonlight gliding on floorboards. Down across these phenomena come facts from the waking world, like swimmers stroking by on a night lake. The facts are brief, drastic and enclosed in square brackets.

For example:

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
or:
[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]
or:
[Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.]

These square brackets convey surprising information about the Ramsays and their friends, yet they float past the narrative like the muffled shock of a sound heard while sleeping. No one wakes up. Night plunges on, absorbed in its own events. There is no exchange between night and its captives, no tampering with eyelids, no drinking the tear of sleep. Viewed from the sleep side, an empty eye socket is just a fact about a person, not a wish to be fulfilled, not a therapeutic challenge. Virginia Woolf offers us, through sleep, a glimpse of a kind of emptiness that interests her. It is the emptiness of things before we make use of them, a glimpse of reality prior to its efficacy.

Some of her characters also search for this glimpse while they are awake. Lily Briscoe, who is a painter in To the Lighthouse, stands before her canvas and ponders how “to get hold of that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything.”

In a famous passage of her diaries, Virginia Woolf agrees with the aspiration:

If I could catch the feeling I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.

What would the singing of the real world sound like? What would the thing itself look like? Such questions are entertained by her character Bernard, at the end of The Waves:

“So now, taking upon me the mystery of things, I could go like a spy without leaving this place, without stirring from my chair. . . . The birds sing in chorus; the house is whitened; the sleeper stretches; gradually all is astir. Light floods the room and drives shadow beyond shadow to where they hang in folds inscrutable. What does this central shadow hold? Something? Nothing? I do not know. . . .”

Throughout her fiction Virginia Woolf likes to finger the border between nothing and something. Sleepers are ideal agents of this work.

Read the rest of this brilliant essay: Every Exit is an Entrance from Anne Carson’s Decreation (2005).

simone weil – decreation

simone weil gravity and graceDecreation: to make something created pass into the uncreated. Destruction: to make something created pass into nothingness. A blameworthy substitute for decreation.

Creation is an act of love and it is perpetual. At each moment our existence is God’s love for us. But God can only love himself. His love for us is love for himself through us. Thus, he who gives us our being loves in us the acceptance of not being.

Our existence is made up only of his waiting for our acceptance not to exist. He is perpetually begging from us that existence which he gives. He gives it to us in order to beg it from us.

Relentless necessity, wretchedness, distress, the crushing burden of poverty and of labour which wears us out, cruelty, torture, violent death, constraint, disease—all these constitute divine love. It is God who in love withdraws from us so that we can love him. For if we were exposed to the direct radiance of his love, without the protection of space, of time and of matter, we should be evaporated like water in the sun; there would not be enough ‘I’ in us to make it possible to surrender the ‘I’ for love’s sake. Necessity is the screen set between God and us so that we can be. It is for us to pierce through the screen so that we cease to be.

There exists a ‘deifugal’ force. Otherwise all would be God.

An imaginary divinity has been given to man so that he may strip himself of it like Christ did of his real divinity.

Renunciation. Imitation of God’s renunciation in creation. In a sense God renounces being everything. We should renounce being something. That is our only good.

We are like barrels with no bottom to them so long as we have not understood that we have a base.

Elevation and abasement. A woman looking at herself in a mirror and  adorning  herself  does  not  feel  the  shame  of  reducing  the self, that infinite being which surveys all things, to a small space. In the same way every time that we raise the ego (the social ego, the  psychological  ego etc.)  as  high  as  we  raise  it,  we  degrade ourselves  to  an  infinite  degree  by  confining  ourselves  to  being no more than that. When the ego is abased (unless energy tends to raise it by desire), we know that we are not that.

A very beautiful woman who looks at her reflection in the mirror can very well believe that she is that. An ugly woman knows that she is not that.

Everything which is grasped by our natural faculties is hypothetical. It is only supernatural love that establishes anything. Thus we are co-creators.

We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves.

We only possess what we renounce; what we do not renounce escapes from us. In this sense, we cannot possess anything whatever unless it passes through God.

Catholic communion. God did not only make himself flesh for us once, every day he makes himself matter in order to give himself to man and to be consumed by him. Reciprocally, by fatigue, affliction and death, man is made matter and is consumed by God. How can we refuse this reciprocity?

He emptied himself of his divinity. We should empty ourselves of the false divinity with which we were born.

Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts  is  to  become  nothing.  It  is  for  this  that  we  suffer  with resignation, it is for this that we act, it is for this that we pray.

May God grant me to become nothing.

In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.

There is a resemblance between the lower and the higher. Hence slavery is an image of obedience to God, humiliation an image of humility, physical necessity an image of the irresistible pressure of grace, the saints’ self-abandonment from day to day an image of the frittering away of time among criminals, prostitutes, etc.

On this account it is necessary to seek out what is lowest, as an image.

May that which is low in us go downwards so that what is high can go upwards. For we are wrong side upward. We are born thus. To re-establish order is to undo the creature in us.

Reversal of the objective and the subjective.

Similarly, reversal of the positive and the negative. That is also the meaning of the philosophy of the Upanishads.

We are born and live in an inverted fashion, for we are born and live in sin which is an inversion of the hierarchy. The first operation is one of reversal—Conversion.

Except the seed die… It has to die in order to liberate the energy it bears within it so that with this energy new forms may be developed.

So we have to die in order to liberate a tied up energy, in order to possess an energy which is free and capable of understanding the true relationship of things.

The extreme difficulty which I often experience in carrying out the slightest action is a favour granted to me. For thus, by ordinary actions and without attracting attention, I can cut some of the roots of the tree. However indifferent we may be to the opinion of others, extraordinary actions contain a stimulus which cannot be separated from them. This stimulus is quite absent from ordinary actions. To find extraordinary difficulty in doing an ordinary action is a favour which calls for gratitude. We must not ask for the removal of such a difficulty: we must beg for grace to make good use of it.

In general we must not wish for the disappearance of any of our troubles, but grace to transform them.

For men of courage physical sufferings (and privations) are often a test of endurance and of strength of soul. But there is a better use to be made of them. For me then, may they not be that. May they rather be a testimony, lived and felt, of human misery. May I endure them in a completely passive manner. Whatever happens, how could I ever think an affliction too great, since the wound of an affliction and the abasement to which those whom it strikes are condemned opens to them the know- ledge of human misery, knowledge which is the door of all wisdom?

But  pleasure, happiness, prosperity, if  we  know  how  to recognize in them all that comes from outside (chance, circumstances, etc.), likewise bear testimony to human misery. They should be used in the same way. This applies even to grace, in so far as it is a sensible phenomenon.

We have to be nothing in order to be in our right place in the whole.

Renunciation demands that we should pass through anguish equivalent to that which would be caused in reality by the loss of all loved beings and all possession, including our faculties and attainments in the order of intelligence and character, our opinions, beliefs concerning what is good, what is stable, etc. And we must not lay these things down of ourselves but lose them—like Job. Moreover the energy thus cut off from its object should not be wasted in oscillations and degraded. The anguish should therefore be still greater than in real affliction, it should not be cut up and spread over time nor oriented towards a hope.

When the passion of love goes as far as vegetative energy, then we have cases like Phèdre, Arnolphe, etc.: ‘Et je sens là dedans qu’il faudra que je crève…’*

Hippolyte is really more necessary to the life of Phèdre, in the most literal sense of the word, than food.

In order that the love of God may penetrate as far down as that, nature has to undergo the ultimate violence. Job, the cross…

The love of Phèdre or of Arnolphe is impure. A love which should descend as low as theirs and yet remain pure… We must become nothing, we must go down to the vegetative level; it is then that God becomes bread.

If we consider what we are at a definite moment—the present moment, cut off from the past and the future—we are innocent. We cannot at that instant be anything but what we are: all progress implies duration. It is in the order of the world at this instant that we should be such as we are.

To isolate a moment in this way implies pardon. But such isolation is detachment.

There are only two instants of perfect nudity and purity in human life: birth and death. It is only when newly-born or on our death-bed that we can adore God in human form without sullying the divinity.

Death. An instantaneous state, without past or future. Indispensable for entering eternity.

If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought. And this knowledge is extended to our sensibility only through suffering and death.

Joy within God. Perfect and infinite joy really exists within God. My participation can add nothing to it, my non-participation can take nothing from the reality of this perfect and infinite joy. Of what importance is it then whether I am to share in it or not? Of no importance whatever.

Those who wish for their salvation do not truly believe in the reality of the joy within God.

Belief in immortality is harmful because it is not in our power to conceive of the soul as really incorporeal. So this belief is in fact a belief in the prolongation of life, and it robs death of its purpose.

The presence of God. This should be understood in two ways. As Creator, God is present in everything which exists as soon as it exists. The presence for which God needs the co-operation of the creature is the presence of God, not as Creator but as Spirit. The first presence is the presence of creation. The second is the presence of decreation. (He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent. Saint Augustine.)

God could create only by hiding himself. Otherwise there would be nothing but himself.

Holiness should then be hidden too, even from consciousness in a certain measure. And it should be hidden in the world.

Being and having. Being does not belong to man, only having. The being of man is situated behind the curtain, on the supernatural side. What he can know of himself is only what is lent him by circumstances. My ‘I’ is hidden for me (and for others); it is on the side of God, it is in God, it is God. To be proud is to forget that one is God… The curtain is human misery: there was a curtain even for Christ.

Job. Satan to God: ‘Doth he love Thee for thyself alone?’ It is a question of the level of love. Is love situated on the level of sheep, fields of corn, numerous children? Or is it situated further off, in the third dimension, behind? However deep this love may be there is a breaking-point when it succumbs, and it is this moment which transforms, which wrenches us away from the finite towards the infinite, which makes the soul’s love for God transcendent in the soul. It is the death of the soul. Woe to him for whom the death of the body precedes that of the soul. The soul which is not full of love dies a bad death. Why is it necessary that such a death should happen without distinction. It must indeed be so. It is necessary that everything should happen without distinction.

Appearance clings to being, and pain alone can tear them from each other.

For whoever is in possession of being there can be no appearance. Appearance chains being down.

Time in its course tears appearance from being and being from appearance by violence. Time makes it manifest that it is not eternity.

It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day.

It is necessary not to be ‘myself ’, still less to be ‘ourselves’.

The city gives us the feeling of being at home.

We must take the feeling of being at home into exile. We must be rooted in the absence of a place.

To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively.

To exile oneself from every earthly country.

To do all that to others, from the outside, is a substitute (ersatz) for decreation. It results in unreality.

But by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality

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*  ‘And I feel that I must die of it…”

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Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.