I was thinking about late Henry James after an exchange in the comments earlier this month when it occurred to me that the frame of mind I learnt to adopt while I was reading Wings of the Dove was something like Simone Weil's idea of attention --
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. All … faulty connection of ideas … all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth. The cause is always that we have wanted to be too active; we have wanted to carry out a search.
Waiting on God, translated by Emma Craufurd
-- that is -- regarding the book as a landscape and hovering over it rather than attacking -- attentively absorbent -- something that came naturally, after a while -- as if the book itself had caused it -- which it did, or we did, it and I, I and it, in partnership -- go too close to James, try to interpret severely, quickly, and behold, there's nothing there, the more forcefully you attack -- he writes the reverse of whatever is happening, the back of the tapestry -- so the way to explain a Dove or a Golden Bowl is to tell you what it doesn't say -- or take the first words of Roland Barthes' S/Z (translated by Richard Miller) : "There are said to be certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean."
-- and then Jane Gardam, coming at it from the opposite direction -- opposite of the reader -- the direction of the writer -- her preparation -- which is to not prepare -- but to hover --
"I don't have a story in my head to begin with," Gardam explains. "I vaguely know but I can't say more than that. I brood and think, apparently doing nothing for ages and then I write in a huge frenzy."
(Interview with Lucasta Miller)
Weil's attention -- perhaps a heightened and detached brooding -- a religious chicken in spectacles …