The deceased cultural critic understood that our attention is our highest gift
George Steiner died this week, aged 90. The polymathic literary and cultural critic was a holocaust survivor obsessed with high culture, who was always mining the relationship between goodness and art. He wrote in 1967 “We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”
I didn’t know much of his work, but learning about him this week I’m struck by how central attention was to this thinking. A review in the New York Times said “An intensity of outward attention — interest, curiosity, healthy obsession — was Steiner’s version of God’s grace. There is something both exalted and wonderfully mundane about that.”
Steiner loved and often wrote about the work of Simone Weil, another Jewish writer and critic who converted to Christianity. I have Weil’s quote ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” taped into my journal. She says, in Gravity and Grace:
Great religions have always taught that disciplining our attention, through prayer and contemplation, is central to the spiritual life.
Changes to our information environment have turned our attention into a commodity, in a way neither Steiner nor Weil would recognise. The phrase “pay attention”, with its monetary overtones, has never seemed more apt. Reports of the demise of the attention economy have been greatly exaggerated, and attempts to navigate our noisy, overwhelming and increasingly digital common lives seem set only to become more difficult. As a result, our attention is sapped away by brands and products, often to the detriment of the people in front of us.
Steiner’s insight, after the Holocaust, was that you can pay attention to the beauty of high art and not be humanised by it. The how, as well as the what is important. It is to Weil then, in her call to offer our conscious regard with generosity, to intentionally orientate our thoughts towards goodness, who we need to pay (or, better, give) our attention to.