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On Diligence

June 12th, 2020 | 13 min read

By Tara Isabella Burton

I was the sort of teenager who studied too much Latin. I was homeschooled, then, and lonely. We lived in Rome. I had no friends. I read books off my mother’s shelves for most subjects — textbooks, and Madame Bovary, and, for sex-ed, Henry Miller. I cycled around ruins. I had a Latin tutor — the only subject I did not do online — and she had me come with her to the Roman Forum to recite the First Oration Against Cataline at the rostra, which I was mortified to do at the time, and which — fifteen years later — I regret not having fully appreciated at the time.

Anyway, I was lonely, and read too much, and too much Latin in particular, and I took in a desperately literary way to etymology. It was not a particularly academic approach to the discipline. I was reading a lot of Nabokov, too, and a lot of Jeannette Winterson, and a lot of other linguistically playful books that were really, at their core, about the playfulness of sex (I both did and did not understand this), and the part that I took away, from all of my reading, was the idea that you could look closely at a word and see its meaning, hidden. You could hold it up, cleave it, look at the shards, get to the core of things that way.

In this way I learned that passion meant suffering, deep down, and that decadence (I also read a lot of Oscar Wilde) meant a fall. I learned that there was something distinctly erotic about the untrustworthiness implied in meretricious (from meretrix, meretricis, a prostitute). I learned that ecstasy meant standing outside, as in, to be out of one’s own self, which is something that I — so conscious, always, of my internal narrative voice, could never achieve. And I learned the different kinds of love, none of which I’d ever properly experienced, the difference between amo (loving, simply) and adamo (loving-toward, an intensifier by direction), between ardor (burning) and diligence (choosing).

Anyway, diligence, as a concept, bored me. I was sure that diligence was a dull and quotidian thing (another word I liked, because it embodied all I did not like). It did not involve fire, or suffering, or standing-outside, or even sex. It did not seem to involve genius or inspiration or enthusiasm: or any other concept that suggested, however obliquely, the presence of some divinity entering into the world, making it new. Diligent love sounded mortal, ordinary, like growing up and settling down. It sounded like doing the dishes.

I have forgotten how much I used to love words, in that particular and particularly childlike way. It is different, now — I am almost thirty, I am a working writer, I am accustomed now to thinking of word counts and word rates, more accustomed than I would like to thinking relentlessly of content. Even in my fiction — the plot thrashed onward — I forget to halt.

I am by temperament scatty, even at the best of times. I fidget. Two days ago I leaned down in the hallway to pick up a pair of socks I had left there, and picked up instead one sock and — inexplicably — part of a bicycle lock I’d left on the hall table, and did not notice I had done it until my husband pointed it out to me. I do not meditate on conjugations, anymore, or at least not without a conscious effort.

Of course, as a word-sick fifteen-year-old, I did not know that what I was doing then was in fact diligence: in its most literal sense. I did not realize that my etymological practice, however jejune, was at its core a work of love. I was lonely, and like many lonely teenagers I had books for friends, and this friendship I showed precisely through the rapt and studied attention I otherwise reserved for the rare teenage crush, whose class schedule I would memorize, and whose AIM Away Message I would mine for clues. The form of attention I paid to the words in the books I love was, in that sense, romantic. It was attentiveness in its truest sense: a consecration of my time; a dedication of my space; a narrowing of the world’s possibilities until one word, and one word only, revealed a complexity so inexhaustible that there needed be something outside it.

To attend to something, after all (this I would have known at fourteen, at once, and forgot with them), is to listen (e.g.; double entendre); it is to be present (to attend a reception at the home of…); it is, above all things, to tend to, to stretch toward, to grow — the way plants do — toward the light.

We do not speak often of this kind of love. At least, I did not read about it in Henry Miller.

When we speak of diligence we speak of bureaucratic qualities, necessary but unimpressive ones: competence, punctuality, or else the due diligence of corporate custom. We forget its etymology. We forget its associations with love. Diligence, even in its amorous sense, is often unglamorous. It promises no bended knee, no roaring martyrdom, no tomb-set murder-suicide. It promises no action at all. What it promises, rather, is attention: nothing more, and nothing less. It is the love of selection: to set apart one beloved thing from all the rest, to narrow the limitless sphere of our god-like contemplation from the whole world, in the generic, to a single particular, which we trust will be enough. It is the love of deciding: of forestalling the more, of foreswearing all others.

When we talk of attention in 2020, we tend to do so in monetary terms. We live, after all, in the attention economy, in which our energies, our clicks, our page-views, our time-spent-on-page, can be translated seamlessly into monetary terms: the writer of A article gets B dollars because C people have shared it; the owner of X company pays Y dollars to advertise on the sidebar of article Z. We create our personae to attract a mate, to get a job, to burnish a personal brand that will in turn command the attention of others. We craft narratives and crowdfund for them. Attention is a commodity: something we spend like a paycheck. (It is, after all, something we pay).

But there is, too, another understanding of the term: not attention as something we have, an established supply we can draw down upon or replenish, but as a means by which we give of ourselves: by which we can limit not our capacity for seeing but rather our own field of vision, our own set of options: attention-as-self-delimiting. It is that kind of attention that borders on mysticism.

So, for example, the philosopher Simone Weil, who in her 1942 essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” envisions prayer as the ultimate form of attention: a focus away from the self, and upon the Good. In directing our attention outward, away from our own broken selves, and our own self-serving narratives of self-making, we are able to apprehend the world (including our place in it) more truly.

Outward attention confronts us with far more truth about our own selves than navel-gazing indulgence: situating us in a world at which we are not its center. “But, in spite of all appearances, it is also far more difficult. “There is something in our soul which has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue,” Weil writes. “This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves. If we concentrate with this intention, a quarter of an hour of attention is better than a great many good works.”

So too Iris Murdoch, who describes a similar dynamic of attention in “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts.” We live, Murdoch writes, in the philosophical age of the Kantian “man-God”: under the sovereignty of our own consciousness: “still, free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy…the ideal citizen of the liberal state.” And yet, Murdoch tells us, “We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.” And yet, outward attention toward something in itself, (Murdoch uses the example of studying Russian), “leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny, or make unreal.” Self-forgetting, Murdoch argues, is not a kind of anti-worldly-mysticism, but rather the only mechanism by which we perceive the real: “to perceive justly.” The move is not ascetic but kenotic.

We come down from our pillars and join the world as it is, rather than as it appears through the veil of our own recursive self-narration. We can act more ethically in part because we see more clearly; we have cultivated our capacity to exist, rather than to describe our own existence. “The love which brings the right answer” to a complicated ethical question, Murdoch writes, “is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking.”

I do not pretend to be very good at this kind of attention. I could blame Twitter, or my iPhone, or my work in new media, or else the inherent cynicism of adulthood, by which time we have so many sins in our rearview mirror that we must spend the bulk of our waking hours reviewing them, and putting them in their place. But the truth is that the mind is as weak as the flesh is, and I have not done a very good job of training it.

It has taken the erosion of my capacity for diligence to see how much greater than ardor it is.

My husband is a diligent man. He is, whether by training or temperament, far more attentive than I am. It is one of the qualities in him I love most. He practices care in such an alien way. When he cooks, he dices onions into salt-sized crystals. (I have never managed to successfully slice an onion longwise). He conjugates not just Latin but Greek. He uses coasters. He notices typos. He remembers stories I told him the third time we met, more than two years ago. Sometimes I run up to him in a panic, convinced that an unrecognized mole I’ve discovered on my collarbone is new and therefore cancerous, and he reminds me that it has been there the whole time.

We were friends for quite a few years before I discovered I was in love with him, and had been for far longer than I had realized, in part because I realized I paid him attention. We spoke slowly together, to be sure we did not miss or misconstrue one another’s meaning. We went to the opera together, once, as friends, and I did not pay any attention to what we were seeing, because I was too busy charting the precise reactions of his breath, his posture, what moments in Tchaikovsky he attended to most; where he applauded and where he waited. I learned that night that he does not applaud at the end of arias, as most people do, not even the very showy ones, but only at the ends of scenes. I asked him about it, afterwards, and whether it was intentional, and although he was surprised that I’d noticed he admitted that he did not like to arrest the flow of the music, even when everybody else did. That is a truth about him I would never otherwise have known. We were married a few months after that.

He always checks the backs of the dishes when he washes them.

I watch him, sometimes, when he is grading his students’ work, on our sofa. I watch him read, so slowly, and I watch him consider, precisely, what he wants to say to each of them, and pick out the words he wants to use, and this is how I know he loves them, too.

If you had told me, when I was fifteen, that I would marry a diligent man, I would have been appalled. It would have been a culmination of the inevitable narrative that I, at fifteen, was convinced I would avoid which is that you spend your twenties ardet and amat and adamat and in ecstasy and in imitations of passion and then after a period of saturated decadence you fall into something quite ordinary and routine, and settle for that instead.

Liturgically-minded Christians, such as we are, have a concept known as ordinary time. Ordinary in the sense of ordinal, as in numbers, as in the second Sunday after, it is the period in the liturgical year that is not Eastertide, or Advent, or Lent. The altar-cloths are green, in those weeks. We do not commemorate, in these periods, specific elements in Christ’s birth, death, or resurrection. Christ’s life, rather, suffuses them: the everyday miracles he worked, in the community in which he lived, the people whom he encountered, who knew him as their neighbor, as a man. These weeks are no less a part of Christian life, for being outside the better-known tides. God is man in them, too: not just a man, or capital-m Man, but rather a particular human being, with a particular birth, who ate particular things for breakfast, and who did particular dishes, in a particular way.

He was a carpenter’s son, after all.

I imagine the furniture he built lasted.

In quarantine, because we do not have very much else to do, my husband and I have taken to a very particular game. We go on long walks and bike rides around Manhattan, and we stop to look at all the passing dogs (we both love dogs) we can no longer approach to pet. We watch them pass up, and we try to come up with the precise word for what it is they are doing. Some dogs lope, you see, and some dogs amble. Some dogs trot and some dogs pad and some amble and some gambol and some lumber and some very small and eager ones prance. There is a whole world of difference, in the way dogs move, if you only attend to it. You could spend your whole life looking at dogs, walking up and down the Upper East Side, and elucidating their particularities. So too words. So too dishes. So too the person you love.

After all, God does it with sparrows.

There is a poem I like, which I did not read at fifteen, and would probably not have understood if I had. It is by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is a Catholic poet, and who like Nabokov played with words a lot, and who made a point of doing so because the point of language, after all (so he said), is to render the word scandalous: to trip you up, as you thrash onward on the road of your life, and make you stop and look around you. “As kingfishers catch fire,” he writes, “dragonflies draw flame,” and he writes of all the glory of God in the world. The language is difficult. You have to read it a few times to make sense of lines like “each hung bell’s/Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” You might even have to memorize it. It is inexhaustible. But then again, if you look closely enough, everything is.

“Christ,” Hopkins concludes, “plays in ten thousand places/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

I would like to say that I remember this, every time I do the dishes. I don’t, of course. Usually when I am doing the dishes I am thinking about my work, or the food I am about to eat, or Twitter. But, to do the dishes diligently, I probably should.

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