Rosalyn D'mello: Looking just a little beyond

Jun 01, 2018, 05:59 IST | Rosalyn D'mello

Travelling through Italy, a land saturated with art, has unfettered my world view, causing me to see even myself in new light

I have been writing letters to the late French philosopher Simone Weil for a few years, and my trip to Assisi was an attempt to be in an intimate space I knew for certain that she had inhabited. Representation pic
I have been writing letters to the late French philosopher Simone Weil for a few years, and my trip to Assisi was an attempt to be in an intimate space I knew for certain that she had inhabited. Representation pic

Rosalyn D'melloThis is definitely my last dispatch from Italy. At least for the moment, when there is still uncertainty about when I may return. I feel inspired enough to. I'm en route from Milan Centrale to Malpensa airport to catch my flight to Dubai, where I will stay for a little over a week, so I can catch up with my brothers' families.

I'm really excited about spending quality time with my nieces and my nephew before returning to India. I haven't thought further ahead about what happens when I am back home. I have been writing with a kind of furious passion. Without the distraction of overwork, of unmanageable deadlines, I felt able to really invest my energies in thought, and in cooking, which is a combination of thought and emotion, and I know I've gotten better at both.

I even had moments when I wondered if I was a better cook in Italy, because I had to allow myself to be creative despite the absence of ingredients I was used to, equipment I was used to. There was only one occasion when I cooked something that was mediocre. There is an explanation to justify its lack of flavour, but that is a secret I cannot tell you in the space of a column.

When I returned to Bolzano after my last leg of travel to Palermo and Roma, I began reading and writing with frenzy. I had forgotten how much fun it is to get lost in research, to wrestle with revelations, to make sense of complex thought, try to break it down into digestible units, like a mathematical problem. A lot of this research stems from my ongoing obsession with Simone Weil, the French philosopher who was born into a secular Jewish family, but found herself drawn towards Catholicism. I have been writing letters to her for a few years, and my trip to Assisi was an attempt to be in an intimate space I knew for certain that she had inhabited, the little Romanesque chapel within the church of St Mary of the Angels, where she felt impelled for the first time in her otherwise non-religious life to go on her knees and pray.

My re-enactment of her act of surrender made me think more squarely about the notion of attention, an element that proved pivotal to Weil's experience of mysticism. "Creative attention means really giving our attention to that which does not exist," she wrote once. "Humanity does not exist in the anonymous flesh lying inert by the roadside. The Samaritan who stops and looks gives his attention all the same for this absent humanity, and the actions which follow prove that it is a question of real attention." Weil reminds us of choice words by St Paul from Hebrews 11:1 — Faith is the evidence of things not seen. "In this moment of attention faith is present as much as love," she concludes.

It's easy to talk about love. It is a word so richly nuanced that even utterance of it is cloaked in abstraction. Its semantic structure is one that is coded in a vocabulary of gestures, in all that is non-verbal rather than that which is explicitly manifest. Which is perhaps why I'm drawn more to the idea of attention. Attention is a way of looking; a way of seeing something (even when it isn't visible), and thus a way of acknowledging some un-apparent fact. It's easier to love what one can see; and attention engenders a method of seeing. Weil suggests that love is the soul's looking. "It means we have stopped for an instant to wait and to listen."

I'm hoping to return home as a more attentive person. Something about all the sightseeing I've done has helped me hone my attentive skills in the absence of audio guides (because I'm too cheap). Italy was an apt place for me to have practised this whole act of looking, of seeing, given how much there was to look and see here, some of which I have catalogued, some of which exist as mental notes, as feelings, nuance.

My travel through this country will have ended in a few hours, but my engagement with it must continue further as I compile my notes and attempt narrative structure; find form. For the moment, thanks to Kathrin Oberrauch, who so generously has managed the residency I've been at (Eau & Gaz), I have the opportunity to create a small book premised on all the columns I have written while I was in Italy. I'm using it as a chance to evolve many of the thoughts I've only mentioned in passing because of word-count restrictions. It's liberating me from the notion of "the book" as something monumental. I am learning, slowly, through attentiveness, to see myself as much more than just a writer.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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