Impersonal Beauty

December 31, 2013

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Simone Weil is most known for her writings on suffering, namely the capacity of affliction to dehumanize and make a person a thing (“If anyone wants to make himself invisible, there is no surer way than to become poor.”) Thus, our attention toward the unseen, as the Good Samaritan saw a human in the beaten thing on the side of the road, is the surest path toward rejecting the illusory imagination through which we secure ourselves in the world.

Yet, there is another path — the apprehension of beauty — and this is just as important for Weil’s philosophy. Like affliction, genuine beauty draws us outside of ourselves (the false, illusory self) toward something which we cannot consume, cannot eat, to use Weil’s favorite illustration. We must remain hungry in the face of beauty, or else the beauty is corrupted in our compulsive desire to possess. We must allow the beautiful to remain as it is, apart from us. This is also Weil’s way of expressing pure friendship. We want to absorb the other into ourselves, destroying the other as such; friendship allows the other to exist fully, regardless of whether “I” exist — indeed, as if “I” do not exist.

None of this is actually possible — humanly possible. We are not actually able to love the poor, the despised, the ugly, the stupid. It is a miracle from beyond human possibility. It is grace. On this, both Weil and Barth are in agreement: love is not a possibility, love is a miracle.

The bad artist asserts herself in her art. Art is a means of self-expression. It exhibits the pathos of the individual. Good art — beautiful art — is a forgetting of oneself. In this forgetting, we find ourselves anew, but this cannot be our object — it is unknown, because it is given by grace. We cannot manufacture beauty. We do not create it; it creates us. The artist expresses beauty, not directly but indirectly. It is not possible for the artist to pursue beauty; she must be attentive in the void and let beauty find her. In this way, beauty is not personal expression but impersonal expression.

Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Lucian Stone, in their wonderfully clear survey of Weil’s philosophical theology, illuminate this point further:

To understand how a beautiful thing is impersonal, we must consider Weil’s identification of five sub-traits of impersonality in aesthetics. First, there is duration. “One does not grow tired of beauty,” whereas “one does grow tired of what is pleasing, of what only flatters the senses,” Weil claims. The beautiful is something one can attend to for hours; anything that falls short of this (such as the statues in the Luxembourg, for her) is unendurable and demands either that we look away, or that we eliminate the offense. Second, there is purity: beauty does give a “pure pleasure,” a pleasure absolutely distinct from the one that arises from and encourages consumption. This is why real beauty ‘captivates the flesh” and stills the child in us “in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.” So while the beautiful is a “carnal attraction,” it “keeps us at a distance” and demands that we renounce our falsifying imaginations. Third, there is the element of infinity. That is, there can be no comparisons in the realm of absolute beauty; to think in terms of “better” or “worse” or any matter of degree suggests that the work is not truly beautiful, for the beautiful is the incarnation of God in matter. Fourth, there must be no element of flattery, for there can be no elevation of the ego in attending to the beautiful. Finally, as we have seen already, impersonality implies universality. …for Weil, the Gregorian chant epitomizes the beautiful, perhaps surprisingly because of its “share of monotony.” This beautiful monotony, as opposed to a mechanical monotony of factory work or of the clock, finds its model in the “perfect regularity of the sky’s revolutions that permits the rhythm of agricultural work, the only work that puts us directly in contact with the universe.”

[Simone Weil and Theology (T&T Clark, 2013), pp. 146-147. The quotations are taken from Weil's Lectures on Philosophy, p. 184, and Gravity and Grace, pp. 148-149 and pp. 131-132]

In addition to Gregorian chant, Weil points to J. S. Bach, Romanesque architecture, Byzantine iconography, Sophocles’ Antigone, Homer’s Iliad, among other examples.

When she speaks of “impersonal” beauty, Weil can give the impression of something mundane or boring. It is almost as if the peculiar is lost amidst the universal. But in fact, according to Weil, the peculiar is lost when it is isolated from the universal. Evil isolates the particular from the universals of goodness, beauty, and truth. As such, it becomes mundane and boring, exhaustible as are all finite things. Here are the Stones once again, in one of my favorite passages:

Real goodness…is “an unfathomable marvel” that is too often desecrated at the hands of novelists and artists who render it cliché and portray evil as sensational and mysterious. We “envelop [the truth of the Good] in a fog in which, as in all fiction, values are reversed, so that evil is attractive and good is tedious,” when in fact, “nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good.” This is because the forms and manifestations of baseness are finite, for they issue from the finite (i.e., from us). We cannot, as Weil has said, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. So, the artist, if she is to create something that can be called “beautiful” or “good,” must take on “the transparency of a window pane” to allow the light of the divine to shine through.

[Ibid., pp. 84-85. The quotations are from Weil's Science, Necessity, and the Love of God, p. 162, 160, and Waiting for God, p. 77]

Hopefully that should entice you to read more of Simone Weil. To be sure, I wrestle with Weil. She is not for everyone. She is probably a Gnostic. Her intensity is extreme. She is also the purest philosophical mind that I have ever read.

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27 Responses to “Impersonal Beauty”

  1. A few thoughts: I see similarities between the content of this post and, say, Torrance, who attacks the idea of man as a thinking thing over against the wolrld, Etienne Gilson and his unity of knower and known, and Wright’s epistemology of faith/love.

    Questions: on this account, can one know beauty, or is it only perceieved, since its impersonal? What is the definition of ‘impersonal’ used here?

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yeah, I actually had not made the Torrance connection yet. Yes on Gilson and Wright, which is just Augustine!

      I am gradually starting to see some significant similarities between Weil and Barth, despite their complete opposite starting points. Weil believes in natural theology and nothing else; Barth believes in revealed theology and nothing else; yet both of their theologies are about grace all the way down. Thus, Weil’s natural theology is not very “natural,” even if she finds it all over the place (Baghavad Gita, Upanishads, Greek tragedies, Plato, book of Job, the gospels, John of the Cross, Bach, etc.)

      As for your question, Weil likes the language of “attention,” “turning in the right direction,” “perceiving,” and so forth. She saw the gospels as a way of life, not a theology (as she understood theology). She thought theology was basically Aristotelian and Roman, not Platonist and Greek. She hated all things about the “Roman” spirit — power, domination, control, systematization, etc. So, she favors apophatic expressions, even saying that “atheism is a purification” of all false conceptions of God.

      The “impersonal” is the void created by our desire for goodness and wholeness. We fill this void with the “personal” — the ego’s projection of its own self-existence — and we extend our “person” through idols, wherein the particular and finite is made absolute (political regimes, for example). In short, we create ourselves as divine and eternal. Thus, we must “decreate” ourselves, as Weil puts it. We must reject this ego and accept the void. We have to consent to our non-existence. Death forces this truth upon us, which is why death can be such a purification (or a horror for those who maintain their illusions). Once the void is accepted, beauty (God) fills the void. Weil insists that there is no technique or exercise to receive this beauty (God), except one thing: no longer thinking in the first person.

      As you may have guessed, a criticism of Weil (as with similar mystical teaching) is that she promotes self-hatred or self-abuse, which is why feminists have been hesitant to laud her work, even though she is clearly the most gifted female philosopher in history. Likewise, Sarah Coakley — who has been appropriating aspects of ascetic mysticism — has been greeted with some hesitation by feminist theologians for the same reason.

      • Very interesting. To what extent, then, does she accept the ‘personal’ elements in the Gospels – God is clearly a ‘personal’ figure there. Or is she kind of demythologizing in a way?

      • Kevin Davis said

        It’s not entirely clear. She praises Jesus’ statements about not worrying or caring for tomorrow, because the Father knows all things about us and our situation. She memorized the Our Father in Greek and frequently recited it. These are certainly personal conceptions of God. Yet, I do not know how she would relate God’s “personhood” to our conception of persons (as in Thomas’ discussion of analogy or Barth’s similar discussion in CD II.1). She may “demythologize” to some extent, but I don’t know. Her own proposals for “attention” and “decreation” emphasize the otherness and absence of God, but Kierkegaard did the same thing without demythologizing (as did Pascal and, in his own way, Barth).

      • Hm. I definitely see the self-hatred thread running through her thought. I also notice some similarities between her thought (such as I understand it) and, say, Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysus (sp?) in the extreme apophaticism. Also seems a bit similar to some of Tillich’s thought (specifically, ‘The Courage to Be’).

        Going back to one of my earlier questions: how does ‘knowing’ fit in here? It seems that on this account (again, as I see it here) that knowing qua knowing is a bad thing, as it requires the personal, or ego, or what have you. That’s what I meant by asking, is knowing simply relegated to ‘perceiving’. Or maybe I’m just not grasping the overall thought here. I get that the negation of the first-person is essential – the comment below about Buddhism is quite appropriate. But doesn’t perception entail *some* kind of knowledge, and doesn’t knowledge in *some* way entail the personal, or first person, or whatnot? Or am I really missing the point?

      • Robert F said

        From what you’re saying, there seems to be some overlap in language and possibly meaning between Weil and Buddhism regarding seeing through the self to nothingness and the need for attention, even in no longer thinking in the first person.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Yes, that’s exactly right, Robert.

        Weil was a strong admirer of Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

      • Kevin Davis said

        whitefrozen,

        Yes, that’s the ambiguity. She will talk about divesting oneself of knowledge — or, a desire that is liberated from objects (including objects of knowledge), as the Stones discuss on p. 170. But, in this “perception” there is knowledge of some sort because it is an apprehension of truth (as with all Platonists, truth is absolute and convertible with goodness and beauty and, for Weil, God). Her fear of making this “knowledge” an object among other objects (yes, echoes in Tillich), available for possession or scrutiny like other objects, is why she prefers the ambiguity. She writes in aphorisms and paradoxes, like Pascal.

      • I will probably be acquiring some of her writings in the near future. What a fascinating mind.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Also, she will talk about truth (God) as the light by which we see reality as it is (the world). We do not see the truth in itself, just the incandescence that radiates from it (God).

      • Robert F said

        whitefrozen,
        One of the problems with the epistemology behind Buddhist concepts of the no-self is that the act of perceiving always sets up a duality between the what is perceived and the one perceiving. If a perception occurs that the self is not real, then there must be a reflective consciousness that is perceiving, or intuiting (as the Buddhists might prefer to say), that experience. This results in an infinite regression, mirror behind mirror, each layer of the onion stripped back shows another layer. The one perceiving may be hiding, but he has to be there somewhere. From what is being said here, I think Weil may have had the same epistemological problem.

        What do you say, Kevin?

      • That’s roughly what I was driving at – not to subject Weil’s idea to ruthless analytical scrutiny, as it’s not an analytic argument, but to see where it leads. I’m not qualified to comment too much on the Buddhist element, but isn’t part of at least some schools of Buddhism the complete loss of the self as an I-ego, so as to eliminate such a duality? A drop in the ocean kind of thing?

      • Kevin Davis said

        Yes, the “drop in the ocean” idea is how I was taught Buddhism as an undergraduate. Rebecca and Lucian Stone (to invoke them once again) insist that Weil’s decreation is not destruction, and they spend considerable time defending this point. It really depends upon which quotation you select from Weil’s writings, then the difficulty of trying to systematize them! As far as I can tell, Weil does not want the self to be annihilated entirely, just the entirety of our self-conceptions. On the horizontal plane, she has a lot to say about action, not passivity, as in her own political/social action — all of which requires an active self. But on the vertical plane, it is all passivity, and this is where the self appears to be annihilated — but taken together with the whole of her thought, I think she avoids this. In other words, she is not trying to attain a state of complete thoughtlessness, as found in some forms of Buddhism (and Buddhism is, of course, a diverse philosophy, not easily homogenized), much less a pure Stoic resignation, despite the formal similarities between her views on necessity and Stoicism.

        Or to put it another way, she is not trying to annihilate the individual, erasing his or her existence. She places too much importance on the (universal) sacred within each individual and our responsibility toward the individual.

      • Kevin Davis said

        But, to elaborate on my last point, this does pose a further problem. The universal sacred in each individual is her desire for good (to fill the void of God’s absence). If the sacred in each person is universal, and absolutely identical in all, then there is nothing peculiar about the individual that makes her special or valuable, such as personality traits or certain talents. Thus, even if the individual is not erased, the peculiar is seemingly erased. As such, this philosophy becomes another form of tyranny, even though Weil develops it as the only antidote against tyranny/oppression/idolatry. In Weil’s philosophy, I value you because of this universal capacity within you (the universal sacred in all), not because of anything peculiar about you. All “discrimination,” even if seemingly benevolent, is wrong. Nothing peculiar about you is real (in the eternal, Platonist sense).

        If we follow this approach, then the difficulties about annihilation/destruction are very important, and perhaps Weil does not avoid the problem after all.

      • Robert F said

        I do have some familiarity and personal experience with the religious philosophy and practice of Buddhism. All the main traditions of Buddhism teach the doctrine of no-self, which asserts that the experience of a permanent, static self is an illusion caused by attachment to phenomenon. What we call the self, asserts Buddhism, is a fictive illusion; the self is actually a process of becoming. Buddhist teaching and practice is designed to lead to direct seeing into the true nature of the self, which is that it, like all other phenomenon, is empty of any intrinsic quality or substance; this emptiness is called sunyatta. The self is not a drop to be merged in the ocean of being in Buddhism; that’s more like the philosophical side of Hinduism. Rather, the self in Buddhism is an illusion caused by attachment, and attachment is what causes suffering, and so the self and all other attachments to phenomenon are to be undone by seeing into the true nature of phenomenon, which is sunyatta.

        As a result, Buddhism does not teach that one goes through successive reincarnations, since there is no one to reincarnate; it teaches, rather, that karma, which is action and its results, causes the arising of forms and manifestations in the future from past actions, but there is no one acting. A somewhat adequate analogy would be to compare reincarnation to the cresting of waves on a stormy sea. When the crest dies away, the energy that created it still resides below the surface of the ocean and will manifest again in similar crest, but the crests have no identity apart from the energy fluctuations and patterns of the elements. Somewhat different from the drop in the ocean.

        It is different from what you recount about Weil.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Glad to have your knowledge and familiarity, Robert. I only had an introductory look at Buddhism during my Religious Studies program, though I took a whole class on Hinduism, and that was nearly 10 years ago! I would have to read more of Buddhism to grasp how Weil’s relation of the void/necessity to the self may or may not relate to Buddhism’s notion of emptiness/sunyatta. She learned Sanskrit in order to read Indian religious literature, so she was profoundly influenced by it, though she was also profoundly shaped by Western and Christian thought forms in her French context, plus her love for the Greeks (which she translated as a kid). All of this contributes to the difficulty that scholars have of precisely relating Weil to the religions and texts that inspired her. She is enormously eclectic.

  2. Joel said

    We must remain hungry in the face of beauty, or else the beauty is corrupted in our compulsive desire to possess. We must allow the beautiful to remain as it is, apart from us. This is also Weil’s way of expressing pure friendship. We want to absorb the other into ourselves, destroying the other as such; friendship allows the other to exist fully, regardless of whether “I” exist — indeed, as if “I” do not exist.

    As a Tolkien geek, this resonates with The Silmarillion. Much of the story there revolves around three jewels of dazzling beauty (the Silmarils) that tend to drive people (even elves) to madness and evil in their possession or out of the desire to possess them.

    But unlike Tolkien’s more famous One Ring, the Silmarils are not in themselves evil – in fact, they contain and radiate a part of the world’s beauty that is otherwise completely lost and can heal the desolate land. But only a very few can handle them for good. And now that I think of it, the people who can don’t seek to possess them as an end in itself, but secondary to something else, such as love.

    • Kevin Davis said

      That’s fascinating, Joel. I have not read The Silmarillion, but I should. Tolkien has some fine insights into desire, per his Catholic influences.

      • Joel said

        Yes, it’s a fascinating and beautiful work. Some parts feel compressed or light on detail because of the chaotic and complicated nature of the manuscripts and posthumous editorial process, but still a real achievement and quite moving at times. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, a fan of pagan mythology (especially Northern Europe), and a professional linguist, and he worked in all three worlds at once. His creation story is a real highlight.

      • Kevin Davis said

        That’s good to know. My brother is a LOTR/Hobbit fanatic, the books not just the movies, but I don’t think he’s read Silmarillion yet. I’ll get him to read it first, as I still need to read LOTR!

      • Be warned: the silmarillion can and probably will break your heart.

  3. Robert F said

    What an enormous grace it must be to find beauty even in the unseen, the thing on the side of the road, or the unseen thing on the side of the road within ourselves. Yes, only a miracle of God makes that possible.

  4. […] is more Simone Weil, in a profound illustration of […]

  5. […] [i] ‘First Things First’, Sis @DelightfulOak [ii] Thanks to Kevin Davis for recently pointing this one out on his blog After Existentialism, Light […]

  6. […] true of the peculiar qualities that differentiate one person from another. In the comments to a previous post, I expressed the problem this […]

  7. John Wong said

    The Weil’s philosophy about the impersonal beauty is clear from the portrait shown above in this article. The color formation and the texture they were used are more attractive. Even I also have some paintings in my collection which I will transform into a canvas and to check the detail for the same I visit on this website which helps to select the color combination with the right texture for my paintings.

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