December 31, 2013
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.”
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.
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.