Why everyone should study Simone Weil

June 11, 2015

Simone-Weil

Simone Weil

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death.

[“The Love of God and Affliction,” in Waiting for God, p. 68.]

As some of you know, I did my undergraduate thesis in Religious Studies on the French mystic-philosopher, Simone Weil. At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, I was introduced to Simone Weil by one of the philosophy professors, who described herself as a Platonist Anglican. For those of us fortunate to take her classes, she also assigned the Platonist novelist, Iris Murdoch, not surprisingly.

I was enraptured by Weil. I hated her and loved her with equal passion. She demands nothing less.

Simone Weil was a Gnostic. I resisted the “Gnostic” identification for Weil for a long time, even though it is common in Weil studies. I resisted it because Weil is far more interesting, far more important than the libel associated with Gnosticism. “Anti-matter”? “Anti-creation?” Superficially, yes, because our profound suffering requires a love that supersedes all principalities and powers. But alongside suffering, she believed that beauty was the surest path to God, and she believed this with the utmost seriousness and an integrity that should put us all to shame.

Simone Weil is an anomaly. She makes other anomalies appear tame by comparison. Pascal and Kierkegaard are her immediate forebears, at least in general qualifications and applications. This is why she is homeless. Feminists do not know what to do with her. Christians are equally perplexed.

Weil is a heretic, but she is a noble heretic. She is a heretic that the church needs in order to survive and thrive.

In the marriage feast of the new creation, I will drink wine with Simone Weil. I will wipe her tears, and she will kiss mine.

 

12 Responses to “Why everyone should study Simone Weil”

  1. Fariba said

    I’ve hesitated to read her for a while. But placing her alongside Pascal and Kierkegaard makes me want to give her a go.

  2. Kim Fabricius said

    Absolutely. Stephen Plant has said that writing about the Red Virgin “is like trying to advertise sunshine”, but I’m glad, Kevin, you made this excellent effort.

    Weil had a subtle and complex relation to Christianity. She regarded herself as a Christian and wrote about God — and the (kenotic) love of God (George Herbert’s poem “Love bade me welcome”, which she memorised, was seminal to her thinking) — not to mention prayer and suffering, with a relentless integrity and penetrating, counter-intuitive insight that should inform any fides quaerens intellectum, but she never took the baptismal plunge due to problems of conscience with (Catholic) dogma (which, of course, a lot of us share).

    To be sure, one cannot study her without a sense of dis-ease, but then as Susan Sontag observed in a reflection on Weil (in June 2013), there are writers like Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka — and Weil — who “have their authority with us because of their air of unhealth-iness … [which] is their soundness, and is what carries conviction.”

    Yes, this is one heretic who will make it to heaven — welcomed with more honour and joy than many a “true” believer.

    Finally, on a lighter note, here is clerihew I wrote on this saint at “Faith and Theology” in May 2010:

    Simone Weil
    Malheurese, très outré,
    And so severe it hurt:
    The Categorical Imperative in a Skirt*.

    * As she was called by her students.

    • That’s a wonderful quote from Sontag. Weil’s rejection of baptism is interesting. She wrote to Father Perrin that Rome’s “use of the two little words anathema sit” is why she must remain on the outside of the church, among the damned so to speak. This was also an expression of her hatred for the Roman Empire, which she saw as the embodiment of Force (in contrast to her highly idealized vision of ancient Greece), and this Force was carried over into the Catholic Church — as proven in the violent suppression of the Albigensians in Southern France. For Weil, the Church betrayed Christ and crucified him again in the Albigensians.

      Interestingly, there seems to be a credible witness to Weil receiving baptism on her death bed, prior to succumbing to TB and malnourishment. I don’t remember the source, but (if I remember correctly) Francine Du Plessix Gray discusses it in her biography of Weil.

      “The Categorical Imperative in a Skirt.” Ha, yes, I’ll have to remember this.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I actually got that book a couple weeks ago, but I haven’t read it yet.

      • John Stamps said

        Anything by Diogenes “Dick” Allen is great. I especially have profited by:
        Philosophy for Understanding Theology, Second Edition

        Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction

        Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith

        He was a tyrant. But a great professor and a faithful Christian.

      • Thanks, I’ll look for those in our seminary’s donated books. That’s where I got the Outsiders book.

    • Kim Fabricius said

      Interestingly, Aidan (Alvin) Kimel has just been blogging on Allen at “Eclectic Orthodoxy”.

    • Fariba said

      Recently, I’ve been wondering in what ways “heretics” have come to shape “orthodoxy”. Throughout history, the people who have had the greatest influence on the Christian churches are those who stood somewhat outside of the mainstream. There is definitely a relationship between the Franciscans and the Waldensians who came before- who also tried to live by the Beatitudes. There is no coincidence. The Franciscans were considered “orthodox” while the Waldensians were proto-anabaptists and labeled “heretics”. But as Paul Sabatier pointed out in his biography of Francis, these labels sanitize the reality. Sabatier (a French Calvinist) definitely wore his bias on his sleeve, but it’s true that Francis’ order didn’t initially sit well with the hierarchy. Francis assumed a role in his order hitherto unheard of for a mere deacon. There are a variety of forces that determine who is “in” and “out”, and reform has always come either from those on the edge. Pascal is quoted all the time by Catholics, but he was an “outsider”.

      John, the book you mention sounds really interesting. I should get it after I get through the million other books I have bought but have yet to read. A book came out fairly recently on Kierkegaard called Kierkegaard, Pietism and Holiness. The author is Christopher Barnett. It seems to me that a book like this is long overdue.

      • Kevin Davis said

        That Barnett book looks fascinating.

        Even Thomas Aquinas was considered suspicious in his lifetime, fiercely opposed for adopting that pagan, Aristotle, and his medieval Muslim interpreters. But once proven useful, the establishment adopted him — as they did with those newfangled mendicant orders. It’s more difficult with someone like Weil, who is not easily assimilated. She’s too weird and upsetting.

  3. I just finished eating L’amour de Dieu et le malheur. The images and ideas will be floating around in my head for days. I can’t get over how powerful and beautiful her words are. If I can find A good translation I will be sharing this essay with my friends…This post seems to point me in the right direction.

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