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.

 

SimoneWeil-attention

Simone Weil made a distinction between affliction (malheur) and simple suffering. Affliction is “a laceration of the soul” that endures, not a transitory moment of pain. There is a deep hopelessness for the afflicted. Their humanity has been forced into “thingness,” and there is no going back — at least not apart from a grace that pierces through this bondage or necessity (force). Weil explains this fundamental insight that permeates her theology:

In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. …Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. [Waiting for God, p. 67]

Weil’s remarkable skill is how she discerns the “imaginary” adjustments of our minds to deflect our attention away from affliction and the affliction of others. And in our own day, I would point toward an abundance of preachers and their followers as especially enthusiastic about making these “adjustments.” This is deeply ingrained in our churches. On this point, I offer you this perfect anecdote from Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God:

My roommate for two years at a Christian college was a German named Reiner. Returning to Germany after graduation, Reiner taught at a camp for the disabled where, relying on college notes, he gave a stirring speech on the Victorious Christian Life. “Regardless of the wheelchair you are sitting in, you can have victory, a full life. God lives within you!” he told his audience of paraplegics, cerebral palsy patients, and the mentally challenged. He found it disconcerting to address people with poor muscle control. Their heads wobbled, they slumped in their chairs, they drooled.

The campers found listening to Reiner equally disconcerting. Some of them went to Gerta, director of the camp, and complained that they could not make sense of what he was saying. “Well then, tell him!” said Gerta.

One brave woman screwed up her courage and confronted Reiner. “It’s like you’re talking about the sun, and we’re in a dark room with no windows,” she said. “We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, about the flowers outside, about overcoming and victory. These things don’t apply to us in our lives.”

My friend Reiner was crushed. To him, the message seemed so clear. He was quoting directly from Paul’s epistles, was he not? His pride wounded, he thought about coming at them with a kind of spiritual bludgeon: There’s something wrong with you people. You need to grow in the Lord. You need to triumph over adversity.

Instead, after a night of prayer, Reiner returned with a different message: “I don’t know what to say,” he told them the next morning. “I’m confused. Without the message of victory, I don’t know what to say.” He stayed silent and hung his head.

The woman who had confronted him finally spoke up from the room full of disabled people. “Now we understand you,” she said. “Now we are ready to listen.”

[pp. 22-23]

la_canapele_by_cherryblosssom

La Canapele by Anca Rosca

Is a particular human being valuable in her particularity?

A recurring difficulty in Simone Weil’s work is the way particularity is (seemingly) rejected, falsified, and made unreal. This is especially true of the peculiar qualities that differentiate one person from another. In the comments to a previous post, I expressed the problem this way:

The universal sacred in each individual is his or 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).

I am using “discrimination” here in a broad sense, of valuing someone for certain unique qualities which she may possess. For Weil, this is to value something “accidental” about the person, finite and transient, not the universal within the person. The universal is identical in all, thus no individual person is “special” except insofar as she possesses this universal. (On a side note, this would make first dates enormously difficult to navigate — you can only compliment your date’s universal essence!)

Yet, as I noted in the same previous post, the universal for Weil — goodness, beauty, truth — 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.”

Nothing is so “continually fresh and surprising” as the universal goodness and beauty. Unfortunately, Weil does not elaborate upon this theme, at least not in the writings that I’ve read (and I’ve read most of her English translated works). This may in fact be a way for Weil to account for the particular manifestations of the universal essence in every person, instead of reducing everyone to something common or shared by all. In other words, it may be a way to account for variety, in joyful wonder no less!

But as it stands, Weil’s thought shares many of the characteristics associated with Gnosticism, and her own enthusiasm for the Cathars tends to confirm this association. However, Weil is genuinely trying to overcome the dualism of Gnosticism, between the finite and the infinite. The created world is capable of participating in the infinite and conveying the truth of the universals. But the struggle, in my reading of Weil, is whether the created as such is valuable — or is it only valuable insofar as it points toward or conveys the universal. Likewise for our problem with particularity among humans: can the distinguishing peculiarities be valuable (the finite) or only the universal essence (the eternal)?

This is a difficulty, of course, that is common to most philosophical systems, the ones worth studying. This includes the Platonist tradition from which Weil learned and practiced, long before her conversion to Christ in her late twenties. It is significant that Weil’s christology is entirely formulated in terms of the cross, not the resurrection. Christ mediated the eternal within creation through his perfect self-abnegation, culminating at the cross. That is the entire truth of the incarnation. As she once wrote: “… if the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s Resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me.” Yet, can the dualism described above be overcome without the resurrection? If we trust Chesterton or Balthasar or any number of Catholic figures (they seem to grasp this better than most Protestants), the resurrection is integral to the incarnation’s gospel — the good news of finitude’s redemption. Creation is assumed (taken up) forever into the eternal life of God, through the ascension of Christ’s body. In some way, the peculiar is now made holy.

Unfortunately, Weil died when she was 34 years old from tuberculosis, aggravated by her rigorously minimal food intake. If she had lived longer, she may have eventually discovered the Catholic (Christian) synthesis, just as it took Augustine years to overcome his own philosophical dualism.

Weil-painting

Here is more Simone Weil, in a profound illustration of grace:

If I say to myself every morning: ‘I am courageous, I am not afraid’, I may become courageous but with a courage which conforms to what, in my present imperfection, I imagine under that name, and accordingly my courage will not go beyond this imperfection. It can only be a modification on the same plane, not a change of plane.

Contradiction is the criterion. We cannot by suggestion obtain things which are incompatible. Only grace can do that. A sensitive person who by suggestion becomes courageous hardens himself; often he may even, by a sort of savage pleasure, amputate his own sensitivity. Grace alone can give courage while leaving the sensitivity intact, or sensitivity while leaving the courage intact.

[Gravity and Grace, pp. 99-100. See the discussion in Simone Weil and Theology, pp. 172-173.]

This is also a good example of Weil’s aphoristic style. She would write in her journals whenever an insight, an illumination of reality, came to her mind. Gravity and Grace is a collection of excerpts from her journals.

Impersonal Beauty

December 31, 2013

benozzo gozzoli_processionofthemagi-detail

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.

Simone-Weil

Simone Weil:

Beauty is the supreme mystery in this world. It is a brilliance that attracts attention but gives it no motive to stay. Beauty is always promising and never gives anything; it creates a hunger but has in it no food for the part of the soul that tries here below to be satisfied; it has food only for the part of the soul that contemplates. It creates desire, and it makes it clearly felt that there is nothing in it [beauty] to be desired, because one insists above all that nothing about it change. If one does not seek out measures by which to escape from the delicious torment inflicted by it, desire is little by little transformed into love, and a seed of the faculty of disinterested and pure attention is created.

(Écrits de Londres et dernières lettres, Paris: Gallimard, 1957, p. 37; translation by Rush Rhees, in Discussions of Simone Weil, p. 32)

That is a perfect encapsulation of Weil’s philosophy, which is always theology as well.

I wrote these reflections for members of my church. Now I offer them here:

Greetings Westminster friends,

I’m sending this as a feeble attempt to offer some reflections on the Newtown tragedy. I trust many of your hearts have been overwhelmed with emotion — sadness, anger, tears. I was reminded of the French mystic and philosopher, Simone Weil. Here is an account from a classmate of hers at the Sorbonne (early 1930’s):

She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence. [But more so…] A great famine had broken out in China, and I was told that when she heard the news she had wept: these tears compelled my respect much more than her gifts as a philosopher. I envied her having a heart that could beat right across the world.

A heart that could beat right across the world! That was Weil’s greatest gift, and it deepened as she discovered the love of Christ for the first time, while observing the destitute peasants in a small Portuguese village. She saw that Christianity was not for the strong but for the weak, and she among them. This discovery of dispossession invariably compels us to our knees, where the strange love of God takes the form of a Cross. With that in mind, I offer these thoughts that I wrote this morning:

Prayers are ascending from Newtown. And with the prayers are the questions, the uncertainties, the perplexities, the anxieties — in short, the vulnerabilities of naked and weak beloved of the Father who have been cast to and fro by the brute force of an evil that speaks the tempting word of despair. The killer drank this despair — it became a part of his descent into the nothingness, the void, into which he attempted to bring twenty defenseless children with him. This is the despair in which we have forsaken the love of the Father — a forsakenness that the Son bore on the Cross as a final demonstration that we, in turn, have not been forsaken by the Father. I say that the killer “attempted” to bring his victims into this nothingness — a nothingness where the love of God is not heard and not received with joy and thanksgiving. It is only an attempt, for we have heard, we have received — thus, our prayers are the definitive protest against this attempt and all such attempts. We know the void has been overcome, filled with love. Death is not subject to the whims of absurdity, of this wickedness; it is defeated. The Cross falsifies the tempting word of despair — as death is illumined by the Resurrection light. We approach this mystery with no confidence in ourselves. This Word of love is not something we can speak to ourselves — the death of these children is too real, too painful for such human conjuring. It is spoken to us, from the Cross, entering our drama, our crosses, as a certain hope of new creation. In this way, beyond our grasping, the love of God is found even here, in Newtown, perhaps more than anywhere else right now. These children belonged to God. He won them on the Cross. They belong to him now, and He is now delighting in them, in their play, in their joy.

Blessings,
Kevin

Documentary on Simone Weil

August 21, 2011

I just noticed, via the American Weil Society, that there’s a documentary film on the life and thought of Simone Weil: An Encounter with Simone Weil. Here’s the trailer:

I hope they deal adequately with her theology and not merely her political views, since both are of a piece. For those who have no idea who Simone Weil is — shame on you — you should start with Waiting for God.

By the way, if you are a Protestant, or a good Thomist in the Roman camp, you will rightly sense a too Platonic otherworldliness in Weil’s spirituality, and you’ll probably think that she should occasionally just settle down and enjoy a beer for God’s sake! And you would be right.

Photo by Johann Rousselot

 

           “It is not the pursuit of pleasure and the aversion for effort which causes sin, but fear of God. We know that we cannot see him face to face without dying and we do not want to die. We know that sin preserves us very effectively from seeing him face to face: pleasure and pain merely provide us with the slight indispensable impetus towards sin, and above all the pretext or alibi which is still more indispensable. …It is not the flesh which keeps us away from God; the flesh is the veil we place before us to shield us from him.”

             Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

 

            This quote from Simone Weil came to mind upon reading von Balthasar’s “Theology and Sanctity” (from Word and Redemption) as perhaps a way to consider his account of the cleavage between theology, namely dogmatics as the explication of revealed truth, and sanctity — a mark of Christian thought in the wake of the advances made by the medieval scholastics. In short, the mystics and spiritual writers do one thing – detail the work of God at individual, mental states of their personal journey – while the theologians do another thing – discern the truth and coherence of God’s work in scripture and the Church. Contrasted to this are those, from the prophets to the scholastics, for whom truth is the “unity of knowledge and action” (p. 59), which is to say that truth is not concerned with man as isolated, cerebral, analytic but as governed by reason, yes, but also by the will and the heart. The latter, especially as it deals with the “affections” of love, happiness, sorrow, et cetera (von Hildebrand, The Heart), is particularly associated with spiritual writers, yet von Balthasar sees, in the premodern era, this intimate work of God as serving the deliverance and explication of revelation. It is not that the reason is blinded and prejudiced by these other movements of our mental faculties, but that it is illuminated thereby and, indeed, preserved from the vanities and prejudices of the isolated reason.

            What is this vanity? If Simone Weil is to be our teacher, it is the desire to be independent, self-constituting creatures – in other words, to be God; and the more consistent among such persons will deny God in order that one’s illusions of self-sufficiency can take course (and it matters not that this self-sufficiency is so often translated into a humanity-sufficiency, a materialist collectivism working on the same principles). This is why we fear God; it is the fear of seeing ourselves truly, as creatures and what that entails, not least what it means for the service of others who are just as “entitled” to the goods which we use to sustain the illusion: “All of a man’s treasure is simply the whole universe seen with himself as its centre. Men only love riches, power and social consideration because they reinforce the faculty of thought in the first person” (Weil, Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks).

            In turning back to von Balthasar’s concerns, we can understand how the reason likewise “preserves us very effectively” (Weil). An anthropology, as in the one which developed after the medievals, which defines man as primarily a reasoning creature who properly acts only upon a strictly defined reason, for its seemingly greater security at right conclusions, will thereby privilege the man who desires his own self-constitution, since here it is the reason alone which is to be cultivated and not the will or heart. In the theological world, this takes form in the prejudice that we can deal with God in our theological systems without dealing with him in our lives. In von Balthasar’s discussion, it is the error of thinking we – dogmatic theologians – can concern ourselves with the verum without the bonum and leave the bonum for others to deal with. What is the solution? Von Balthasar does not work out, at least not in this essay, a developed anthropology along the lines of, e.g., Catholic theorists of “personalism,” which would develop my above points on the place of the will and heart; instead, he finds the needed unity between theology and sanctity in the center of all properly Christian thinking – Jesus Christ. Here, all of our thought is to serve Christ because our thought, our very selves, is constituted by Christ for those who have faith.

            Christ, as true God and true man, is the revealing of humanity redeemed and, as such, united in service, devotion to God and the revealing of this God. Moreover, the task of the theologian is not simply to point to this man, Jesus Christ, and expound; rather, the theologian is to live this incarnating of the Truth that is fully given in Christ: “From the standpoint of revelation, there is simply no real truth which does not have to be incarnated in an act or in some action, so that the incarnation of Christ is the criterion of all real truth….” (p. 50). The important point here being, as he develops later in the essay, that while Christ is the fullness of this revelation and the criterion for judgment, it does not end with him but extends to the whole Church in “the constant repetition of the theological existence of the Lord in the life of his faithful and saints” (80). In other words, and to tie it in with my previous points, any real appropriation of the truth of man vis-à-vis God affects the entirety of his person – the reason and the will; it is not otherwise because Christ has revealed what it is to be a man taken entirely by truth in his perfect obedience to the Father, revealing man’s true relation to God (i.e., no illusions), and for those who are to receive this truth is to likewise subject oneself to the Father.

Kevin D.