Inasmuch as we are now entering upon the fourth part of a three-part essay, we should brace ourselves for some inconsequentiality. I don’t feel the cause of this inconsequence is me. Rather it originates with the three women we are studying and the cause of it is the fact that they are writers.
When Sappho tells us that she is “all but dead,” when Marguerite Porete tells us she wants to become an “annihilated soul,” when Simone Weil tells us that “we participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves,” how are we to square these dark ideas with the brilliant self-assertiveness of the writerly project shared by all three of them, the project of telling the world the truth about God, love and reality?
The answer is we can’t. It is no accident that Marguerite Porete calls her book a Mirror. To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.
Which brings us to contradiction and its uses. Simone Weil speaks plainly about these:
Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything. Contradiction is our badness and the sense of our badness is the sense of reality. For we do not invent our badness. It is true.
To accept the true badness of being human is the beginning of a dialectic of joy for Simone Weil:
If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought.
Nothing and something are two sides of one coin, at least in the mind of a dialectician. As Marguerite Porete puts it:
Nothing is nothing. Something is what it is. Therefore I am not, if I am something, except that which God is.
She also says:
Lord you are one goodness through opened out goodness, absolutely in you. And I am one badness through opened out badness, absolutely in me.
Marguerite Porete’s vision is dialectical but it is not tragic: she imagines a kind of chiastic immersion or mutual absorption by means of which these two absolute opposites — God and the soul — may ultimately unite. She uses various images of this union, for example, iron, which when placed in the furnace actually becomes fire; or a river that loses its name when it flows into the sea. Her common images carry us beyond the dialectical account of God and soul.
For dialectic is a mode of reasoning and an application of the intellectual self. But the soul that has been driven by love into God, the soul consumed as into fire, dissolved as if into water — such a soul has no intact intellect of the ordinary human kind with which to construe dialectical relationships. In other words such a soul passes beyond the place where she can tell what she knows. To tell is a function of self.
This situation is a big problem for a writer. It is more than a contradiction, it is a paradox. Marguerite Porete broaches the matter, early in her Mirror, with her usual lack of compromise:
For whoever talks about God… must not doubt but must know without doubt … that he has never felt the true kernel of divine Love which makes the soul absolutely dazzled without being aware of it. For this is the true purified kernel of divine Love which is without creaturely matter and given by the Creator to a creature and takes away absolutely the practice of telling.
Marguerite delivers herself of a writerly riddle here. No one who talks about God can have experienced God’s Love, she asserts, because such Love “takes away absolutely the practice of telling.” She reinforces this point later by arguing that, once a soul has experienced divine Love, no one but God ever understands that soul again (chapters 19 and 20). We might at this point be moved to question what Marguerite Porete thinks she is doing in the remaining chapters of her book, which number 139 in all, when she gives a step-by-step account of the soul’s progress towards annihilation in God.
We might wonder what all this telling is about. But we are unlikely to receive an answer from Marguerite Porete herself. Nor I think will any prudent writer on matters of God and soul venture to nail such things down. Quite the contrary, to leave us in wonder is just what such a writer feels compelled to do. Let us look more closely at how this compulsion works. We have said that telling is a function of self. If we study the way these three writers talk about their own telling, we can see how each of them feels moved to create a sort of dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the work and the teller disappears into the telling.
Let’s begin with Simone Weil, who was a practical person and arranged for her own disappearance on several levels. Among other things, she is believed to have hastened her own death from tuberculosis in 1943 by a regime of voluntary self-starvation undertaken out of sympathy for people in France who didn’t have enough to eat. However that may be, when her parents insisted on fleeing France for America in 1942 she briefly and reluctantly accompanied them, leaving behind in the hands of a certain Gustave Thibon (a farmer in whose vineyard she had been working) about a dozen notebooks of personal reflection (which now form a substantial part of her published work). She told him in a letter to use the thoughts in the notebooks however he liked:
So now they belong to you and I hope that after having been transmuted within you they will one day come out in one of your works…. I should be very happy for them to find a lodging beneath your pen, whilst changing their form so as to reflect your likeness…
In the operation of writing, the hand which holds the pen and the body and soul attached to it are things infinitely small in the order of nothingness.
Gustave Thibon never saw Simone Weil again, nor did he follow the instructions of this letter, to transmute her ideas into his own — at least not explicitly. Instead he went through the notebooks, extracted punchy passages, grouped these under headings like The Self, The Void, The Impossible, Beauty, Algebra, Luck, The Meaning of the Universe, and published them as a book with her name on the title page as its author. That is, he made a serious effort to force her back into the centre of herself, and the degree to which she nonetheless eludes this reinstallation is very hard for readers like you or me to judge from outside. But I admire the final, gentle piece of advice that she gives to him at the close of her letter of 1942:
I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow about whatever may be in store for me and that if you should happen sometimes to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book read in childhood.
When I think of books read in childhood they come to my mind’s eye in violent foreshortening and framed by a precarious darkness, but at the same time they glow somehow with an almost supernatural intensity of life that no adult book could ever effect. I remember a little book of The Lives of the Saints that was given to me about age five. In this book the various flowers composing the crowns of the martyrs were so lusciously rendered in words and paint that I had to be restrained from eating the pages. It is interesting to speculate what taste I was expecting from those pages. But maybe the impulse to eat pages isn’t about taste. Maybe it’s about being placed at the crossing-point of a contradiction, which is a painful place to be and children in their natural wisdom will not consent to stay there, but mystics love it. So Simone Weil:
Man’s great affliction, which begins with infancy and accompanies him till death, is that looking and eating are two different operations. Eternal beatitude is a state where to look is to eat.
Simone Weil had a problem with eating all her life. Lots of women do. Nothing more powerfully or more often reminds us of our physicality than food and the need to eat it. So she creates in her mind a dream of distance where food can be enjoyed perhaps from across the room merely by looking at it, where desire need not end in perishing, where the lover can stay, at the same time, near to and far from the object of her love.
Food and love were analogous contradictions for Simone Weil. She did not freely enjoy either of them in her life and was always uneasy about her imaginative relationship to them. But after all, eternal beatitude is not the only state where to look is to eat. The written page can also reify this paradox for us. A writer may tell what is near and far at once.
And so, for example, in Marguerite Porete’s original terminology the writer’s dream of distance becomes an epithet of God. To describe the divine Lover who feeds her soul with the food of truth, Marguerite Porete invents a word: le Loingpres in her Old French, or Longe Propinquus in the Latin translation: English might say “the FarNear.” She does not justify this word, simply begins using it as if it were self-evident in Chapter 58 of her book, where she is telling about annihilation. At the moment of its annihilation, she says, God practices upon the soul an amazing act of ravishing. For God opens an aperture in the soul and allows divine peace to flow in upon her like a glorious food. And God does this in his capacity as le Loingpres, the FarNear:
For there is an aperture, like a spark, which quickly closes, in which one cannot long remain…. The overflowing from the ravishing aperture makes the Soul free and noble and unencumbered [and its] peace lasts as long as the opening of the aperture…. Moreover the peace is so delicious that Truth calls it glorious food…
And this aperture of the sweet movement of glory that the excellent FarNear gives is nothing other than a glimpse which God wants the soul to have of her own glory that she will possess without end.
Marguerite Porete’s concept of God as “the excellent FarNear” is a radical invention. But even more radical is the riddle to which it forces her:
… where the Soul remains after the work of the Ravishing FarNear, which we call a spark in the manner of an aperture and fast close, no one could believe. . . nor would she have any truth who knew how to tell this.
Inside her own telling Marguerite Porete sets up a little ripple of disbelief — a sort of distortion in the glass — as if to remind us that this dream of distance is after all just a dream. At the end of her book she returns to the concept one last time, saying simply:
His Farness is the more Near.
I have no idea what this sentence means but it gives me a thrill. It fills me with wonder. In itself the sentence is a small complete act of worship, like a hymn or a prayer. Now hymns and prayers are the conventional way for lovers of God to mark God’s FarNearness, for prayer lays claim to an immediate connection with this Being whose absence fills the world. But Marguerite Porete was a fairly unconventional lover of God and did not engage in prayer or credit its usefulness. Simone Weil, on the other hand, although she was never a Christian herself, had a profound attachment to that prayer Christians call the Our Father. During the summer of 1941 when she worked in the vineyard of Gustave Thibon she found herself repeating this prayer while she worked. She had never prayed before, she acknowledges in her notebook, and the effect was ecstatic:
The very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space … filling every aspect of this infinity of infinity.
Prayer seems to have been for her an experience of spatial contradiction — or perhaps a proof of the impossible truth of God’s motion. In another passage she returns to the Lord’s Prayer and its impossible truth:
Our Father who art in heaven. There is a sort of humor in that. He is your Father, but just try going to look for him up there! We are quite as incapable of rising from the ground as an earthworm. And how should he for his part come to us without descending? There is no way of imagining a contract between God and man which is not as unintelligible as the Incarnation. The Incarnation explodes unintelligibility. It is an absolutely concrete way of representing impossible descent. Why should it not be the truth?
Why should the truth not be impossible? Why should the impossible not be true? Questions like these are the links from which prayers are forged. Here is a prayer of Sappho’s which will offer us one final example of the dream of distance in which a writer tells God:
… [come] here to me from Krete
to this holy temple where is
your graceful grove of apple trees and altars
smoking with frankincense.
And in it cold water makes a clear sound through apple branches
and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.
And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing….
In this place you Kypris having taken up
in gold cups delicately
nectar mingled with festivities:
This fragment was scratched on a shard of pottery by a careless hand in the third century BC. The text is corrupt and incomplete. Nonetheless we can identify it as a hymn of the type called “kletic,” a calling hymn, an invocation to God to come from where she is to where we are. Such a hymn typically names both of these places, setting its invocation in-between in order to measure the difference — a difference which it is the function of the hymn to decreate — not to destroy, but to decreate. Among the remarks on decreation in Simone Weil’s notebooks is the statement:
God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.
For the writer of a kletic hymn, God’s absence is something tricky, perhaps impossible, to tell. This writer will have to invoke a God who arrives bringing her own absence with her — a God whose Farness is the more Near. It is an impossible motion possible only in writing. Sappho achieves it by various syntactic choices: for example, suppression of the verb in the first stanza of her poem. In my translation I supply an imperative “Come!” in square brackets as the first word of the poem, and the sense may seem to require this, but the Greek text has no such verb. It begins with the adverb “Here.” In fact the imperative verb for which the entire poem, with its slow and onomatopoeically accumulating clauses, seems to be waiting does not arrive until the very last word of our text: “Pour!”
The effect of this suspension is uncanny: as if the whole of creation is depicted waiting for an action that is already perpetually here. There is no clear boundary between far and near; there is no climactic moment of God’s arrival. Sappho renders a set of conditions that at the beginning depend on Aphrodite’s absence but by the end include her presence. Sappho imitates the distance of God in a sort of suspended solution — and there we see Divine Being as a dazzling drop that suddenly, impossibly, saturates the world.
To sum up. Each of the three women we’ve been considering had the nerve to enter a zone of absolute spiritual daring. Each of them undergoes there an experience of decreation, or so she tells us. But the telling remains a bit of a wonder. Decreation is an undoing of the creature in us — that creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition. We have nowhere else to start. This is the parchment on which God writes his lessons, as Marguerite Porete says.
Marguerite’s parchment burned in 1310. To us this may seem an outrage or a mistake. Certainly the men who condemned her thought she was all wrong and referred to her in the proceedings of her trial not only as “filled with errors and heresies” but as pseudo-mulier or “fake woman.”
Was Marguerite Porete a fake woman?
Society is all too eager to pass judgments on the authenticity of women’s ways of being but these judgments can get crazy. As a case in point, the book for which Marguerite Porete was burned in 1310 was secretly preserved and copied after her death by clerics who transmitted the text as an anonymous devotional work of Christian mysticism, until 1946 when an Italian scholar reconnected the Mirror with the name of its author.
At the same time, it is hard to commend moral extremism of the kind that took Simone Weil to death at the age of thirty-four; saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history and we resent that. We need history to remain ordinary. We need to be able to call saints neurotic, anorectic, pathological, sexually repressed or fake. These judgments sanctify our own survival.
By the same token, Sappho’s ancient biographers tried to discredit her seriousness by assuring us she lived a life of unrestrained and incoherent sexual indulgence, for she invented lesbianism and then died by jumping off a cliff for love of a young man. As Simone Weil says:
Love is a sign of our badness.
Love is also a good place to situate our mistrust of fake women. What I like best about the three women we’ve been studying is that they know what love is. That is, they know love is the touchstone of a true or a false spirituality, that is why they play with the figure of jealousy. As fake women they have to inhabit this figure gingerly, taking a position both near and far at once from the object of their desire. The truth that they tell from this paradoxical position is also fake. As Marguerite says briskly:
For everything that one can tell of God or write, no less than what one can think, of God who is more than words, is as much lying as it is telling the truth.
So in the end it is important not to be fooled by fake women. If you mistake the dance of jealousy for the love of God, or a heretic’s mirror for the true story, you are likely to spend the rest of your days in terrible hunger. No matter how many pages you eat.
Wallace Stevens and decreation here.