I was surprised to find that Simone Weil’s Waiting for God came with a lengthy intro to her life and writings by Leslie Fielder, one of the premier literary and cultural critics of the last century (He passed in 2003 at age 85). Written in 1951, in addition to testifying to Weil’s initial impact in the world it seeks to introduce Weil to an American audience. I found it quite detailed –it mentions everything I have ever found out about her and adds some penetrating observations.
SINCE HER DEATH, Simone Weil has come to seem more and more a special exemplar of sanctity for our time — the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint. In eight scant years, this young Frenchwoman, whom scarcely anyone had heard of before her sacrificial death in exile at the age of has come to possess the imagination of many in the Western world. Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Jew, agnostic and devout, we have all turned to her with the profound conviction that the meaning of her experience is our meaning, that she is really ours.
Few of us, to be sure, would find nothing to dissent from in her religious thought; fewer still would be capable of emulating the terrible purity of her life; none could measure himself, without shame, against the absolute ethos toward which she aspired. And yet she does not seem strange to us, as other mystics and witnesses of God have seemed strange; for though on one side her life touches the remote mysteries of the Divine Encounter, on the other it is rooted in a world with which we are familiar.
She speaks of the problems of belief in the vocabulary of the unbeliever, of the doctrines of the Church in the words of the un-churched. The askesis, the “dark night of the soul,” through which she passed to certitude, is the modern intellectual’s familiar pattern of attraction toward and disillusionment with Marxism, the discipline of contemporary politics. The day-to-day struggles of trade unionism, unemployment, the Civil War in Spain, the role of the Soviet Union, anarchism, and pacifism — these are the determinants of her ideas, the unforeseen roads that led her to sanctity. Though she passed finally beyond politics, her thought bears to the end the mark of her early interests, as the teaching of St. Paul is influenced by his rabbinical schooling, or that of St. Augustine by his training in rhetoric.
Before her death, scarcely any of Simone Weil’s religious writings had been published. To those in France who thought of her still, in terms of her early political essays, as a somewhat unorthodox Marxist moving toward anarchism, the posthumous Christian books must have come as a shock. Surely, no “friend of God” in all history, had moved more unwillingly toward the mystic encounter. There is in her earlier work no sense of a groping toward the divine, no promise of holiness, no pursuit of a purity beyond this world — only a conventionally left-wing concern with the problems of industrialization, rendered in a tone at once extraordinarily inflexible and wonderfully sensitive.
The particular note of conviction in Simone Weil’s testimony arises from the feeling that her role as a mystic was so unintended, one for which she had not in any sense prepared. An undertone of incredulity persists beneath her astonishing honesty: quite suddenly God had taken her, radical, agnostic, contemptuous of religious life and practice as she had observed it! She clung always to her sense of being an Outsider among the religious, to a feeling that her improbable approach had given her a special vocation, as an “apostle to the Gentiles,” planted at “the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.” She refused to become, in the typical compensatory excess of the convert, more of the Church than those born into it; she would not even be baptized, and it is her unique position, at once in and out of institutionalized Catholicism, that determines her special role and meaning.
To those who consider themselves on the safe side of belief, she teaches the uncomfortable truth that the unbelief of many atheists is closer to a true love of God and a true sense of his nature, than the kind of easy faith which, never having experienced God, hangs a label bearing his name on some childish fantasy or projection of the ego. Like Kierkegaard, she preached the paradox of its being easier for a non-Christian to become a Christian, than for a “Christian” to become one.
To those who believe in a single Revelation, and enjoy the warm sensation of being saved in a cozy circle of friends, she expounded the doctrine of a gospel spread in many “languages,” of a divine Word shared among rival myths, in each of which certain important truths, implicit elsewhere, are made explicit. For those to whom religion means comfort and peace of mind, she brings the terrible reminder that Christ promised not peace but the sword, and that his own last words were a cry of absolute despair, the “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) which is the true glory of Christianity.
But she always considered that her chief mission was to those still “submerged in materialism,” that is, to most of us in a chaotic and disenchanted world. To the unbeliever who has rather smugly despised the churchgoer for seeking an easy consolation, she reveals the secret of his own cowardice, suggesting that his agnosticism may itself be only an opiate, a dodge to avoid facing the terror of God’s reality and the awful burden of his love.
She refused to cut herself off from anyone, by refusing to identify herself completely with anyone or any cause. She rejected the temptation to withdraw into a congenial group, once associated with which, she could be disowned by all outside of it. She rather took upon herself the task of sustaining all possible beliefs in their infinite contradictions and on their endless levels of relevance; the smugness of the false elect, the materialism of the shallowly rebellious, self-deceit and hypocrisy, parochialism and atheism — from each she extracted its partial truth, and endured the larger portion of error. She chose to submit to a kind of perpetual invisible crucifixion; her final relationship to all those she would not disown became that of the crucified to the cross.
The French editors of Simone Weil’s works, Gustave Thibon, a lay theologian who was also her friend, and Father Perrin, the nearest thing to a confessor she ever had, have both spoken of Simone Weil’s refusal to be baptized as a mere stage in her development, a nonessential flaw in her thinking, which, had she only lived longer, would probably have been remedied. M. Thibon and Father Perrin are, of course, Catholics, and speak as they must out of their great love for Mlle Weil, and their understandable conviction that such holiness could not permanently have stayed outside of the Church; but from Simone Weil’s own point of view, her outsideness was the very essence of her position. This is made especially clear in the present volume.
“I feel,” she wrote once, “that it is necessary to me, prescribed for me, to be alone, an outsider and alienated from every human context whatsoever.” And on another occasion, she jotted in her journal the self-reminder, “Preserve your solitude!” What motivated her was no selfish desire to withdraw from the ordinary concourse of men, but precisely the opposite impulse. She knew that one remains alienated from a particular allegiance, not by vainly attempting to deny all beliefs, but precisely by sharing them all.
To have become rooted in the context of a particular religion, Simone Weil felt, would on the one hand, have exposed her to what she calls “the patriotism of the Church,” with a consequent blindness to the faults of her own group and the virtues of others, and would, on the other hand, have separated her from the common condition here below, which finds us all “outsiders, uprooted, in exile.” The most terrible of crimes is to collaborate in the uprooting of others in an already alienated world; but the greatest of virtues is to uproot oneself for the sake of one’s neighbors and of God. “It is necessary to uproot oneself. Cut down the tree and make a cross and carry it forever after.”
Especially at the moment when the majority of mankind is “submerged in materialism,” Simone Weil felt she could not detach herself from them by undergoing baptism. To be able to love them as they were, in all their blindness, she would have to know them as they were; and to know them, she would have to go among them disguised in the garments of their own disbelief. In so far as Christianity had become an exclusive sect, it would have to be remade into a “total Incarnation of faith,” have to become truly “catholic,” catholic enough to include the myths of the dark-skinned peoples from a world untouched by the Churches of the West, as well as the insights of post-Enlightenment liberals, who could see in organized religion only oppression and bitterness and pride.
“[I]n our present situation,” she wrote, “universality has to be fully explicit.” And that explicit universality, she felt, must find a mouthpiece in a new kind of saint, for “today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.” The new kind of saint must possess a special “genius,” capable of blending Christianity and Stoicism, the love of God and “filial piety for the city of the world”; a passive sort of “genius” that would enable him to act as a “neutral medium,” like water, “indifferent to all ideas without exception, even atheism and materialism .
Simone Weil felt that she could be only the forerunner and foreteller of such a saint; for her, humility forbade her thinking of herself as one capable of a “new revelation of the universe and human destiny… the unveiling of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto hidden…” Yet she is precisely the saint she prophesied.
Despite her modesty, she spoke sometimes as if she were aware that there was manifest in the circumstances of her birth (she had been born into an agnostic family of Jewish descent) a special providence, a clue to a special mission. While it was true, she argued in her letters to Catholic friends, that the earlier Saints had all loved the Church and had been baptized into it, on the other hand, they had all been born and brought up in the Church, as she had not. “I should betray the truth,” she protested, “that is to say, the aspect of the truth that I see, if I left the point, where I have been since my birth, at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”
It must not be thought that she was even troubled by the question of formally becoming a Christian; it vexed her devout Catholic friends and for their sakes she returned again and again to the problem; but, as for herself, she was at peace. Toward the end of her life, the mystic vision came to her almost daily, and she did not have to wonder (in such matters, she liked to say, one does not believe or disbelieve; one knows or does not know) if there were salvation outside an organized sect; she was a living witness that the visible Church and the invisible congregation of the saints are never one. “I have never for a second had the feeling that God wanted me in the Church. . . . I never doubted…. I believe that now it can be concluded that God does not want me in the Church.”
It is because she was capable of remaining on the threshold of organized religion, “without moving, quite still… indefinitely . . .“ that Simone Weil speaks to all of us with special authority, an Outsider to outsiders, our kind of saint, whom we have needed (whether we have known it or not) “as a plague-stricken town needs doctors.”
To what then does she bear witness? To the uses of exile and suffering, to the glory of annihilation and absurdity, to the unforeseen miracle of love. Her life and work form a single document, a document which we can still not read clearly, though clearly enough, perhaps, for our needs. On the one hand, the story of Simone Weil’s life is still guarded by reticence; and on the other hand, her thought comes to us in fragmentary form. She completed no large-scale work; she published in her lifetime no intimate testimony to the secret religious life that made of her last few years a series of experiences perhaps unequaled since St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross. If she has left any detailed account of those experiences we have not yet seen it.
Since her death, four volumes of her work have been published in France. La Pesanteur et La Grace (Gravity and Grace), is a selection from her diaries, chosen and topically rearranged by Gustave Thibon; the effect is that of a modem Pensées — no whole vision, but a related, loosely linked body of aphorisms, always illuminating and direct, sometimes extraordinarily acute. We do not know, of course, what M. Thibon has chosen to omit; and he has not even told us how large a proportion of the notebooks he has included in his selection.
L’Enracinernent (The Need for Roots) is the longest single piece left by Simone Weil. Begun at the request of the Free French Government in exile, it takes off from a consideration of the religious and social principles upon which a truly Christian French nation might be built and touches upon such subjects as the humanizing of factory work, the need for freedom of purely speculative thought, and the necessity for expunging from our books a false notion of the heroic which makes us all guilty of the rise of Hitler. It is a fascinating though uneven book, in parts ridiculous, in parts profound, but motivated throughout by the pity and love Simone Weil felt in contemplating a society that had made of the apparatus of government an oppressive machine by separating the secular and religious.
The third book, of which the present volume is a translation, is in many ways the most representative and appealing of the three. It is not, of course, a whole, but a chance collection, entrusted to Father Perrin during the time just before Simone Weil’s departure for America. It includes some material, originally written as early as 1937, though recast in the final years of her life; but in the main it represents the typical concerns of the end of Simone Weil’s life, after she had reached a haven of certainty. Among the documents (which survived a confiscation by the Gestapo) are six letters, all but one written to Father Perrin, of which letter IV, the “Spiritual Autobiography,” is of special importance. Among the essays, the meditation on the Pater Noster possesses great interest, for this was the single prayer by which Simone Weil attained almost daily the Divine Vision of God; and the second section of the study called “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” I find the most moving and beautiful piece of writing Simone Well ever did.
Another volume of her collected essays and meditations, under the title La Connaissance Surnaturelle (Supernatural Knowledge) has recently appeared in France, and several other volumes made up of extracts from her notebooks are to be published soon. Simone Weil apparently left behind her a large body of fragments, drafts, and unrevised sketches, which a world that finds in her most casual words insights and illuminations will not be content to leave in manuscript.
Several of her poems and prose pieces, not included in any of these volumes, have been published in various French magazines (notably in Cahiers de Sud) and three or four of her political essays have appeared in this country in Politics. But the only really consequential study, aside from those in the three books, is her splendid, though absurdly and deliberately partial, interpretation of the Iliad, which, has been excellently translated into English by Mary McCarthy and published in pamphlet form under the title of The Iliad: or, the Poem of Force.
These are the chief sources of her thought; and the introductions to the volumes edited by M. Thibon and Father Perrin provide, along with briefer personal tributes printed at the time of her death, the basic information we have about her life. In a profound sense, her life is her chief work, and without some notion of her biography it is impossible to know her total meaning. On the other hand, her books are extensions of her life; they are not literature, not even in the sense that the writings of a theologically oriented author like Kierkegaard are literature. They are confessions and testimonies — sometimes agonized cries or dazzled exclamations — motivated by the desire to say just how it was with her, regardless of all questions of form or beauty- of style. They have, however, a charm of directness, an appealing purity of tone that makes it possible to read them (Simone Weil would have hated to acknowledge it!) for the sheer pleasure of watching a subtle mind capture in words the most elusive of paradoxes, or of contemplating an absolute love striving to communicate itself in spite of the clumsiness of language.
We do not know, as yet, a great deal about the actual facts of Simone Well’s life. Any attempt at biographical reconstruction runs up against the reticence and reserve of her parents, who are still living, and even more critically, it encounters her own desire to be anonymous—to deny precisely those elements in her experience, which to the biographer are most interesting. She was born in 1909, into a family apparently socially secure (her father was a doctor) and “completely agnostic.” Though her ancestors had been Jewish, the faith had quite disappeared in her immediate family, and where it flourished still among remoter relatives, it had become something cold, oppressive, and meaninglessly legalistic to a degree that made Simone Weil all of her life incapable of judging fairly the merits of Judaism. She appeared to have no sense of alienation from the general community connected with her Jewishness (though in appearance she seems to have fitted exactly a popular stereotype of the Jewish face), but grew up with a feeling of belonging quite firmly to a world whose values were simply “French,” that is to say, a combination of Greek and secularized Christian elements.
Even as a child, she seems to have troubled her parents, to whom being comfortable was an end of life, and who refused to or could not understand her mission. They frustrated again and again, with the greatest of warmth and good will, her attempts to immolate herself for the love of God. Her father and mother came to represent, in an almost archetypal struggle with her, the whole solid bourgeois world, to whom a hair shirt is a scandal, and suffering only a blight to be elirninated by science and proper familial care. Yet she loved her parents as dearly as they loved her, though she was from childhood quite incapable of overt demonstrations of affection.
At the age of five, she refused to eat sugar, as long as the soldiers at the front were not able to get it. The war had brought the sense of human misery into her protected milieu for the first time, and her typical pattern of response was already set: to deny herself what the most unfortunate were unable to enjoy. There is in her reaction, of course, something of the hopeless guilt of one born into a favored position in a society with sharp class distinctions. Throughout her career, there was to be a touch of the absurd in her effort to identify herself utterly with the most exploited groups in society (whose own major desire was to rise up into the class from which she was trying to abdicate), and being continually “rescued” from the suffering she sought by parents and friends. A little later in her childhood, she declared that she would no longer wear socks, while the children of workers had to go without them. This particular gesture, she was later to admit in a typically scrupulous bit of self-analysis, might have been prompted as much by an urge to tease her mother as by an unselfish desire to share the lot of the poor.
At fourteen, she passed through the darkest spiritual crisis of her life, feeling herself pushed to the very verge of suicide by an acute sense of her absolute unworthiness, and by the onslaught of migraine headaches of an unbearable intensity. The headaches never left her afterward, not even in her moments of extremest joy; her very experiences of Divine Love would come to her strained through that omnipresent pain which attacked her, as she liked to say, “at the intersection of body and soul.” She came later to think of that torment, intensified by the physical hardships to which she compulsively exposed herself, as a special gift; but in early adolescence, it was to her only a visible and outward sign of her inner misery at her own total lack of talent.
The root of her troubles seems to have been her relation-ship with her brother, a mathematical prodigy, beside whose brilliance she felt herself stumbling and stupid. Her later academic successes and the almost universal respect accorded her real intelligence seem never to have convinced her that she had any intellectual talent. The chance phrase of a visitor to her mother, overheard when she was quite young, had brought the whole problem to a head. Sirnone Weil never forgot the words. “One is genius itself,” the woman had said, pointing to the boy; and then, indicating Simone, “the other beauty!” It is hard to say whether she was more profoundly disturbed by the imputation of a beauty she did not possess, or by the implicit denial of genius.
Certainly, forever afterward, she did her best to destroy what in her was “beautiful” and superficially charming, to turn herself into the anti-mask of the appealing young girl. The face in her photographs is absolute in its refusal to be charming, an exaggeration, almost a caricature of the intellectual Jewess. In a sentence or two, Father Perrin recreates her for us in her typical costume; the oversize brown, beret, the shapeless cape, the large, floppy shoes, and emerging from this disguise, the clumsy, imperious gestures. ‘We hear, too, the unmusical voice that completes the ensemble, monotonous, almost merciless in its insistence. Only in her writing, is Simone Weil betrayed into charm; in her life, she made a principle of avoiding it. “A beautiful woman,” she writes, “looking at her image in “the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.”
But though her very appearance declares her physical humility, we are likely to be misled about Simone Weil’s attitude toward her own intelligence. Father Perrin tells us that he never saw her yield a point in an argument with anybody, but on the other hand, he is aware, as we should be, too, of her immense humbleness in the realm of ideas. Never was she able to believe that she truly possessed the quality she saw so spectacularly in her own brother, the kind of “genius” that was honestly to be envied in so far as it promised not merely “exterior success” but also access to the very “kingdom of truth.”
She did not commit suicide, but she passed beyond the temptation without abandoning her abysmal sense of her own stupidity. Instead, she learned painfully the uses of stupidity. To look at a mathematical problem one has inexcusably missed, she writes, is to learn the true discipline of humility. In the contemplation of our crimes or our sins, even of our essential proneness to evil, there are temptations to pride, but in the contemplation of the failures of our intelligence, there is only degradation and the sense of shame. To know that one is mediocre is “to be on. the true way.”
Besides, when one has no flair for geometry (it is interesting that her examples come always from the field of her brother’s special competence) the working of a problem becomes not the really irrelevant pursuit of an “answer,” but a training in “attention,” which is the essence of prayer. And this in turn opens to us the source of a higher kind of genius, which has nothing to do with natural talent and everything to do with Grace. “Only a kind of perversity can force the friends of God to deprive themselves of genius, because it is enough for them to demand it of their Father in the name of Christ, to have a su1erabundance of genius. . .“ Yet even this final consideration never brought her absolute peace. She wrote toward the end of her life that she could never read the parable of the “barren fig tree” without a shudder, seeing in the figure always a possible portrait of herself, naturally impotent, and yet somehow, in the inscrutable plan of God, cursed for that impotence.
However she may have failed her own absolute standards, she always seems to have pleased her teachers. At the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where she studied from 1928 to 1931, finally attaining her agregée de philosophic at the age of 22, she was a student of the philosopher Alain, who simply would not believe the report of her early death years afterward. “She will come back surely,” he kept repeating. “It isn’t true!” It was, perhaps, under his instruction that the love of Plato, so important in her thought, was confirmed in her once and for all.
But at that point of her career she had been influenced by Marx as well as the Greek philosophers; and it was as an earnest and committed radical, though one who had never joined a particular political party, that she took up her first teaching job at Le Puy. It was a time for radicals — those utterly bleak years at the pit of a world-wide depression. She seems, in a way not untypical of the left-wing intellectual in a small town, to have horrified the good citizens of Le Puy by joining the workers in their sports, marching with them in their picket lines, taking part with the unemployed in their pick and shovel work, and refusing to eat more than the rations of those on relief, distributing her surplus food to the needy. The bourgeois mind seems to have found it as absurd for this awkward girl to be playing ball with workers, as to be half-starving herself because of principles hard to understand. As for crying for a Revolution!
A superintendent of instruction was called in to threaten Simone Weil with revocation of her teacher’s license, at which she declared proudly that she would consider such a revocation “the crown of her career!” There is a note of false bravado in the response, betraying a desire to become a “cause,” to attain a spectacular martyrdom. It is a common flaw in the revolutionary activity of the young; but fortunately for Simone Weil, this kind of denouement, of which she would have been ashamed later, was denied her. She was only a young girl, harmless, and her license was not revoked. Irked at the implied slur, perhaps, and certainly dissatisfied in general with halfway participation in the class struggle of a teacher-sympathizer, she decided to become a worker once and for all, by taking a job at the Renault auto plant.
It is hard to know how to judge the venture. Undoubtedly, there is in it something a little ridiculous: the resolve of the Vassar girl of all lands to “share the experience” of the working class; and the inevitable refusal behind that resolve to face up to the fact that the freedom to choose a worker’s life, and the consciousness of that choice, which can never be sloughed off, make the dreamed-of total identification impossible. And yet for the sake of that absurd vision, Simone Weil suffered under conditions exacerbated by her sensibility and physical weakness beyond anything the ordinary worker had to bear; the job “entered into her body,” and the ennui and misery of working-class life entered into her soul, making of her a “slave,” in a sense she could only understand fully later, when her religious illumination had come.
She was always willing to take the step beyond the trivially silly; and the ridiculous pushed far enough, absurdity compounded, becomes something else–the Absurd as a religious category, the madness of the Holy fool beside which the wisdom of this world is revealed as folly. This point Simone Weil came to understand quite clearly. Of the implicit forms of the love of God, she said, “[I]n a sense they are absurd, they are mad,” and this she knew to be their special claim. Even unhappiness, she learned, in order to be pure must be a little absurd. The very superiority of Christ over all the martyrs is that he is not anything so solemn as a martyr at all, but a “slave,” a criminal among criminals, “only a little more ridiculous. For unhappiness is ridiculous.”
An attack of pleurisy finally brought Simone Weil’s factory experience to an end (there were always her parents waiting to rescue her), but having rested for a while, just long enough to regain some slight measure of strength, she set off for Spain to support the Loyalists, vowing all the while that she would not ever learn to use the gun they gave her. She talked about Spain with the greatest reluctance in later years, despite the fact, or perhaps because it was undoubtedly for her, as for many in her generation, a critical experience: the efflorescence and the destruction of the revolutionary dream. From within and without the Marxist hope was defeated in a kind of model demonstration, a paradigm for believers. Simone Weil was fond of quoting the Homeric phrase about “justice, that fugitive from the camp of the victors” but in those years it was absent from the camp of victor and vanquished alike. Not even defeat could purify the revolution!
While the struggle in Spain sputtered toward its close, Simone Weil endured a personal catastrophe even more anticlimactic; she was wounded — by accident! The fate that preserved her throughout her life for the antiheroic heroism of her actual death, brought this episode, too, to a bathetic conclusion. Concerned with the possibilities of combining participation and nonviolence, pondering the eternal, she forgot the “real” world of missteps and boiling oil, and ineptly burned herself, a victim of that clumsiness which seems to have been an essential aspect of her denial of the physical self. Badly hurt and poorly cared for, she was rescued from a field hospital by her parents—once more coming between her and her desired agony!
The Spanish adventure was her last purely political gesture; afterward, during the Second World War, she was to work up some utterly impractical plan for being parachuted into France to carry spiritual solace to the fighters in the underground resistance; and she was even to consider at one point going to the Soviet Union, where she could doubtless not have lived in freedom for a month. Among the Communists in France she had been known as a Trotskyite, and had once been threatened with physical violence for delivering an anti-Stalinist report at a trade union convention. But at a moment when the Russians were retreating before the German attack, she felt obliged to “add a counterweight,” in order to restore that equilibrium which could alone make life here below bearable. One can barely imagine her in the field with the Red Army, this quixotic, suffering “friend of God,” flanked by the self-assured killers of “Fascist Beasts,” and carrying in her hand the gun that would doubtless have blown off her fingers had she tried to fire it.
These later projects were, as their very “impossibility” attests, different in kind from her early practical ventures: the picketing with the unemployed, the participation in Spain. She had passed into the realm of the politics of the absurd, of meta-politics, having decided that “the revolution is the opiate of the people,” and that the social considered in itself is “a trap of traps…an ersatz divinity…irremediably the domain of the devil.” The lure of the social she believed to be her special temptation.
Against the love of self she was armored by her very temperament. “No one loves himself,” she wrote in her journal. “Man wants to be an egoist and cannot.” But a nostalgia for collective action seemed ever on the point of overwhelming her defenses. Simply to join together with others in any group whatsoever would have been for her “delicious.” “I know that if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus,” she once said, “a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi…. “Yet, the “we” can lead away from God, she knew, as dangerously as the “I.” “It is wrong to be an ‘I,’ but it is worse to be a ‘we,’” she warned herself. “The city gives us the feeling of being at home. Cultivate the feeling of being at home in exiled”
Yet charity took her continually back into the world of social action. “Misery must be eliminated in so far as possible from life in society, for misery is useful only in respect to grace, and society ‘is not a society of the elect. There will always be enough misery for the elect.” If there is a certain inconsistency in her position, it is easy to forgive. Even the “wrong” politics of her revolutionary youth she would not write off as wholly mistaken; she never repented her early radicalism, understanding it as a providential discipline, through which she had been unconsciously learning how to emancipate her imagination from its embroilment with the social. “Meditation on the social mechanism is a purification of the first importance in this regard. To contemplate the social is as good a means of purification as retiring from the world. That is why I was not wrong in staying with politics for so long.”
It was after her Spanish experience that Simone Weil reached the critical point of conversion; but the decisive event in her spiritual education had been, she always felt, her work in the factory. She had not known what she was seeking at the machine, but she had found it nonetheless; branded with the red mark of the slave, she had become incapable of resisting “the religion of slaves.” In one sense, Simone Weil insisted afterward, she had not needed to be converted; she had always been implicitly, in “secret” even from her lower self, a Christian; but she had never knelt, she had never prayed, she had never entered a Church, she had never even posed to herself the question of God’s existence. “I may say that never in my life have I ‘sought for God,’” she said toward the end of her life; but she had been all the time waiting, without daring to define what she awaited.
Taken off by her parents to Portugal to recuperate from her bums and her chagrin, she made her way to Solesmes, where, listening to a Gregorian chant at the moment when her migraine was at its worst, she experienced the joy and bitterness of Christ’s passion as a real event, though still so abstractly that she did not attach to it any name. And there, too, she had met.a young English Catholic, who introduced her to the work of the British metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, and so gave her a key to the beyond, in the place of conventional prayer to which she had not yet been able to turn.
Like no saint before her, Simone Weil distrusted the conventional apparatus of piety and grace; and it is typical of her role that it was through forms of art acceptable to the most skeptical anti-Christian (Gregorian chant and metaphysical poetry — two of the special rediscoveries of our irreligious time) that she approached her encounter with God.
“In a moment of intense physical suffering,” she tells us, “when I was forcing myself to feel love, but without desiring to give a name to that love, I felt, without being in any way prepared for it (for I had never read the mystical writers) a presence more personal, more certain, more real than that of a human being, though inaccessible to the senses and the imagination…” She had been repeating to herself a piece by George Herbert, when the presence came. “I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem,” she writes, “but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.” It is worth quoting the poem as a whole, for its imagery is vital, as we shall see later, to an understanding of Simone Weil’s essential thought.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of lust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Even after such an experience, this astonishingly stubborn friend of God could not for more than five years bring herself conventionally to pray (though she tells us that in 1937 she knelt for the first time, at the shrine in Assisi), finally persuading herself to say the Patter Nosier daily with so special a concentration that apparently at each repetition, Christ himself “descended and took her.” It is her remarkable freedom from, her actual shamefastness before the normal procedures of Christian worship that lend a special authority to Simone Weil’s testimony. Nothing comes to her as a convention or a platitude; it is as if she is driven to reinvent everything from the beginning. Of her first mystical experience she writes, “God had mercifully prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it would be clear to me that I had not fabricated an absolutely unexpected encounter.” Surely, no mystic has ever been so scrupulously his own skeptical examiner.
Afterward, Simone Weil found in St. John of the Cross and the Bhagavad-Gita accounts of encounters similar to her own; and she even decided upon rereading her old master Plato in the light of her new experience that he, too, must have achieved the mystical union. Before her own encounter, she had thought that all such alleged experiences could be only a turning of the natural orientation of the sexual desire toward an imaginary object labeled God — a degrading self-indulgence, “lower than a debauch.” To distinguish her own secret life from such ersatz mysticism became one of the main objects of her thought.
After her first mystical union, the inner existence of Simone Weil becomes much more important than anything that superficially happens to her. Even the War itself, the grossest fact of our recent history, shrinks in the new perspective. Nonetheless, Simone Weil continued to immerse herself in the misery of daily life. Driven by her constant desire not to separate herself from the misfortune of others, she refused to leave Paris until it was declared an open city, after which she moved with her parents to Marseilles.
But there she was caught by the anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy Government which made it impossible for her to teach any longer; and so she went to Gustave Thibon, a lay theologian, in charge of a Catholic agricultural colony in the South of France. Under his guidance, she worked in the vineyards with the peasants (whom she astonished and bored with lectures on the Upanishads!), sleeping as they slept, and eating their meager fare until her feeble health broke down once more. M. Thibon at first immensely mistrusted her motives — a radical intellectual “returning to the soil” — then became closely attached to her, and it was to him that she entrusted her journals and occasional jottings, which he finally decided to publish after her death despite her request to the contrary.
The chief external influence on Simone Weil during these last years of her spiritual progress was not M. Thibon, but Father Perrin, with whom she was apparently able to talk as she had never been able to before, and to whom she communicated what of her secrets could be spoken at all. He was truly and deeply her friend. One has the sense of Simone Weil as a woman to whom “sexual purity” is as instinctive as breath; to whom, indeed, any kind of sentimental life is scarcely necessary. But a few lines in one of her absolutely frank and unguarded letters to Father Perrin reveal a terrible loneliness which only he was able to mitigate, to some degree, and a vulnerability which only he knew how to spare. “I believe that, except for you, all human beings to whom I have ever given, through my friendship, the power to harm easily, have sometimes amused themselves by doing so, frequently or rarely, consciously or unconsciously, but all of them at one time or another…”
It is no evil in them, she hastens to add, that prompts this infliction of pain, “but an instinct, almost mechanical, like that which makes the other animals in the chicken yard fall on the wounded hen.” The figure of the wounded hen is one to which she returns elsewhere, and in contemplating it, one knows suddenly the immense sensitivity beneath the inflexible surface, her terrible need not to be laughed at or pitied for her patent absurdities. One remembers another heart-rending figure she used once to describe herself, “Indeed for other people, in a sense I do not exist. I am the color of dead leaves, like certain unnoticed insects.” And the phrases from her journal recur, “never seek friendship…never permit oneself to dream of friendship… friendship is a miracle!”
It was with. Father Perrin that Simone Weil argued out the question of baptism: Would she lose her intellectual freedom in entering the Church? Did Catholicism have in it too much of those “great beasts” Israel and Rome? Did Christianity deny the beauty of this world? Did excommunication make of the Church an instrument of exclusion? Her friendship for the priest made her problem especially difficult: she did not want to hurt him personally by refusing baptism at his hands, nor did she certainly want to accept merely out of her love for him.
là the end, she decided to wait for an express command from God, “except perhaps at the moment of death.” Searching, she believed, leads only to error; obedience is the sole way to truth. “If,” she wrote in one of her most splendid paradoxes, “it were conceivable that one might be damned by obeying God and saved by disobeying him; I would nonetheless obey him.” The role of the future spouse is to wait; and it is to this “waiting for God” that the title of the present collection refers. Simone Weil finally remained on the threshold of the Church, crouching there for the love of all of us who are not inside, all the heretics, the secular dreamers, the prophesiers in strange tongues; “without budging,” she wrote, “immobile… only now my heart has been transported, forever I hope, into the Holy Sacrament revealed on the altar.”
In May, 1942, she finally agreed to accompany her parents, who had been urging her for a long time, and set sail for America. Before her departure she remarked ruefully to a friend, “Don’t you think the sea might serve me as a baptismal font?” But America proved intolerable to her; simply to be in so secure a land was, no matter how one tried to live, to enjoy what most men could not attain. She finally returned to England, where she tried desperately to work out some scheme for re-entering France, and where she refused to eat any more than the rations allowed her countrymen in the occupied territory. Exhausted and weakened by her long fast, she permitted herself to be borne off into the country by well-meaning protectors, but on August 24th in 1943, she succeeded at last in dying, completing the process of “de-creation” at which she had aimed all her life.
Simone Well’s writing as a whole is marked by three characteristic devices: extreme statement or paradox; the equilibrium of contradictions; and exposition by myth. As the life of Simone Weil reflects a desire to insist on the absolute even at the risk of being absurd, so her writing tends always toward the extreme statement, the formulation that shocks by its willingness to push to its ultimate conclusion the kind of statement we ordinarily accept with the tacit understanding that no one will take it too seriously. The outrageous (from the natural point of view) ethics of Christianity, the paradoxes on which it is based are a scandal to common sense; but we have protected ourselves against them by turning them imperceptibly into platitudes. It is Simone Weil’s method to revivify them, by recreating them in all their pristine offensiveness.
“He who gives bread to the famished sufferer for the love of God will not be thanked by Christ. He has already had his reward in this thought itself. Christ thanks those who do not know to whom they are giving food.” Or “Ineluctable necessity, misery, distress, the crushing weight of poverty and of work that drains the spirit, cruelty, torture, violent death, constraint, terror, sickness — all these are God’s love!” Or “Evil is the beautiful obedience of matter to the will of God.”
Sometimes the primary function of her paradoxes is to remind us that we live in a world where the eternal values are reversed; it is as if Simone Weil were bent on proving to us, by our own uncontrollable drawing back from what we most eagerly should accept, that we do not truly believe those things to which we declare allegiance. “[E]very time I think of the crucifixion of Christ I commit the sin of envy.” “Suffering: superiority of man over God. We needed the Incarnation to keep that superiority from becoming a scandal!”
Or sometimes it is our sentimentality that is being attacked, that ersatz of true charity which is in fact its worst enemy, “[Christ] did not however prescribe the abolition of penal justice. He allowed stoning to continue. Wherever it is done with justice, it is therefore he who throws the first stone.” “Bread and stone are love. We must eat the bread and lay ourselves open to the stone, so that it may sink as deeply as possible into our flesh.”
Or the paradox may have as its point merely the proving of the impossibility of God’s justice, the inconsequentiality of virtue and grace. “A Gregorian chant bears testimony as effectively as the death of a martyr.” “…a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need.”
Corresponding to Simone Well’s basic conviction that no widely held belief is utterly devoid of truth is a dialectical method in which she balances against each other contrary propositions, not in order to arrive at a synthesis in terms of a “golden mean,” but rather to achieve an equilibrium of truths. “One must accept all opinions,” she has written, “but then arrange them in a vertical order, placing them at appropriate levels.” Best of all exercises for the finding of truth is the confrontation of statements that seem absolutely to contradict each other. “Method of investigation –” Simone Weil once jotted down in a note to herself, “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.”
When she is most faithful to this method, her thought is most satisfactory; only where some overwhelming prejudice prevents her from honoring contradictions is she narrow and un-illuminating — as for instance, toward Israel, Rome, Aristotle, or Corneille. These unwitting biases must be distinguished from her deliberate strategic emphases, her desire to “throw the counterweight” on the side of a proposition against which popular judgment is almost solidly arrayed; as she does most spectacularly by insisting, in the teeth of our worship of happiness and success, that “unhappines?’ is the essential road to God, and the supreme evidence of God’s love.
One can see her method of equilibrium most purely in her remarks on immortality of the soul, in her consideration of the rival Protestant and Catholic theories of the Eucharist, and especially in her approach to the existence of God. “A case of contradictories, both of them true. There is a God. There is no God. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am sure my love is no illusion. I am quite sure there is no God, in the sense that I am sure there is nothing which resembles what I can conceive when I say that word.
There are three main factors that converge in Simone Weil’s interest in the myth (this is yet another aspect of her thought with which the contemporary reader of Jung and Joyce and Eliot and Mann feels particularly at home): first, there is the example of her master, Plato, who at all the great crises of his thought falls back on the mythic in search of a subtle and total explication; second, there is her own belief in multiple revelation, her conviction that the archetypal poetries of people everywhere restate the same truths in different metaphoric languages; and third, there is her sense of myth as the special gospel of the poor, a treasury of insights into the Beauty of the World, which Providence has bestowed on poverty alone, but which, in our uprooted world, the alienated oppressed can no longer decipher for themselves.
To redeem the truths of the myths, they must be “translated.” Sometimes this is a relatively simple process of substituting for unfamiliar names, ones that belong to our own system of belief: Zeus is God the Father, Bacchus God the Son; Dionysus and Osiris “are (in a certain manner) Christ himself.” In the fragment of Sophocles, Electra is the human soul and Orestes is Christ; but in this latter example we are led, once we have identified the protagonists, to a complex religious truth: as Electra loves the absence of Orestes more than the presence of any other, so must we love God, who is by definition “absent” from the material world, more than the “real,” present objects that surround us.
In a similar manner, other folk stories and traditional poems can lead toward revelations of fundamental truths: the “two winged companions” of an Upanishad, who sit on a single branch, one eating the fruit of the tree, the other looking at it, represent the two portions of the soul: the one that would contemplate the good, the other (like Eve in the Garden) that would consume it. Or the little tailor in Grimm’s fairy tale who beats a giant in a throwing contest by hurling into the air a bird rather than a stone teaches us something about the nature of Grace. And finally, we discover from “all the great images of folklore and mythology” what Simone Weil considers to be the truth most necessary to our salvation, namely, “it is God who seeks man.”
The fate of the world, she knew, is decided out of time; and it is in myth that mankind has recor4ed its sense of its true history, the eternal “immobile drama” of necessity and evil, salvation and grace.
Her Essential Thought
It is no accident that Simone Weil has left behind no single summation of her thought; for she is not in any sense a systematic thinker. Some of her profoundest insights were flashed off as detached aphorisms; and, as we have seen, she sought, rather than avoided, inconsistency. To reduce her ideas to a unified body of dogma would be, therefore, misleading and unfair; yet there are certain central concepts to which she always returned, key images that she might extend or vary, but which she could never entirely escape. These figures which adumbrate the core of her commitment are those of eating, looking, and walking toward; of gravity (pesanteur) and light; of slavery, nudity, poverty, and decreation.
The first group seems almost instinctive, rooted below the level of thought in Simone Well’s temperament itself, and provides a way into the others. The whole pattern of her life is dominated by the concepts of eating and not eating; from her childhood refusal of sugar, through her insistence at Le Puy on eating only as much as the relief allowance of the unemployed, to her death from semi-starvation in England, her virtue seems naturally to have found its expression in attitudes toward food. The vcry myths that most attracted her: the Minotaur, Eve and the apple, the two birds of the Upanishad are based on metaphors of eating; and the final line of the poem of George Herbert, which was the occasion of her first mystical experience, reads, we remember, “So I did sit and eat.”
There are two kinds of “eating” for Simone Weil, the “eating” of beauty and the beloved here below, which is a grievous error, “what one eats is destroyed, it is no longer real,” and the miraculous “eating” in Heaven, where one consumes and is consumed by his God. “The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations. Only beyond the sky, in the country inhabited by God, are they one and the same single operation… It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at.”
Here below we must be content to be eternally hungry; indeed, we must welcome hunger, for it is the sole proof we have of the reality of God, who is the only sustenance that can satisfy us, but one which is “absent” in the created world. “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread [God], but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry. It can only persuade itself of this by lying, for the reality of its hunger is not a belief, it is a certainty.”
Not to deny one’s hunger and still not to eat what is forbidden, there is the miracle of salvation! It is true even on the level of human friendship, “a miracle by which a person consents to view from a certain distance, and without coming any nearer, the very being who is necessary to him as food.” And how much more true on the level of the divine! “If [Eve] had been hungry at the moment when she looked at the fruit, if in spite of that she had remained looking at it indefinitely without taking one step toward it, she would have performed a miracle analogous to that of perfect friendship.”
It is “looking” which saves and not “eating.” “It should also be publicly and officially recognized that religion is nothing else but a looking.” Looking, the mere turning of the head toward God, is equated by Simone Weil with desire and that passive effort of “waiting for God” which titled one of her books; while eating is equated with the will, and the false muscular effort to seize that which can only be freely given. Man’s “free will” consists in nothing but the ability to turn, or to refuse to him, his eyes toward what God holds up before him. “One of the principal truths of Christianity, a truth that goes almost unrecognized today, is that looking is what saves us. The bronze serpent was lifted up so that those who lay maimed in the depths of degradation should be saved by looking upon it.”
Besides the temptation to consume what should only be regarded, man is beset by the longing to march toward the inapproachable, which he should be willing merely to look at from afar; and worst of all, he ends by persuading himself that he has approached it. “The great error of the Marxists and of all the nineteenth century was to believe that by walking straight ahead one had mounted into the air.” What we really want is above us, not ahead of us, and “We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up.” We are free only to change the direction of our glance; we cannot walk into heaven; we cannot rise without being lifted by grace.
The vertical is forbidden to us because the world is the province of gravity and dead weight (pesanteur). The whole universe, as we know it through the senses and the imagination, has been turned over by God to the control of brute mechanism, to necessity and blind force, and that primary physical law by which all things eternally fall. The very act of creation entailed the withdrawal of the Creator from the created, so that the sum total of God and his world and all of its creatures is, of course, less than God himself. Having withdrawn from the universe so that it might exist, God is powerless within it, ineffective except as his grace penetrates on special occasions, like a ray of light, the dark mechanical realm of unlimited misery.
Yet we must love this world, this absence of God by virtue of which we are, for only through it, like the smile of the beloved through pain, can we sense the perfectly non-present Being who alone can redeem it. “In the beauty of the world, brute necessity becomes an object of love. What is more beautiful than the action of gravity on the fugitive folds of the sea waves or on the almost eternal folds of the mountains?”
This world is the only reality available to us, and if we do not love it in all its terror, we are sure to end up loving the “imaginary,” our own dreams and self-deceits, the utopias of the politicians, or the futile promises of future reward and consolation which the misled blasphemously call “religion.” The soul has a million dodges for protecting itself against the acceptance and love of the emptiness, that “maximum distance between God and God,” which is the universe; for the price of such acceptance and love is abysmal misery.
And yet it is the only way. “If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God.”
The final crown of the life of holiness is the moment of utter despair in which one becomes totally a “slave,” naked and abandoned and nailed to the cross in imitation of the absolute spiritual poverty of Christ. “Extreme affliction… is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time… He whose soul remains ever turned toward God though pierced with a nail finds himself nailed to the center of the universe… at the intersection of creation and its Creator. . . at the intersection of the arms of the Cross.”
On the cross, deceit is no longer possible; we are forced to “recognize as real what we would not even have believed possible,” and having yielded ourselves in love to spiritual poverty, spiritual nudity, to death itself, even to the point of provisionally renouncing the hope of immortality, we are ready for the final gesture of obedience: the surrender of the last vestiges of selfhood. In the ultimate “nuptial yes,” we must de-create our egos, offer up everything we have ever meant by “I,” so that the Divine Love may pass unimpeded through the space we once occupied, close again on Itself. “We are created for this consent, and for this alone.”