≡ Menu

ivan ilyich

Today I am going to speak on a panel in front of graduate students discussing publication. I was surprised when I was asked, but found out I was third or fourth choice (I suspected that) when other professors turned it down. I will go inspite of the fact that, at the moment, I can’t speak above a whisper (should be OK with a mic) and even though most of those students are immured in careerism. I will go because they are immured in careerism, and do not care for anything except how and where to publish. Well, they do, but you’d never know it. Everything they want me to tell them is already available in dozens of books on how and where. There’s even a spot on line that gives all the ratios of publications , breaks it all down,and analyzes in almost sabermetric like detail. I will be facing Ivan Ilyich everywhere–no Tolstoys. Now when one has lived to the ripe old age of 55, one should expect Ivan Ilyich everywhere–the professional, the careerist, the one who plans his future to the last detail. Unlike Tolstoy’s Ilyich, most Ivans never get a mysterious but fatal disease. They don’t have conversion experiences. They die as neatly and as normally as they have lived–as Rilke put it–in 800 beds. They fill our best magazines and our best presses, and they don’t care if no one one cares as long as the few right people care, and sometimes any faculty news list sounds like Diane Chambers, the pedantic bartender from the old show Cheers, attempting to do an intellectual’s version of rap boasting: and I am in this top magazines, and I just did this and I just did that. And (Sprewell wheels, Sprewell wheels, Sprewell wheels!) I hate it. If I hate it, then it must be inside me. We only hate that which is inside us and we disown it at our peril. Tolstoy and the aristocracy hated the vulgar ambitions of the middle class because the Nobility was fading and part of them secretly wanted to hold on to the arts, and work in some capacity, and part of them was loathe to admit their art and culture had been built on the shit and sweat of serfs. They saw themselves as one with the land and one with their serfs, and the last thing the rising middle class wanted to be was poor and “one” with the serfs. The middle class sees clearly. They know what being one with the serfs really is. So it goes.

Hate does not come from God; it comes from some part of us that secretly shares in the crime by which we are outraged. No moralist is from God. Moralists are from 2-year-olds outraged that “Tommy did that!” When the middle class hates the poor it is because part of them is still back there and terrified of making a return visit. I do not hate the poor because I was raised to believe a life of art and the mind is available to all. I still believe that: I am thick headed. Success in the arts however is largely based on some talent for being a careerist–a subtle one, even an overt and obvious one. This is not the arts; it’s the art biz. part of me is a snob, too regal to embrace careerism and professionalism. This is wrong of me.If I would be fair, then I must admit that my parents raised me to think poetry was a given, painting, and dance, and music were a given. They belonged to me as well any other congressman or cuff, and they had nothing to do with wanting to be successful. I suffered from the delusion that I was already successful. Wasn’t I loafing on a sofa with tears streaming down my face because I had heard Elgar’s cello concerto for the first time? Wasn’t that the best sort of success–the success of transport? Didn’t I contain such depths, such sensitivity, such grace? Art and success were not even linked in my mind, and having a “career” in the arts seemed so distant from being an artist that I hardly connected them. You could work in a grocery store all your life and play Casale’s Cello Suites, couldn’t you. Why not?

I was not a utilitarian. Art was beyond both failure and success. So, I saw it in a very Russian way I suppose. Even though I am a factory worker, the son of a factory worker, there is a great deal of hothouse flower in me. My mother and father let me be languid in the parlor, listening to Chopin Nocturnes played by Dinu Lipatti while the dust motes settled on all their glass swans and beat up furniture. A part of me was an aesthete. It is the aesthete in me that hates publication and literary business talks. They are vulgar. They are of the factory–filled with purposeful, pragmatic people who maybe are more determined than talented. The fact that the determined beat out the talented appalls me. I forget that professionalism and careerism is also a talent: the talent for doing everything the right way. It is not Proust hanging out in a parlor. It is Zadie Smith going to Harvard and then hanging out in a parlor where she may not have been welcomed sixty years ago. I forget that shrewdness and stealth are virtues. I am limited as all people are by my particular brand of snobbery.

I didn’t go to Harvard. I did however, hang out in parlor with people who went to Harvard,sand, since I was no threat to them, we had a jolly time. The grad students were right to ask me only as a last ditch alternative. I’m a mess when it comes to being a careerist.They are professionals and their professors are professionals. I am a professional only in so far as I know a lot about poetry–its technical aspects, its history. I also know music, and painting. If I had been a woman inthe 19th century, I would have made some rich man a good wife. I’m a generalist. When it comes to publications, I fell into that, and , I am woefully ignorant. I believe most poems and stories are published because they fit a niche or fulfill the requirements of a code language for what is, at the moment, considered “quality work.” This code is hardly ever accurate as per art. It is highly accurate as per prevailing tastes.. Publication is an accurate measure of a standard mold set–not art. Factor X–that which makes living art–is the rare accidental catch in the net of publication. Oh see that glistening fish? It has beautiful scales and great fighting ability. We caught that without intending to. (no one admits that). Art is an accident that happens when one is allowed to loaf at ease and read Keats, and write many bad poems–without pressure. How can I tell the grad students that? They have to publish And for whom? Increasingly, programs are becoming 20 adjuncts and a celebrity hire. Increasingly, all the top magazines run contests, and winning a contest becomes everything. The parlor has become a factory. Tolstoy would be appalled. AWP would make him puke. It makes me puke, but I went this year. I was terrible at it, and didn’t schmooze. I may be known for my mouth but I am actually shy and terrible at chitchat. This is one thing I know: while you can’t ignore the business, but you die if you forget the parlor. Unfortunately, I think most people want to be comfortably dead instead of uncomfortably alive. Even I am attracted to it.. The parlor is not the given. You can’t take grad school or time spent with fellow artists for granted. How much time do you spend with friends talking about books or painting or music when you don’t have to? It’s an important question. Constructive sloth is vital. Everyone I know who is truly successful , including former students, knew how to waste time. How do you waste your time? When you aren’t being busy, or purposeful or submitting work, what do you do? It may seem like a stupid question, but I know what I do: I write a poem or play the piano, or listen to someone play, I read poems. I write essays on Facebook that will never be read by a larger audience. I do a lot of things for nothing. What do you do for nothing?That is a question for the soul. I am worried about a country in which no one does anything for nothing (instead they do it for slave wages and call it a career) I am worried for a country where a Reggie who loves free jazz just for the hell of it is no longer possible. He was our true and intelligent audience, but we ignored him. He didn’t count. How do you know at age 20 or 30 or 40 who doesn’t count? Who taught you such stupidity?You write only for other writers?. I am worried about a country in which everyone is a careerist. I am concerned about what I see as a sort of professional version of sociopathy. But I am also a working stiff, and I understand you need a job. Art is tied to economics like everything else. To actually starve is stupid, but to believe too much in being successful is also stupid. Believe in meaningful work and look for it–both from yourself and from others, and be willing to be shocked when it comes from an unlikely place.

Other than that, remember you are going to die, no matter how many awards you win, and you will spend large parts of your life forgetting that. Careerism is only evil if it makes you forget first and last things, for art comes from the contemplation of first and last things–lasting art. Not that a careerist believes in lasting art. A careerist believes in the moment and in a future he or she can control. He or she believes in craft talks and seminars. I am still in the parlor on the verge of tears because I am hearing Schubert’s Lieder. It is hard to hear Schubert when you are bragging about your latest publication. This is not because I am a better person. It is because I am wilfully ignorant and stupid.It is because I was raised to constructive sloth, and vital undirected transports of the spirit. I am porbably bi-polar.My parents were probably bi-polar. I probably have a brain that sees significance in the weirdest places. I also spent 21 years in a factory. I know what a factory is. A university is often a factory. Publication is often a factory. No one wants that–not even the careerists, but shit happens. I am reaching an age where I want to return to the parlor. My students are too young to stay there. They think there are better places to be (and they are probably right), or they want to be in more exclusive parlors watching famous people chew overpriced food… When you are old, you will long to have a decent conversation with someone–something beyond the business. Only those who know how to waste time will waste time on you. At least I hope so. I don’t like to go to author’s dinners because the conversation is always tepid and boring. That’s how professionals talk. They keep the good stuff for the books.

I am dying for a good conversation and I won’t get one here. In the information age, talk is cheap unless its info. I am not an A student type. No one ever clapped because I jumped through a hoop. No one ever fed me a fish. “Weil, you dumb ass, I told you to sharpen all the drills to a 135.” I have lived there all my life and still do. A day after my surgery, no one at the university asked me how I was doing. They asked if I’d finished judging the fiction contest no one else wanted to judge. It hurt, but so fucking what? Suck it up and get back to your machine.

The other week I had a few dinner guests over and I was bringing up the subject of sainthood and pathology. One bright guest (he attended Harvard) said: “Oh no… I’m tired of all that Freudian analysis of sainthood.” I said: “me, too. I don’t mean it that way, but I think it is interesting that, just as the real flesh of Jesus and his blood appears under the signs of bread and wine, and this is a scandal many cannot accept or that they openly refute, so, too, the presence of sainthood under the ‘Signs’ of pathology and scandal is something I remain interested in. The saint’s unity with the sinner, with the one who is lost, broken, poor, diseased has to it the fullness of Christ’s unity with the sinner on the cross, and so the question is: Do we believe that Simone Weil was an anorexic in the sense of a disease, or do you believe she was a mystic, inspired by the spirit of God, and hidden under the signs of anorexia? Or was she both: anorexia plus? Furthermore, by my love of tri-partite registers of terms, I cannot resist seeing anorexia as the neutral expression for Simone’s own spiritual term “decreation.” We might lay it out as follows:

Laudatory: decreation into perfect unity with the suffering Christ and her fellow Jews.
Neutral: suffering from anorexia
Dyslogistic: mentally deranged and suicidal, as the factory workers saw her—a weird virgin.”

I once did a few chapters on Saint Joseph of Cupertino that I never finished. In many respects, he had all the symptoms of impaired mental faculties–perhaps autism, perhaps epilepsy, and, without doubt, a brain wracked with inexplicable fits of rage (which might imply some early brain trauma). Yet, it is documented that he had many of the gifts peculiar to the sainthood, most especially the discernment of hearts, and the ability to levitate and bi-locate. Somehow, his extremely limited intellectual faculties did not keep him from being one of the greatest confessors of the church, nor did his horrible rage issues enter into his perfect and placid obedience to the church when it forbade him from saying mass and, for all intents and purposes, locked him away. He was a living example of God revealing to the simple what he has withheld from the wise.

So, like my friend from Harvard, I think it tiresome to wash the saints in the bath of modern psychology and cleanse them of their strangeness by applying to them those terms which they seem to fit in our time of diagnosis, and yet I think, free from the standpoint of conformity to Christ, we must suspect and perhaps be wary of any saint who isn’t in some way, a scandal, and an aberration to the church—an example of perfect and passionate obedience, that most revolutionary and strangest, most terrifying of acts. Let’s look at some of Weil’s own words translated by Sian Miles:

We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say, “I.” That is what we have to give to God—in other words—to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act that is given us to accomplish—only the destruction of the “I.” (From “The Self.”)

Weil goes on to elaborate that this destruction of the I from outside the self (Affliction, the oppression of workers, slavery, social injustice, abuse, etc, etc) is the worst thing that can happen to us “because then we cannot destroy it ourselves.” She expands on this by saying that such a destruction of the “I” from outside does not rid the afflicted one of egoism, but instead creates an “egoism without an I.” The resentment Nietzsche saw working among certain Christians, and also among the “humble” or slavish poor. This could be likened to the automaton, to the one incapable of true action (except to hate what it obeys). It could be compared to Buber’s I as it, mere motion rather than true action. This ability to choose to be “decreated” is the right exercise of free will, for Simone says in other writings: “The one gift God has given us that we must give back is our free will.”

To a culture glutted on a thousand self-help and self-esteem books, to a prosperity minded Christianity, this idea of destroying the “I” must seem ill phrased at the very least, and downright crazy at the worst, but let us quote Christ:

Anyone who becomes naught for my sake shall discover who he is.

All those who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall live.

This decreation of the self might seem to contradict the very foundations of the Judaic value of “yacheim” (to life), the proverb, “better a live dog than a dead lion.” But Simone Weil, like Tolstoy, does not consider merely material existence to be life at all. One must destroy the self that insists on “I” above all else because this is the ultimate idol worship. She holds out this hope, even to those going through persecution, trials, in short, what she calls extreme affliction:

So long as we ourselves have begun the process of destroying the ‘I’ we can prevent any affliction from causing harm (I believe she means harm in the spiritual sense). For the I is not destroyed by external pressure without a violent revolt. If for the love of God we refuse to give ourselves over to this revolt, the destruction does not take place from without but from within.

And so the willed destruction of “I” is, to Simone Weil, the one act of perfect obedience. But she says something here that is a wonderful and nasty little paradox: one resists having the “I” destroyed from without by not revolting, by not resisting the “I’ being destroyed from without. One defeats the process of outer destruction by refusing to resist outer destruction. This is a mystical oxymoron, but one not at all rare in the realm of mystical tradition. It is one with what I said in an earlier essay on obedience: perfect obedience destroys the system that seeks to destroy it by being perfectly obedient unto the systems pre-systemic origin. Isaiah chapter 42:

Here is my servant in whom I uphold,

my chosen one with whom I am pleased

Upon him I have put my spirit;

He shall bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry out, nor shout

Nor make his voice heard in the street.

A bruised reed, he will not break.

This is the figure of the suffering servant, the one who does not resist, but obeys, and by obeying, is, in the words of Simone Weil, able to “destroy the ‘I” and its egoism from within.

Lest we think Simone Weil a Paulist Republican, she did not give up her sense of social justice for workers or oppressed people at all. As she insists this destruction of the “I” from without is the worst of spiritual calamities since it makes impossible the choice of willingly destroying the “I” from within. One must realize that for Simone Weil material social justice that did not alleviate the destruction of the “I” from without would be more than useless: it would be the greatest evil, and yet, without social justice, the vast majority of human kind was incapable of true action which is, in the mystical sense of living God, becoming “naught” for his sake.

And so what Weil offers is scandalous: total and willing annihilation into and for the love of God. She writes:

Redemptive suffering. If a human being who is in a state of perfection and who has, through grace, completely destroyed the ‘I’ in himself falls into that degree of affliction which corresponds for him to the destruction of the ‘I’ from the outside—we have the cross in its fullness. Affliction can no longer destroy the ‘I’ in him for the ‘I’ in him no longer exists, having completely disappeared and left the place to God. But affliction produces an effect which is equivalent, on the plane of perfection, to the exterior destruction of the ‘I.’ It produces the absence of God.

Once again, this is a strange statement, a stumbling block and a great scandal for those believers who want only the presence of God—not God’s absence, but the absence of God was considered by St. John of the Cross in his dark night of the soul, and by many other mystics, to be the ultimate crowning of one truly perfected into Christ. If we look at it bluntly, Weil is certainly no Joel Osteen, and this idea of redemptive suffering is impossible for many Christians to accept, especially evangelicals because they believe Christ did all the redeeming once and for all (But Paul himself claims that the mystical body of Christ—we, the followers of Christ—complete in our suffering what is “lacking” in the suffering of Christ. This means that redemption is not merely an historical act rounded off by Christ’s sacrifice, but is ongoing and that we, as the mystical body share in that reality).

Weil quotes Christ (who was quoting the psalms): “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

She continues:

What is this absence of God produced by extreme affliction within the perfected soul? What is the value which is attached to it and which is known as redemptive suffering?

Now here comes her strangest gambit of all (or in the top ten of her strange gambits):

Redemptive suffering is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.

And going further into this “fullness of being;”

By redemptive suffering, God is present in extreme evil. For the absence of God is the mode of divine presence which corresponds to evil—absence which is felt. He who has not God within himself cannot feel his presence.

Now it seems that she is contradicting Augustine who said evil is null, and has no being, yet, lest, we grow hasty, here, Our Beautiful Simone Weil comes in for a landing firmly on Augustine:

It is the purity, the perfection, the plenitude, the abyss of evil. Whereas hell is a false abyss (CF, Thibon). Hell is superficial. Hell is a nothingness which has the pretention and gives the illusion of being.

Simone Weil’s “hell” sounds like my concept of conformity: hell is an illusion of being–appearance, semiotics, that which conforms to a construct but without true obedience. It is the death within life of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, the people who are “eating and drinking, and buying and selling unto the last hour, and are caught unaware.” It is the true sickness unto death, a despair so total that one in the grips of it is not aware of it as despair. Simone continues:

Purely infernal destruction of the ‘I’ is quasi—infernal suffering. External destruction with which the soul associates itself through love is expiatory suffering. The bringing about the absence of God in a soul completely emptied of self through love is redemptive suffering.

The objection to this might be: how can you ever be sure what appears to be a choice is not really a compulsion? How can true obedience be differentiated from its exactitude and replication in conformity. This I believe: a hint that something is mere conformity rather than obedience is that it appears to cause no scandal, but is always “scandalized.” Satan does not smoke or drink or fornicate, and no one knows the law or holds others to the law more strictly than he (his name means the accuser, the prosecutor). What makes him Satan is that he cannot obey, cannot accept a God who would not be utterly subject to the law of condemnation and alive to mercy. Satan is quasi—incapable of being, not only of feeling the true presence of God, but of feeling God’s absence. Satan is twice fraudulent, at least if we follow Simone’s way of thinking.

Reading her words, we can well understand how she may have justified starving herself in solidarity with her suffering fellow Jews, how she may have seen her deliberate act of self-destruction not as a suicide but as a “Saving” of her life by losing it—by annihilating a self that was spared the catastrophic and total external destruction of ‘I’ by the Nazis. Yet this might be perceived as violating the law of Yacheim: life above all else.

Yet to this objection, one is left asking: what is life if it is merely motion without action? To choose willingly to be one with those suffering a complete loss of liberty and life is to act from within. Still, one might see in this act of self decreation, of willed destruction of the ‘I’ a latent and perhaps not so latent) sin of pride—as some have ventured with Cordelia, as with Emily Dickinson’s imperial despair, also, as with Othello’s insistence on falling on his own sword (which Eliot saw as exactly that—the deadly sin of pride, Othello unable to let anyone but himself punish him). We are left in the end with sainthood and true obedience as existing always under the mysterious signs of scandal and willfulness. This does not make much sense from a worldly stand point. In the traditions of mystics, no other way makes sense.

Here are some ways to explore these ideas more.

1. Consider how Ivan Illyich is dead while alive in his conformity, and is raised from the dead by dying into the affliction that takes his life. How from the standpoint of both Tolstoy and Simone Weil might destruction be salvation?

2. Considered what the misfit says about the Old Lady in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good man is Hard to Find”–“She would have been a good woman…if it had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.” How does this fit into the mystical schema of Simone Weil, of her sense of self-decreation. When the old lady calls the misfit “Son” and touches him, what sort of true union does she accomplish with “Evil” in the sense of Simone Weil and how can this be an act of salvation and grace?

3. Look at the poems of Emily Dickinson, especially those which speak of imperial despair, and of death within life, an ongoing cavalry. To what extent is Dickinson’s imperial affliction similar to Weil’s willed destruction of ‘I’? How do they differ?

4. How does Simone Weil’s concept of the absence of God fit into the transvaluation of all values in Christ’s teachings. In Emily Dickinson’s poems, in Tolstoy’s story, “The Three Hermits”