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Simone Weil

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”

Interview Part 1:

Interview Part 2:

A HILL | by Anthony Hecht

In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur,
I had a vision once – though you understand
It was nothing at all like Dante’s, or the visions of saints,
And perhaps not a vision at all. I was with some friends,
Picking my way through a warm sunlit piazza
In the early morning. A clear fretwork of shadows
From huge umbrellas littered the pavement and made
A sort of lucent shallows in which was moored
A small navy of carts. Books, coins, old maps,
Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints
Were all on sale. The colors and noise
Like the flying hands were gestures of exultation,
So that even the bargaining
Rose to the ear like a voluble godliness.
And then, where it happened, the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.

And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.

Then prices came through, and fingers, and I was restored
To the sunlight and my friends. But for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn’t troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.

Suppose you are reading Levinas, having a nice Cuban sandwich, minding your business, thinking about the self, the other, the other self, the otherness of self, the selfishness of other, etc, etc, and the sun slants across the legs of a woman you pretend to have a deep rapport with—striping them apricot. What do you do? It’s a question of ethics. She is eating half a plate of seasoned fries. The meal is over priced. The Cuban sandwich is on the wrong sort of bread—the kind of bread they put Cuban sanwiches on when they are over charging you (sour dough). It is spring, or maybe it isn’t: maybe it is fall, the last truly warm day in fall. Yes. You are sitting in the wrought-iron chair, outside, on the last warm day in fall, with Levinas in your lap, and the beautful woman has Kafka in her lap. The sun has decided to place an apricot hue over her legs, legs which have been shaped by only eating  half plates of seasoned fries, and nothing else until, later that night, when she is naked in the arms of a man who also reads Levinas, but is much better looking, she eats a canoli—the whole thing, and says something meaningful to him in French.

Ah, you know you are a fraud. Levinas is a fraud. The only truly genuine thing in this universe are her legs, and they are attached to her by reason of genetics, and attached to you by reason of desire. The man with whom she sleeps is surly. He can afford to be surly. His hip-to-waist ratio is perfect. His teeth are white, but not overly so. When he sprawls naked on a bed, he seems intelligent. She desires him. Even though she has him, she wants him—which makes her fairly stupid in his presense. He will equivocate. Those with the proper hip-to-waist ratios may equivocate. He is like Adonis, and she is Venus panting over his sprawled splendor. He is you in another alternate universe. He is the you who does not beg like a seal clapping for fish. She speaks:

“How is the Cuban sanwich? May I have a bite?”

Every time you meet her for lunch, she takes a bite of your sandwich. When shrikes seek a mate, they impale bumble bees, and little baby sparrows to locust thorns and allow the prospective partner to dine. A shrike has a special “tooth” inside it’s maw for tearing and rending frozen flesh from bone… or is that a wolverine? Shrikes are also called butcher birds. They inhabit Northern fens. They implae prey to thorns, barbed wire, various sharp protruding things: whatever may suffice as a skewer. By giving her a bite of your sandwich, you will be reduced to the level of a shrike. And worse… The shrike gets laid. You will show how inteligent you are concerning the self, the other, the other self, the selfless other, the mystery of the other, the aporia by which self, other, shrikes, and cuban sandwiches are utterly beside the point. You demur. You have never demurred before. You withold the immediate gratification of her biting into your lunch. You stand firm—in so many ways. You say:

“No. Finish your fries!”

Does she know what is on your mind? To what degree is Levinas an unsuccessful make out device? How many graduate students are sitting even now on the plains, and in the mountains of American Academia, attempting to seduce each other with the complete works of Levinas? Just last week, you realized you were being replicated. There were thousands of fractal “yous” inhabiting the various over-priced eateries of towns both large and small. What would Levinas think if he realized you were using him to show how smart you are?

Her hand, her pretty left hand, the one with the blue nail polish, is reaching for your Cuban sandwich. She has decided to ignore your firm resolve not to be a shrike, and she is going to taste your meat. This has become a question of ethics. She is using you. You are co-dependent with her eating disorder. For her sake, and for your own, for the sake of the genuine, the real, the authentic, you must not let it happen. You grab her hand. You have been wanting to grab her hand for two years. What sort of coward needs a show down? She has one grey eye, and one green one. Her long legs were crossed, but now they are planted firmly in the “I will have a bite of your sandwich” position. You realize now that Levinas is right. We can not know the other. We can not know the self. You say:

“No.”

And so you do. You say no. She says: “Why are you being such a prick?” You say: “Did you ever think I might want the whole sandwich?” Her hand retreats: ice floes, thousands of years of approach and retreat. You pick up the check, leave an overly large tip. You are the wrong kind of shrike. The waiter will not like you any better for leaving him 25 percent. You are courting everyone. You keep hoping the universe notices that Levinas is in your lap. You are hoping they will say: “Oh… you read Levinas? Can I mate with you?”

Her name is Trudy. She has translated Kafka into Welsh. She has the sort of thick, dark hair that gets dented in the morning rather than messy. All she has to do is push out the dents, and she’s ready for the day. She is genuinely smart. You have a dream in which a poster of Simone Weil is attached to her naked legs. Her one flaw is her name. Who names their child Trudy? You certainly would never name a daughter Trudy. Perhaps you would name her Simone, or Clare, or Helen. You get an A on your paper concerning Levinas and the sociopathy of corporatism. You remember kissing a girl who liked Martin Buber. What happened to her? How did it all come down to this? Even now, as you walk away from the cafe, and Trudy heads for her part time job, and all is forgiven, and you give her the hug and perfunctory smooch they often give on talk shows, you feel terrified. This must not be your life. You will find the girl who liked Martin Buber, and kiss her again. She is somewhere in the world—perhaps in the far north. She lives in a little cabin, alone, thinking of you. The days pass, and Martin Buber brings back fond memories of your mouth on hers. You can see the little cabin in the woods. A light is on. It is dusk, and the bleak cry of the jay contrasts with the welcoming light.You have fire wood hosted on your shoulder. You are singing a merry tune in Canadian French: something about little loves who have dancing eyes. You are remembering the Robert Browning poem in which he rows a boat at night towards his love. Your heart is uplifted. Trudy is not the right girl for you. Who cares what Kafka sounds like in Welsh? You have fire wood, and six Cuban sandwiches stowed away in your back pack. There is recompense. There is salvation. You can throw Levinas away. You can build a fire, and discuss Martin Buber while lying naked in that sweet girl’s arms. What is her name? She was demur. She had heavy eye lids, and spoke in a vital whisper. You do not see the shrike. It is impaling a fox sparrow to a thorn. It lives in the brambles behind her cabin. You are too big for it to eat, utterly beside the point.