Monday, January 31, 2011

Of Poverty and Potency. The Reluctant Mysticism of Simone Weil

I have recently re-read "Waiting on God", a collection of letters and essays by Simone Weil, an extraordinary woman remembered by her iconic refusal to yield to the ways of this world. This has prompted me to look a little further into her life and writings in order to better understand the roots of her obstinacy and her determination to cut through both the deluded drives of an industrial civilisation in its death throes and her own attachment to the things of this world - even to the point of her own physical survival.

Simone Weil offers a clarifying perspective for a world that has lost all sense of its own addiction to destructive and dehumanising ways, and to what religious historian Alex Nava has described as "the madness of reason and the insanity of much of our politics, economics and social lives."

Despite Susan Sontag's frustration with "the fanatical asceticism of Simone Weil's life, her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction", Weil remains a rare and precious presence in the intellectual and spiritual life of the twentieth century. Despite her eccentricities and extreme self-privations, she embodied a searing analytical intelligence capable of uncovering the pathologies of power and its exercise, a social consciousness grounded in empathic identification with the oppressed and the poor, a deep mystical understanding born of unsought and unanticipated transcendental experiences, and a prophetic insight that demanded the renewal of commitment to universal justice. Although she died at the age of 34 years, her life and writings remain a well-spring of passion for human freedom and compassion for human affliction.

Simone Weil was born in Paris of Jewish parents on February 3rd 1909. Her unusual sensitivity and intelligence were evident from an early age. When she was six years old, she declared at the family table that she would no longer eat sugar but would send her portions to French soldiers who were fighting on the front. Such acts of self-denial and identification with those suffering privation due to war or famine increased during the course of her brief life and culminated in a virtual self-immolation in the months prior to her death in England in 1943, where despite her ill-health, she refused to consume any more food than was eaten by her near-starving countrymen and women in occupied France.

While still a young child, she had committed to memory entire tracts of the French poet and tragic dramatist, Jean Racine. By the time she was 12 years old, she was studying ancient Greek texts. At the age of 15, she commenced her formal studies with the philosopher and essayist Emile Chartier in preparation for the entrance exam at the National University in Paris. Three years later, Weil achieved the top score in the exam, followed by her class-mate, Simone de Bouvoir who came in second. In his article, "Prophetic Mysticism", Alex Nava describes an encounter between these powerful women at the time:
"While Weil was preparing to take the entrance exam for the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, she was approached by the young Simone de Bouvoir who was fascinated by the reputation of Weil's intelligence, ascetic appearance, and sensitivity to others' suffering (apparently some students had found Weil weeping for famine victims in China). During their conversation, Weil proclaimed that the only thing that mattered was the revolution that would feed all the starving people on earth. Bouvoir responded by saying that the problem is to find a reason for human existence. Looking her up and down, Weil retorted, 'It's easy to see that you've never gone hungry.'"
While at university, Weil immersed herself in a study of the classics and of political and economic systems, particularly Marxism. Her graduation thesis, entitled "Science and Perception in Descartes", argued that Descartes' method was in large part responsible for the unbalanced approach to knowledge and reality that had corrupted much of European thinking.

After graduation, Simone Weil taught philosophy at a girls' high school in the town of Le Puys near the French Alps. She lost no time in becoming politically active, throwing in her lot with local unemployed workers and writing prolifically on leftist politics and labour issues. She soon became known as the red virgin because of her anarchist leanings and her undisguised asceticism. Her nonconformist and challenging views proved too much for the locals, and she soon found herself transferred out of the area.

On hearing about the political activities of Adolf Hitler, she went to Germany in 1932 in order to see for herself what was happening there. Simone Weil continually sought to understand the political currents that were sweeping through Europe and Russia at the time. She had long contested the nature of war and the pursuit of conquest through her close studies of the Greek and Roman Empires and was clearly trying to discern the hidden forces that were at work in Europe at that time.

By the time she returned to France, Simone Weil had undergone the first of what was to become a series of major life transformations. She spoke strongly and critically about developments in Germany. She had also come to understand the tyrannical nature of Stalin's rule in Russia. She saw the similarity of what was happening in both countries and described Stalin's programs as "indistinguishable from the fascist program."

Her judgement was confirmed in a disastrous meeting with Leon Trotsky at around that time. She came to realise that truly revolutionary change did not rest on the implementation of political programs based on theories of history and class structure, but on the need to consciously direct educational programs towards the development of a capacity for attention and critical thinking. In her later writings, she urged educators to work towards the creation of conditions that would enable "enough room, enough freedom to plan the use of one's time, the opportunity to reach ever higher levels of attention, some solitude, some silence."

Weil came to accept that despite her intellectual understanding of the forces that acted through history, she remained largely in the dark regarding how most people actually lived and worked. In 1934, she left the academic theatres of Paris and began working as a labourer building electrical components, and later, joined the assembly line at the Renault factory. Joshua Glenn reflects on her experiences:
"She was so traumatised by her experience of factory life . . . that she immediately abandoned any remaining romantic notions she'd had about the proletariat and her (or anyone else's) ability to help them. Oppression does not result in rebellion, she'd discovered, but in obedience and apathy - even in the internalisation of the oppressor's values."
Maggie Ross offers her own view of that particular time in the life of Simone Weil:
"Her own experience with manual work broke her. In her vulnerability, she identified with others who were also despised and rejected, although doubtless for different reasons. Through her experience of work and of the world's contempt for fragility she strengthened her passion for truth, justice, and the respect of the human person."
Her time in the factories made her aware of the deeper levels of oppression that supported industrial civilisation: "Things play the role of men, men the role of things. There lies the root of the evil." She witnessed directly how the methods of industrial production had stripped many individuals of the capacity to develop the skills that enabled them to engage personally and creatively in their daily activities. She came to understand that factory workers were victims of new forms of enslavement where their workplace activities were largely determined by machines.

Having put aside the thought that universal human freedom could be won through a workers' rebellion, Weil was now ready to test the notion that armed struggle offered a way of liberation. When the newly elected Spanish Popular Front was attacked by General Franco and the Spanish military forces in July 1936, Weil - along with numerous other European socialists - went to Spain to join the Republican cause. In a dramatic but bizarre and ultimately impotent gesture, she took up arms. Joshua Glenn describes what followed:
"The frail, near-sighted intellectual joined a unit of anarchists, was issued a rifle and almost immediately put her foot into a pan of boiling oil. Her ever-protective parents, lurking just over the border, yanked her to safety. Dismayed by the atrocities she'd seen her own side commit, Weil was confirmed in her pacifism."
Simone Weil's attention progressively moved away from overtly political activity and more towards active reflection on the metaphysical dimensions of human life. She immersed herself in a study of the Gnostics, of Buddhism and Taoism, the writings of Pythagoras and his school, and Homer's Iliad. She was particularly drawn to the Bhagavad Gita and taught herself Sanskrit in order to read it in the original.

Throughout this time, she was plagued by blinding headaches and episodes of extreme fatigue that made it impossible to work. She was later to write: "For 10 years it has been such, and accompanied by such a feeling of exhaustion that my attempts at concentration and intellectual work were more often than not as devoid of hope as those of a man condemned to death awaiting execution the next day." Simone Weil is careful to make a distinction between suffering and what she terms affliction, a state that she was intimately familiar with:
"Just as truth is a different thing from opinion, so affliction is a different thing from suffering. Affliction is a device for pulverising the soul; the man who falls into it is like a workman who gets caught up in a machine. He is no longer a man but a torn and bloody rag on the teeth of a cogwheel."
Weil sublimated such experiences of pain and limitation and used them as a means of joining empathically with the pain of the world, and eventually, with the Passion of Christ.

Soon after, she was to be shaken in ways that she could never have anticipated. Three separate events completely altered her understanding of the world and her place in it. The first occurred in Portugal after an especially debilitating series of migraines. She found herself in a small fishing village at the time of a celebration for the patron saint of the village. She describes the event:
"It was the evening and there was a full moon over the sea. The wives of the fishermen were, in procession, making a tour of all the ships, carrying candles and singing what must certainly be very ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness. Nothing can give any idea of it. I have never heard anything so poignant unless it were the song of the boatmen of the Volga. There the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others."
Despite the fact that she had lived as a secular Jew, and had earlier in her life made a conscious decision not to pray, having considered the notion of God to be "a problem the data of which could not be obtained here below", she unexpectedly found herself drawn into an engagement with the ageless suffering of all human communities. Despite her life-long tendency to keep herself separate from all groups, she found herself in mystical union with the larger and invisible body of humanity who lived within the universal reality of oppression and suffering.

In 1937, she experienced a second revelation while in Assisi. She writes: "There, alone in the little twelfth-century Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my own life to go down on my knees."

Her final epiphany occurred a year later, again at a time when she was suffering near-intolerable pain. Weil spent 10 days at Solesmes in France attending the liturgical services held in local churches between Palm Sunday and Easter Tuesday. During that time, she underwent an Ignatian transformation in which "the thought of the Passion of Christ entered my being once and for all." It was then that, in her own words, "Christ himself came down and took possession of me."

For most of her short life, Simone Weil felt intensely the unsatisfactory nature of earthly life. Even as a child, she had identified with the pain and privation of young French soldiers mired in the battle fields of Europe. Despite her own relatively comfortable circumstances - her father was a doctor - as soon as she had won her first freedoms, she actively took on the cause of the poor and of unemployed workers. She had directed her incandescent intelligence to writers who offered an analysis of the causes of poverty and oppression and the means of overcoming it, but found their suggested solutions served only to replace one form of oppression with another.

As she gradually retreated towards ideals that lay far beyond the messy domains of human existence, she never abandoned her quest to articulate the nature of the pathologies of power that had perennially thwarted human aspirations for peace, fairness and justice.

And despite her own encounters with the ineffable in Portugal, in Assisi and at Solesmes, she came to accept that the God invoked by so many throughout history was an absent God, a God removed from this world, though paradoxically, unlike the deceased God of Nietzsche, a God who could be humanly experienced.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
January 2011


1. Simone Weil and the Poem of Force. From the Fields of Ilion to the Charnel Grounds of Europe

Even as a child, Simone Weil had an understanding of both the deprivations and the depredations of war. At an age when most children can barely see beyond their own shifting desires, Simone Weil had fully grasped the reality and the meaning of sacrifice. She was six years old in 1915 when the immolation of Europe by military force and blind violence had already crossed unspeakable thresholds. . . .

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