Monday April 27th, 2009

A Spark of Hunger


Waiting for God by Simone Weil
Harper Perennial, 208 pp., $13.99

The centenary of Simone Weil’s birth, which was February 3, has provided the occasion for Harper Perennial to reissue the collection of four essays and six letters first published in France in 1950 as Attente de Dieu. And not a moment too soon. Having now finally read it myself, I inflict on others my insistence that they read it, too. Anyone, even an atheist, who has ever complained about our distracted age should turn directly to Weil’s discussion of attention training in the “Right Uses of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” And what better time than now to read a writer who comforts by repudiating comforts and who embraces affliction as a point of contact with the divine?

About three years ago a close friend gave me a copy of Waiting for God with her recommendation. I read several other books instead. Then, earlier this year, I saw a strikingly beautiful documentary on Weil by the filmmaker Cathy Lee Crane. I thought I should certainly, now, read the book, but didn’t. I eventually found an excuse for my tardiness from Weil herself, who claimed in one letter to her spiritual mentor Father Perrin, “I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it.” Once ignited, my digestive fires burned hot. Weil’s lovably miserable humans reminded me of this exchange from Beckett’s Endgame, never far out of my head since I read it in college:

HAMM: Sit on him!
CLOV: I can’t sit.
HAMM: True. And I can’t stand.
CLOV:    So it is.
HAMM: Every man his specialty.

The time had clearly arrived to finally read Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as well, and soon I was switching between it and Weil the way I do chocolate and cheese. Waiting for God’s congruity with Waiting for Godot goes far beyond their titles, the former chosen by Weil’s publishers before Beckett’s play premiered. While Beckett was seeking a venue for Godot (composed 1948-49), the custodians of Weil’s writings were, against her expressed wishes, preparing them for publication (Weil had succumbed to starvation in England in August 1943). Beckett couldn’t have read Weil’s letters to Father Perrin before writing his play, though he may have encountered her political writing in leftist journals. Two of Beckett’s biographers confirm that Weil and Beckett did not know each other, though Beckett was lecturing at the École Normale Supérieure when Weil studied there. But read in tandem, Beckett’s play and Weil’s theological essays uncannily collaborate, each work illuminating the other.

What invites and consoles in Beckett, an unblinking attention to lameness of all kinds, also drives Weil’s theology and spiritual method. In my head I’ve been calling Weil the patron saint of dorks, and I think she would find this painful but apt. She would shudder at the incipient idolatry of the designation even as she would furtively delight in the welcome of a group, any group. As a young child of the upper middle class during the Great War, she went without sugar and socks because soldiers and the children of the working poor didn’t have those things. As an anemic twentysomething with horrible migraines, she had to leave her Republican compadres in Spain after accidentally dumping boiling oil on herself. She “astonished and bored” (Leslie Fiedler’s words, from his excellent 1951 introduction to Waiting for God) the peasants at an agricultural colony with her discourse on the Upanishads. She concocted a scheme to parachute French nurses onto the front as a morale boost for the troops, wanting desperately to alight with them. This idea never got off the ground.

In her letters to Father Perrin, Weil berates herself for dire, mostly unspecified, sins and inadequacies, and especially for her temptation toward what she calls “the trap of traps”: “the social” — specifically collective emotions. A Frenchwoman of Jewish heritage raised in a thoroughly secular home and deeply involved in labor activism, Marxism, and anarchist politics, she declared to Perrin before 1941 that she was “too much influenced…by anything collective. I know that if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in a chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi.”

From what little she reveals of her personal history in these writings (Fiedler supplies much more), Weil felt far left of center for most of her life, and tried to redeem that outsider status by turning it to good ends. Though her teachers praised her brilliance, her math-genius brother eclipsed her; and so her struggle with geometry became an instrument in her spiritual practice. She refers to cruel rejection by people in whom she entrusted her friendship, comparing herself to a wounded hen being pecked to death by other hens: They were only operating under a “natural mechanism,” she claimed, refusing to blame them. And so the problem of pain and evil, one awkwardly dodged by most parsons, became for Weil the very proof of God’s existence, and the supreme justification for her own.

I would feel worse about bringing up sainthood if Weil herself had not addressed the subject in a letter to Perrin. “We are living in times that have no precedent, and in our present situation universality, which could formerly be implicit, has to be fully explicit. It has to permeate our language and the whole of our way of life…. We must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment.” For Weil, a sanctified life had everything to do with intellectual freedom and intellectual honesty, two stocks that were tanking in her time. The modern saint required a genius not for unwavering belief (or even mortification of the flesh), but for resistance to ideology. Her letters to Perrin concerning her refusal of baptism testify to her intellectual struggle with the Catholic church, a fight her brain seems to have won; though irresistibly drawn, she believed God called her to remain just outside: “two little words, anathema sit…preven[t] me from crossing the threshold of the Church.” Weil couldn’t square proclamations of infallible doctrine or excoriations of heresy with her intellectual method — influenced by her reading of Marx — of “achieving an equilibrium of truths” (Fiedler): “As soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true” (Weil).

All of which gels with Weil’s theodicy. To put it extremely briefly: God, the perfect (finished) wholeness, the only Reality, created the universe by withdrawing. (Insert natural family planning joke here.) God is the block of marble and also the sculptor. Absenting himself, he made the world. Like a just king, Weil writes, God, the final authority, was supremely able to decide not to exercise his power everywhere. And so necessity, impermanence, and suffering whirl like a cloud of dust in His wake. Think of the crummiest thing on earth, the least-good thing ever. God is at work. With one theological swipe, Weil knocks the issue of shame off the table. We cannot possibly improve in God’s eyes. He doesn’t love us kindly, in spite of our sin; we are sin. Given: We suck. Q.E.D. Therefore, Weil argues, our worst moments of psychic and physical pain, what she calls malheur (affliction), paradoxically offer our best chance for an encounter with God, in His perfect absence.

God does not intercede in our affairs, which are none of His business. And yet, this separation, this metaxu, like Plato’s prison wall, allows us to communicate with Him. “The tearing apart, over which supreme love places the bond of supreme union, echoes perpetually across the universe in the midst of the silence, like two notes, separate yet melting into one, like pure and heart-rending harmony. The whole of creation is nothing but its vibration. When human music in its greatest purity pierces our soul, this is what we hear through it.” Whenever we submit to our love for the beauty of the world, or when we deny ourselves in charity toward an unknown wretch, or when we love someone and set them free, or when we agree, absurdly, that Christ is present in the Eucharist, we engage in a sort of scrimmage for the big game of contact with God. This match can never occur, but we can’t help practicing; “we are made of desire,” wrote Weil. God wants us to want Him; nothing more, nothing less.

For Weil, drawing on her study of Plato, the Greek Stoics, and Buddhism as well as mathematics, human beings (along with their moral knickknacks and doodads), should never be considered ends in themselves, but merely as participants in the mechanical world of necessity, whose laws necessarily destroy us, even our souls. “The question of Beaumarchais: ‘Why these things rather than others?’ never has any answer, because the world is devoid of finality…. Things have causes and not ends. Those who discern special designs of Providence are like professors who give themselves up to the explanation of the text, at the expense of a beautiful poem.” We commit a grave error, according to Weil’s expansive notion of idolatry, when we mistake the finite for the final, assigning permanent value to any thing, including any ideal, here below. “The mediocre part of the soul has a great many lies in its arsenal that are capable of protecting it, even during prayer or the participation of the sacraments. It puts veils between our eyes and the presence of perfect purity, and it is clever enough to call them God — such veils, for instance, as states of the soul, sources of sensible joy, of hope, of comfort, of soothing consolation, or else a combination of habits, or one or several human beings…. The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”

I imagine Weil horrified by our obsession with identity, our “I am someone who…,” the false promises of fixity we make to ourselves. “Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it,” she wrote. “But we would rather die than admit this.” She would reverse the baby boomer’s militant call for self-fulfillment. (For her own life, she set the goal of “de-creation,” at which she succeeded more splendidly than most of us.)

As I see it, God for Weil is the only full stop; whereas we, in our deepest moments of meditation or despair, can at best resemble an ellipsis. When this happens, it comes unbidden, like a gift. We in our very nature can’t absolutely relax, and anyone who touts inner peace as an achievement is selling snake oil. But Weil found that in our ellipses moments, when we can do nothing, when we very nearly are nothing, if a spark of hunger remains in our soul, the big game is afoot.

“Muscular effort,” for Weil, belongs to the world of necessity. Cut off and seal the barren branches to ward off disease; rub harder (with or without a better detergent) to remove a stain. These things work well, and have their place here. But our quests and searches, even if mostly mental, lead us only further along the curve of the globe. We go about thinking we’re making progress, but we’re simply following nature’s laws. We do not accomplish goodness on earth, but relate to God only through consent: “to desire obedience or not to desire it.” Similarly, in higher matters of the heart and mind, in true love and learning, muscular effort, the exertion of the will, destroys. These things too come to us unbidden, from beyond. “When our actions only depend on earthly energies…we are incapable of thinking and doing anything but evil.”

“The great trouble of human life is that looking and eating are two different operations” — writes Weil, in her essay on the implicit forms of the love of God — “in heaven, they are the same…. 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.” Through the imposition of poverty, denial of education, through war and oppression, we continually deprive ourselves and others of the free exercise of our higher faculties of attention. We strive, we try, we worry, we distract ourselves with necessity. We do.

ESTRAGON: Funny, the more you eat the worse it gets.
VLADIMIR: With me it’s just the opposite.
ESTRAGON: In other words?
VLADIMIR: I get used to the muck as I go along.
ESTRAGON: Is that the opposite?

“I think that with very important things we do not overcome our obstacles,” Weil wrote to Father Perrin. “We look at them fixedly for as long as is necessary until, if they are due to the powers of illusion, they disappear.” Today’s sanctity must have something to do with such feats of still attention. A saint today could perhaps finely hone the art of just looking at the boring, the indeterminate, the unbeautiful, the broken, as opposed to the spectacular. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention…. [attention in which] the soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.” Weil admitted the challenge of this sort of looking — “a rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

Incredibly, Samuel Beckett and Simone Weil never had coffee, as much as I might wish they had. We humans habitually recognize our saints only after we’ve killed them, which renders the question of canonization for Beckett and Weil moot, thank goodness. They were both good lookers, and we have their good works.

Emily Votruba copyedits in the morning, afternoon, and evening, and criticizes after dinner.

Books mentioned in this review:

Waiting for God
Waiting for Godot