Monday, April 21, 2008

Reflections: Like Mailer, Like Weil

I have lately been neglecting my devotions to Simone Weil, whom I consider to be the patron saint of this blog. Perhaps, then, it was subconscious guilt over such neglect that caused me, when I read the sentence from Christopher Hitchens’ introduction to his interview with Norman Mailer which I quote below, to have the thought that it might be applied with equal insight to Simone Weil:

His deliberately paradoxical stance of ‘left conservatism’ is offered semi-belligerently as a challenge to those who remain fixed in orthodoxy or correctness.

In musing upon what I might have at hand that would provide authoritative support of this hypothesis, it occurred to me that no lesser conservative saint than T. S. Eliot had written a preface to Weil’s brilliant but disturbing book, The Need for Roots, and that this would be excellent ground to mine for corroboration of my notion. The second sentence of Eliot’s preface seemed to fit the bill:

The reader of her work finds himself confronted by a difficult, violent, and complex personality...

Certainly, this is a statement which could be applied with equal accuracy to Norman Mailer.

A bit further on, Eliot informs us that Fr. Perrin, the Catholic priest who served as Simone Weil’s intimate and sounding-board in her on-going interior disputation with orthodox Catholicism, had opined: Je crois que son âme est incomparablement plus haute que son génie. [I believe that her soul is incomparably superior to her genius.]

This is saying much, as Simone Weil’s genius is vast. But if I might, by way of comparison, interject my own opinion of Mailer here, I would say that transferring this concept from the sphere of religious philosophy to that of creative and expository writing, it can be said of Mailer that his genius was incomparably superior to his talent. In reading Mailer, one has the feeling that through his fiction, and even through his most excellent non-fiction, such as The Armies of the Night, he never quite got it all out. This inexpressible thing that he harbored inside comes through, perhaps, more directly in conversations such as this one with Christopher Hitchens, than it does in his worked and reworked published writings.

Hitchens having commented on the paradox embodied in the thought of Norman Mailer, compare this observation of Eliot's on Weil:

In the work of such a writer we must expect to encounter paradox. …And in her political thinking she appears as a stern critic of both Right and Left; at the same time more truly a lover of order and hierarchy than most of those who call themselves Conservative, and more truly a lover of the people than most of those who call themselves Socialist.

That seems like a pretty fair characterization of a ‘left conservative’ to me. A bit further on, Eliot says:

As a political thinker, as in everything else, Simone Weil is not to be classified. The paradoxicality of her sympathies is a contributing cause of the equilibrium. On the one hand she was a passionate champion of the common people and especially of the oppressed – those oppressed by the wickedness and selfishness of men and those oppressed by the anonymous forces of modern society. ...One the other hand, she was by nature a solitary and an individualist, with a profound horror of what she called the collectivity – the monster created by modern totalitarianism.

Consider the similarity between Eliot’s comprehension of the paradoxical nature of Simone Weil’s philosophy, and this exchange between Christopher Hitchens and Normal Mailer:

I remember you once saying to me that you’d refined your dissidence, you could give it a name, you were now a fully paid up left conservative. Elaborate on that.

Well, as you can guess, it’s almost impossible to elaborate on it, because one of the laws of rhetoric is that you cannot elaborate on an oxymoron. And being a left conservative hits most people absolutely that way, they just stop thinking and they look at you aghast.

This is, I think, much the way most people, confronted with the thought of Simone Weil – her person, as well as her philosophy – will react. She is almost too much for us process – intellectually , or emotionally. But if one can only suspend this cognitive disability and immerse oneself in her biography, as well as in her writings, she will repay that act of intellectual charity again and again and again.

[On a personal note, these musings on the supreme exemplars, Weil and Mailer, serve to strengthen my disdain for that orthodox school of culturally conservative thought which understands culture to have reached a peak in some Golden Age prior to the hatching of the poisonous egg containing that monster raptor, Liberalism, which, once hatched, rampages through our world, devouring any and all values in its path. Could they but obtain the means, these intellectual totalitarians
would go back, Amish-like, to that pre-Liberal age; they would arrest and bind culture at that point, avoiding all future risk by pinching off the all intellectual evolution in the bud. Stasis is death, not life.]