Tuesday, March 31, 2009

R.I.P - Playing Catch-up


The miniscule, but exclusive, clique of high-minded readers who have been visiting Rodak Riffs since its launching are familiar with my practice of noting the deaths of prominent writers. It was anomalous, then, that I let the recent suicide of postmodernist superstar, David Foster Wallace, go by without mention. I neither linked to the NY Times obit, nor to any of the several articles that were published about him in the aftermath of his death.

Partially, it was just too depressing: he was very young. Partially, I didn’t feel that I knew him well, having read only one book of his short stories, and having failed to tackle his magnum opus, the 1000-page novel Infinite Jest. which had been just too difficult, too long, and not of the right tenor to suck me in on the occasion of my having taken it out of the library a couple of years ago. I read the first 100 or so pages and gave up.

Since his death, however, I have read his story collection Oblivion, and have almost finished another: Girl With Curious Hair. The last piece in the latter is a very long story, or novella entitled “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” of which I am about half way through. It is very funny, in my opinion. The following excerpt is a good example of that humor.

Here we see a market research operative named Hogan in an airport in Illinois. He is there in connection with the arrival for a grand reunion of all the people who have ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial. We overhear him speaking to two of the arriving former commercial actors. The subject of his discourse is his boss, J.D. Steelritter, the adman behind the McDonald’s commercials since day one:

“… This man is a genius. It’s an honor to even do market research for J.D. Steelritter. Even in this God-forsaken place.” He looks around as if for eavesdroppers. “This is the man, this is the legendary man, I’m sure you two know, who eventually got Arm and Hammer baking soda customers to start pouring the stuff down the drain. As…get this…drain freshener!” He licks a bit of sweetener off the heel of his hand. “Is that genius? Is that textbook planned-obsolescence, or what? And all off fear. J.D. eventually figured out that anybody who’d buy a box of baking soda out of fear of refrigerator odor wouldn’t hesitate one second to shell out for another box to prevent drain odor.” He laughs a marvelous laugh. “Drain odor? What’s that, for Christ’s sake? It’s just fear. Very careful research, fear, and the vision of a genius."

Prior to this scene, Hogan had been engaged in fear research in the airport in the conduct of which he had been handing out money in exchange for having his targets name their worst fear. Says Hogan:

“I ask the person who’s taking the money to name, right off the top of their head, what they fear most in the whole world. Their one great informing fear.”

The list of the fears named, as Hogan recites them, is darkly hilarious – my favorite one being:

“That I die and go to heaven and I get there and it stops being heaven because I’m there.”

I don’t know about you, but I can relate to that. I pray that the very talented, super-intelligent, and sadly funny, David Foster Wallace, who finally lost his battle with chronic depression, was not prophetic in writing those words.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Readings: In But Not Of

Along with the excerpts from Paula Fredriksen with reference to John’s gospel cited in my previous post, Hans Jonas illuminates additional Gnostic parallels to scriptural Christianity here:

An essential mental reservation qualifies participation in the things of this world, and even one’s own person as involved with those things is viewed from the distance of the beyond. This is the common spirit of the new transcendental religion, not confined to Gnosticism in particular. We remind the reader of St. Paul’s saying:

But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it; for the fashion of this world passeth away. (I Cor. 7:29-31)

The world and one’s belonging to it are not to be taken seriously. … [A]s a dimension of existence [gnostic dualism] does not offer occasion to the perfectibility of man. The least, then, that the acosmic attitude must cause in the relation to inner-worldly existence is the mental reservation of the “as-though-not.”

To the extent possible, we are to be in the world without being of the world. Is this not are the very core of St. Paul’s message?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Readings: What Comes Down Must Go Up

In this installment on the speculations of Hans Jonas on Gnosticism, we see him again contrasting the prevailing Greek philosophical orthodoxy with the upstart Gnostic conception of man’s place and rôle in existence:

Virtue in the Greek sense (arête) is the actualization in the mode of excellence of the several faculties of the soul for dealing with the world. …In other words, it is up to man to transform his inchoately given nature into his true nature, for in his case alone nature does not automatically realize itself.
It is obvious that Gnosticism had no room for this conception of human virtue. “Looking towards God” has for it an entirely different meaning from the one it had for the Greek philosophers. There it meant granting the rights of all things as graded expressions of the divine within the encompassing divinity of the unverse. The self-elevation in the scale of being through wisdom and virtue implies no denial of the levels surpassed. To the Gnostics, “looking towards God” means just such a denial: it is a jumping across all intervening realities, which for this direct relationship are nothing but fetters and obstacles, or distracting temptations, or at best irrelevant. The sum of these intervening realities is the world, including the social world.

It is apparent that the “self-elevation” of which Jonas writes posits the possibility for Gnostic transcendence as both immediately available and vertical in orientation. Compare this to these excerpts from Paula Fredriksen’s discussion of the canonical Gospel of John which have been sitting for weeks on my desktop, awaiting an apt moment for their presentation:

John’s Jesus is not the wandering charismatic Galilean who appears in the synoptics, but an enigmatic visitor from the cosmos above this cosmos, the preexistent, supremely divine Son (e.g. 1:1-4; 8:23, 42, 58; 17:5; 20:28). As he travels repeatedly between Jerusalem and the Galilee, this Jesus encounters, not fellow Jews, but sons of darkness, denizens of the lower cosmos who can never receive the word of God (8:23, 43-47; 10:25;12:34; cf. 15:19-22). To those divinely chosen to receive it, Jesus brings the message of eternal life, of the glory of the Son and the Father, pronounced in the elliptical idiom of this gospel as much by Jesus’ wondrous signs as by his own mysterious speech (e.g., 3:15, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:35-53; 11:1-4). The topic of his address is, most frequently, himself. An image of Jesus thus does not emerge from John’s gospel: it dominates his entire presentation.
Thus, through his Christology, John rotates the axis of Christian tradition ninety degrees, away from the historical, horizontal poles of Past/Future to the spiritualizing, vertical poles of Below/Above.

It would seem that despite their outsider status in the ancient world, and the suppression by the soi-disant orthodox establishment of both their sects and their texts, the Gnostics could lay claim to a legitimate spiritual connection to at least some of the extra-synoptic traditions that can be traced back all the way to the Christ himself.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Reflections: Last Word on the Current Depression



XXXXXXXXXXAs a child I knew that I
XXXXXXXXXXwould never drive a Cadillac

XXXXXXXXXXI knew as a child
XXXXXXXXXXthat I would die

XXXXXXXXXXHaving never one-upped
XXXXXXXXXXJones like that.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Readings: Man, oh Man

As the next excerpt that I had lined up from the Jonas book on the Gnostics is both rather long and, I think, self-explanatory, I will just go ahead and present it without superfluous prefatory comment:

Plotinus…bears witness to the resistance which Greek piety offered to this detraction of the stellar world…: [e.g.] “If men are superior to other living creatures, how much more superior are they (the spheres), which are in the All not for tyrannical rule but to confer on it order and harmony... .”

Obviously Plotinus’ argument is conclusive only on the common Greek assumption (tacitly presupposed by him) of the general homogeneity of all cosmic existence, which permits comparison between all parts by a uniform standard of evaluation. The standard is that of “cosmos,” i.e., order itself, and by this standard man indeed must rank far below the stars, which achieve undeviatingly and for the whole what man may at best achieve passingly and on his small scale, namely, ordered activity. The argument as to worth is hardly convincing to us. How much farther Plotinus as the representative of the classical mind is here from our own position than the Gnostics are with all their mythological fancy, the following quotation will make evident.

Even the basest men they [the Gnostics] deem worthy to be called brothers, while with frenzied mouth they declare the sun, the stars in the heavens, and even the world-soul, unworthy to be called by them brothers. Those who are base have indeed no right to claim that kinship, but those who have become good [have acquired the right].

Here the two camps confront each other with inimitable clearness. Plotinus maintains the unity of all being in the universe, with no essential separation of the human and the non-human realm. …Gnosticism, on the contrary, removes man, in virtue of his essential belonging to another realm, from all sameness with the world, which is now nothing but bare “world,” and confronts him with its totality as the absolutely different.

What I think has been said here is that there was something distinctly modern about the Gnostics' rejection of the Greek cosmic model. To a certain extent, we are all Gnostics now.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rants: Alliterative Licks

I can feel myself getting into a dust-up over Church tradition/apostolic succession over at Disputations. Rather than act the troll over there, I’ve decided to transplant my consternation over here, to my home turf.

What got me going was this following parenthetical barb, tossed off by Tom as a kicker to his post about a book under his review:

(Yes, yes, we can learn lots of valuable things from modern scholars. But somehow they never seem to want to teach us the value of our earliest traditions.)

My response to that, over there, was:

By "teach" I assume that you imply "affirm?"

And we’re off to the races. My question is: would it be preferable that biblical scholarship had consisted entirely of 1800 years of simply reiterating that Irenaeus (et al.) was 100% correct? If so, then better that men had stopped studying circa 200 A.D. and the university system had never been created.

Then Western man could have persevered in a perpetual peasantry of plough, plunder, plague and preprogrammed piety: perfect. Publish post.

Readings: Just Like the Weather

In Part Two of our consideration of things Gnostic, we must contemplate the development that there came to be those for whom the Greek cosmic model did not adequately address the "problem of evil": if the universe was the creation of a perfect and benevolent God, why was our world such a terrifying mess? To generally summarize the central tenet of the several Gnostic philosophies, we can say that these disgruntled participants in the terrestrial drama found the best solution to the quandry to be the simplest one: they concluded that the world had been a mistake from the git-go, created by an imperfect and ignorant "Demiurge," who believed himself to be the supreme God, but didn't even come close. The beautiful harmony of the spheres experienced by the Greeks was perceived to be an oppressive set of immutable and tyrannical laws, presided over by the myriad "powers and principalities" with all the acumen of teams of Wall Street investment bankers being prodded and goosed along by the Invisible Hand. The cosmos, including the microcosmic human body and psyche, was a demon-ridden nightmare. The argument of the Gnostics was that Everybody's complaining about the heimarmene, but nobody's doing anything about it:

We can imagine with what feelings gnostic men must have looked up to the starry sky. How evil its brilliance must have looked to them, how alarming its vastness and the rigid immutability of its courses, how cruel its muteness! The music of the spheres was no longer heard, and the admiration for the perfect spherical form gave place to the terror of so much perfection directed at the enslavement of man. The pious wonderment with which earlier man had looked up to the higher regions of the universe became a feeling of oppression by the iron vault which keeps man exiled from his home beyond. But it is the “beyond” which really qualifies the new conception of the physical universe and of man’s position in it. Without it, we should have nothing but a hopeless worldly pessimism. Its transcending presence limits the inclusiveness of the cosmos to the status of only a part of reality, and thus of something from which there is an escape. …The total gnostic view is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but eschatological: if the world is bad, there is the goodness of the outer-worldly God; if the world is a prison, there is an alternative to it; if man is a prisoner of the world, there is a salvation from it and a power that saves. It is in this eschatological tension, in the polarity of world and God, that the gnostic cosmos assumes its religious quality.
~ Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion

Man, in this world, was a resident alien: lost in Space/Time. To quote a contemporary Gnostic bard: We are spirits in the material world.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Readings: What Makes the World Go 'Round?

I don’t know how the rest of you are faring in this economic debacle, but the atmosphere in my neck of the woods has been pretty much uniformly stressful. We here in Dogpatch, USA are cursed with living in interesting times because the world is too much with us. And since I have previously been accused by various cyber-Catholics of being a world-hating Gnostic—i.e., as showing either Marcionite or Manichean tendencies—I thought that I’d post some gleanings from my recent readings on the subject of Gnosticism, rather than dwelling on bale-outs and retention bonuses and partisan political horseshit.

The book I’ve been reading is The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas. As its subtitle—The message of the alien God and the beginnings of Christianity—would indicate, it contrasts the concept of an immanent deity to the concept of an utterly transcendent deity. This distinction results, in the case of the latter, in a dualistic view of the cosmos and man’s place in it: the world is bad; matter is bad; the only thing of importance is escaping from this fallen world of slavery to fate and existential alienation and returning to our true home, with God.

My next few posts will consist largely of excerpts from Jonas’ book, which highlight the primary points of antagonism between classical Greek philosophy/orthodox Christianity on the one hand, and the more “Eastern” (Syrian- and Persian-rooted) concepts which gave rise to Gnosticism, on the other.

To kick things off, here is Jonas on the fundamental Greek attitude toward life in the cosmos:

The Pythagoreans had found in the astral order the proportions of the concordant musical scale, and accordingly had called this system of the spheres in operation a harmonia, that is, the fitting together of many into a unified whole. Thereby they created the most enchanting symbol of Greek cosmic piety: “harmony,” issuing in the inaudible “music of the spheres,” is the idealizing expression for the same fact of irrefragable order that astrology stresses less optimistically in its own context. Stoic philosophy strove to integrate the idea of destiny as propounded by contemporary astrology with the Greek concept of harmony: heimarmene to the Stoics is the practical aspect of the harmony, i.e., its action as it affects terrestrial conditions and the short-lived beings here. And since the stellar movements are actuated by the cosmic logos and this logos functions in the world-process as providence (pronoia), it follows that in this wholly monistic system heimarmene itself is pronoia, that is, fate and divine providence are the same. The understanding of and willing consent to this fate thus interpreted as the reason of the whole distinguishes the wise man, who bears adversity in his individual destiny as the price paid by the part for the harmony of the whole.

If heimarmene is truly pronoia, is that a good thing? If so, the above all sounds not too shabby, don’t you think?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reflections: God Bless the Child

The greening of America?

In the second prose section of Book II of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Fortune addresses the Prisoner thus:

When nature brought you forth from your mother’s womb, I took you, naked, resourceless, lacking in every thing, into my arms; I nurtured you from my own wealth and resources and (this is the thing that makes you impatient with us now) I pampered you and raised you, excessive in my blessings; in the radiance and in the abundance of all those things that were within my power I surrounded you. Now it pleases me to draw my hand back: You have the benefit, the use of things that belong to someone else; you do not have the right to complain as if you have lost things truly your own. So why are you moaning? There was no violence done to you at our hands. Wealth and resources, honors, all other such things: They are within my power. These servants recognize their mistress; they come with me, and when I go they leave. I would assert this with complete confidence: If the things whose loss you complain of had ever been yours, there would have been no way you could have lost them.
xxx~ (trans., Joel C. Relihan)

For a more colloquial presentation of the same kind of theme, listen to any good blues album: If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. That is, sometimes the greening is just mold. But God bless the child that’s got his own.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Special Feature: Rodak's Writings Revealed

I usually only make my "creative" efforts available for viewing by posting a link in the "Rodak's Writings" sidebar. But with this one I somehow created a glitch over on ZohoWriter where I store my stuff so that it keeps getting deleted after I link to it. So be it: I'll post it here, for all the world to see:


Sonnet: Nihil Piped

Fools rush out where wise men freeze to dread—
The empty sky’s a virgin suicide note—
At your lofty desk, composed, eyes straight ahead—
As walls collapse “Oh no!” rips out your throat.

The world’s a trap, your private glimpse of hell—
It’s not the times things work, but when they don’t—
To read the last page now, just dig the smell
Of the road kill you whiz past: that’s all she wrote.

Matter winked, you hawked the glint of slime—
You tumbled down from somewhere safe up there—
You lunged for flesh, but wrestle now with Time—
So mad your lust to rasp your tongue on hair.

Nihil piped: O, baby, how you danced!
Now your Guildenstern’s greased up for Rosencrantz.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Reflections: the Moolah

Money it’s a crime
Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie
~ Money, Pink Floyd

Money! You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. I’ve recently been embroiled in a typically nasty discussion of usury, on a site called Zippy Catholic. I have posted as a comment over there parts of this interesting take on money and usury from critic, Frank Kermode, in a review of Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money by James Buchan, which appears in Kermode’s book, Pleasing Myself:

Schopenhauer observed that ‘other goods can satisfy only one wish and one need – food satisfies hunger, sex the needs of youth; these are goods which serve a specific purpose. But money ‘confronts not just one concrete need, but Need itself in the abstract’. Thus it becomes a universal, inhuman answer to what Sartre called besoin; or it may even have created that generalized need, which makes it even more hateful. One ancient way of demonizing money was to accuse it of breeding like a sentient being. Aristotle in the Politics noted this indecency, the birth of money from money. His word for ‘interest’ is tokos, which means offspring – money out at interest offers a demonic parody of natural reproduction. A couple of millennia later Shakespeare is writing harsh speeches about the breed of barren metal. Usury was condemned throughout the intervening centuries, and often compared to homosexuality, also regarded as a perversion of the act of breeding; but it was practiced, as it had to be, under other names. Some methods of money-making were called virtuous, for instance adventuring, which entailed genuine risk; Shylock, who made money breed, and Antonio, who risked his wealth in cargo vessels, argue quite schematically about this in “The Merchant of Venice.” The Church, knowing that credit is necessary and that it cannot be had without interest, made the necessary accommodations.

On a subsequent page, we get:

[Buchan] is a radical romantic, despising Adam Smith for his selfish bourgeois certainties, cross with Mill for neglecting the imagination, and contemptuous of Keynes for being, at moments, tiresomely ethical about the proper use of money, while admitting that ‘the money-motive…does its job well’. He prefers Dostoevsky, who saw that the true consequence of money was ‘the world reduced to a scorching slum, its women to whores, its men to murderers’. And he identifies as ‘the great sadness of our civilization’ the fact ‘that by using money, we convert our world into it. Humanity…is estranged by money from its natural habitat, without any hope of appeal.’

Money! No wonder Jesus was so very unenthusiastic about the stuff.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Readings: Simone Weil - Conclusion

Below is the concluding installment of Paul West's biographical sketch of Simone Weil from his book, Portable People:

What we make of her—this Jew, born a stoic and raised an agnostic, who gravitated to the godhead by using her magnificent brain to construct what George Herbert in her favorite stanza calls “a full consent”—depends on how far skepticism erodes our tolerance of experiences so private they cannot be appraised at all. Whereas the “system” of Teilhard de Chardin seems an inane wish fulfillment garbed as optimism, Simone Weil’s embraces the whole pain of being—not just of bureaucracy (it “always betrays”), of war (never a means of liberation), humiliation (the worker enslaved to a mass-producing machine), and force (“It makes a man a thing”), but of man’s total biological, chemical, and metaphysical state. She seems a Cleopatra, hugging the asp. Her best books (Gravity and Grace, Waiting for God, The Need for Roots) constantly shock us with their sustained oblique obviousness.

She could not always be reached. She was too busy reconciling poles expressed in these two statements:

We wish to uphold not the collectivity but the individual as the supreme value.

[We} owe our respect to a collectivity, of whatever kind—country, family or any other—not for itself, but because it is food for a certain number of human souls.

And when she was not doing that she was pursuing her own ascêsis, asking to become as defective “as an old man in his dotage” and, like Samuel Beckett, linking up with “the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.” When she died, “Alain” would not believe it. “It’s not true,” he said, “surely she will come back!” Simone Weil herself said: “If there is something in afterlife, I shall come back. If I don’t come back, it will mean that there is nothing.” Which, really, is the endgame to beat all.

Beside her spirituality--what I consider to be her sainthood, upon which West hardly touches in his sketch--what is most attractive to me about Simone Weil is hinted at in the two statements that West quotes above. Simone Weil, in addition to walking the talk, was radically conservative where conservatism most elevates the human spirit; and she was unrelentingly progressive where brother-love demanded that kind of orientation to real-life situations. Persons about whom that can be said are few and far between.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Readings: Simone Weil - Part VI

Below is the penultimate installment of Paul West's biographical sketch of Simone Weil from his book, Portable People:

What else can we do, however uneasy or inferior we feel, but admire her passionate, sometimes maladroit devotion to the working class, her intense and unsectarian religious zeal, her capacity for self-denial, her attempt to convert pain into something wholly fruitful, her brilliant disruptive mind and painstakingly trenchant prose, her audacity in teaching the young, her almost peasant simplicity in aphorism, her refusal to defer to evil wherever she found it, her will, her guts, her crabbed truthfulness? We admire, but with a hunch that much of it amounts to a frenetic displacement of womanhood. Some thing crackpot emerges alongside what is her evident genius and her almost pernicious goodness.

Not that we don’t respect the person—whether writer, say, or doctor—who uses the self as raw material. But Simone Weil, ostensibly on the side of life to the extent of justifying all of it, was really on the side of death; and her achievement, such as it is, implies the abandonment of the last, inalienable human privilege: the privilege of saying, “I loathe such and such a part of being human—say the small child with cancer of the clitoris, the child born deformed, the ugly and hardly quellable agony in which many people die, the obvious lack of divine justice—and I will not, much as it might be comfortable to be able to do it, involve myself in schoolmen’s casuistries just to praise a pattern I did not invent.”

She was on the side of death, yes--in the sense that only by submitting to death, in humble obedience to Necessity, do we take part in the ultimate defeat of death by Love. West has trouble throughout with pattern recognition. My admiration is not nearly so conditional as is that of Mr. West.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Readings: Simone Weil - Part V

Below, Part V of Paul West's sketch of Simone Weil from Portable People:

She returns to Europe, playing volleyball on the way over and even dressing up on one occasion as a ghost. Finally she discovers a haven, during the thick of the air raids, at 31 Portland Road, London, and lives on black coffee; coughs all the time; refuses to look after herself or be looked after; strews papers all over her room; commends the good humor of the British, the pubs, the police system; wanders regularly into Hyde Park; and even elects to sleep out in the rain on the grounds of a convent. She tried to learn to drive; she deliberately upsets herself and Simone Deitz from their boat into the Serpentine. She sets herself a Benjamin Franklin-Jay Gatsby type of regimen: “avoid all loss of time…sleep on the floor or on a table in order to limit the hours of sleep to four or five…” Desperately eager to be parachuted into France, she occupies herself with the English metaphysical poets, her work for the Free French Ministry of the Interior, and the composition of The Need for Roots. At last, too weak to lift a fork, and refusing a pneumothorax as well as deciding against baptism, she is moved from the Middlesex Hospital to Ashford. The death certificate said, “Cardiac failure due to myocardial degeneration of the heart muscles due to starvation and pulmonary tuberculosis. The deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.” Perhaps, though, her mind’s disturbance balanced for the first time. The certificate of burial reads, “Conducted own service—Catholic—French Refugee—Depth: 6 feet.”

West over-simplifies this part of it. The introduction to The Need for Roots, which he barely mentions, is written by T.S. Eliot, of all people. It is a significant, radical, and somewhat paradoxical, work concerned with how better to structure Western Civilization.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Readings: Simone Weil - Part IV

Below is Part IV of Paul West's sketch of Simone Weil from Portable People:
Among action shots these are the best: Simone Weil picking plums in the country and getting stranded on a high wall; hiding herself and her cigarette behind a Russian newspaper at staff meetings in school; on paydays at the Renault works treating herself to a package of cigarettes and some stewed fruit; digging potatoes for ten hours a day; insisting on carrying bundles of thistles in the wheat fields; helping (?) Marcel Lecarpentier on this thirty-foot, eight-ton fishing boat; exclaiming over the photo of some brawny tough, “That my kind of man!”; giving away so much of her schoolteacher’s salary that she went a whole winter without heat; burning herself while welding; asking a peasant if she might drive his plough and at once overturning it; scalding herself with oil while cooking for the CNT in Spain; aiming her rifle at an airplane that dropped a small bomb; neglecting to wash hands before milking cows; refusing a cream cheese because Indochinese children were starving; actually becoming a member of a résistance group that was a German trap; and, later, on her way to New York by way of Morocco, handing Gustave Thibon her notebooks on the station platform in Marseilles with a kind of absent-minded abruptness; thanking Father Perrin, her spiritual mentor, for never humiliating her; wandering in Harlem and attending a Baptist church there every Sunday (I’m the only white person in the church”); studying folklore and quantum theory at the New York Public Library; asking Simone Deitz, who acceded, “Would you like to be my friend?”

In this, we begin to get a hint of those aspects of Simone Weil's personal make-up which attracted me to her; for instance, her courage of conviction.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Quote du Jour: What Is Truth?

It is my unsolicited testimonial that “Gloria”, written and sung by Van Morrison as the leader of the band Them in 1964, is a better little rocker than any of the Beatles’ little rockers. But don’t just take my word for it—ask Patti Smith.

That said, one must then give it serious consideration when Morrison is quoted in the March 9, 2009 issue of The New Yorker (Drive-By Dept. - “Listening Party”) as saying:


Hari Krishna, Batman! Revisionism? Or the truth at last?

Readings: Simone Weil - Part III

Below is the third installment of Paul West's biographical sketch of Simone Weil, from Portable People:

The photographs mutely record the decline from her second year, when she was chubby-cheeked, with curly black hair the color of her almond-shaped eyes—a pensive, cute doll—to thirty-four, when she starved herself to death in order to share the sufferings of the French. Her face in 1936 (at twenty-seven) is handsome, firm, full-mouthed and rather appealing; and in the uniform of Confederación Nacional del Trabajo she looks like an Arab youth dressed up for a baggy-trousered prank. But five years later she has an expression of intent vacuity. She has become the headmistress type, owl-eyed through excessive perusal, her expression an odd blend of hennish timidity and impatient pity. And there is a general look of—well, dryness. A sad little gallery of pictures indeed.

Astute and tomboyish, she chain-smoked and even rolled her own cigarettes. Because she did this carelessly she often had shreds of tobacco in her mouth. She wore large horn-rimmed spectacles for myopia, walked awkwardly in a forward lean, preferred clothes of masculine cut and low-heeled shoes. She “had a sharp, restless glance” and spoke in a staccato monotone, aspirating almost all her h’s. She played women’s rugby and would return from the fray covered with mud and bruises; and it was on her return from a game in 1930 that she had by far the worst attack, up to then, of her migraines (later attributed to sinusitis).

To this point, we have yet to discover how this sketch, which has dwelt here on her physical ungainliness, made Simone Weil so attractive to me that after reading it I went straight to the library to find books about her.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Readings: Simone Weil - Part II

What follows is the second installment of Paul West's biographical sketch of Simone Weil from Portable People:

Such an odd combination of masochism and affabulation (fantasticating a mystical experience) is bound to provoke even in the most open minded a few harsh misgivings about frustrated spinsters, algolagnia, and hatred of the flesh. And it is possible to read Simone Weil’s account of Christ in person (“Sometimes we stretched out on the floor of the mansarde and the softness of the sun came down upon me”) in almost the same way as we would one of Moravia’s studies in adolescent eroticism. Irreverent as it may be to say it, she had a crush on Jesus. Yet, of course, as Gustave Thibon and others noted, she winced away from physical embrace—at least until the day she forced herself to declare, with rather dotty braggadocio, “I like being kissed by men with moustaches. It stings!” Remove the sting and the kiss is nothing for Simone Weil. After she had told friends about actually being kissed by a coal trimmer in Barcelona, she burst into tears when one of them asked if the man was drunk. This tireless intelligence, who beat Simone de Beauvoir into second place in the Ecole Normale entrance examination, belonged to her own version of the human condition. Frustrated, ill at ease as a woman and disconsolate at being human, she was reassured only by extra suffering and convinced only by what she thought God had told her. It is no wonder she became a kind of amateur saint and a successful suicide.

It is noted that West goes out of his way to present her as grotesque here. Still, he finds her fascinating enough to contemplate. In my experience, most people are either too conventional, or too orthodox, to deal with thinking about Simone Weil at all.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Readings: Lost and Found

Off from work today, resting a bit of a bad back, I was afforded ample time to finally finish Roberto Bolaño’s massive posthumous novel, 2666. When I carried the box containing its three volumes into the family room to put it away on a shelf, I spotted on a shelf above it, misplaced, a book I have been looking for off and on since we moved to this house—Portable People by Paul West.

I don’t remember where I acquired the book. I am quite sure that I bought it because of having previously read West’s novel, The Rat Man of Paris. But Portable People, while highly imaginative, is not exactly fiction. It is, in fact, a rather strange little book. It is a small paperback—5 ½ “ x 6 ½”—and what it contains are very brief biographical sketches—ranging in length from a single paragraph to several pages—of approximately 85 people, each of which is accompanied by a pen and ink sketch of the subject by somebody named Joe Servello.

There is no apparent rhyme or reason to the persons chosen for inclusion. A random sample of those included would list: Samuel Pepys, Helen Keller, Jack the Ripper, George Gershwin, Carl Sagan, Sir Edward Elgar, Martin Bormann, Yvonne Goolagong (remember her?), Pelé, and William Empson (about whom I’ve recently been posting below). Quite a mix.

But of primary importance to me—and the reason why I am so happy to have located this misplaced book—is that it is the primary source for my knowledge of, and the genesis of my interest in, Simone Weil. It was the biographical sketch in this weird little book that set me to acquiring books by and about Simone Weil—a collection which now takes up about two feet of shelf space and a study which has spanned nearly two decades.

The Servello drawing of Simone Weil is not a good likeness, and the biographical sketch is not in any way flattering. Nonetheless, my interest was seriously piqued. Such is the importance of this little biographical sketch to me, that I intend, over the next few days, to post the entire thing here. If I post anything else during this period, it will be in addition to the next installment of Simone Weil. So, without further ado, Simone Weil – Part I:

Dogs bark at cripples and ghosts and in some ways Simone Weil was both. Not content with the pain she had from recurrent migraines, she sought out for herself starvation and heavy manual labor (both industrial and agricultural); she prayed for extra pain and even to become a total paralytic. One of the least earthly of women, she increasingly fixed her attention—that sapping, inductive, inventive field of force—on God and death, managing to experience epiphanies (“Christ came down, and He took me”) and even to make death do her bidding in the Ashford Sanatorium in Kent in 1944.

End of Part I.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quote du Jour: A Mystery?

This one mystifies me:

Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.
~ Roberto Bolano, 2666

Does anybody have any thoughts on what meaning it intends to convey? Clue: the discussion going on in the novel is about literature.