Sunday, March 8, 2009

Readings: Simone Weil - Conclusion

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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.
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