Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reflections: O'Connor on Weil - Part I

[The conceptual impetus for this series may be found here.]

Our source of insight into Flannery O’Connor’s interest in Simone Weil will be The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. We will note, as we read what O’Connor had to say about Weil over the years, that Weil interested her. It was never that Flannery O’Connor felt compelled to define Simone Weil as right or wrong, as Christian or non-Christian, as sinner or saint, as spiritual exemplar or Gnostic heretic; rather it was that Simone Weil fascinated O’Connor, holding her attention for at least a decade, as her letters reveal.

The first reference we have is in a letter to Sally Fitzgerald and her husband, Robert, written (as noted by Fitzgerald) in the summer of 1952:

I’ve never read Simone Weil but a good bit about her & you sound right to me on the subject.

In The Habit of Being we have only O’Connor’s letters, not those of her correspondents. This first reference is clearly made in answer to a query as to whether she is familiar with Simone Weil. Her answer tells us that she has read about Weil, but has not yet read any of Weil’s published writings.

From this point on, all of O’Connor’s references to Simone Weil will be in letters written to “A.” a pen-pal described by Sally Fitzgerald in her notes as “a young woman, unknown to [O’Connor], whose comments so interested her that she asked her to write again. It was the beginning of a nine-year friendship and correspondence.”

Approximately three years after the reference to Weil in the letter to Sally Fitzgerald, we see in this excerpt from a letter to “A.” that Flannery O’Connor has still not read any of Simone Weil’s writings, but that her curiosity remains unabated:

2 August 55 to “A.”:

I am wondering if you have read Simone Weil. I never have and doubt if I would understand her if I did; but from what I have read about her, I think she must have been a very great person. She and Edith Stein are the two 20th-century women who interest me most.

A week later, O’Connor pursues the topic:

9 August 55 to “A.”:

I have thought of Simone Weil in connection with you almost from the first and I got out this piece I enclose and reread it and the impression was not lessened. In the face of anyone’s experience, someone like me who has had almost no experience, must be humble.

Finally, as the month is about to end, O’Connor asks “A.” for a loan of some of Simone Weil’s books:

28 August 55 to “A.”:

The magazine that had the piece on Simone Weil is called “The Third Hour” and is put out spasmodically… …I would very much like you to lend me the books of Simone Weil’s when you get through with them…

It can be seen, both from references to various articles about Simone Weil made by O’Connor in what will follow, as well as in several incidental mentions of Weil in the letters that I do not plan to use for this series of posts, that Simone Weil was a person of interest to many intellectuals writing in the mid-20th-century; O’Connor was by no means unique in her interest. O’Connor was, however, a writer of fiction whose unusual characters and themes render her opinion of an exceptional person like Simone Weil uniquely insightful. She was also a devout Catholic whose religious sensibility qualifies her to comment intelligently on Weil’s radical approach to Christianity.

We will pause here and give O’Connor a chance to read some Weil.