First, artistic perception had to overcome itself to the point
of realizing that even something horrible, something that seems no
more than disgusting, is,and shares the truth of its being with
everything else that exists. Just as the creative artist is not
allowed to choose, neither is he permitted to turn his back on
anything: a single refusal, and he is cast out of the state of
grace and becomes sinful all the way through.
Rilke, LETTERS ON CÉZANNE, October
tr. Joel Agee
Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit
By late August the sun had canted toward autumn,
giving the first hint of decadence while summer was at its peak of
ripeness. In that light of almost-melancholy anticipation, peaches were
fat and juicy, the local melons heavy in weight and subtle in taste. In
those days I read these books: Garry Wills new short life of St.
Augustine and Simone Weils WAITING FOR GOD,
with its tender preface by Leslie Fiedler. I encountered Simone Weil
again, after a long separation. I could no longer imagine living in that
flame of belief, her willingness to sacrifice the body for the love of
God, which purified her mind, and so, her prose. She wrote: I feel
that it is necessary to me, prescribed for me, to be alone, an outsider
and alienated from every human context whatsoever. About this
Fiedler remarks, To have become rooted in the context of a
particular religion, Simone Weil felt, would on the one hand have
exposed her to what she calls the patriotism of the Church, with a
consequent blindness to the faults of her own group and the virtues of
others, and would, on the other hand, have separated her from the common
condition here below, which finds us all outsiders, uprooted, in
exile. The most terrible of crimes is to collaborate in the uprooting
of others in an already alienated world; but the greatest of virtues is
to uproot oneself for the sake of ones neighbors and of God.
(This, published in 1951, when memory of World War
II was fresh, and alienation was an existential
I had first read Simone Weil in my uncomprehending
young-womanhood, living as a sort of beguine, with God and books, in the
Alaskan bush. In truth, I lived with the absence of God, for in my youth
I had once challenged Him (the God of my youth, who was the Father
received from the ages) to reveal Himself to me. These were the terms of
my challenge, which also was a bargain: God, I dont believe in You. I
cant know You as Ive been taught You Are. I want to find out if
You Are for myself. But I promise this: if I am wrong, and if you are
going to punish me, even so, I will always do my best. But if Im not
wrong, let me know. I held my breath for some time afterwards.
Simone Weil (1909-1943) was the
daughter and second child of bourgeois, assimilated-Jewish parents. Her
elder brother, André, became the eminent mathematician; as a boy he
directed her early reading in literature and science. She, also, was a
brilliant student, obtaining her baccalaureat ès lettres with
distinction at age 15. At the Collège Henri IV,
she prepared for the competative examination for the École Normal under
Alain, eminent philosopher and essayist, who recognized her particular
genius for philosophy. She became a qualified teacher and taught in
provincial schools for several years, until she took a years leave in
order to experience fully the life of working people, whose
hard existence she had observed from afar; and so she took a job
this is well-known at the Renault factory and worked on the assembly
line. There I received forever the mark of a slave, she
wrote: Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave.
Despite terrible migraines and delicate health, she resolved to live as
her companion workers did, until she returned to teaching. This was in 1935;
in 1936, she went to Barcelona, to see for herself
the war between the Falange and the Republicans (of all stripes, but
particularly the Communists). On the Catalan front Simone Weil
experienced there can be no doubt of this the terror of war, and
it marked her. But what takes my heart is that, outwardly, she was a
rather clumsy young woman, determinedly unattractive in the conventional
sense, with bobbed hair and utilitarian glasses, and was high-minded and
not particularly sociable, so that she must have seemed foolish. Perhaps
to the wise and the truly kind, she was a holy fool. But it is
impossible to imagine her doing anything useful in the rough bivouac of
the fighters she attached herself to; and, in fact, a dreadful accident
occurred, when she tripped over a kettle of boiling oil and was badly
burned. Fortunately, for medical care was poor, her always-mindful
parents rescued her from the field hospital where she had been sent.
This catastrophe ended her direct political work,
although she never repented of her youthful radicalism and belief in
social action; but now her attention was being turned away, and toward
In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm Sunday to Easter
Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from
splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow; by an extreme
effort of concentration I was able to rise above this wretched flesh,
to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a corner, and to find a
pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and
the words. This experience enabled me by analogy to get a better
understanding of the possibility of loving divine love in the midst of
affliction. It goes without saying that in the course of these
services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being
once and for all.
There was a young English Catholic there from whom I gained my
first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the
truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going
to communion. Chance for I always prefer saying chance rather than
Providence made of him a messenger to me. For he told me of the
existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are
named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem
called Love. I learned it by heart. Often, at the
culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over,
concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul
to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting
it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had
the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that,
as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.
In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had
never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to
person, here below, between a human being and God. In the Fioretti
the accounts of apparitions rather put me off if anything, like the
miracles in the Gospel. Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by
Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt
in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which
one can read in the smile on a beloved face.
The short life of Simone Weil the life as
expressed in her writings is worthy of the closest contemplation.
Though hapless, she was resolute in her desire never to separate herself
from her fellow human beings. After the Second World War began, she
moved with her parents to America, but she could not accept her
privileged position. She crossed to England, and there rationed her
daily intake of food to match that of her countrymen under German rule.
She starved slowly, until her death in late August 1943.
Simone Weil believed, or knew, that God had not called
her to baptism because He had imposed on her different vocation:
that I may serve God and the Christian faith in the realm of the
intelligence. The degree of intellectual honesty that is obligatory
for me, by reason of my particular vocation, demands that my thought
should be indifferent to all ideas without exception, including for
instance materialism and atheism; it must be equally welcoming and
equally reserved with regard to every one of them. Water is
indifferent in this way to the objects that fall into it. It does not
weigh them; they weigh themselves, after a certain time of
I know quite well that I am not really like this it would be
too beautiful; but I am under an obligation to be like this; and I
could never be like this if I were in the Church.
That that poor body was inhabited by so fierce and
incandescent a mind dissolves any feeling toward her that is less than
veneration. But for the moment I would rather, simply, read George
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of lust and sinne.
But quick-eyd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew near to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lackd any thing.
A guest, I answerd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marrd them: let my
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my
So I did sit and eat.
Reading Garry Wills lively evocation his
Augustine breathes I was struck again by the battle the young
African scholar and orator had waged with himself between faith and the
body. Put more brutally: Why, in the Christian Church, is the body
extinguished for the love of God?
I would like to dwell for a little while on a
seldom-remarked occurrence: that before his conversion, Augustine lived
with a Catholic woman and had a son by her, and that he loved them both
very much. Wills believes that Augustines reputation as sexually
promiscuous is a misjudgment; that, while he was as eager for sexual
contact as any young man of his station would be, in fact he loved and
was devoted to a woman of the town, with whom he lived for fifteen
years. He did not, in his writings, give her name. Wills thinks they
lived together with the full knowledge of his mother, the widowed
Monnica. Gently, Wills names the woman Una, after Augustines
sentence: I lived with only one woman [unam habebam] and
kept faith with her bed.
In the year 384, when he was
thirty, Augustine established a sizeable household Una, their son,
Monnica, retainers in Milan, where, writes Wills, Augustine
moved onto a higher social plane. A government career was
beginning, with the prospect of marriage into wealth. Since marriage was
primarily a property arrangement, and Monnica was still managing her
dead husbands estate, she arranged the engagement to a Christian
heiress not yet old enough to wed. The dénouement was
swift: What, then, of Una? She went back to Africa, vowed to live
a live of consecrated continence. Augustine (while showing a lack of enthusiasm for his arranged marriage) wrote:
Since she was an obstacle to my marriage, the woman I lived with
for so long was torn out of my side. My heart, to which she had been
grafted, was lacerated, wounded, shedding blood.
For his own advantage, he agreed to part with her. It
is still appalling. No matter that she was torn from his flesh;
ambition and his mother (it seems) were the instruments which removed
her. Was Monnica an
overbearing mother? Rebecca West thought so (Wills disagrees). Did
Augustine marry? It seems not, although he did not remain celibate after
Unas departure, but took a stop-gap mistress.
Augustine at this time was a pagan and was a rising man at court. But at
the same time, his teacher, Simplician, was guiding him, through intense
questioning and tales of conversion, toward Christianity. And here also
I suppose this came the intercession of Monnica: for I can
imagine this womans worldly ambition for her gifted son, but also,
her Catholic, weighty, unyielding concern for his soul. I imagine she
prayed for him ceaselessly.
On the day of his conversion, he began the last
great struggle against grace by entering a garden with his friend.
He endured an agony of will against body. The description of that event
is worthy of being read at length; in brief: he willed to
overcome his desire, but his body would not accept the order. His
analysis of his own psychological drama is engrossing:
Even while thrashing about with stymied effort, my will still had
effect on my body unlike the situation of those who have the will
but not the bodily effect (because, perhaps, a limb they want to move
is amputated, tied down, withered by a malady, or otherwise
debilitated). No, when I tore my hair, pounded my head, laced fingers
around my knee to hug it to me, I was accomplishing what the will told
the body to do. The willing would not have been followed by this
effect if my limbs were pinned down, since here the effecting was a
different thing from the willing. Yet I could not do what I far
more ardently wanted to do, and which I should have been able to do at
will, since what I wanted was, precisely, to will. Here the motion to
be dictated was in the will itself, and simply to will were to do. Yet
I could not. My bodys limbs were moved by the souls lightest
volition, yet the soul did not respond to its own ardent willing,
though this was its own will.
As he is struggling with himself he sits down under a
fig tree. At some moment he hears a childs voice. Pick up and
read, it commands. He turns back to the book he had been reading
and sees the text: Be clothed in Jesus Christ.
The very instance I finished that sentence, light was flooding my
heart with assurance, and every shadow of doubt evanesced.
Thus he entered the Church. Wills proposes that
Augustines written examination of himself should be read in the light
of his theology, which evolved in breadth and depth across his long
life. With this in mind, he points to the first sin about which
Augustine examined himself, the theft of pears from an orchard with a
gang of his friends. But why was this prank a sin, compared to the sin
of the flesh? Augustine argued the case of his guilt from Genesis. He
did not choose to do evil; rather, he drew an analogy to the moment when
Adam accepted the apple from Eve and ate of it.
Adam did not want to disappoint her, when he thought she might be
blighted without his comforting support, banished from his heart to
die sundered from him. He was not overcome by disordered desire of the
flesh, which he had not yet experienced as a thing in his body at odds
with his mind, but by a kind of amicable desire for anothers good,
which often happens, making us sin against God so as not to turn a
friend against us.
Inversely, Augustine concluded that mastering his
sexual desire (the proximate cause of his struggle in the garden) was as
overcoming his love of fellowship for the love of God, or renouncing the
lower love as was Adams support of Eves sin for the sake of
love of her for the higher. This is difficult for a woman to read,
no matter how dispassionate she strives to be as a reader. Spiritual
pride also is a form of ambition, she notes.
Yet, I cannot dismiss the effect of grace, which
overmasters logic. At the same time, I know the love of the body and its
glories, the ordinary flesh which brings us delirious joy.
And yet, I know that the glories and delights of the
body unfocus the mind, and perhaps seduce one away from higher
things. Desire is disquieting. What exaltation of the flesh allows for
the voice of God? (It can allow, has allowed, for the voice of the gods.
I am not a pagan.)
Bidden or not bidden, God is present.
Yet a tincture of bitterness had seeped into my
consciousness, demanding to be recognized and examined. I had not
achieved compassion; rather, a mixture of love, something (I feared)
like pity, tenderness, and dismay remained. The attempt to have known a
person beloved in himself, as a living creature this is the position
of disengagement and respect and equally as the one who would offer
the love, companionship, conversation so deeply desired, but, finally,
denied me: this unreconciled dialectic was what I struggled with, a
figure of sacred and profane love.
I had, by conscious choice, rooted myself in the body,
choosing, so to speak, profane love. Stubbornly, I remained grounded, or
tried to do so; yet, on the ground I had made a home the spirit of God
was not imminent, or, I was not available to It, if It were here. But,
long ago, I had lost the faculty of dispassion; I was not philosophical,
but an investigator through the body. And the body, overwhelmed, had
grown insensitive and bruised and wanted the cessation of pain.
Simone Weil wrote that suffering is a sign of Gods
love. That is her beautiful use of paradox. But I did not believe this,
or not for myself. I had no comprehension of such a God, nor the
remotest sense of His love. Yet, in spite of the blows to the body and
spirit of recent years although I kept denying how bruising they had
been; for, how could a person in my social and economic position claim
to have suffered? my troubles were the ordinary difficulties of life
how nicely I had been kept in material comfort. As I had no feeling of
deserving this, I could only consider it a situation in which I had been
placed. And yet, I considered that placement to be part of the test, or
a test, I had been given; and didnt think I had done well at it. My
sense of hope, or curiosity, my sheer delight in the varieties of life,
were sorely tested by comfort. Their muscular strength was much weaker
than I had thought.
Yet, if I believed I had been put to a test, what,
then, did I believe had been the Examiner? And what had It been testing
me for? For I found that I did believe that tests are given us, by some
Entity that is larger than our (social) selves. That was as far as I
could go. I couldnt reconcile the great contradiction in which I lived,
between the urgent, unmediated demands of the body, and the elegant
delight of the works of mind (or, spirit, if I must).
For, my body had interrupted the course I had thought I
followed, and was exigent. I was more than a little amazed to realize
how deeply pain distracted me from what I had thought was the real work,
the life of words.
Intimations of mortality: during August, in the month
of sunlight and ripe peaches, I went weekly to the hospital to have blood drawn. The people I saw there were
creatures of a graceless physical world, grotesque bodies without the
signal of Mind that enlarges our poor human species. A sight haunted me:
a thin old man in a wheel chair, pushed by his thin, resigned-looking
wife. He wore a helmet and his head lolled on his thin chest. Suffering
was in his face. I thought, How could I endure such wretchedness?
I was vulnerable and helpless as I passed them, being myself wheeled in
the other direction. St. Francis called his body Brother Mule. I was so
sad to learn that my own brother mule kicked harder than I could
stand. It wanted a very great deal of attention. My will couldnt
ignore it. This body: it was the carrier of the Spirit, or the Mind,
surely? Why was it so demanding, and what did it want now? What on earth
did the body want?
My mothers death was terrible to see. She had long
feared it. Her last weeks were a struggle, the body clinging to a
diminished life while the mind raved. What test had been set, and by
whom? Her Catholicism and her love of God were inflexible while her body
was put through wretched contortions. I think her fierce will kept it
alive until the final cost, and I think that will was animated by fear.
Was that a contrast to Simone Weils life and death?
My mother kept a spiritual diary, which I wont read, I think. She was
not a philosopher, as Weil was, but she had some sort of direct access
to certain saints, perhaps even to God; her God. The immensity of that,
or its awfulness, dazzled me, for so many years; but I have tried to
reject it and stay in this world. And I was appalled by what Weil called
le pesanteur. Dead weight
Reminiscence: Lee Goerner,
Vol. 3, No. 2
Vol. 3, No. 1
Vol. 2, No. 4
Vol. 2, No. 3
Design, With Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1
Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4