e n d n o t e s  



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 19, 1907
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 Weil’s 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 one’s neighbors and of God.” (This, published in 1951, when memory of World War II was fresh, and alienation was an existential condition.)

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 don’t believe in You. I can’t know You as I’ve 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 I’m 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 year’s 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 God.

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 oscillation.

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 Herbert’s poem.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guiltie of lust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew near to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lack’d any thing.


A guest, I answer’d, 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 marr’d them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

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 Augustine’s 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 Augustine’s 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 husband’s 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 Una’s 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 woman’s 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 body’s limbs were moved by the soul’s 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 child’s 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 Augustine’s 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 another’s 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 Adam’s support of Eve’s 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. But…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 God’s 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 mother’s 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 Weil’s life and death? My mother kept a spiritual diary, which I won’t 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….



See also:

Reminiscence: Lee Goerner, this issue

On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2

Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1

The Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4

On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3

Fantastic Design, With Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1

Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4



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