Asleep, She is a Horizon: On Simone Weil

Asleep, She is a Horizon: On Simone Weil

The truth about life is still obscure because we only read those vain and energetic enough to write. Even the secret diarists, your Pessoas and your Dickinsons, seem imbued with a kind of optimism about the truth of their pessimism, and their refusals to publish seem more miserly to me than doubtful. Truth is found in wholeness, in the reconciliation of all facts, but most facts aren’t written, said, known. In a sense, then, all writing is failure, saying only the sayable when what we really crave is the unsayable. But if the writing of non-writers, which by its nature can’t exist, would be the most illuminating thing to read, then the writing of writers at the border checkpoint of death serves as a nice though imperfect substitute. This is why swan songs, and every kind of late quartet, hold such power.

In 1943, Simone Weil lay dying. I have a private picture of those last days. I see her on a cot in rural England, in the green depths of that countryside, so pleasantly depressing under cloud cover to those eyes reared on California movies. Far off is the peevish thunder of late August and, even farther off, inaudibly across the channel, the disintegration of so much flesh and granite. Weil has withered to a stick figure in gray prole garb; her Gussie Fink-Nottle glasses rest with all the weight of artillery on her sharpened and sweaty nose. A cracked window admits the stink of humid vegetation into her Victorian sanitarium. This is a moment like any other, except for her soul it happens to be final, the last Pringle in the tube.

I have a reckless guess, too, about her last conscious and complete thought before her heavy mind dissolved. Earlier that year Weil had read Schopenhauer. Nothing wrong with that. Or, almost nothing: the tetchy bachelor of Frankfurt can have a weird effect on folks. Weil, for example, had stopped eating. Scholars disagree about her motive or even on whether this starvation was freely chosen and not a symptom of some deeper fleshly waste. I postulate that this most willful of women chose her own path to the grave. In doing so, she turned away from writing, working, teaching, experiencing sex, and even from seeing the day when her first book might appear in print. What a waste! the reader of her biography thinks, with all the snobbery that the living feel for the dead. Dead at thirty-four! And all that talent! And then, as an addendum, unconscious and implicit: Moron! She threw away the dearest thing she owned as if it were a careless trifle. And what for? To prove what? Here enters the influence of Schopenhauer. The first volume of The World as Will and Representation ends as follows:

…we freely acknowledge that what remains after the complete abolition of the will is, for all who are still full of the will, assuredly nothing. But also conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of ours with all its suns and galaxies is — nothing.

To the ascetic the world is nothing. Not seems, but is. Carnage was in stupid ascendance around the globe. But Weil had stopped eating and so the carnage was in a sense cancelled. The week of her death, the Red Army waded westward across the Dnieper, inaugurating an operation in which both sides would pledge some two million souls to secure the left bank. Booms to turn culture to powder and smoke, nightmares incarnated in steel, Ragnaröks plural. But to those in whom the will has turned and denied itself…

Coriolanus, as he accepted banishment from the city he defended, turned to the mob and said: “I banish you… There is a world elsewhere.” This, then, is my proposed last Weilian thought, though I imagine it mentally quoted with a generous irony: There is a world elsewhere.

What, you might ask, was this lady’s deal? Sentencing herself to wilder and wilder privations, she seemed sometimes like a martyr in frantic search for a Nero cruel enough to sate her appetite for pain. Nothing is weirder than a masochist forced at last to slap herself. And how strange, you might say, to crave new kinds of oppression when her world and ours have Nebuchadnezzars out the wazoo. 

But to the question of whether perfection is possible in this world of time and effort and whether an imperfect life is worth persisting in, Weil had delivered her tidy answer, the most brutal of RSVPs. In her last gesture, gruesomely articulate, she preached the identity of perfection and void. (Plath: “The woman is perfected. / Her dead // Body wears the smile of accomplishment, / The illusion of a Greek necessity…”)

The normal mind is repelled by these notions. The world is here, it says; happiness is here, even if drowned sometimes in oceans of pain. To look for perfection in death is like attempting to clean a house by burning it down — says the mind.

But then the mind would say that, wouldn’t it? Just as no parliament would vote away its own privileges, the mind tends not to abolish itself. In the end we have to grasp the impossibility of knowing whether Weil was the insane one or we the living. Some have tried to paint her asceticism as a disease. Less offended by this than some of her defenders, I would rehearse the old and true theme that all thought partakes to some degree of insanity, or that sanity is only insanity with a few beneficial tweaks: a rich entrepreneur is nothing but an Ahab who stabbed the whale dead, that true love is only reciprocated stalking, and so on.

Her last act of satori-seeking was not her first. Eight years previous, Weil had poured out her youth and health when she, the daughter of a prosperous doctor, worked willingly as a proletarian in a metal factory. “The desire to share the fate of the oppressed led to her momentous decision,” Czeslaw Milosz wrote. “As she confesses, that year in the factories destroyed her youth and forever left the indelible stigma of a slave upon her…” She knew, then, that self-sacrifice was not a trove of rewards but really only what it seemed to be: immolation and diminishment. Fire scorched; hammers hurt. After her season in hell, no one needed to tell her that this world is ruled by what she called “gravity” or “necessity,” the nightmare law by which a broke stays broke, by which time flows awfully forward, and by which cracked eggs inevitably fail to leap upward healed and whole from the kitchen tiles.

One of her last writings was her essay On the Abolition of All Political Parties. Although about politics, this brief tract may also be read as a sort of metaphysical toodle-oo. Weil begins with a rehabilitation of Rousseau and his notion of the general will. She insists that Rousseau’s target was not precisely equality or justice but truth, and she marvels that few have gleaned this from his writings. One of Weil’s many talents as a critic was to offer new readings that seem not overclever but naïve in the best sense, a revelatory recapitulation of what hides in plain sight. This quality is well on display in her remarkable essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”’ She also had the genius’s knack for absorbing influences and for turning them to her advantage. In Rousseau she saw a fellow fanatic for truth, truth at all costs. Whether this reading is correct is really unanswerable: in the humanities, refutation in the mathematical sense is not available. Not even obscurity or ridicule are really refutations because in the end a small ember of possibility remains that the obscured or ridiculed is really true.

Weil derives a world picture, similar to her own, from the writings of Rousseau. Why look to the general will? Because what individual wills have in common will be nobler and cleaner than any individual will, because the individual is narrow, cramped in her senses and interests. And so the heaping up of discrete desires like the sum of vectors must yield in its remainder the truth or our best approximation of it, a canceling out of peculiar flaws. Crucially, this method is only instrumental, a sifting for gold that could be abandoned without regret if a better method were found. But, like the physics problem that assumes no friction, recourse to the general will only reveals the truth when the passions are not engaged. Rousseau, insists Weil, is clear on this point.

And so, a political party is in a sense the opposite of the general will in the way meant by Rousseau. A political party, writes the woman who had made political agitation a temporary vocation, is nothing but a machine for the stirring up of passions, passions being the origin of all evil. A passionate heap of people is a jiggling well surface that reflects no image, falsity made flesh. Disgustingly, people freely give away their inborn freedom to a party or sect, as if their integrity were a burden, as if they could finally breathe easily once enveloped by what Étienne de La Boétie called voluntary servitude.

The servitude, the swerve from truth, could also be involuntary. The force of conformity and threat of pain, she knew, could cause an unconscious drift into lies, no matter scrupulous and supportable each individual decision might seem: “If a man undertakes extremely complex numerical calculations knowing that he will be flogged every time he obtains an even number as the final result, he finds himself in an acute predicament.”

Echoing Kant, Weil saw a fundamental error in the desire to treat any means as an end. Nothing but the eternal and ultimate was really worth anything, she felt, and worldly goods were good only so far as they imperfectly and Platonically reflected the higher emanations. But the human habit of mistaking these lower, impostor experiences for the genuine article leads to lives devoted to fake goals and fake causes — wasted lives.

Compounding that error is our overestimation of our attention spans. We pollute our attentions by channeling them stupidly toward the ephemeral. We attend to instruments and not ends, whereas the only object really deserving our attention is the ultimate end, the ultimate good. But like someone who spends his money on useless trinkets all day and discovers at sunset that he has nothing left for room and board, we expend our finite attention on finite things and then are shocked the be perceptually locked out of the infinite. Constant attention to the infinite: a thrilling precept to read about, but a harsh one to live.

It would be glib and unfair to say that by the time she wrote On the Abolition of All Political Parties Weil hankered for nirvana because her will was spent. (She had quit the Free French, headquartered in London, after some squabbles with de Gaulle, some about her idea to parachute nurses onto land still held by the Wehrmacht.) In fact, she had much more will to spend, and she did. Through the force of her premises, she had reasoned her way into unreason. She would become free and good by carving herself away, invoking Donald Justice’s justly short poem “The Thin Man”:

I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
Nothing suffices.

I hone myself to
this edge. Asleep, I
Am a horizon.

Yet Weil as a writer may have lost something in her transit toward the contagious hospital. In an earlier essay on attention, she praised schoolwork for its ability to foster attention — not toward a specific object but as a kind of strength training that could later find a wider application. (A famous aphorism of hers holds that prayer is nothing but absolutely unmixed attention.) In this earlier Weil, you sense her consciousness of the human need for a ladder of ascent. By her last year, she had abandoned this respect for the merely instrumental either through philosophical gestation or because she had reached the top rung of the ladder and had no choice but to linger there or leap.

Whether we should be satisfied with anything short of purity is a terrifying question, on the order of whether to believe in God and how to arrange a society, and the answer can shape the course of a life. Weil chose her path and left us here, along with a bequest of essays and notebooks, most unpublished at the time of her death.

It’s difficult not to take her almost suicide as a judgment on the world she abandoned. (One of George Sanders’s several suicide notes read in its entirety: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”) More than once while talking to regular, “decent” people, I’ve detected a sort of resentment toward the suicides: not contempt, though there was that, but a sense too that they, the survivors, felt sort of insulted.

In other times and places, in Europe and India and Asia, saints and saints manqués were set out among us, visible, not as a rebuke or a boast but as an illustration that there is a world elsewhere. Writing can teach much the same lesson, if it wants to. Books by the dead, pamphlets by the bizarre, rantings by Weil and Weil-like beings, brave and persnickety journals like this one: these point a way out of the daily predicament.

But — what if they leave us?