My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you’ll allow me, dear reader, a self-indulgent preamble. Readers of my novella, The Ecstasy of Michaela, will notice a few lines from Simone Weil quoted as the heroine’s reading material. This should not be mistaken for deep familiarity with Weil on my part; I have read her in only in glimpses and glances and mainly thought that she was the sort of writer my fictional protagonist would be devoted to. In my experience, most creative writers read this way—I recently saw an essay in which Andy Seal expresses amused contempt for the supposedly opportunistic unseriousness of Saul Bellow as a thinker precisely because Bellow made creative use of philosophical writing in the way I just described; but I think Seal’s judgment is the kind of thing that gives academics a bad name among writers. Closer to the mark is Umberto Eco’s verdict in The Aesthetics of Chaosmos: The Middle Ages of James Joyce, delivered after Eco revealed just how shockingly little of Aquinas’s writings Joyce had really read, that Joyce had read enough to intuit the whole Thomistic philosophy and its possible uses and implications. While I am no James Joyce or even Saul Bellow, I think this is part of the novelist’s job description; after all, we have to understand the world, and there is no time to read everything. I do take Moses Herzog seriously as a thinker, and Stephen Dedalus, for that matter.
Now to Simone Weil herself. This very short book is only half taken up by Weil’s title essay, where she explains that only God is an end in itself; thus, political parties—which arrogate to themselves the whole truth of the human situation, thus making themselves ends rather than means to the good—are inherently idolatrous. In pursuit of this argument, Weil says a lot of attractive things that will have the truth-seeking reader nodding happily along:
Just imagine: if a member of the party (elected member of parliament, candidate or simple activist) were to make a public commitment, ‘Whenever I shall have to examine any political or social issue, I swear I will absolutely forget that I am the member of a certain political group; my sole concern will be to ascertain what should be done to best serve the public interest and justice.’
Such words would not be welcome. His comrades and even many other people would accuse him of betrayal. Even the least hostile would say, ‘Why then did he join a political party?’—thus naively confessing that, when joining a political party, one gives up the idea of serving nothing but the public interest and justice.
But let us not nod too quickly. For one thing, here in America, where the idea of a political party has historically been less totalizing than in Europe (though this may be changing as the Democratic and Republican parties split on regional and racial lines), politicians say the above all the time, and it tends to mean very little. Weil’s imagined honest partisan sounds like John McCain and the Straight-Talk Express; such sentiments guarantee nothing and can be used as propaganda for the worst political forces.
We will avoid confusing Weil with a cynical American centrist if we understand her real values. The word “justice” in the passage quoted above provides a clue, as do these lines:
Goodness alone is an end. Whatever belongs to the domain of facts pertains to the category of means. Collective thinking, however, cannot rise above the factual realm. It is an animal form of thinking. Its dim perception of goodness merely enables it to mistake this or that means for an absolute good.
Weil essentially offers a modified Rousseauism, defending his concept of “the general will” and its materialization during the French Revolution as the view that “in certain conditions, the will of the people is more likely than any other will to conform to justice,” because the people have actual experience of the conditions related to their lives. This is an attractive thought, but how true is it? Or, more to the point, who gets to say what those “certain” conditions are? Everybody, even kings and queens, claim to be doing the people’s will. Who will adjudicate this claim? In the end, Weil’s politics are not politics at all; she expresses a Platonic metaphysic in political terms, but what it would look like in practice varies from the hard-to-imagine (universal syndicalism, a kind of permanent Occupy meeting?) to the scary-to-imagine (terror on behalf of the general will?).
The second half of this volume contains an illuminating 1960 essay by the poet Czesław Miłosz, who translated Weil into Polish, elaborating her philosophy in full. He explains that he took Weil as an example of thinking beyond the Cold War polarities of nationalist Catholicism and international Communism, even as she demonstrated some of the real affinities between Marx and the Church. Miłosz is brilliant on the topic of Catholic thought’s inability to assimilate the historical dimension of philosophy more or less discovered by the 19th century, and he admires Weil’s addition of “the history of class struggle” to the Platonic and mystic strain in Christianity. According to Miłosz, Weil was a Cathar; she believed that
The only true Christian civilization was emerging in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the country of the Langue d’Oc, between the Mediterranean and the Loire. After it was destroyed by the Frenchmen who invaded that territory from the north and massacred the heretics—the Albigensians—there has not been any Christian civilization anywhere.
The Albigensians, let us recall, were essentially gnostics who considered this world the domain of evil, the kingdom of darkness. I am not saying they’re wrong—look around!—only that their dismissal, and Weil’s, of the reality of numinous pleasure in the world is a neurotic intellectual’s politics and can as easily lead to becoming a perpetrator of violence as becoming its victim. Totalitarianism in the 20th century may very well have been a gnostic revenge upon Europe for the Albigensian crusade, and the whole thing is parodied today in the impossibly puritanical cult of “social justice” on the Internet.
Miłosz speaks for me when he says, “I consider myself a Caliban, too fleshy, too heavy, to take on the feathers of an Ariel. Simone Weil was an Ariel.” I am also with Susan Sontag in finding Weil’s extreme persona and her extreme philosophy interesting, which is to say aesthetically compelling. In fact, aesthetically, I condemn my own condemnation of Weil; how, well, tacky to argue against a politics of Platonic truth, to imply that we should all resign ourselves to being the smile on Richard Rorty’s face. Weil would have regarded this aesthetic praise, no doubt, as rebarbative paganism, the gratification of the natural animal at the expense of otherworldly grace.
In her spirit, then, I would like to take Weil seriously enough to say that I think she is wrong, even dangerously deluded, and for the usual reasons: she was a self-hating bourgeois intellectual who devoted her life to slumming it, and in the process made a grotesque caricature of “the oppressed” on whose behalf she pointlessly starved herself. Miłosz attributes to Weil the view that we should always take the side of “the oppressed,” but this is easier said than done—or even understood. Who, in fact, is “the oppressed”? A rich white woman condescended to by a rich white man? A factory laborer in a sweatshop? While there are clear victims of some socio-political situations—civilians under bombardment, for instance (though maybe even this can be questionable; the WW2 bombings of Germany and Japan have long had their defenders)—for the most part, the whole rhetoric of oppression is mostly self-serving nonsense uttered by various power-seekers.
Having grown up at least in part in a working-class milieu, I can testify that “the oppressed” mostly want money and power, just as “the oppressors” do, and that Nietzsche and Foucault grasp the truth much better than either Plato or Marx: “Power is everywhere…because it comes from everywhere.” If Weil wanted something else—and some people do—she should not have confused this with a politics. In fact, I charge her above all with that besetting vice of modernity, the confusion of an aesthetic disposition with a political argument. She should have gone somewhere to paint or write poetry; I wish I could.
And so back to aesthetics: I find her views distasteful, even as I find their extremity compelling. Hence my desire to represent her in fiction, and/but to use fictional form to hold her at a certain ironic distance. I would not really want to be a Cathar, would I? Weil says that truth is one, as Plato told us. Would that I could experience this truth, this oneness. In the meantime, I take my stand with Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Joyce and Bellow and Sontag, those who turned their attention on the irreducible fact of our confusion. Even Plato wrote dialogues.