Posts Tagged ‘Albert Camus’

Run-of-the-Mill Hedonism

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

After our youngest child went to college, we cut down to one car, and I began to take Chicago’s public transportation system, the CTA, more often. This led me back to some late nights on the bus and train, and has found me also schlepping my library books back and forth in canvas bags like the student I was years ago.

In these canvas bags are books culled from among some seventy libraries in Illinois. I order books electronically during the week, and pick them up at the university library before the weekend. The books rest beside me on the floor “on the CTA.” Also riding beside me may be the quietly desperate, the drunken, the pierced, the kindly, the overworked, or the preoccupied, many of whom are indeed busy with their phones. For part of my ride, I try to pray, despite the Blue Line’s urine scent. Sometimes in my reverie I try to imagine what relationship might exist between the books that I read and the people whom I meet.

The books I schlep are sometimes about high philosophical topics, the latest debates between believers and high-brow atheists. I suspect, however, that few, if any, of my fellow riders–say, the woman with the cursive cliche inscribed above her breast loudly discussing with her friend on the phone her desire to have her tattoos removed–pay much attention to the high-brow atheists in my canvas bag.

My public commutes have led me to reflect that the greatest impediments to religion are thus not so much outright rejection, but distraction, not so much disbelief, but forgetfulness, not so much disavowal, but abandonment.

Philosophers have sometimes asked, “What should we be doing?” and Peter Drucker decades ago queried, “What business are we in?” A very useful alternative question with the potential to “back us in” to a similar set of truths is: “What are we doing instead of what we should be doing?”

What are nominally Christian parents doing instead of taking their children to church on Sunday? Oftentimes, they are going to sporting and educational events. Having served on a number of Catholic school boards, I learned that even the board members with children were in some cases choosing sports over Mass.

It somehow still surprises policymakers that college students find other things to do besides studying. According to federal statistics, about a quarter of college students abuse alcohol often enough to hurt their academic progress.

What are many young urban adults doing instead of forming traditional male-female, two parent families? My answer may surprise you: They are not, except in the rarest of instances, forming same-sex parenting couples, who represent but a tiny statistical fragment in American society. Many young people instead join for a time the largest claimant families of all: street gangs, whose members number in the tens of thousands in many major American urban areas, and whose scope overshadows all other non-traditional aspirants to family standing. The street gang, with its false pose as “family,” is far and away the greatest physical threat to authentic family and religious life, and should be a national ministry priority.

Thousands more people get intoxicated and miss worship events than do miss them because they are reading Nietzsche. Alcohol and drug abuse aside, many people think they have something more fun and satisfying to do other than praying and serving others: watching or playing weekend sports, or simply going shopping.

All this leads me to propose that run-of-the-mill hedonism poses a graver threat to religion than does high-brow atheism.

Hedonism is not “all Animal House all the time” as it is life by the pleasure principle. Simple pleasures will do. To update Camus’ adage from The Fall, we can sum up our age: Modern men and women fornicated (often alone) and went on the Internet.

Despite the fact that many of today’s young adults went to sports, school, or gang activities most weekends instead of worship, drank their way through their college-age years (elite students confining their hedonism mostly to the weekends), live in a “boozetown” young adult entertainment district, engage in virtual violence, fornicate on the Internet, and rarely practice formal religion, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins had almost nothing to do with this result, and Nietzsche didn’t give them the idea except maybe by wafting words through the Zeitgeist by way of the arts, letters, and film, some of which are indeed produced by Nietzsche aficionados.

Run-of-the-mill hedonism, predating just about every atheist who anticipated his or her own eternal non-existence, appears to take its own course, amplified and extended by profiting media, now targeted and consumed individually. “Sexperts” and cultural provocateurs like Dan Savage ride this turbulent tide, which nevertheless would flow without them.

Does the believer take arms against this sea of troubles? There is little point for religion to argue with run-of-the-mill hedonism, since hedonism is about enjoyment—like Pinocchio on Fun Island—only while it lasts. Jiminy Cricket could not talk sense into Pinocchio, who had to find out for himself–after the cruel metamorphosis of a boy into a donkey–the consequences of the simple decisions that kept him a puppet.

The alternative to run-of-the-mill hedonism ever is God’s unfolding love, but where beyond the choir is that Gospel heard? Believers continue to refute both atheism and hedonism, but their messages are jammed by the crackling static of hedonism, through which only random sound bites and tweets appear to penetrate. The faith, hope, and love encyclicals of the recent popes contain inspiration, but who knows it? Benedict XVI overturned Nietzsche and reclaimed Eros for the Christian in Deus Caritas Est (extending John Paul II’s Theology of the Body), but who has heard? Pope Francis has said that, contra hedonism, no one person is disposable:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 1, accessed 12/17/13.

Sometimes, Pope Francis’s words do break through the hedonic noise, drawing significant bandwidth and brain-width. How? Is it simply that, like St. Francis de Sales, Pope Francis offers beads of honey instead of barrels of vinegar?

To understand this Francis Effect upon hedonistic attention, we can consider in layers our responses to hedonism, from the high-brow on down. The high-brow response includes journals like First Things, which nobly strives to prevent Nietzsche aficionados from sowing more weeds. The middle-brow response, set at the level of the old Great Books discussions and of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, now dwells on the plateau of the PBS series–like Fr. Robert Barron’s numerous New Evangelization and new media efforts–and continually plows new ground. The low-brow response–wrestling in the mud with the hedonists–merely spreads around the mud.

But Christians have a fourth option. For this they must be willing to go “lower” than the hedonists, to go “no-brow.” In Pope Francis, Catholicism is once again reemphasizing this “no-brow” “rhetoric of the heart” (my son Mike’s phrase) that bypasses disputation through concrete personal acts of love and solidarity. Catholicism partially diverted from this approach after Vatican II when clergy became webbed within a pestilence of useless internal meetings during the era of “collegiality gone wild.”

The “no-brow” strategy includes the direct, personal living out of the Works of Mercy, both corporal (Matthew 25) and spiritual (I Thessalonians 5), and practices those good works (Romans 12) which take us directly beside another, and keep us there: to the hungry person who needs to eat, the sick person who needs care, the prisoner who needs a visit, the pregnant teen considering abortion, the student who needs to learn, the warrior regretting a war. Modernity has bureaucratized the work of the physician, the nurse, the teacher, the cleric, and the parent beyond recognition. But the “no-brow” stand of Christian personalism takes works of charity and justice back to immediate, direct human companionship, to “get beside” and “stay beside” another in joy. Hedonism has no answer, save slander and persecution, for the Beatitudes. That is in part how the message of Pope Francis continues to break through.

Believers hold that there is a truer joy in parting from hedonism. Happily one point of “finding out for ourselves” remains both divinely and naturally ordained: Because youth is ever fleeting, the same words that thirty-something Augustine was urged to tolle, lege, ever speak to us:

“Do this because you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:11-14 [from NAB])”

At the bottom of my canvas bag, each week I put several meal bars, in case I should encounter one of the “brothers Christopher”–a lovely old phrase indeed.

© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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On Finally Finishing a Book from My Father Twenty-Five Years Later

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Our family has an established tradition of passing books around as loaners or gifts, and a related running joke about not reading them. Then dangerously, we sometimes do read them!

My late father had a saying that “If you learned one thing” from reading a certain book or attending a course or a certain workshop, it was probably worth it.

I remember, on my father’s side of the family, both my grandfather’s and my father’s enthusiasm about certain classic self-help books in positive mental attitude tradition that I eventually dutifully and substantially read. My grandfather especially liked stories in the Horatio Alger spirit of success after adversity, and also relished various guaranteed cures for arthritis (these I read in my pre-teen years, and have served me in good stead).

Grandpa used the expression, “Go Getter,” to express his approval of a person who took initiative, then with great ceremony, gave his grandchildren a quarter (because we had not as yet learned the proverbial “Value of a Dollar”). If one remained at Grandpa’s side long enough, he would tell his life story, while also explaining the Gold Standard. I recently found what I think was the book by Peter Bernard Kyne from the early 1920s that popularized this expression, Go Getter.

On my mother’s side, my Canadian great-grandmother gave me a book, The Incredible Journey, that she absolutely loved, and I never absolutely finished. Our kids did love the movie, which I watched over and again with them through various Disney movie remakes over several decades. Their great-great grandmother would be very pleased. I suspect our grandchildren will soon watch one of these movies, thereby honoring the memory of their great-great-great grandmother.

In fact, so many were the books passed on to me in my youth that my father presented me the summer gift when I was fourteen of attending an Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course. During this course, I completed Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger in five minutes. (It’s about a man who killed an Arab on a beach, and who thought a lot about the meaning of life, right?) At my peak I was blazing along at thousands of words a minute, although this capacity has faded with the years and with the eyes. But I do recall how sad it was to read an entire comic book in a few seconds. . .

I must admit I used this speed-reading technique from time to time on books my Dad gave to me. In doing so, I performed two “Dad” acts at the same time. Our family does try to kill several birds with one stone whenever possible.

(I’m also reminded that my high school students over thirty years ago referred to Albert Camus as Famous Camus, to rhyme with a notable maker of chocolate chip cookies.)

A few weeks ago, while still recuperating from surgery, I more closely studied a book that my Dad gave to me twenty-five years ago, and to which I gave a quick skim then. This book is the Ratzinger Report (1985), based upon a series of interviews of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with journalist Vittorio Messori, the first in the now genre of Joseph Ratzinger interview books in English, which continued to currently number four, the latter three–Salt of the Earth (1997), God and the World (2000), and Light of the World (2010)–being with journalist Peter Seewald. A similar kind of record, although comprised of addresses and correspondence, can be found in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, and Islam (2006), by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera.

Joseph Ratzinger’s (Benedict XVI’s) interview books, while formal and not aphoristic in structure, provide something of a historic, theological, and cultural counterweight to Martin Luther’s informal and aphoristic Tischreden, or Table Talk, and now outnumber the corpus of Luther’s Tischreden by a page factor of almost four to one.

(Speaking of Luther, I chanced upon a bon mot quoted by the great Luther scholar Jaroslav Pelikan in his book, Whose Bible Is It?: A Short History of the Scriptures, in which he quotes the saying, “The Reformation began, so the saying went, when there was a pope on the seven hills of Rome, but now there were seven popes on every dunghill in Germany.”)

I have spent many hours reading (not speed-reading) the writings of Joseph Ratzinger over the past several decades, and can definitely number many more than “one thing” I learned from him. His gentle demeanor belies the prayerful depth and clarity of his insights and summations.

One key insight contained in the Ratzinger Report is an interpretation of the Vatican II concept of “People of God,” which has been popular since the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, and which seems to have dominated the theology of the Church after the Council.

“That’s true [said then Cardinal Ratzinger]. There was and there still is this emphasis, which in the Council texts, however, is balanced with others that complete it, a balance that has been lost with many theologians. Yet, contrary to what the latter think, in this way there is a risk of moving backward rather than forward. Here indeed is even the danger of abandoning the New Testament in order to return to the Old.

‘People of God’ in Scripture, in fact, is a reference to Israel in its relationship of prayer and fidelity to the Lord. But to limit the definition of the Church to that expression [People of God] means not to give understanding to the New Testament understanding of the Church in its fullness. Here ‘People of God’ actually refers always to the Old Testament element of the Church, to her continuity with Israel.

But the Church receives her New Testament character more distinctively in the concept of the ‘Body of Christ’. One is Church and one is a member thereof, not through sociological adherence, but precisely through incorporation in this Body of the Lord through baptism and the Eucharist.

Behind the concept of the Church as the People of God, which has been so exclusively thrust into the foreground today, hide influences of ecclesiologies which de facto revert to the Old Testament; and perhaps also political, partisan, and collectivist influences. In reality, there is no truly New Testament, Catholic concept of Church without a direct and vital relation not only with sociology but first of all with christology. The Church does not exhaust herself in the ‘collective’ of believers: being the ‘Body of Christ’ she is much more than the simple sum of her members.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, 1985, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, pp. 46-47. Paragraphing above mine.

Then Cardinal Ratzinger’s words on the limitations of the expression “People of God,” and his preference for the simultaneous use of the expression “Body of Christ” along with “People of God,” sum up the fundamental difference between those with a mere political interpretation of Vatican II, as opposed to an integration of the social and the sacramental. I agree with Joseph Ratzinger that the Church is definitely more than the sum of her members, and that using the phrase People of God exclusively without also invoking the Body of Christ is to rely substantially upon pre-Gospel traditions. The People of God and the Body of Christ belong together not only when describing the Church, but when witnessing to Christ as part of His Church. This theology of combining the social with the sacramental is very similar to that of Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, of whom I’ve written previously.

On a different note, one of the theological questions that has returned to me throughout my life is the question of the Fall and of the necessity for Redemption, in other words, What happened after Creation that was so bad that it required Christ to have to suffer, die, and rise to save us?

The question of the Fall is one that Joseph Ratzinger has expressed the wish to write about in retirement because of its critical importance. Here is his answer to a question about the Fall from 1985:

“The biblical narrative of the origins does not relate events in the sense of modern historiography, but rather, it speaks through images. It is a narrative that reveals and hides at the same time. But the underpinning elements are reasonable, and the reality of the dogma must at all events be safeguarded. The Christian would be remiss toward his brethren if he did not proclaim the Christ who first and foremost brings redemption from sin; if he did not proclaim the reality of the alienation (the ‘Fall’) and, at the same time, he did not proclaim that, in order to effect a restoration of our original nature, a help from outside is necessary; if he did not proclaim that the insistence upon self-realization, upon self-salvation does not lead to redemption, but to destruction; finally, if he did not proclaim that, in order to be saved, it is necessary to abandon oneself to Love.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, 1985, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, pg 81.

The questions of the Fall (What was it?) and of Redemption (Why was Christ’s Death and Resurrection necessary?) remain challenging indeed. But I very much like Cardinal Ratzinger’s point that we must realize that we cannot save ourselves, and that to be saved we must abandon ourselves to Love.

So, although, it’s twenty-five years too late, I thank my late father again for the book (I did thank him back then as well). Had he not given it to me, I would not have encountered the holy wisdom imparted by Pope Emeritus Joseph Ratzinger.

That’s the nice thing about a book as a gift. It patiently waits for one to tolle, lege, to take and to read.

© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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Simone Weil’s Incandescent Life

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Some saints or heroes are known to us like family, with everyday foibles and failed humanity. St. Peter, the cowardly lion of the Twelve, so blustering yet in the end so true as Cephas, the Rock, is one of these.

Other saints or heroes are indeed the Other, the perpetual unknown, calling to us from a mysterious, holy, and separate place. Simone Weil, 1909-1943, for decades and until recently appeared to many of her readers as one of these Others. Weil continues to inspire, to enrage, and to challenge.

A thinker of amazing clarity, an activist of rare integrity, and among the purest of hearts who nevertheless infuriates to this day, the twentieth-century philosopher, activist, and mystic Simone Weil grows in reputation as hundreds of books and articles multiply considering her legacy.

Now independent film artist Julia Haslett has written, produced, and directed one of the first English-language films on Weil, the documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil, premiered in 2010 and released in 2011 by Line Street Productions.

An Encounter with Simone Weil poster, with permission

Julia Haslett has just introduced Simone Weil to a new generation, a generation, like Haslett, who want “not to be an accomplice, not to lie, not to remain blind.”

Haslett’s passionate pursuit of Simone Weil parallels that of many other single-minded searchers for truth, authenticity, and justice to whom Simone Weil speaks so directly.

Weil, a brilliant, first-time teacher in a French town in 1931, found herself drawn to be the champion of the homeless and unemployed who labored at a public works project breaking stones close to her school. Weil anticipated, and in a way invented decades early, the lifestyle of the committed young activist-thinker of recent years, who might work as an educator for a time, or as an organizer, or as a writer. Weil attempted all of these simultaneously.

But Weil was more than this. She is now recognized, after the work of Peter Winch and others, as one of the most significant philosophers of the Twentieth Century, called by Albert Camus “the only great spirit of our time.”

While many on the Left are catalyzed by Weil, so are many on the Right as well. Raymond Aron, whose wife attended school with Weil, said of her–

“The message of Simone Weil is not a left-wing message, it is a non-conformist message, reminding us of truths which we were no longer accustomed to hear.”

Aron, Raymond. 2001. The opium of the intellectuals. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, pg. 50.

Simone Weil wrote with power. Her words can cast her audience into autobiographic reverie, and transform mere readers into, a least for a while, her devotees. These can recount, like the narratives of “What I was doing when Kennedy was shot,” or “Where I was when the 9-11 attacks took place,” their own circumstances when they first read Simone Weil and began to search libraries and archives for more and more obscure portions of her legacy and life.

Few match Simone Weil’s writing for brilliance, for clarity, and for pearl after pearl of insight. Even when she is terribly wrong–and she could be impetuously and stubbornly so–Simone Weil still somehow inspires. Scholars have, decades after her death, assembled multiplying volumes of Weil’s finely spun gold laced with wool that will animate and perplex poets, philosophers, and searchers for centuries. Academics already speak and write about “Weil Studies,” while bards, playwrights, and composers have generated art in her name.

Julia Haslett’s cinematic quest for Simone Weil is among the more visually compact treatments of Weil in any medium. Haslett, following Weil’s inspiration, does not separate ideas from people and situations, but directs her attention–a commitment so important to Weil–to the personal and concrete living predicament.

Haslett’s “Encounter” begins by introducing herself and her mission of universal attention to human suffering, by proposing as the first spoken words of her film, “What response does seeing human suffering demand of us?”

In order to answer that question, Haslett sought out Simone Weil, first by seeking memories of her, starting with the New York City apartment building in which Weil and her parents stayed in 1942. Haslett tracked down photos of Weil and of her life, film footage of contemporary events, and visited many locations associated with Weil.

Haslett also located those who had some kind of contact with Weil. She interviewed Jeanne Duchamp, a surviving student of the young teacher Weil from the early 1930s; Florence de Lussy, an editor of Weil’s complete works; Weil’s niece Sylvie Weil; Weil’s cousin Raymonde Weil (Nathan); Madame Thibaud, a witness of the small group of friends who hosted Weil in southern France in the early 1940s; and Fr. Jobert of Solesmes Abbey, where Weil had one of her mystical episodes. Along with de Lussy, peace activist and educator Anna Brown of the Social Justice program at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, and also noted literary-cultural theorist-critic Sylvere Lotringer provide their comments and reflections.

Sylvie Weil and Her Photo Album, posted with permission

Haslett’s Weil is Weil as the inviolate lonely truth-seeker activist, whose integrity separated her, in the end, both from established politics and conventional religion. While Haslett stated that Weil distrusted organizations of any kind, it is also true that Weil joined a teacher’s union and was very active in union matters during her first teaching assignment at Le Puy-en-Velay.

Haslett follows the accepted phases of Weil’s development (childhood through university education, 1909-1931, teaching and labor-political activism, 1931-1937, and religious exploration, migraines, and final writing frenzy, 1935-1943).

Haslett directs us to Weil’s student Jeanne Duchamp, who as a high-school student learned from Weil, when faced with a choice among several options, “Always do what will cost you the most.”

Haslett tells us that at six years old Weil gave up sugar in solidarity with French soldiers at the WWI front, at ten sneaked away from home to attend a labor union demonstration, and at twenty-five quit her teaching job to work at a factory.

Weil, as she has done with many others, also appears to have cast Haslett into her own self-examining narration. Haslett began her quest when after her own father’s death, and her subsequent call to witness to human suffering, she read Weil’s words, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Throughout Julia Haslett’s film we learn not only of Weil but of Haslett’s commitment to attending to human suffering, and of Haslett’s own attention for her brother Timothy and his tragic struggle with depression. Haslett takes upon herself a particular burden of attentiveness: “If I don’t pay attention, someone might die.”

Unlike many biographies of Weil, Haslett’s film does not dwell on Weil’s relationship with her own older brother Andre, one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest mathematicians, nor significantly with Weil’s strenuous rejection of much of her own Jewish heritage.

Weil had a tendency, as de Lussy noted, to “rush to the goal she had set for herself,” to perpetually forge ahead. I call it, “diving in.” Weil once convinced Leon Trotsky, his wife, and his bodyguards to stay as guests in the Weil’s Paris apartment, and then proceeded to argue with Trotsky. (Haslett does not mention that Madame Sedov (Mrs. Trotsky) reportedly heard the ruckus from another room and said of Weil, “This child is holding her own with Trotsky!”)

Florence de Lussy spoke of Weil’s “union between the most demanding intellect and the heart.” According to de Lussy, readers of Weil “do not come away unscathed.”

Haslett prominently displays Weil’s dictum, “Truth is too dangerous to touch, it is an explosive.” (Catholic Workers will recall here Peter Maurin’s “Easy Essay” about the dynamite of the Church.)

Haslett imaged Weil’s pilgrimage from child and student (1909-1931); to teacher (1931); to visitor to Germany during Hitler’s rise (1932); to factory worker and labor activist (1934); to mystical experiences (1935-8); to Republican soldier in Spain (1936) and visitor to Assisi (1937); to renunciation of pacifism after Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia (1939); to flight from conquered Paris to southern France (1940); to work on the grape harvest and daily recitation of the Greek Lord’s Prayer with absolute attention (1941); to retreat to New York City with parents (1942); to passage to England to work on behalf of Free French government in exile (1942); and to death in Kent, UK (1943).

At several of these milestones, Haslett featured a Weil aphorism, such as, “It is not religion, but revolution, that is the opium of the people.”

While the heretofore pacifist Weil volunteered and briefly carried a rifle with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, she balked at the near execution of a priest and the summary execution of others by the anarchists. Shortly thereafter, the ever-clumsy, near-sighted Weil stepped into a scalding pot, and had to be removed from the front. The badly injured Weil then found her way to Assisi, where she experienced a transcendent, Godly presence.

Haslett highlights Weil’s reflection on how factory work makes things of workers, and bridges to Weil’s quote, “Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves. Slaves cannot help belonging to it. And I, among others.”

Julia Haslett and Soraya Broukhim, posted with permission

Frustrated at a point in her search for Weil, Haslett hired bilingual actress Soraya Broukhim to live and research the part of Simone Weil, and to speak as Weil to Haslett.

(Warning: film spoilers. Stop reading here if you prefer to see the film first.)

One scene toward the end of the film depicts Haslett and Broukhim as the Weil avatar sitting on the floor and moving the Weil pictures in an alternating montage, in a way evocative of Weil’s own characteristic kneeling in concentration over a book or set of notes.

Among other important themes of Weil are suffering and affliction. Weil’s search for knowledge was participatory, through action. She therefore sought out experiences of suffering and affliction.

Lotringer noted that Weil “Never wanted to talk about, but to be part of what she was talking about. And she could only do it if she participated in it.”

Weil wanted to join the first wave in Czechoslovakia to fight the Nazis, and later, in the early 1940s concocted a scheme in which an elite group of battlefield nurses would also parachute into France to assist the resistance, a scheme she would share with anyone who would listen until her death in 1943. Similarly, she wanted to serve in the first wave of these combat nurses. Again, Lotringer: “She didn’t want to survive. She wanted to understand.”

Haslett’s film tries to balance the narrative between Weil the philosopher-activist and Weil the religious mystic. “Not a religious person” herself, Haslett, while feeling “betrayed by Weil’s turn toward God,” tries to understand how Weil could turn away from “political struggle” to a religious search.

Haslett brings us to the very spot behind the pillar at Solesmes Abbey where Weil perched contemplating Christian mysteries. Some clergy have this same nickname for “behind-the-pillar Catholics,” those whose worship is private and contemplative, and who, like Weil, literally seek out the spots behind the pillars.

Haslett’s narrative returned to Le Puy-en-Velay, where the young Weil first taught in 1931. This town has its own statue of a Red Virgin. (Was this posting of Weil in Le Puy, a town towered over by a reddish statue of the Virgin and Child, a joke on the part of Weil’s critics in the education establishment, or of God himself, since Weil was herself nicknamed the “Red Virgin” since her student days?)

Anna Brown and Haslett appear to agree that Weil had no where else to go but religion. Brown stated Weil turned to religion when “reason had been exhausted.”

In tears, Haslett saw at this later point in Weil’s life a philosophical dead end, and here Camus’ paradigmatic choice, after Hamlet, between life and suicide.

But something else beyond this choice appears to lead Haslett’s final narrative forward. Haslett notes that in one of her final writings, Weil stated:

“You think I have something to give. I too have a growing certainty that there is within me a deposit of pure gold that must be handed on. Only I become more and more convinced that there is no one to receive it.”

(The above passage forms the fundamental theme of Prof. E. Jane Doering’s very important recent book: Doering, E. Jane. 2010. Simone Weil and the specter of self-perpetuating force. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. Doering contends that in her final writings Weil had accomplished a paradigmatic integration of her thinking about the source of force, and thus provided a clue to the reduction of human conflict. It is interesting also to note that Weil, marginalized among the Free French government in exile, did her most significant work while working alone toward her death in seeming near despair, in parallel fashion to her brother Andre (1906-1998), who made some of his most important mathematical discoveries while imprisoned in 1940 by the French government for choosing not to serve in the military.)

In these final segments, Haslett brings forward yet more Weil quotes on attention:

“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to ask him, ‘What are you going through?'”

“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. It is almost a miracle. It is a miracle.”

Haslett then recalls Weil’s Platonic notion that every separation or wall is also a potential link.

Simone Weil, posted with permission

Haslett has successfully, if not rather bravely, blended two narratives, Weil’s message and life with significant events in Haslett’s own life. While not every critic so far likes this approach, I think it is one worthy of Weil herself.

Haslett has therefore crafted a moving epiphany of Simone Weil for a new generation.

Composer Daniel Thomas Davis deserves specific mention for some of his fine compositions that grace this documentary, as well as some well-chosen compositions by others, including Oliver Messiaen and Hildegarde of Bingen.

Since research is still evolving on Weil controversies such as her probable baptism and her strident views on Judaism, the Weil encountered in Haslett’s film is the heretofore accepted Weil as the perpetual outsider, who yet individually transcended human division. There is much more to Weil than this, but several films could not adequately address her complexity and gifts to humanity.

Is there very much more to Simone Weil than time permitted Haslett to reveal?

The answer to this question is emphatically yes, because the world is still catching up with Simone Weil. Witness how, even in her style of dress, minus the hat and with more modest shoes, Weil presaged the Annie Hall style by decades.

Sylvie Weil’s Contribution

The year 2010 saw not only the premier of “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” but the publication of several books which cast further light on her. I’ve already mentioned Prof. Doering’s above.

Perhaps the most significant of these books was the English-language release of Sylvie Weil’s At Home with Andre and Simone Weil by Nortwestern University Press (Weil, Sylvie, and Benjamin Ivry. 2010. At home with André and Simone Weil. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, ISBN 9780810127043 cloth, 0810127040 paper).

Sylvie Weil’s book goes a long way to revise our view of Simone Weil away from the Other I referred to at the beginning of my essay above, toward that of a very loved, gifted, and eccentric family member.

Sylvie Weil, whose graceful, self-effacing intelligence and beauty shone forth during Haslett’s interview with her, writes with irony, wit, thoughtfulness, and regret:

My insufferable aunt, my saintly aunt, that amazing one-woman outfit perpetually grinding out publicity about poverty, misery, and misfortune!

Silvie Weil, At Home with Andre and Simone Weil, 2010, Northwestern University Press, p. 154.

Sylvie, who is as we Americans put it a “dead ringer” for Simone, spent moments of her youth freezing Simone’s devotees in their tracks as if they had seen a ghost. But the young Sylvie Weil, torn between the moral paradigm of Aunt Simone, and, well, the other paradigm of Brigitte Bardot, took a very different path from that of her aunt, had her own bout with pneumonia and at a similar age to her aunt nearly died, but instead found not only love, but in the end the Jewish faith.

Sylvie Weil merited her own national recognition in France both as a student and as a writer-playwright. Sylvie provides an essential account of Simone, a lament of sorts, but also, most importantly, the healing of a memory.

Like cousin Raymonde in Haslett’s film, Sylvie repeats the family tradition that Simone’s mother went to heroic levels of deception to convince Simone that filet mignon was dog food, and that Madame “Selma” Weil had waited in line for hours with working women to get Simone the food which only they ate.

In many ways, Simone needed her parents–the effervescent Selma and her quiet physician father Bernard–to survive, just as she apparently somehow yearned to separate from them in order to die. From Sylvie we learn that Simone’s cult was established by Simone’s parents, who spent the rest of their days transcribing her notebooks, conveying them to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and making her, and their own Paris home a public shrine, consecrated by Camus’ visit prior to his Nobel acceptance speech. This cult split the family apart, with Sylvie’s father Andre substantially separating from his parents amid disputes and lawsuits over Simone’s literary legacy. Sylvie, who grew during these sad times of family separation, comes to terms directly with these difficulties, and in the end transcends them.

Sylvie Weil also confronts head-on the “Jewish question” as it pertains to Simone Weil, and reveals, like other critics, Simone as the disconnected heir of the Jewish tradition of charity, righteousness, and justice, tzedakah. Sylvie was livid with Simone for not writing directly of the Shoah when she was almost certainly in the know about it. It is Sylvie Weil, separated by two generations from the family rift with Simone Weil’s observant Jewish paternal grandmother, who reconnects herself, and thus in a way Simone and her admirers, with the gifts of Judaism.

With Sylvie Weil’s account, and with the credible story of Simone Weil’s baptism securely on video-tape (see my future post), Simone Weil as the perpetual Other has thankfully been brought back to earth.

Yet ironically, placing Simone Weil back onto the earth brings about the possibility that, with several more turns of the world, the world and even the Church may indeed formally recognize her, but much more soberly and realistically, for her heroic virtue.

Sylvie Weil is living proof of family love’s ability to heal memories over generations. As she aged past the death-age of Simone and joins the age of her own parents and grandparents, and as she researched the generations of her own heritage, Sylvie has, through the process of psychological re-parenting–the process of reviewing one’s own development as one plays out the role of parent–made a major contribution to the human family with her book.

Simone Weil studies will never be the same thanks to Sylvie, and that is a very good thing. After Sylvie’s contribution, it may not be necessary for so many young gifted geniuses like Simone to immolate themselves to seek the truth and to witness to it. The world makes martyrs of enough of these young gifted ones beyond their own doing.

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Other Sanity and Social Justice blog posts in preparation on Simone Weil:

Simone Weil and Judaism

Simone Weil’s Probable Baptism

Simone Weil and Lanza del Vasto

Simone Weil and the Question of Asperger’s Syndrome

Reflections on Simone Weil’s Eating Disorder

Trending Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir

Simone Weil, Attention, and the Ethics of the Nursing Profession

Simone Weil, Secrecy, and her Rejection of Sexuality

Answers to Some of Simone Weil’s Questions in “Letter to a Priest”

Links to reading with and about Simone Weil

And perhaps more. . . when I can get to them!

Please see my earlier post on Simone Weil.

For more about Simone Weil, see the website of the American Weil Society, and the online Simone Weil Bibliography in progress.

© Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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