Posts Tagged ‘Simone Weil’

Sontag and Augustine on Martyrs for Truth, Martyrs for Charity, Martyrs for Pride

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Susan Sontag, 1963, on how each truth must have a martyr:

We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering—rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

Susan Sontag: “Simone Weil,” a review of Selected Essays by Simone Weil, translated by Richard Rees, Oxford University Press, published in the New York Review of Books, February 1, 1963 (Premier) Issue, accessed 8/17/14.

St. Augustine of Hippo, 415, on how there are martyrs for charity, and martyrs for pride:

Et videte quanta opera faciat superbia; ponite in corde quam similia facit, et quasi paria caritati. Pascit esurientem caritas, pascit et superbia – caritas, ut Deus laudetur; superbia, ut ipsa laudetur. Vestit nudum caritas, vestit et superbia; ieiunat caritas, ieiunat et superbia; sepelit mortuos caritas, sepelit et superbia. Omnia opera bona quae vult facere caritas et facit, agitat contra superbia, et quasi ducit equos suos. Sed interior est caritas: tollit locum male agitatae superbiae; non male agitanti, sed male agitatae. Vae homini cuius auriga superbia est, necesse est enim ut praeceps eat. Ut autem non sit superbia quae agitet facta bona, quis novit? quis videt? ubi est hoc? Opera videmus: pascit misericordia, pascit et superbia; hospitem suscipit misericordia, hospitem suscipit et superbia; intercedit pro paupere misericordia, intercedit et superbia. Quid est hoc? In operibus non discernimus. Audeo aliquid dicere, sed non ego; Paulus dixit: moritur caritas, id est, homo habens caritatem, confitetur nomen Christi, ducit martyrium; confitetur et superbia, ducit et martyrium. Ille habet caritatem, ille non habet caritatem. Sed audiat ab Apostolo ille qui non habet caritatem: Si distribuero omnia mea pauperibus, et si tradidero corpus meum ut ardeam, caritatem autem non habuero, nihil mihi prodest. Ergo Scriptura divina intro nos revocat a iactatione huius faciei forinsecus; et ab ista superficie quae iactatur ante homines, revocat nos intro. Redi ad conscientiam tuam, ipsam interroga. Noli attendere quod floret foris, sed quae radix est in terra. Radicata est cupiditas? species potest esse bonorum factorum, vere opera bona esse non possunt. Radicata est caritas? securus esto, nihil mali procedere potest. Blanditur superbus, saevit amor. Ille vestit, ille caedit. Ille enim vestit ut placeat hominibus: ille caedit ut corrigat disciplina. Accipitur magis plaga caritatis, quam eleemosyna superbiae. Redite ergo intro, fratres; et in omnibus quaecumque facitis, intuemini testem Deum. Videte, si ille videt, quo animo faciatis. Si cor vestrum non vos accusat, quia iactantiae causa facitis; bene, securi estote. Nolite autem timere quando facitis bene, ne videat alter. Time ne propterea facias, ut tu lauderis: nam videat alter, ut Deus laudetur. Si enim abscondis ab oculis hominis; abscondis ab imitatione hominis, laudem subtrahis Deo. Duo sunt quibus eleemosynam facis: duo esuriunt; unus panem, alter iustitiam. Inter duos istos famelicos, quia dictum est: Beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam, quoniam ipsi saturabuntur: inter duos istos famelicos, bonus operator constitutus es; si caritas de illo operatur, ambos miseratur, ambobus vult subvenire. Ille enim quaerit quod manducet, ille quaerit quod imitetur. Pascis istum, praebe te isti; ambobus dedisti eleemosynam: illum fecisti gratulatorem de fame interfecta; hunc fecisti imitatorem de exemplo proposito.

Miseremini ergo tamquam misericordes; quia in eo etiam quod diligitis inimicos, fratres diligitis.

S. Aurelii Augustini OPERA OMNIA – editio latina >PL 35> In Epistolam Ioannis ad Parthos tractatus decem, Tractatus 8; http://www.augustinus.it/latino/commento_lsg/index2.htm, accessed 8/17/14.

Consider now the works that pride may do: notice how they may resemble or even equal those of charity. Charity feeds the hungry, so does pride: charity, to the praise of God, pride, to the praise of itself. Charity clothes the naked: so does pride; charity fasts, so does pride; charity buries the dead, so does pride. All the good works that are willed and done by charity, may be set in motion by its contrary pride, like horses harnessed to a car. But when charity is the inward driver, pride must give place–pride which is not so much misgoverning as misgoverned. It goes ill with the man who has pride for his charioteer, for he is sure to be overturned.

How can we know or see that it is not pride that governs the good deed? Where is the proof? We see the works: hunger is fed by compassion, but also by pride; strangers are entertained by compassion, by also by pride; poverty is protected by compassion, but also by pride. In the works themselves we can see no difference. I would go further–though it is not I but Paul who says it: charity goes to death, a man (that is) who has charity confesses the name of Christ and becomes a martyr; and pride also may do both. The one has charity, the other has not; but let this other mark the Apostle’s words: “If I give all my goods to the poor, and if I give my body to burn, and have not charity, it profits me nothing (I Cor 13:3).” So Holy Scripture recalls us from all this outward showing, recalls us from the surface appearance displayed before men to the inward truth.

Come back to your own conscience, and question it. Pay heed, not to the visible flowering, but to the root beneath the ground. Is covetousness at the root? Then you may have a show of good deeds, but of works truly good there can be none. Is charity at the root? Be easy, for now evil can be the issue. The proud may speak fair words, love may show anger: the one may clothe, the other may smite: the one clothes for the pleasing of men, the other smites for the correction of discipline. The stroke of charity is more to be welcomed than the alms of pride.

Come back, then, my brothers, into the place within, and in whatsoever you do, look for the witness of God. See, as he sees, the intention of your acts. If your heart does not accuse you of acting for the sake of display, it is well, be easy. And when you do well, have no fear of another’s seeing. Fear only to act that you may have praise for yourself; let the other see, so that God may have the praise. If you hide what you do from man’s eyes, you are hiding it against man’s imitation, and robbing God of His praise. There are two parties for whose benefit you give alms: two are hungry, the one for bread, the other for righteousness, for it is written: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled (Matthew 5:6).” Between these two hungering ones you are set for the working of good: if charity is the worker, it has compassion for both, it seeks to give help to both. For while the one looks for food, the other looks for an example to follow. As you feed the first, offer yourself for the second, and you have given alms to both. You have enabled the one to give thanks for the ending of his hunger, the other to imitate the example shown him.

Let your works of mercy, then, proceed from a merciful heart; for then even in the love of enemies you will be showing love of brothers.

Augustine, Homilies on I John, Sermon 8, in Augustine: later works; John Burnaby, Editor, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1955, pp. 322-323.

A martyr without a merciful heart may witness well, but may not witness to the bond between mercy and truth, and may instead witness to pride.

© Copyright 2014, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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Atheist Poet Sally Read’s Conversion to Christ

Monday, August 6th, 2012

Sally Read, 41, is a noted, and rising, British poet, now residing in Italy. Trained as a psychiatric nurse, she has drawn attention for her unique and striking perspective. Raised an atheist, to the shock of just about all and to the chagrin of many, she recently converted to Catholicism.

She told her story to the EWTN show Vaticano on minute 18:37 of this video. A print account based upon the same interview is here from the Catholic News Agency.

A longer account, written several months earlier by Read herself, appeared here in the Tablet under the title, “Outfoxed by God.”

As I watched Ms. Read’s focused intensity, and heard her describe her sudden and powerful personal experience of Christ, naturally Simone Weil’s similar experience came to mind. Indeed, Sally Read mentioned Simone Weil in her Tablet article.

Ms. Read and Ms. Weil are definitely kindred spirits! Ms. Read is also very blessed by such a wonderful and rare personal experience of the Divine.

Ms. Read’s realization that God is The Poet may have helped lead her to experience an even more powerful Word of God.

We are not all blessed by such experiences. But we are very truly saved by grace, through faith. . .

Here is a selection from Sally Read’s work at The Poetry Archive.

Here is Ms. Read’s blog, The Far-Near.

Some of her spiritual writing appears at the Hermitage blog.

© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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Raymond Aron on Liberation and Enslavement

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

Raymond Aron (1905-1983), the French political thinker, wrote:

“Every advance in liberation carries within itself the seed of a new form of enslavement.”

(Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals, p. 21)

It is hard to overstate the long shadow cast by the Marxist French thinkers of Paris, 1968 (among whom number Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan [the latter more adopted by Marxists than a Marxist himself]) over what passes for “critical thinking” in American arts and letters.

A substantial segment of American intelligentsia have in the years since read the French radicals of 1968, but without substantially reading their critics. American “critical theory” is therefore oddly uncritical of itself, and infused within a cycle of self-reinforcing, naive solipsism.

Many American college graduates therefore find American “critical theory” perfectly useless outside of the confines of the classroom.

Raymond Aron and Jacques Maritain were among several of the critics of the tradition of Paris, 1968. Aron’s principal criticism was twofold, that the French Marxists actually failed to “think politically,” and that their political statements were based upon “bad faith” or a double standard.

By failing to “think politically” Aron meant of the French Marxists–

“Two things: First, they prefer ideology, that is, a rather literary image of a desirable society, rather than to study the functioning of a given economy, of a liberal economy, of a parliamentary system, and so forth. . . And then there is a second element, perhaps more basic: they refused to answer the question someone once asked me: ‘If you were in the minister’s position, what would you do?'”

(Raymond Aron, 1997, Thinking Politically: A Liberal in the Age of Ideology, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, pp. 154-55.)

By “bad faith,” Aron meant–

“Western societies were excoriated for their every injustice (and what society, Aron would ask, has not been unjust?) while the socialist world was judged on the basis of its ostensibly good intentions.”

Brian C. Anderson, 1997, Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, NY, Rowmand & Littlefield, pp. 4-5, citing Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals.

A number of the students of the Marxists of Paris, 1968 have since taken some of the criticisms to heart, and have tried to embed their critiques in spatial and empirical narratives. A few, like David Harvey and Manuel Castells, have essentially been re-writing Marx’s Das Kapital in spatial, systematic–and sometimes impenetrable–terms throughout their life-long research programs.

But Aron still stands as a powerful critic of the traditions that arose in those heady days in Paris.

I should mention that Aron was a contemporary of Simone Weil, and attended the École Normale Supérieure with her in Paris. Aron’s book title, The Opium of the Intellectuals, is obviously a echo of Weil’s earlier dictum from her book Oppression and Liberty, “Revolution is the opium of the people.”

When one is sick and tired of the “literary politics” of the professors, one can turn to Aron.

Aron’s writing approaches the commonsense politics one derives from Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Frank J. Sheed’s Communism and Man (wherein Sheed makes a similar point to Aron that political systems have inherent self-destructive capabilities), and the best of the political and governmental (as opposed to academic) American pragmatic tradition as practiced by Alexander Hamilton and by Abraham Lincoln.

Brian C. Anderson summarized Aron’s approach as–

“A conservative defense of liberalism rooted in historical reality, an awareness of tragedy, and a keen sensitivity to both the contingencies of politics and the self-undermining tendencies of the liberal democratic regime.”

(Brian C. Anderson, 1997, Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, NY, Rowmand & Littlefield, p. 167)

Students of social justice should by all means read Sartre, Lefebvre, Foucault, Lacan, Harvey, and Castells. But to not also read Aron, Maritain, Yves Simon, Weil, Hamilton, and Lincoln for a different perspective may mean condemning oneself to years of pursuing intellectual and political dead ends.

In addition, to pursue Marxist analysis and politics without reading every page of Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism is be both intellectually lazy and politically irresponsible.

Unlike the overly-lionized Marxists of Paris, 1968, Aron’s ideas can actually be applied. One of his principal ideas relates to the tragic imperfection of our political efforts, and the constant need for correction.

Constant awareness of the possibility that I may be wrong about my political choices and about my own assumptions leads to a very different kind of politics, a politics that is open to correction.

The first step toward liberation therefore sometimes can be taken by casting off our own slavery to our own pet ideas, and by constantly seeking new ways to correct them.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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Aphorism XLVIII

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

The doctrine of moral equivalence misdirects us from experiencing the true horror of horrific acts, and allows us to remain within a bubble of non-responsibility, not quite comfortable with the horror of evil, but shielded from the necessity of action against it. Within this bubble of non-responsibility, we can live a more or less comfortable day-to-day existence, not overly troubled by the horror experienced by others.

If one were to take a young infant, puncture its brain, dismember him or her and grind him or her up, the horror of that action would exceed that of the tortures of the Tudor tyrants on those they tried for treason. Yet, but for the fact that the young infant is a few weeks later in gestation from that of a child that is aborted, it belies reason to diminish the brutality of the act.

The innocence and defenselessness of the victim, the overwhelming use of violence, and the arbitrary personal choices of those responsible for the act without consideration for the rights of the other, make abortion, as the early Christians and as Vatican II clearly recognized, a horrendous crime.

Christians have therefore been too “nice” and accommodating in refraining from calling abortion “murder” in deference to polite society. If the termination of the life of an innocent and defenseless person through the use of overwhelming violence without consideration for the rights of that person isn’t murder, then what is?

It is a fantasy to declare, with all the obfuscation, misdirection, and uncertainty–subsequently termed “complexity”–that post-modern language can muster, that we live in a post-murder society: especially when the police daily tally the deaths!

Yet the doctrine of moral equivalence continually wills abortion-as-murder out of existence. Abortion is compared as morally and legally acceptable with war or capital punishment, and so the argument goes, “If you Catholics don’t condemn war and capital punishment with the same vehemence that you condemn abortion, then we, the critics of the Catholics, get to abort–that is, kill-with impunity because we are more sincere and consistent than you.”

Another parallel argument mounted by the critics of the Catholics is that, “Since you Catholics don’t adopt all babies that would have been aborted, you are inconsistent and insincere, and therefore we get to keep aborting, that is, killing people, since you are inconsistent and insincere.”

These misdirecting arguments are patently fallacious. One does not simply get to violently kill another person because those who think such killing is wrong are somehow not consistent, not sincere, or not worthy of defending the innocent through some entitlement to speak to an issue they have somehow not merited. The innocent and defenseless have rights for justice and for life in and of their own very selves, not in any way dependent on the standing of those rising to their defense. Otherwise, all those who are “we” would get to destroy those who aren’t “us” with impunity.

As one of my sons recently said, the intentional killing of the innocent and defenseless in war is still considered a crime against humanity.

Abortion is the most fundamental and total crime against a single human because it viciously violates that person out of existence at that person’s supreme point of innocence and defenselessness.

Those willing to confront the full horror of brutal acts and to take a stand against them, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Simone Weil, Edith Stein, Franz Jagerstatter, Elie Wiesel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, are considered the saints or heroes of the 20th century. It is more than doubly ironic that those who read and venerate these saints or heroes do not with similarly clear eyes recognize, as Christians have done for centuries, that abortion is murder.

© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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Simone Weil’s 103rd Birthday and a Coming Theatrical Film Premiere

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Julia Haslett, producer of the award-winning film, An Encounter with Simone Weil, which I reviewed at length in July, 2011, has written to let S&SJ’s readers know that she’s celebrating Simone Weil‘s 103rd birthday on February 3, 2012 by kicking off promotions and fundraising for her film’s March 23, 2012 theatrical premiere at New York City’s Quad Cinema. Here’s the trailer for the film, An Encounter with Simone Weil.

Julia Haslett writes of Simone Weil:

“In a time of such political and religious polarization, she’s *one of those rare public figures who appeals to people from all ends of the political spectrum, a diversity of religious faiths, and a wide range of nationalities.*

Agreed!

Silvie Weil's photo album of her aunt Simone; used with permission

For several of S&SJ’s posts on Simone Weil, click here.

© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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Two Spring, 2012 Semester Scholarly Conferences of Note

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Just a quick mention of two conferences worth attending–

American Catholic Historical Association, Chicago, January 5-8, 2012. Here’s the program and panel list.

American Weil Society
, Spring, 2012 Conference, Notre Dame University, Simone Weil: the Drama of Grace in the Gravity of Contemporary Society, March 22-25, 2012. Here’s the flyer.

For more on Simone Weil, please see my earlier posts.

© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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Aphorism XXXIX

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

There are just four problems with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to keep religious leaders and thereby religion out of the 9/11 tenth year memorial on 9/11/11:

America the Beautiful, God Bless America, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the Star Spangled Banner, which all invoke God and religion.

The fourth verse of the national anthem:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

If Mr. Bloomberg allows any one of these songs to be sung before, during, or after the 9/11 memorial, he will negate his own stance against public religious expression. And if he doesn’t allow any of these songs to be sung, Michael Bloomberg may have only crowned himself as the biggest darned un-American fool in public life.

Mayor Bloomberg has drawn attention to the place of religion in public life far more dramatically than any religious leader could have dreamed of doing.

If you want a religious alternative to Mayor Bloomberg’s “godless” 9/11 memorial, you might join the 9/11 memorial Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 4PM Eastern time, 9/11/11, also being broadcast on EWTN worldwide, with a rebroadcast scheduled for 12AM ET, 9/12/11. Here is the unofficial text of Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s 9/11/11 homily.

Postscript:

In the end, the name of God was invoked many times during the New York 9/11 memorial. Filling the role of high priest of the American state religion, President Obama spoke and read Psalm 46, which invokes the God of Jacob, an image of God more proper to Judaism and Christianity than to Islam. Former President George W. Bush quoted Abraham Lincoln:

“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

Flutist Emi Ferguson played Amazing Grace. James Taylor sang “You can close your eyes.” Paul Simon performed the “Sounds of Silence.”

I’m still looking to see if any Muslim was allowed a prominent opportunity to speak or to make a gesture. If not, this was an historic opportunity for reconciliation and good will deferred.

Psalm 46 is a powerful and stern prayer, invoking the name of the “Lord of Hosts” (a warlike term loved by Martin Luther and for Simone Weil a stumbling block), but I would have loved to have heard the following at the memorial:

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
Matthew 5:44-45

© Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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Simone Weil in the YOUCAT; Did Weil Help Consign Limbo to the Shadows?

Monday, September 5th, 2011

A Simone Weil quote–

“Prayer is nothing other than attention in its purest form.”

Simone Weil (1909-1943, French political activist, philosopher, and mystic).

–has made it onto page 270 the YOUCAT, the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church.

This inclusion is not a surprise. Popes from John XXIII forward have been known to have read Simone Weil.

Angelo Roncalli, the future Blessed John XXIII, when posted in Paris from 1944, was so moved by Weil’s writing that he wrote a letter to her mother Selma Weil and told Weil’s friend and contemporary Maurice Schumann that “he loved her soul.” Paul VI named Weil, along with Pascal and Bernanos, as a critical intellectual influence. Blessed John Paul II cited Weil as “a daughter of Israel who fell under the spell of Christ” in a statement to the Franciscans, while Benedict XVI quoted her in an address to artists. Weil appears here and several dozen other places on the Vatican website.

In her Letter to a Priest, Weil aired her revulsion with the notion of Limbo, and could not countenance the idea that innocent infants dying without baptism would be consigned to such a state. It is not unlikely that Weil’s strenuous rejection of Limbo, known to several popes, influenced the Vatican’s 2007 International Theological Commission document, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, written at Benedict XVI’s behest, which entrusted unbaptized infants not to Limbo, but to the infinite mercy of God. Limbo had already been omitted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

My seminary friend Ken Trainor, in his 8/31/11 US Catholic website blog, stated:

As far as I know, only one Pope in the history of the Catholic Church ever set anything loose: Pope John XXIII when he called for a Second Vatican Council and threw open the windows of a bound up church in order to “let in a little fresh air.”

But Benedict XVI’s action on pulling the rug out from under the concept of Limbo is definitely such a “loosing” as well, as are the actions of several previous popes to reject heresies that called for spiritual practices that were stricter than Catholicism, such as Donatism and Jansenism.

I’d like to think that Simone Weil had a little bit to do with the Vatican’s stance on Limbo in 2007. It is just like “Romanitas” to take a while to react, sixty-five years after Weil’s Letter to a Priest!

One final note: The late British actor Peter Sellers is also quoted (“The closest thing to a father confessor is probably a bartender”) in the YOUCAT, as are Martin Luther and numerous others. The YOUCAT is a very lively entry into Catholicism.

© Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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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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