Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Simone Weil: Chain-Smoking, Self-Starving, Self-Exiled Jewish Mystical Malcontent?

That title reminds me of Phranc, "your average Jewish lesbian folksinger," who once graced our home to hawk Tupperware. Weil in my vague recall was a formidable ethicist, a prickly Jewish convert to Catholicism who died during the German occupation of France. Well, Weil according to Benjamin Ivry's "Simone Weil's Rediscovered Jewish Inspiration" in the April 10, 2009 "Forward" revises the hagiographical litany.

The centennial of her birth and the usual flurry of academic attention this time follows a Finnish oratorio, and accompanies a "performance event" in Manhattan's East Village. Ivry reports: "And the tributes continue. One of them comes from Darrell Katz, who recently composed 'The Death of Simone Weil,' a voice and jazz ensemble suite. Darrell sums it up: 'Mystic visionary comes to life with a big band behind her.'" I cannot improve upon or detract from this transformation of an social agitator into a presumably Off-Off Broadway extravaganza. One more reason for me why to hate jazz. Black-clad Gothamites who shelled out for "The Producers" (or "Life is Beautiful"?) might be waiting in line for the rush tix as I type.

To my surprise, Ivry notes that her niece's new biography reveals that Simone never wrote "anything against the Nazi persecution." DeGaulle, intriguingly given the recent film about Hannah Senesh from Palestine infiltrating occupied Hungary, called Weil "completely insane" for a similar wish to parachute into France during the war. While often treated as a martyr manque for her beliefs, Ivry counters with her letter to Georges Bernanos, the famed Catholic exponent, in "an often quoted 1938 letter: 'I am not Catholic, even though-- what I am going to say will doubtless seem presumptuous to any Catholic, coming from a non-Catholic, but I cannot say it any other way-- even though nothing Catholic or Christian has even seemed foreign to me."

What Weil believed instead of formal religions and their "historical tyrannies" eludes easy summary. She felt others' pain. She pushed herself into identification with the poor, devoted herself to workers' movements and the Spanish Republicans, and as an "absolutist woman" eventually starved herself-- in 1943 England-- to death, a tubercular patient dying of a combination of cardiac arrest and a refusal to eat. She sounds like a pill, as old folks used to mutter.

Still, this uncompromising stance in solidarity, this sacrifice for occupied France, won her admirers. Most people, myself included along with the professoriate, classify her usually among leftist, existentialist Christian philosophers. Relentless, exasperating, uncompromising, Weil came from a family tenuously Jewish. Most critics "cite her visceral distaste for organized religions, particularly Judaism, and define her as a Christian mystic, although she never converted from Judaism."

Her niece Sylvie's book tries to restore a Jewish dimension, although the evidence for such an assimilated generation as her aunt's appears rather risible! Ivry sums up:
Sylvie herself is scrupulous in explaining how almost all of Simone’s biographers have understated the degree to which the Weil family retained elements of the Jewish tradition. She ridicules the notion that, as one writer claims, her aunt was unaware — until she was 12 years old — that her family was Jewish. Describing a family that is Jewish both culturally and in terms of quirky personalities, Sylvie alludes to what she calls the family “chutzpah,” a habit of talking takhles (in a brutally frank way) regardless of who might be offended. This was characteristic of both Simone and André Weil, who were socially cumbersome houseguests, if in diametrically opposite ways. While Simone insisted on bedding down on the floor in a sleeping bag while visiting, and starving herself (while nevertheless chain-smoking) to identify with the poor, André would demand entitlement to the room with the best view and criticize the food if it was not up to snuff. Neither Simone nor André would accept less than emes (the truth) from others, and in this, Sylvie clearly shares in the exigent family personality.

To me, that chain-smoking socialist-- graduate from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure-- in sympathy with the doubtlessly puffing proles will be an indelible image of a fragile figure many have idolized. Trés proto-beatnik French, too! It does make her more human, even if I doubt if I'd have gotten along with her any more than most people may have. It's hard to imagine her letting her hair down.

Like many fierce lovers of their fellow men and women in principle, perhaps she could not bend her principles flexibly enough to align her punished body with her preoccupied mind. I wrote this past Easter about "Pax Christi" and Francis of Assisi's own road to willing torment. In this, Weil and Francis sought radical humanity with the Crucified One as the supreme inspiration for their own devoted asceticism that hastened their untimely deaths in their fourth decade.

Yesterday, I ordered from the Wales Book Council's half-price sale despite my own financial abnegation of late a title by Grahame Davies, "Everything Must Change." It juxtaposes Weil's relentless life with that of a Cymraeg-language activist of similarly recalcitrant ideals. Certainly a "novel" parallel that I will look forward to reviewing here, once the surface mail, at a pace that will probably outrun the time it took to breach the Maginot Line, arrives. (Update: I reviewed it on my blog and on Amazon US and Britain 9-25-09, very favorably.)

Was Weil insane? Suicidal? A "holy anorexic"? Kafka's hunger artist, mystical Christians and Buddhists who crave the "emptiness of form" by self-surrender, and the recent film about Bobby Sands by Steve McQueen, "Hunger": these raise uncomfortable questions. We hesitate to delve into the mindset of those whom society classifies as crazy or canonized, exemplars for our imitation or warnings for our conformity.

It's a squirmy debate that places holiness next to madness, self-preservation against self-surrender. Who controls our bodies, and how can we free our souls? I wonder if after all, another ENS graduate, Michel Foucault (despite his own unwise perambulations and my distance from facile theorizing) hit the target: in prisons, monasteries, hospitals, factories and schools we follow the science of precise scrutiny and oppressive measurement. Our individuality, once the prerogative of nobles, now marks each one of us in the carceral society.

This scrutiny, as tactics once the Gestapo only may have demonstrated, now opens up as we put our selves into the electronic Panopticon, where we all look at each other, none of us knowing when or whom, always on display, never sure when we're watched, so we always act on best behavior. Weil: what reward did she seek by her refusal? Such resistance to Big Brother may lure more of us in our surveilled cells into thinkers who dash into the electrified fence, over the Big Wall into annihilation, willingly, for a cause.

Photo: Not sure of pictorial provenance, but it may be from her ill-fated 1938 stint in the Renault plant at Boulogne-Billancourt. The source of it? My first hit on Google Images, a "Ground of Eternity" entry in summer 2007, was penned by none other than "Bo" of present "Cantos of Mvtabilitie" & "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" blog-renown.


Bo said...

Do you know Rowan Williams' exquisite poem about her death? Ta for the plug!

Fionnchú said...

No, Bo, I don't know the poem! But you cited from it on that blog entry. I'm also wondering where the picture you borrowed came from-- it's also on the British-only Penguin anthology cover. Glad to have encountered yet another serendipitious image-- the first one of an Australian Celtic mural (!) led me to "Expvlsion" in the first place.

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