Lovers of Simone Weil's mind and writings are greatly beholden to Sir Richard Rees, who has devoted so much care and thought to the task of making her comprehensible. His A Sketch for a Portrait, his editions of her letters and essays,
andhis latest volumeOn Science, Necessity and the Love of God, along with M. Gaboud's painstaking biography, provide a splendid documentation of her life and work. As my own first acquaintance with Simone Weil's writingsin my opinion, the most luminous intelligence of the twentieth centuryis due to Sir Richard, I owe him a deep debt of gratitude for something that has, without exaggeration, intensified in a quite unique way the experience of living in the world today.
It is indeed a most extraordinary circumstance that a French Jewess who died tragically in her thirty-fifth year should have seen so deeply and so truly into the dilemmas of the Christian in our time. Yet so it is. Though she never was baptised she understood as few have the present relevance of Christ and the religion he founded. Her own private sufferings (she preferred the word 'affliction'), which were very great, gave her an exceptional insight into the nature of suffering and into the power of the cross both to express and to overcome it. One reads on, I find, with a kind of avid delight, leaping almost hilariously from sentence to sentencelike a man leaping from ice-floe to ice-floe on a swiftly flowing icy river.
Oddly enough, this applies even when her subject-matteras in the case, so far as I am concerned, of her writings on abstruse scientific themes like the quantum theory and wave mechanics is in itself beyond one's comprehension. As with certain musical compositions, there is, as it were, an outer envelope of incomprehensibility enclosing an inner core of clarity and lucidity. What emerges is a critique of science itselffor instance:
Everything that is most retrograde in the spirit of religion has taken refuge, above all in science itself. A science like ours essentially closed to the layman, and therefore to scientists themselves, because each of them is a layman outside his own narrow specialism, is the proper theology of an ever increasingly bureaucratic society. 'It is secrecy, mystery, that is everywhere the soul of bureaucracy,' wrote Marx in his youth; and mystery is founded upon specialisation. Mystery is the condition of all privilege and consequently of all oppression; and it is in science itself, the breaker of idols, the destroyer of mystery, that mystery has found its last refuge.
Gravity, or necessity, Simone Weil argues, is the force pulling us and all creation down; from the sun is derived the energy enabling trees and us ourselves to stand and grow upright against this force. So the love of God, shining down like the sun, overcomes the downward pull of our earthiness. The same point is exquisitely made in her interpretation of the fairy story about the little tailor and the giant. They have a contest as to which of them can throw a stone farthest. The giant picks up a huge one and hurls it a prodigious height and a prodigious distance, but the little tailor releases a bird from his hand which flies away and is soon lost to view. Whatever is moved by power, or the will, that is to say, however terrific the force generated, must sometime, somewhere, fall to the ground, whereas whatever is animated by the spirit, or the imagination, can soar away like a bird high above the earth and into the sky.
The love of God and affliction are themes to which Simone Weil constantly returns. She sees affliction as a nail driven into our souls fastening us to the very centre of the universethe 'true centre which is not in the middle, which is not in space and time, which is God.' So fastened, we are at 'the point of intersection between creation and Creator,' which is also the point of intersection of the two branches of the cross. When thought is confronted with affliction, she goes on, 'it takes immediate refuge in lies, like a hunted animal dashing for cover., To deal with affliction, therefore, we have to go beyond thought and beyond the self, into the realm of Christ who conquered the world simply because he, being the Truth, continued to be the Truth in the very depth of extreme affliction.'
In other words, affliction, which to our mortal eye is intolerable and even ridiculous, is the wayand the only wayto understanding and being fully alive, and, what is more, to being able to help the afflicted. It is the commonest complaint today that affliction disproves the existence of a loving deity. Those terrible doctors I met on a television programme with Dr Christian Barnard laughed derisively when I spoke of man being made in the image of God. What an image! What a God! they
jeered, thinking of the fearful things they had to see and cut away with their knives. Yet Simone Weil would say, as I consider justly, that not only does affliction not disprove God's existenceit uniquely manifests his presence. If every affliction were to be eliminated from our mortal existence then, and then only, God really would be dead.
Simone Weil's grasp and love of the Christian faith unfolded for her gradually, though there were definite stages. One was when, through a chance encounter with an English student in France, she read George Herbert's exquisite lines beginning: 'Love bade me welcome but my soul drew back.' In a splendid letter to Father Perrin (included in Waiting on God), she explains with great force and cogency why she cannot accept baptism. The document is balm indeed in the smoky, asphyxiating atmosphere of Christian consensus. As far as Simone Weil herself was concerned, through all her subsequent vicissitudes what happened when she read the Herbert lines as she put it, Christ came down and took possession of herwas, she never doubted, for ever.
She is not easy to translate, the sense is so tight-packed, but Sir Richard Rees manages it excellently. He is himself so closely akin to her temperament and way of thought that he makes a perfect, if self-effacing, expounder and commentator. For me, at any rate, she emerges very clearly as a person. I think of her when I walk by the old Free French offices in London where she worked and I sometimes visited in the war years, and in Ashford where she is buried, having starved herself to death because she could not bring herself to eat more than the rations available in France. A suicide, the coroner said; an affliction in her own sense, rather, and, as with Bonhoeffer, a beginning not an end.
Observer, 22 September 1968
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