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The Spiritual Life

In response to:

The Life and Death of Simone Weil from the March 3, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

I can remember when this review first began. I had been taken to hospital and was not given much time to live. It was for me one of those touch-and-go situations in which only time would tell. A dear friend of mine, who was a Milton scholar, brought me a copy of the first issue. I still have it. He was sad, so was I; but we both laughed, and we were happy that something fresh was beginning in New York during the period of the long newspaper strike.

I lived; my friend still lectures on Milton; but The New York Review of Books did not become the fresh American review it could have become. It chose, instead, for reasons only its bank manager must know, to become a weak English export, with English scholars from English universities talking in English ways about American life. It does not mix, but that is not my problem.

When I sat down this afternoon to read the Review I noticed that it carried a review of Simone Weil, A Life (NYR, March 3), and that the reviewer was J.M. Cameron. The tone of the review was a tone familiar to his writing, revealing an elegant academic Christian tone in which, as God’s spokesman, he attempted to make clear for us why Weil did not become a Roman Catholic, why she did not understand Scripture properly, and how she was a saint for our times. He concluded his review by giving the reader this curious disjunction: “Either this is madness or it is obedience to a vocation few are called to. Simone Weil’s life and death compel us to face or to hide from such ultimate questions.” Full stop; intellect rests.

I do not know what a Saint is. One seldom meets them; one generally reads about them, and I have read about many of them. They are a category of human beings that one may, wisely and fortunately, entertain serious doubts about. When I was ill, and thought to be dying, the last person in the world I would have wanted to see was Simone Weil, or anyone else whom educated minds conjure up to impress one into ‘umbleness and ‘oliness. I much preferred the laughing company of my dear friend who happened to like Milton’s poetry and prose.

I doubt very much if Simone Weil has very much to say to modern man, especially if that modern man lives in New York, or London, or Toronto. She may be terribly entertaining reading for one to puzzle about if one has time to take university courses where entertaining reading of that sort is required for the courses; but to suggest that she is a person for our times is to make a mistaken suggestion.

Weil represented that curious religious mind which, in order to escape from life, must torture itself in the extreme. The torture itself is abstract and beauteous, a torture which makes its own world rather than to accept a world which is given. The reason Weil did not accept Christianity may be a very simple one: she would have had to accept a world in which she was not the creator.

I am not judging Cameron’s review. I cannot. I do not like Weil, I do not consider her much of a scholar, and I do not think that she was the polyglot classicist Cameron gives her credit for, “…was in complete command of the body of Greek and Latin literature….” I do not know what that means: she had it all committed to memory, every bit of it? Bosh!

What bothers me about Cameron’s review, other than to accept the technical function that he is calling to one’s attention that a book has been written, is why he puzzles over Weil’s spirituality or lack of it, as if it were a problem to which an answer could be found? Why this curious obsession about the life, especially the intimate life, of another? I felt the same odd feeling about what he wrote when, once before in the review, he pontificated about how one should properly sex.

There seems to be lurking at the back of this the academic’s mind that an answer can be found. What would that answer be? What shape would it take? It is the academic lure for the young trouts, and it never delivers the goods.

Why must one take an interest at all in the spirituality of another person, or, mind you, one’s lack of spirituality? If one is not physically harmed, then one should leave the other alone. If one is physically harmed, then there is resort to the law for a redress of rights.

But I feel that Cameron will advance the notion of “moral harm.” Hmmmmm, how is that category measured? It is often enough advanced, but, as one reviewer in your columns was clear to show, we very often are advancing our beliefs against the beliefs of some other. I refer the reader to the brilliant exchange between Peter Singer, of La Trobe University, and Paul Ramsey and Thomas A. Shannon, in the NYR for November 11, 1976, stemming from Singer’s review “Bioethics: The Case of the Fetus,” in the NYR for August 5, 1976.

If anything, Simone Weil is not a saint for our times. She chose, if we wish to be kind, to avoid the hardship of living, and living at a time when so much of the world was losing hope or faith. Could any serviceman have taken upon himself such a luxury in 1943 to consider if life were worth living, or some more arcane conjuration about the hidden meaning of, say, the Gospels and Christ? That is a terribly prissy and precious luxury, and it is oftentimes an evasion from what is the case: true suffering, true hardship, true loss of faith, and true injustices.

In England the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches engage in that kind of luxurious evasion. When they both turned their backs upon many here who had asked for help to clear their consciences on the morality of abortion, both churches simply were out-for-tea, and, to date, they have not returned. Their journals are blank, or proclaiming some kind of luxurious continental spirituality which has not one goddamn thing to do with life as it is lived here and now. Weil comes from that school, and it is a school of unreality which should be avoided at all costs, especially at all spiritual costs.

I am willing to strike off an Augustinian compromise with Cameron. If God exists, then let Him decide about one’s spirituality; and if He does not, then let us forget the whole matter out of respect for the privacy of the other person.

J.M.B. Crawford

London, England

J.M Cameron replies:

Dr. Crawford asserts that Simone Weil has little to say to modern man (whoever he may be) and that she provides “entertaining” reading for myself and for those I teach. Entertaining? This is the strangest judgment ever made on her writings. As to her life, that she sought to escape from life and the world is just false. She was a hard-working teacher, a conscientious participant in working-class politics, served in the militia in the Spanish civil war. She joined the Free French in London and would have been a nurse on the battlefield had this been permitted; her life was full of simple acts of love and friendship. “Why must one take an interest at all in the spirituality of another person…?” What an extraordinary question! Of course, there can be no “must” here. But we live in a culture of which Augustine of Hippo and Teresa of Avila and Rousseau and George Eliot and Proust and Henry Adams and William and Henry James are distinguished ornaments. Not to take an interest (as William James did in The Varieties of Religious Experience) in the spirituality of those who put their thoughts and feelings on public record would seem a culpable neglect of a great question: what we are to think of the many styles of human life. George Herbert, for one, helped Simone Weil with this question, and I am confident that she in her turn helped others. To think that speculating about why she did this or that is a violation of privacy is as though one were to think an analysis of the French tactics at Waterloo an invasion of Napoleon’s privacy.’ Let me add that Crawford’s suggestion that I insinuate I am God’s spokesman is just fiddle-faddle, as I’m sure he knows quite well.

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