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A Genius of the Spiritual Life

In breaking away from Partisan Review to found his own journal, Politics, Dwight Macdonald did something altogether splendid and moving, in getting to clear new moral ground, away from Leninism, Trotskyism, the usual hates and polemics of the left. I owe to Politics my discovery of Simone Weil, whose essay “The Iliad: Poem of Force” astonished and moved me at the end of 1945 by removing the stage heroics of the Trojan War and presenting the true horror of war, death by death by death, as the submission to merciless impersonal force that was the fate of innocent millions during Hitler’s war:

The true hero, the real subject, the core of the Iliad, is force. The force that is wielded by men rules over them, and before it man’s flesh cringes. The human soul never ceases to be transformed by its encounter with force—is swept on, blinded by that which it believes itself able to handle, bowed beneath the power of that which it suffers.

Force makes a thing of its victims. There where someone stood a moment, ago, stands no one.

The piercing simplicity of Simone Weil’s style went to the heart of the lasting fear of the war, of the Holocaust, of the forgetfulness it made imperative for so many people. The simplicity was what was left after war—it was elemental, absolute in its sense of what was true, the final truth, about war. As I read it I thought of a photograph taken by the Germans themselves during the war. A Polish Jew in rags, reduced to total helplessness, rigid with terror, utterly at the mercy of these soldiers in battle dress laughing at him, waits for whatever more it is they want to inflict on him. So another Jew was mocked by Roman soldiers.

Simone Weil, a Jew, had been deprived of her lycée teaching job because of her “race.” So ordered by a good French Catholic whose middle name was Xavier. She had written “The Iliad: Poem of Force” in Marseilles in 1940 while waiting with her parents to come to the United States. Refugees all. Surely it was the fate of the Jews—proscribed by Vichy’s own clerical Fascists, whose police rounded up more Jewish children than the Nazis demanded—that had led her to describe so trenchantly the domination by force.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. She was Jewish and looked it, but was obdurate, half-manic, in denying the Jewish sources of Christianity. She saw nothing in the Old Testament but the wars waged by the ancient Israelites against their national rivals and their extermination. Simone Weil, born in Paris to a Jewish doctor of Alsatian background and a Jewish mother born in Rostovon-Don, despised herself for being a Jew. Being labeled a Jew by her own people, the French, apparently troubled her more than the chance of being murdered because she was a Jew. “Assimilation” never saw a Jew more eager to deny herself. She declared herself so entirely French that she boasted she had learned to read through texts by Racine and Pascal.

Reading this, I remembered wandering into the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in July 1945 and discovering on a wall the lines that Pascal had feverishly scribbled in his “night of vision”—a text discovered only after his death, on a paper sewn into the lining of his coat:

From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve—FIRE.

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.

Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace.

God of Jesus Christ.

Thy God will be my God.

I had just been presented with a school edition of Pascal by a group of French professors to whom I had lectured in Paris. I was uplifted by it. This was truly a gift for life. Pascal combined the greatest possible intelligence with the most acute need of God. In a style that already astonished me by its perfect transparency, he brought me to my knees—this in the universe of death that was the war world of the Jews:

Advantages of the Jewish People. In this search the Jewish people at once attracts my attention by the number of wonderful and singular facts which appear about them.

I first see that they are a people wholly composed of brethren. Being thus all one flesh and members one of another, they constitute a powerful state of one family. This is unique.

This family, or people, is the most ancient within human knowledge, a fact which seems to me to inspire a peculiar veneration for it… If God had from all time revealed Himself to men, it is to these we must turn for knowledge of the tradition.

None of this appears in Simone Weil, who coupled Pascal with Racine in demonstrating her cultural reverence as a French patriot. She hotly denied the Jewish roots of Christianity, to the wonder of Catholic friends impatient to see her in the Church; saw the Jews as the “impure element” that kept her out. She liked to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Greek, but made nothing of Jesus’ praying to Our Father and in the Gospels reiterating “My Father, Our Father.” She called herself a Christian, and in her extraordinary notebooks described herself as a tormented pilgrim coming close to the Church but never able to join it. Living in New York (on Riverside Drive), she permitted herself to enter one synagogue—in Harlem, attended by Ethiopian Jews. Her loyalty was to the downtrodden, the poor, the eternal victims—“afflicted” like her, therefore desperate for a new and truer world in which justice alone would rule.

What a tormented, gifted, madly aspiring creature! Extremes were all. In the Thirties, on the surface still another leftist Jewish intellectual, she was briefly in the Spanish Civil War, with an independent radical brigade (not Orwell’s). Maladroit in everything, the world external to her, she managed to get her foot into a pot of burning oil. Her father, the doctor, had to bring her home. Constantly attended and protected by her parents, obsessed by what she considered the superior gifts of her brother André (soon to be a world-famous mathematician at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study), she was truly of “immoderate Jewish temperament.” (This said by a Catholic who protected her even as she alarmed him.)

But in her Jewish excess of zeal, she was as bold as Orwell in denouncing the crimes committed in Spain by Loyalists. I discovered in Ignazio Silone’s beautiful autobiographical essay on how he went from the Church to the Communist Party, “A Choice of Comrades,” the astonishing letter Simone Weil wrote in 1938 to the novelist Georges Bernanos on her experiences in Spain. She wrote because Bernanos, the passionate Catholic, had denounced the horrors of Franco’s rule in Majorca in his searing Les grands cimetières sous la lune.

I have never seen, either among the Spaniards or among the French who have come here to fight or to amuse themselves (the latter often being gloomy, harmless intellectuals) anyone who expressed, even in private conversation, repugnance or disgust for, or even only disapproval of, unnecessary bloodshed. You talk of fear. Yes, fear has played a part in these killings; but where I was I did not find it played as large a part as you ascribe to it. Men to all appearances courageous, when dining with friends, would relate with a warm, comradely smile how they had killed priests or “fascists”—a word of elastic meaning. I felt that whenever a certain group of human beings is relegated, by some temporal or spiritual authority, beyond the pale of those whose life has a price, then one finds it perfectly natural to kill such people.

When one knows that one can kill without risk or punishment or blame, one kills; or, at least one smiles encouragingly at those who kill. If one happens to feel some revulsion, one hides it, one stifles it, fearing to be seen lacking in virility. There seems to be in this some impulse of intoxication which it is impossible to resist without a strength of mind which I am obliged to consider exceptional, since I have not found it in anyone. On the contrary, I have seen sober Frenchmen whom I had not previously despised—who of their own accord would never have thought of killing anyone—plunging with obvious relish into that blood-soaked atmosphere. The very aim of the struggle is blotted out by an atmosphere of this kind. Because the aim can be formulated only in terms of the public good, the good of human beings; and human beings have no value.

She left safe refuge with her parents in New York to join the Free French in London. She had a fantasy: to be parachuted into France to serve as a nurse right in the front lines. De Gaulle thought her nuts. She was shunted off to write a program for postwar French recovery, L’Enracinement (The Need for Roots). This extraordinary document was not exactly what French politicians had had in mind.

Inflexible in everything, she would not eat more than the French were getting on wartime rations, and in fact, she ate less. Extremely ill from tuberculosis, she now literally starved herself and died in England at thirty-four.

Weil could not say, like many another Jewish prophet, “Zeal for thy house hath consumed me.” The Jews were not her house. Neither was the world itself. But zeal for the divinity she absolutely believed in certainly consumed her. In the ghastly trial of humanity that was Hitler’s war, she, too, would have been obliterated if her posthumously published notebooks had not revealed her, in all her excess, as a genius of the spiritual life.* Representing nothing and no one but herself, she was no more with the Church than she was with the Jews. As William Blake said, “Organized religion: an impossibility.” Like so many homeless believers before her, she was speaking as “the Alone to the Alone.”

But apparently the spirit shows itself, even if it is not passed on, in writing like Weil’s—breaking through the crust of convention, “final”-sounding, naked and desperate. The sense of affliction that dominated her was really a kind of gift. It made her see the world in the severest light. I finally understood her when I realized that her demand was less for God than for total justice. That was God. And the demand, the quest, the inability to give up anything, did drive her nuts.

The only real question to be asked of another: What are you going through?

Attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.

Christianity is, in effect, apart from a few isolated centers, something socially in accordance with the interests of those who exploit the people.

What we love is joy itself. When we know this, even hope becomes superfluous; it no longer has any meaning. The only thing left to hope for is the grace not to be disobedient here below. The rest is the affair of God alone and does not concern us. That is why I lack nothing.

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. 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.

We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them. How can we go toward God? Even if we were to walk for hundreds of years, we should do no more than go round and round the world. Even in an airplane we cannot do anything else. We are incapable of progressing vertically. We cannot take a step toward the heavens.

  1. *

    Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks (Oxford University Press, 1970, out of print).

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