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HERMENAUT OF THE MONTH | Joshua Glenn | 12/22/0 | 14: Anorexia/Technology

Here, below. The ravings of a nut. Quite intelligent she was betrayed by a severe depression which finally lead to her death. She badly needed some Zoloft. But there was no treatment in the times she lived. Her writing is basically just wild meanderings that masquerade as some sort of intellectual masturbation. She is an example of most the nuts who become obsessed with one idea, or another. But the fact of their mental illness never seems to be recognized.  Read all of the sniffy analysis of her inane writing. These people don't have a clue about her mental illness. She lived a totally miserable life, why? Because she was totally miserable because of her depression. Read as much as you can stand below. Then go get a sandwich. Simone needed sandwiches in the worst way.  

 

:Simone Weil 1909-1943


"Weil's is the most comical life I have ever read about, and the most truly tragic and terrible." - Flannery O'Connor, letter, 1955

On February 3rd, 1909, Simone Adolphine Weil was born in Paris to Dr. Bernard Weil, a Jewish physician (who'd served on the medical front of WWI), and his wife Selma. By the time she was a teenager, Weil had already developed those eccentricities which would shape the rest of her life: Food held an enormous amount of symbolic value for her, so she often refused to eat for "idealistic" reasons; she was ferociously, aggressively intellectual; and, revolted by desire, she was determined to remain a virgin. Weil's body and mind, one biographer notes, early became the site of a punishing discipline, a training of her entire being to lucid attention.

At 15, Weil took her baccalauréat in philosophy and, under the tutelage of the anti-conformist philosopher known as "Alain," spent three years preparing for the competitive entrance exam to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. Impressed by Weil's brilliance, though put off by her eccentricities (she wore her hair over her face, and her typical costume was a wrinkled mannish suit, a shapeless cape, and large floppy shoes) Alain nicknamed her "the Martian."

While at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1929 (she was one of the first women students there), Weil published her first essays in Alain's journal Libres Propos. A devoted classicist, she argued in these that work directed entirely toward its own end, and carried out with indifference to one's desires, is the only truly radical way to act; nor is such "labor" antithetical to the Greek ideal of meditative "leisure." She also first expressed her fascination with factory work, insisting that "Only through the experience of labor do I meetŠ time as the condition, space as the object of my action." The problem, she concluded, was to transform factory work into the kind of meditative labor prescribed by the Greeks.

Weil passed her agrégation brilliantly: first in her class. (The other Simone—de Beauvoir—was second.) As feminist philosopher Andrea Nye has shown, Weil's diploma-monograph on "Science and Perception in Descartes" disagreed with the idea that a philosopher must withdraw from the "distraction" of everyday life, and it identified Cartesian method—for which the material world is nothing but a field of forces to be plotted and measured—as the historical source of what she thought of as the contemporary problem of knowledge. The proper place of the intellectual, Weil argued, is in the world, helping people clarify their powers of observation and capacity for criticism; and the proper role of science is to remain integrated with the working life, lest it become merely a remote system of empty signs.

Now a qualified teacher of philosophy, mathematics, and Greek language and literature, Weil was appointed to a secondary school for girls at Le Puy. The local bourgeoisie quickly gave her a new nickname: the "Red Virgin"—a mixture of anarchist and nun. Not yet convinced of the futility of political action, Weil organized a non-partisan "inter-union"; she marched with unemployed workers in their picket lines; and she wrote extensively on labor issues and leftist politics, publishing "Après la visite d'une mine" ("Upon Visiting a Mine"), "Les modes d'exploitation" ("The Modes of Exploitation"), and "Le capital et l'ouvrier" ("Capital and the Worker"), among others, in the radical journal L'Effort—at 21, she was by far the youngest contributor. Refusing to eat more than the rations of those on relief, Weil distributed her salary to welfare funds and workers' newspapers, and grew extremely thin. After lecturing her students that "The family is legalized prostitution... The wife is a lover reduced to slavery," she was transferred to a school in another town.

Having visited a mine, where she was allowed to operate a compressed air-drill, Weil became obsessed with technology. The drill, she wrote, is a "machineŠ not modeled upon human nature but upon the nature of coal and compressed air; [its] motions follow a rhythm profoundly foreign to that of life; [it] bends a human body violently to its service." Worker ownership of the means of production, she argued, is not enough: "The political revolution, the economic revolution will not be realized unless they are prolonged by a technical revolution which will reestablish concretelyŠ the dominion which the worker maintains over the conditions of labor." Although she continued to contribute to leftist journals, this fundamental disagreement with Marxist dogma isolated Weil from former comrades—like radical librarian Georges Bataille [see sidebar], who would later describe her as having suffered from a "blind passion for lucidity" and a "marvelous will to futility."

During her summer break in '32, Weil bravely traveled to Germany, to understand for herself why the Nazi party was ascending to power. Upon her return she wrote "L'Allemagne en attente" ("Germany, Wait-ing") for the syndicalist journal La Révolution Prolétarienne, and the ten-part series "La situation en Allemagne" ("The Situation in Germany") for L'École Émancipée, the organ of the teachers' union. To the horror of her Communist associates (already reeling from the Stalinist counter-revolution), Weil argued that the centralized, bureaucratic state capitalism of Russia was in all important respects indistinguishable from the Fascist program. "It is the moment for everyone to come to terms," she urged. "Members of unions, Communists, those in opposition, and even sincere orthodox believers in the ranks [need] to commit themselves to a serious revision of all ideas." Her heretical article "Allons-nous vers la révolution prolétarienne?" ("Are We [Really] Heading Towards a Revolution of the Proletariat?"), published at this time, insisted that most so-called revolutionaries were dangerously misguided at best, and death-seeking martyrs at worst. Perhaps, she later noted, "It is not religion but revolution which is the opium of the people."

Weil's "Réflexions sur la guerre" ("Reflections on War") published in Bataille's La Critique Sociale, argued that modern technology had allowed the unceasing "social violence" between the man at the desk and the man at the workbench to become supranational, and that the only conflict that has any validity is the struggle between those who obey and those who command. This and other of her pacifistic essays from the period are marked by a careful avoidance of political rhetoric, and by their author's scholarly scrupulousness, expressed in innumerable asides where she questions her own assumptions. Around this time Weil, a staunch anti-Stalinist, met with her hero Trotsky—who rejected her "defeatism," accusing her of being a reactionary liberal bourgeois. Already deeply suspicious of professional revolutionaries, from this point on Weil preferred to associate with workers and the poor. Radicalism-as-usual had helped her free her imagination from politics-as-usual, she noted in her journal, but that was about it.

In the spring of '34 Weil began an essay entitled "Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l'oppression sociale" ("Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and of Social Oppression")—which she was forced to abandon, after having worked on it for six years. (It was eventually collected as part of the book Oppression et Liberté [Oppression and Liberty]). Hoping to define the conditions that would yield a society without oppression, she argued that power contains "a sort of fatality," because to preserve it you must constantly increase it: "This most fatal of vicious circles drags the whole society in the wake of its masters in a mad merry-go-round." Weil noted, too, that the "social machine" has become "a machine for breaking hearts and crushing spirits, a machine for manufacturing irresponsibility, stupidity, corruption, slackness and, above all, vertigo... everything is disequilibrium." "Altogether," she reflects, "we are now in the state of utterly ignorant travelers who find themselves racing in an automobile at top speed without a driver across broken terrain." Weil finishes by saying that the only thing left for the true revolutionary to do is to try and inspire lucid critical analysis in people; to fight against automation to preserve the skilled workman, and to keep the ideal of meditative labor alive; to favor anything in politics, economy, and technology that leaves some freedom to the individual; and in all ways to "endeavor to introduce a little play into the cogs of the [social] machine that is grinding us down."

In 1934 Weil took a two-year leave of absence from teaching, in order to live and make a living among workers. From December until March of the following year, she worked as a hand at the presses of an electrical works in Paris; from April to May she worked as a packer; and from June to August she assembled cars at the Renault auto works--until she collapsed with pleurisy. The Journal d'usine (Factory Journal) she kept during this period notes that "exhaustion finally makes me forget the very reasons why I am in a factory; it makes almost invincible the temptation this life brings with itself: no further thinking." She was so traumatized by her experience of factory life, in fact, that she immediately abandoned any remaining romantic notions she'd had about the proletariat and her (or anyone else's) ability to help them. Oppression does not result in rebellion, she'd discovered, but in obedience and apathy - even in the internalization of the oppressor's values.

To describe that suffering which is more profound than physical or even mental suffering, Weil began to use the word malheur—a kind of living death in which one feels worthy of other people's contempt. Fuller employment, higher wages, improved working conditions, profit-sharing—none of these reforms are sufficient. A ruthless subdivision of tasks has resulted in both a factory and a society in which "a man is deprived of whatever is initiative, intelligence, knowledge, or method for the benefit of an inert mechanism." As long as one has no idea how one's work fits into a larger context, as long as one is forced to carry out meaningless orders at a machine-driven pace, one is a malheureux.

In her essay "Expérience de la vie d'usine" ("Experiencing Factory Life"), Weil despairingly described men and women in thrall to the inhuman cadence of the time clock, subject to the trumped-up "emergencies" of incompetent supervisors. Automation, she argued, is a good thing insofar as it eliminates servile drudge work; over-automation transforms the skilled worker into nothing but an intermediary between machinery and things to be machined: "Things play the role of men, men the role of things. There lies the root of the evil." The only possible solution, Weil argued, would not be to return to cruder forms of craftsmanship—a neo-Luddite notion she found grotesque—but to automate only the most thankless of tasks, and for all others to employ instead the "machine-instrument." The power lathe, for example, combines the accuracy of the machine with the skilled attendance of the workman, requiring of its operator responsiveness, initiative, and an intelligent grasp of the operative parts.

In reflecting on the machine-instrument, which—unlike the automatic machine—requires its operator to recognize certain physical limits to what can and cannot be done, Weil began to further develop her vision of "the equilibrium of man with himself and of man with reality." We no longer perceive difficulties directly, nor consciously apply ourselves to their solution, she noted in her journal. Instead we see only symptoms, and employ only "results [i.e. of previous attempts to solve problems] crystallized" into machines, "algebra" (her shorthand for science divorced from life), and money.. For Weil, the law of a society in disequilibrium is quantity made possible by efficiency: Work for the sake of survival is replaced by production for the sake of profit. For this reason, she mused, "in many fields we cannot escape except by privation."

In July of 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Weil up and jumped on a train for the Republican Front. The frail, nearsighted intellectual joined a unit of anarchists, was issued a rifleŠ and almost immediately put her foot into a pan of boiling oil. Her ever-protective parents, lurking just over the border, yanked her to safety. Dismayed by the atrocities she'd seen her own side commit, Weil was reconfirmed in her pacifism. She wrote "Ne recommençons pas la guerre de Troie" ("Let's Not Fight the Trojan War Again") for the review Nouveaux Cahiers, lamenting that although "we live among mutable realities, diverse and determined by the fickle play of external necessitiesŠ we act, struggle, sacrifice ourselves and others in the name of crystallized, isolated abstractions" (like Nation, Capitalism, Communism, and Fascism).

Forced to stop teaching because of mi-graines, Weil became increasingly obsessed with metaphysical questions. Adding to her encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Homeric poetry to the latest findings in mathematical theory, she began to study the Manicheans, the Gnostics, the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, Taoism, Buddhism. She devoured the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and was so impressed by the Bhagavad-Gita that she began to teach herself Sanskrit. Then, at a Benedictine Abbey, while listening to a Gregorian chant at the moment her migraine was at its worst, she "experienced the joy and bitterness of Christ's passion as a real event" —and for the first time began to think of herself as a religious person.

France and Germany went to war in September of '39. Despite her terror and rage toward the Nazis, in various articles for Nouveaux Cahiers Weil argued that it was irresponsible for journalists and politicians to portray the Germans as inhuman barbarians, since "Every people that becomes a nation by submitting to a centralized, bureaucratic and military state suddenly becomes and remains a scourge for its neighbors and the world"; i.e. France was no different. In 1940 Weil refused to leave Paris until the Germans had actually entered the city. Fleeing at last to Marseilles, she joined a circle of fugitive writers around the journal Les Cahiers du Sud. "L'Iliade ou le poème de la force" ("The Iliad, or the Poem of Force") which made her famous after her death, thanks to Mary McCarthy's translation of the essay for Politics magazine in 1945, along with several other essays, were written for Cahiers du Sud under the name Emile Novis - a rough anagram of her own name, too Jewish under the circumstances.

"The true hero, the real subject, the core of the Iliad, is force," the essay begins. Weil admired the bitterness of Homer's epic, its unequivocal condemnation of man's hubris, and she used the poem to express her own conviction that, given the dynamics of force, the taking of power by an oppressed class is no solution.. The "possession" of force permits one to act without forethought, Weil wrote, and therefore without consideration of the demands of justice. But once one surpasses one's natural limits, one is punished in exact proportion to one's deeds: "We are only geometricians in regard to matter; the Greeks were first of all geometricians in the apprenticeship of virtue." Since force corrupts even the righteous, Weil concluded here that the only worthwhile strategy for the true radical is the "interruption" of force wherever it appears.

In Marseilles, Weil also met Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, a Catholic priest impressed with her thinking about Christian-ity. Weil refused his offer to baptize her, insisting that "I do not want to be adopted into a circle, to live among people who say 'we' and to be part of an 'us,' to find I am 'at home' in any human milieu whatever it may be... I feel that it is necessary and ordained that I should be alone, a stranger and an exile in relation to every human circle without exception." Perrin—who eventually published Weil's letters to him, along with some essays, as Attente de Dieu (Waiting For God)—introduced her to Gustave Thibon, a lay theologian in charge of a Catholic agricultural colony. There, working in the fields and vineyards during harvest, Weil was finally far enough away from her family to practice asceticism the way she'd always wanted to: She worked alongside agricultural laborers, slept in a sleeping bag on the floor, and ate nothing but onions and tomatoes. She also wrote—a lot. Weil's journals of the early '40s are both entertaining and terrifying, since her writing by then was a combination of the dry, eminently rational prose style she'd long perfected and a despairing mysticism. The result of her attempt to fuse ancient Greek ideas of the impersonal and the contemplative with Catholicism is a body of thought which seems insane and true at the same time.

In April of '42, Weil left her journals with Thibon—who published them after her death as a collection of aphorisms entitled La Pesanteur et la Grâce (Gravity and Grace)—and emigrated to the United States. Her parents safely in New York, however, Weil immediately began attempting to get back to Europe. She submitted a front-line nursing idea to the provisional French government exiled in London, expressing her eagerness to be parachuted into France on a "secret mission, preferably dangerous." She also started a new series of journals, which Albert Camus, who called Weil "the only great spirit of our time," eventually published as Cahiers d'Amerique (American Diaries) in the collection La Connaissance Surnaturelle (Supernatural Knowledge). By pulling strings, Weil was finally called to London; upon arrival she was charged with analyzing all suggestions for how to organize France after the war. Weil was dismayed by the old-fashioned nationalism of the Gaullists in London, and soon resigned her position. Telling herself she had no right to eat more than her comrades in German-occupied France, she starved herself until she was hospitalized.

As she recovered, Weil wrote "Réflexions sur la révolte" ("Reflections on the Resistance"), "Légitimé de gouvernement provisoire" ("The Legitimacy of the Provisional Government"), "Remarques sur le nouveau projet de Constitution" ("Remarks on the 'Project for a New Constitution'"), "Idées essentielles pour une nouvelle Constitution" ("Essential Ideas for a New Constitution"), and other criticisms of the provisional government's "Project for a New Constitution." In a last-ditch effort to bring about her long-dreamed-of "society without oppression," Weil took it upon herself to write a disjointed book-length memorandum on the rights and duties of the state and the individual. This was L'Enracinement (The Need for Roots) --which poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth, for example, dismissed as a product of its author's "spastic, moribund, intellectual and spiritual agony." Despite the tone of hysteria, however, Weil makes her point firmly: Before society can be regenerated, we must recognize that every social problem is a symptom of a profound "uprootedness" (a state "more or less akin to purely vegetative life"), brought about by—of course—money, "mechanism," science and technology divorced from life, and the use of force. Politics must be more than imposing an ideology on the particular tactics of a social group we wish to lead forward, Weil concluded: It should be an intelligent reflection on reality, conducted by deep thinkers.

Shortly after finishing The Need for Roots, Weil wrote to a friend that man has at "the center of his heart the ever present thirst for an absolute good which finds no object in this world," and that the only way to reach that absolute good was "the real and lasting consent to death and to the loss of all transitory goods without exception." This ideal of death-before-impurity, which she'd picked up when studying the Cathars--that medieval sect who apparently preferred suicide to a life governed by bodily desire and the lust for power—was an unfortunate one in Weil's case, since she'd spent her adult life finding one symbolic reason after another to avoid eating. "Given the general and permanent plight of humanity in this world," she wrote in her journal around this time, "eating until one is full is an abuse. (I have been guilty many times.)" In April of '43 Weil was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, brought about by her deprivations. She was sent to a sanitarium in the countryside, where she refused her doctors' orders to take nourishment, insisting that they send her meals to France. She died of a cardiac collapse on August 24, 1943, aged 34.

How Shall We Understand?

"Simone WeilŠ made up her own revolution out of her vitals, like a spider or silkworm." - Kenneth Rexroth, "Simone Weil," 1957

Anorexia theorist Susan Bordo writes that "anorexia is not a philosophical attitude; it is a debilitating affliction. Yet quite often a highly conscious and articulate scheme of images and associations—one could go so far as to call it a metaphysic—is presented by these women. The scheme is strikingly Augustinian, with evocations of Plato." Weil, a classics scholar, may well have internalized Plato's conflation of the world of unreal shadows with the female body; and, as feminist critic Leslie Heywood suggests of anorexics in general, perhaps in attempting to escape that world she paradoxically starved herself into an unreal shadow. Weil's is certainly an anorectic philosophy, one which revolves around ideas of the over-full self; of truth which has grown fat and sedentary; of eternal standards of right and wrong action buried under layers of bourgeois sentiment. It's important to note, however, that for Weil, the purification of the self, of taken-for-granted notions of truth, and of the idea of "action" was intended to help people be more, not less, engaged with life in the real world.

Eating, for Weil, represents our willful attachment to the world. Instead of "eating," she writes in Gravity and Grace, we should simply "look": "Looking is what saves us." Weil's brand of renunciation is not, however, a life-denying repression of desire: "If [Eve] had been hungry at the moment when she looked at the fruit," she muses, "if in spite of that she had remained looking at it indefinitely without taking one step toward it, she would have performed a miracle..." To desire and to renounce at once—that is the mode of the anorexic. A refusal to "eat" (seek to possess, control) that for which one hungers is a way of honoring that which is eternally beautiful in the world: "We want to eat all the other objects of desire. The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it. We desire that it should be."

This lovely version of Existentialism, in which the lucid contemplation of the world makes us hungry yet simultaneously unwilling to eat (instead of, as in Sartre, making us nauseous with disgust), helps explain why Weil's activism on behalf of working people was so out of step with the radical politics of her day. For Weil, the true injustice of the modern age is that working people—and, to an only slightly lesser degree, everybody else—have been rendered incapable of paying attention to the beauty in the world. We've become victims of what Weil calls "necessity" or "gravity" (la pesanteur). The only way to "grace," the gravity-free state "where to look is to eat," she believed, is through privation.

Systematic self-denial and self-discipline: These symptomatic traits of what historian Bruce Mazlish calls the "revolutionary ascetic" fit Weil perfectly. As such, perhaps Weil's asceticism can help provide us with revolutionary new ways of perceiving and living in the world.

How Shall We Be?

"God created me as a non-being who seems to exist, so that in renouncing for love what I take as my being, I may emerge from nothingness. Then there is no more I.. The I is nothing." - from American Diaries

In "La Personne et le Sacré" (often translated as "Beyond Personal-ism"), an essay discovered after her death, Weil argues—against, specifically, Oscar Wilde—that no truly beautiful artistic creation can be a manifestation of the artist's personality. In fact, she insists, "our personality is the part of us which belongs to error and sin." In Gravity and Grace, Weil writes that "The self is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God, and I take this shadow for a being." There is too much self, Weil feels—a situation which, once recognized, demands remedying: "Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts is to become nothing."

In Weil's Gnostic theory of "gravity and grace," whenever we build up the self (by acquiring status and power) we become bound to the world, i.e. as though by gravity. Paradoxically, "every time that we raise the ego... as high as we raise it, we degrade ourselves to an infinite degree," because being overly attached to the world is a form of slavery. The solution? Voluntarily humble yourself; become as unimportant and powerless as a slave; only then will you be able to escape the bonds of gravity.

Doesn't this contradict Weil's lifelong struggle to free workers from their humbled and enslaved state? No, because for Weil the malheureux is still worse off than a (gravity-stricken) rich and powerful person; at least the latter can still voluntarily become nothing. The "I" of the malheureux is destroyed before he has the chance to destroy it himself, reducing him to a "naked, vegetative egoism—an egoism without an 'I.'" The person who voluntarily becomes a slave, who gives up not just all that he owns but all that he is, follows in the footsteps of Christ—a figure who, for Weil, exemplified in his own life the escape from "gravity" through abjection. The anorectic self is Christ-like in that he or she desires to belong to the world yet rejects the world.

Is this Nietzsche's Dionysian self, whose individuality is surrendered to the group? Weil, who confessed to Father Perrin that "I know that if at this moment I had before me a group of 20 young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi," was well aware of the temptation to seek a state of mindless freedom by merging oneself with the collective. In "Beyond Personalism," she writes that "the whole effort of the mystic has always been to become such that there is no part left in his soul to say 'I.' But the part of the soul which says 'We' is infinitely more dangerous still." This explains Weil's lifelong suspicion of groups of all kinds—particularly radical groups—and even of friendship, which she feared was too often a form of "cannibalism" in which one's friends become as necessary to one as food.

Significantly, Weil always uses the unusual verb "decreate"—not "dissolve" or "destroy"—when discussing this subject. The decreated self has a personality, but does not surrender itself to "personalism"; decreation is a creative renunciation of the "social personality," that aspect of the self constituted by the possession of power. In her journal, Weil cryptically jots, "To come down [i.e. back to the world] by a movement in which gravity plays no part." "Gravity makes things come down, wings make them rise," she continues. "What wings raised to the second power can make things come down without weight?" To come down without weight, to possess wings which serve not as an escape mechanism but instead as a means of equilibrium to those no longer subject to gravity: This is what it means to be an anorectic self.

What Shall We Believe?

"Lacking idols, it often happens that we have to labor every day, or nearly every day, in the void." - from Gravity and Grace

Writing about Weil in the '60s, Susan Sontag insisted that "the bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live." Anorexia was long considered a form of hysteria--and anorectic truth and meaning are arrived at by a process of near-hysterical stripping-away.

"To love truth means to endure the void," Weil notes in her journal. Our imaginations, she warns, are continually at work "filling up the void" with compensatory illusions. In "Let's Not Fight the Trojan War Again," Weil argues that although reality is always "mutable," we live among a "cloud of empty entities" which we take for real. She goes so far as to suggest that "that which gives the impression of being true in man is almost bound to be false, and that which is true is almost bound to give the impression of being false." "When truth appears at least as true as falsehood," she concludes, "it is a triumph of sanctity or of genius.."

The root problem, as always for Weil, is our unthinking attachment to the world. "Attachment is a manufacturer of illusions and whoever wants reality ought to be detached," Weil argues. "Perfect detachment alone enables us to see things in their naked reality, outside the fog of deceptive values... We must leave on one side the beliefs which fill up voids and sweeten what is bitter." From her internment camp at Casablanca (en route to the U.S.), Weil wrote to Father Perrin that "the degree of intellectual honesty that is obligatory for me... demands that my thought should be indifferent to all ideas without exceptionŠ it must be equally welcoming and equally reserved with regard to every one of them." This, she admonishes him, is what is demanded of today's saints: Not fanatical adherence to dogma, but an almost passive sort of "genius" rendering one uniquely capable of a "new revelation of the universe and human destinyŠ the unveiling of a large portion of the truth and beauty hitherto hidden."

Looking unflinchingly into the void is only the first step, however. In "Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and of Social Oppression," Weil expresses regret that although as an intellectual she'd been trained in "reflection" (detached, critical thought), she'd never been trained to focus on a problem or thought without distraction, yet at the same time without becoming mesmerized, giddy, absorbed to the exclusion of all else. "Method for understanding images, symbols, etc..," she notes in her journal. "Not to try to interpret them, but to look at them 'til the light suddenly dawnsŠ In the end illusions are scattered and the real becomes visible. This is on condition that the attention should be a looking and not an attachment [i.e. 'eating']."

How do we look into the void for truth without being attached to the end result of our looking? In a posthumously published essay, "Réflexions sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l'amour de Dieu" ("Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God," pub. in Waiting For God), Weil gives clear instructions. Noting that, when she'd been a teacher, her students thought attention was a kind of muscular effort involving brow-wrinkling and breath-holding, Weil suggests that true attention "consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains."

In evoking the image of a man on the edge of abyss, Weil suggests that anorectic truth means looking for, and never "eating," truth—never seeking to fill up the void. Anorectic truth does not seek to reduce or repress opposing truths, but instead to use the "pincers of contradiction" to catch hold of a truth which is alive, mutable, and not reducible to empty words.

What Shall We DO?

"[Weil] was always willing to take the step beyond the trivially silly; and the ridiculous pushed far enough, absurdity compounded, becomes something else--the absurd as a religious category, the madness of the Holy Fool beside which the wisdom of this world is revealed as folly." - Leslie Fiedler, introduction to Waiting For God (1951)

Weil's "anorectic ethics," as one critic puts it, "defies our comfortable, utilitarian assumptions about what is good and bad for people. It is not concerned with calculating results: It is imperative, guilt-ridden, and impossible." For Weil, anything truly good is incapable of being violated by evil. To claim, for example, that theft or adultery or lying are "evil" simply reflects our degraded idea of good—that it has something to do with respect for property, respectability, and sincerity. "We accept the false values which appear to us," she writes in Gravity and Grace, "and when we think we are acting, we are in reality motionless, for we are still confined in the same system of values." Anorectic ethics are what remain when every taken-for-granted notion of good and evil has been purged through the effort of pure attention.

In a letter to the editors of Cahiers du Sud, Weil complained that the avant-garde fetish for "spontaneity," "sincerity" and "gratuitousness" is no replacement for old-fashioned virtues like "nobility," "honor," "honesty," and "generosity." Unfortunately, she concludes, even the amorality of the avant-garde is less "alien to good and evil" than that calculating bourgeois conformity which passes for morality. "Obedience to the Great Beast [Weil uses Plato's term for State power which has invested itself with legitimacy], which conforms to the Good--that is social virtue," she muses in her journal, "A Pharisee is someone who is virtuous out of obedience to the Great Beast."

Against Pharisees and the avant-garde alike, in her American Diaries Weil writes that "The authentic and pure values of the true, the beautiful, and the good in the activity of a human being are produced by way of a single act, a concentration upon an object in the fullness of one's attention." Only through this kind of detached attention can the good emerge: "We must be indifferent to good and evil, really indifferent, that is to say we must turn the light of attention equally on each of them. Then the good will triumph by an automatic phenomenon."

In one of her earliest essays, written when she was a teenager, Weil writes that "Acting is never difficult; we always do too much and waste ourselves in disorderly actions... Refraining from action: Here lies our only force and our only virtue." Good consists in not acting, in resisting the impulse to go out and "do good"; evil is when we act without detachment from our ends. As Weil counsels, you should "Do only what you cannot help doing"—and "seek ways to keep on increasing the number of those [actions] which you are unable not to do." This mode of "action" is, she writes, "not an action but a sort of passivity. Inactive action... Good which is done in this way, almost in spite of ourselves, almost shamefacedly and apologetically, is pure." Self-restraint, renunciation of the fruits of one's actions, an obsession with purity: These are central to an anorectic ethics.

All of which is fine for the individual, but it begs the question "How are we to establish a universal morality and make justice possible?" In "Beyond Personalism," Weil argues that what passes for "justice" in the public sphere is simply a knee-jerk response to cries of pain from "injured personalities." Rights talk, says Weil, is nothing but "a shrill nagging of claims and counter-claims." We need an ideal of justice in which "the universal hope that good and not evil will be done to you" is held sacred. If we truly renounce the power we're able to wield over one another, if for every person there was "enough room, enough freedom to plan the use of one's time, the opportunity to reach ever higher levels of attention, some solitude, some silence," Weil concludes, we'd have a form of justice worthy of the name.

This highly unsentimental approach to justice corresponds to Weil's firmly held belief that sentimental do-gooders are "cannibals" who eat up the gratitude of those they purport to help. It is important for the well-being of he who is helped, she insists, that he understand his helper's motivation as being "not out of pity, sympathy, or capriceŠ not as a favor or a privilege, nor as a natural result of temperament, but from a desire to do what justice demands." Truly moral action, for Weil, is never accomplished because one "should" do this or that, but because one's actions are an anorectic "gesture of purity and loyalty to ourselves."


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