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An Unbaptised Saint

Seamus Deane

L’Enracinement: Prélude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l’être humain, by Simone Weil, Éditions Gallimard, 1949, translated by Arthur Wills as The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1952, Routledge Classics 2002

When Simone Weil (1909-43), who was agonised by the fall of France in 1940, stated that the day Hitler strode into Paris was a great day for Indo China, she spoke the kind of truth few people in Europe wanted to hear then (and not so very many since). And Indo China, as Vietnam, had to get rid of the Japanese, the French and the Americans before any great day dawned. Yet for Weil, the suffering France endured in 1940, suffering she shared, was not separable from the suffering it had inflicted during its colonial history. The aftershocks of World War II brought down the empires of Britain and France and exposed their companion racist ideologies and brutalities, enthusiastically endorsed by white Europeans in those empires and in the world at large. Part of Weil’s criticism of France in particular was that, through the Revolution of 1789, it had won a special role in world history, a redemptive and civilising vocation that it had betrayed by its greedy acquisition of colonies. She claimed too that both France and Britain were, along with Germany, following in the bloody footsteps of imperial Rome, the great Beast, which had felled the incomparable civilisation of Ancient Greece. The Greece of the Iliad, the Greek tragedies and of Plato, had been the spiritual source of a human community that had in many ways either anticipated or gone beyond Christianity and certainly far beyond the savageries of the Hebraic Old Testament. That, along with Imperial Rome, was a predecessor of Nazi Germany.

Thus Weil, in the eight years before she died in 1943, which included her conversion to Catholic Christianity in 1938, (although she refused to be baptised), reconfigured the role of France in relation to its current defeat by Hitlerism as that of a political and spiritual community (the Free French, led by de Gaulle) being reborn in modernity’s darkest hour and, by symbolic extension, as a type of human community as such, rediscovering its roots in affliction, not as a means of recovering from it but, in recognising it, learning to acknowledge the void we live in and are compelled to fill in the absence of God. This God we learn to apprehend ‑ through political commitment that is as pure as spiritual research, through empathy with the poor and underprivileged, through religious systems, art, mathematics, through annihilation of the self and through combat with whatever protean forms evil takes in our lifetime, both within us and around us. For Weil, the classical scholar and mathematician, the trade unionist, the secondary school teacher, the former Bolshevik sympathiser, anti-Franco anarchist, who had disagreed, in person, with Trotsky and in writing (and in admiration) with Marx and with Plato, there gradually emerged, beginning in 1935, through mystical experiences, the figure, or the shadow thrown by the figure of Christ by which the world was eclipsed and simultaneously revealed. Once only in history, what she called “impersonality” was incarnated in a person, Jesus; wisdom of the spirit and suffering of the body were locked by him in the dialectic of transcendence and annihilation, where the hope of a return of presence and the absence of no return become the systolic and diastolic rhythms of life, not just for the early Christians but for humanity in general. This is a mysticism that is, for some of her admirers, a culmination and for others of them, a nonsense, the revelation of a pathological condition that led directly to her death by suicidal starvation, in sympathy with the front-line soldiers of the war, when she was in an English hospital suffering from tuberculosis.

It is strange that some of Weil’s central preoccupations ‑ France and Germany, the need to restore a broken community, Christianity and, specifically, its relation to the life of Christ, the role of antiquity in modernity, the structural role of the poor in the architecture of social life and of utopian thinking ‑ should also have been those of Ernest Renan (1823-92) six decades earlier in the aftermath of the first German invasion of France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. It is stranger still that such connections ‑ which do not at all imply a similarity ‑ should have been so little noticed. Renan is the last of that trio of nineteenth century Bretons who called for a regeneration of communal feeling in a stricken France that would draw on its Catholic past. Chateaubriand was the first of these with his Génie du Christianisme, published on Good Friday in 1802. The second, partly inspired by Chateaubriand, was Lammenais, with his four-volume Essai sur l’Indifférence en matière de religion (1817-24); of Renan’s writings, two works in particular carry echoes from the future writings of Weil ‑ the Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus) of 1863 and La Réforme Intellectuelle et Morale (Intellectual and Moral Reform) of 1882. Renan’s Jesus was a secular liberal but Renan’s version of Christianity ‑ obviously charged by the inescapable memory of the bloody 1848 Revolution in Paris ‑ was much more confounding, for it acknowledged that this was the religion of the poor. The title of Chapter XI, “The Kingdom of God Conceived as the Inheritance of the Poor”, could serve to represent the position of Lammenais and of Christian socialism in general. Renan, typically, takes the danger out of this radical position by genially admitting and dismissing it in two sentences: “We may see, in fact, without difficulty, that this exaggerated taste for poverty could not be very lasting. It was one of those Utopian elements which always mingle in the origin of great movements, and which time rectifies.” Then he reintroduces it as the central ethical attraction of an outmoded belief, producing a fine example of the suave spiritual humanism of his time: “Francis of Assisi, the man who, more than any other … most resembled Jesus, was a poor man … Pious mendicity … was in its day, and in a suitable climate, full of charm ... To have made poverty an object of love and desire, to have raised the beggar to the altar, and to have sanctified the coat of the poor man, was a master-stroke … Humanity, in order to bear its burdens, needs to believe that it is not paid entirely by wages. The greatest service which can be rendered to it is to repeat often that it lives not by bread alone.”

Nothing could be further removed from the naked intensity of Weil’s commitment to and conception of the poor, or of poverty as a condition so thoroughly imposed and experienced that it all but annihilated any possibility of freedom. She distinguished the poor from the Marxist proletariat, as we shall see, but never flinched from identifying Christianity as “the religion of slaves”. Their ever-deepening degradation in mass industrial society and in war was, she claimed, more shocking than the alienation Marx had described. When, in 1935-36, she chose to work in a Renault car factory to learn at first hand what modern labour was like, the experience confirmed for her that the standard distinction between physical and spiritual suffering needed to be challenged. It was a fake contrast, in which the physical was always the lesser or junior element. For her, one of the insights of Christianity was that suffering lived in the body, in the social world, in the interior world, in the nervous system, in consciousness. It shared no border with a something other, like “the spirit”. Alienation is a word for understanding our social world; but the “malheur” Weil seeks to understand is much more pervasive; alienation is only one of its symptoms. Malheur includes physical pain, humiliation, enforced ignorance, degradation, the near-extinction of spiritual desire. This is true poverty. The mystical experience she had in the portiuncula of St Francis of Assisi in 1937 is closer to that described by Dante in the Paradiso, (writing of St. Francis), when Poverty rises to embrace Christ on the cross:

… dove Maria rimase giuso,
ella con Cristo pianse in su la croce.
( … when Mary stayed below,~
She mounted up with Christ on the Cross.)

                                 [Paradiso, XI, 70-71]

The Galilean community, according to Renan, had almost been emulated by that of Francis. But, once again, the contrast between him and Weil on this exposes the pallor of his admirable humanism against her incandescent vision of a truly spiritual community that is much more than an historical analogy drawn from the New Testament.

For the French of 1870 and 1940, not even to mention the overlapping generations of World War I, the very idea of community, in the wake of such blinding defeat, was a bitter yet mandatory requirement. In the various newspaper pieces, public letters and addresses that constitute the collection La Réforme Intellectuelle et Morale (Intellectual and Moral Reform) of 1882, Renan attempted to explain the recent French defeat by Germany as the consequence of the intellectual failure of a literary and retardingly religious culture to absorb the scientific and technological advances of the modern era. In almost every respect, German scholarship, educational policy, scientific research, military organisation and diplomacy offered to a politically chaotic and socially febrile France a model for emulation. This young nation, born out of its reaction to the Napoleonic invasions, was now fulfilling its racial destiny; but France could teach it how to avoid the ethnographically determined future of a closed nationalist community by showing how it could graduate from that narrow prospect to the wider, even global, horizons of trans-national liberalism and attend to the international question of the moment, the “social problem”, which France had failed to solve by extension of the franchise and by indulging (via Louis Blanc?) in dreams of the communist organisation of work. Let Germany, he suggests, now address this “modern” issue and find an answer like that previously provided by the institution of the church. Otherwise, socialism might prevail, although so far colonisation had proven to be a trustworthy antidote. “A country without colonies is utterly doomed to socialism, to the war between the rich and the poor.” Race, science, colonialism, socialism and some “liberal” version of the Christian church are moved around like pieces on a chessboard by Renan, but he regularly finds himself in stalemate.

Arguably, between his death (1898) and that of Simone Weil (1943) the only versions of political community that emerged in France were Sorel’s syndicalism (by which she was strongly influenced) and the attempts by the Collège de Sociologie, founded in 1937, to retrieve a role for the sacred in a secular, political community, a quest to which she gave a decisive answer by reversing the valences of the secular and the sacred. Germany, in the same period, travelled the racial route, via the detours of elective affinity and political theology with Max Weber and Carl Schmitt down into the inferno of fascism. Lukacs’s Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein – Studien über marxistische Dialektik (History and Class Consciousness; Studies in the Marxist Dialectic, 1923) revived Marxism’s critique of modernity and incorporated it into Leninism, but its stronger effects were delayed until after the Second World War. Weil was one of the first to see, on her visit to Germany in 1932, that a mass population, exhausted and demoralised by war, unemployment and a punitive reparations regime, was yielding to the magnetic power of Hitler even while its advanced left wing, socialists and communists, fluttered ineffectually in the mid-air of internecine strife. (Although she offers an almost identical portrait of France in 1943.) After the convulsion of 1940, she discovered the stirrings of a countervailing energy in the Free French movement, embryonic but unmistakably alive amid the dying throes of Vichy France, with its fake hero, Pétain, and its collaborationist, sub-erotic appeal to a corrupted bourgeoisie. The Free French and their true hero, de Gaulle, were to her the contemporary version of the “Galilean” or Franciscan community, reborn when least expected and most wanted. It was a world away from Renan’s and yet next door to it. It was the France the great historian Marc Bloch died for in 1944, when, after being tortured by the notorious Klaus Barbie, he was executed by a German firing squad, with Vive La France! on his lips. That was France, not the specious but uncomfortably close version of the nation invoked by Pierre Laval, Pétain’s premier, with the same last words before a French firing squad only sixteen months later. Weil had been dead for almost a year when Bloch was killed, and his book, L’Étrange Défaite (Strange Defeat), although not published until 1946, had been written in the summer of 1940, when Weil began to write the pieces that would finally articulate and integrate her beliefs.

L’Enracinement was written in 1943, the year of her death. She wrote almost non-stop for four months of that year, sleeping only three hours a night. It was first published in 1949 by Albert Camus as the first volume of the eleven he sponsored; no work of hers appeared in book form in her lifetime. It has two central preoccupations. One is the structure of ethical belief needed to sustain a political and social community. This structure is founded, not on rights, but on obligations. The other is the nature of and reasons for the French defeat by Germany and the need to support the emergent moral community that was to replace the corrupted Third Republic and the puppet regime of Vichy.

Weil’s most influential teacher at the École Normale, Alain, the nom de plume of Émile-Auguste Charvet (1868-1951), once wrote, in 1912, when the idea of global war perhaps still seemed unlikely: “Resistance and obedience are the two virtues of the citizen. Through obedience, he assures order; through resistance, he assures liberty.” This sentiment stayed with Weil in the very different circumstances of 1943, but it is her emphasis on obedience as a principle that is most marked, after her long devotion to the principle (and practice) of resistance to the inhuman cruelties the capitalist system inflicted on the masses of the poor. This is perhaps also linked to her abandonment of pacifism; the barbarism of all sides in the Spanish Civil War, the definitive threat to Europe then evident, the broken hopes of the Popular Front in the mid-thirties, all combined to convince her of the need to fight the Nazi menace that drove her and her parents to Marseilles, to New York and finally brought her back to London to join with the Free French. During her stay in Marseilles, she worked in a vineyard in the Ardèche region. It was owned by Gustave Thibon, a Catholic writer to whom she had been introduced by a recent acquaintance, the Dominican priest Joseph-Marie Perrin. Her experience of factory and agricultural work confirmed for her the central value of labour; solidarity with those who laboured and who were enslaved by the economic and political system began to fuse with her increasingly intense belief that a spiritual dimension in the individual and the communal life could be, indeed must be, realised if the diabolic fascist-capitalist system were to be defeated. By 1938 she was, in her philosophic allegiances, a Platonist; by 1941, she had undergone three separate revelations ‑ in Portugal, in 1935, when she realised that Christianity is “pre-eminently the religion of slave and that slaves cannot help belonging to it”; in 1937 at Assisi and in 1938 at the monastery of Solesmes where, at the recitation as a prayer of the poem “Love” by the seventeenth century English poet George Herbert, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

It cannot be that Weil was unaware of Nietzsche’s excoriation of Christianity as the religion of slaves (1886) although it seems she was unaware of Lukacs’s brilliant revision (1923) of the Marxist idea of the proletariat. In her work, the “problem” of the masses and their impoverishment also began with the question of their role in history, although she did not envisage resistance or revolution as the answer, rather obedience, for her the positive alternative to the dumb fear and passivity assiduously bred by the labyrinthine bureaucracy that modern industry and the state had fostered. Her conviction, widely shared in Europe until the 1980s, was that political and technological modernity had created unprecedented forms of enslavement in an increasingly ruined environment in which naked force prevailed and from which the past, its consolations and therapeutic traditions, had been sealed. All that remained were phantasmal caricatures, the debris of race theory and national destiny.

Part I of L’Enracinement, “The Needs of the Soul” in the English translation, distinguishes between “rights” and “obligations”. Rights are historically conditioned; obligations are not. They derive from the universal condition of being human. But that is also the condition required by Hannah Arendt who coined her famous phrase, “the right to have rights” in her 1958 book The Human Condition. The condition of being stateless, a displaced person, which became pandemic after the First World War, and then intensified unimaginably after WWII, informs Arendt’s account of the plight of the refugee in particular, the person always outside the country s/he is inside, the victim of a political decision, not of some natural catastrophe. The contrast with Weil is not, however, entirely explained by circumstance. In her essay “The Concept of History”, published in her 1961 collection Between Past and Present, Arendt claims that the relationship between the world of antiquity’s (Greek and Roman in her view) “life and world” is “the exact opposite” of Christianity’s. Thus her vision of individual rights claims a different history; for her, it is Christianity that fails to assert the universal and fundamental nature of the claim to rights, based on the existence of the human being as such. The work of Giorgio Agamben, which carries the imprint of both Weil and Arendt, manages, at least for a time, to harmonise these dissonant approaches (in his Homo Sacer of 1998); but it is difficult, especially in current conditions, to absorb the distinction Weil makes between the individual and the collective:

Obligations are only binding on human beings. There are no obligations for collectivities, as such. But they exist for all human beings who constitute, serve, command or represent a collectivity in that part of their existence which is related to the collectivity as in that part which is independent of it.

It is a simple but tense condition. Much of this book, especially Part II, titled “Uprootedness”, is given to analysing the various linkages between the individual and the collectivity, specifically in France and Europe, past and present. “Patriotism” is her word for a commitment that is false, yet has fused at its core loyalty and betrayal; it is splendid and vacuous, as in the plays of Corneille (Polyeucte especially), or, this “dissolvent of morality” can, in some circumstances, as in the case of Joan of Arc or of the present moment with Vichy France, be transformed, can overcome its own internal contradictions. The French are “obliged to invent a new form of patriotism”.

Weil, in terms Renan would have used, contrasts Germany’s “romantic tradition” with the French “attachment to reason”. French patriotism, of the diseased kind, “comes straight from the Romans.” (Here we begin to see the importance of the contrasting readings of history between Arendt and Weil.) The Romans were the true pagans; atheists and enslavers; it is their “idolatry of self which they have bequeathed to us in the form of patriotism”. Weil regularly comes into conflict with those who spoke, before 1940, about “eternal France”, “the vocation of France”. The idea that a nation should be chosen by God is the dangerous Mosaic nonsense of the Old Testament. Yet the vestiges of that notion never melt away completely from her own vision of the new French community, despite her resolve to expel them and assert that the “Christian has only one country that can be the object of such patriotism … and [it] is situated outside this world”. At this crux, she returns to the poor, to the working people, for whom the love of justice has been a central inspiration. “During the first half of the nineteenth century it was a passionate love, which took the side of the oppressed all over the world.” Yet behind the country hovered the state; the workers felt “its cold metallic touch” in 1848 and 1870-71, and it was inevitably transferred also to international relations. There again the internal contradictions of patriotism showed up, “that a sovereign nation doesn’t commit acts of injustice … it being supposed that the causes making for injustice were all bound up with the non-existence of the sovereign nation”. Patriotism is never enough for the enlightened; for those under its spell, it becomes “the blindest national fanaticism”.

In times of great stress, “in face of the great tumult raging in his flesh and blood and bowels, alone and bereft of all outer support, those whose inward lives depend merely on one idea are the only ones capable of resisting”. This is the collectivity, loose and frenzied, seeking fusion; it is the moment of totalitarianism. Even the basest idea works in its favour. “No thought is of too inferior a quality for this role of ally of the flesh. But the flesh needs thought as some kind of an ally.” The satanic temptation, gross in its essence but seductive when offered with sufficient virtuosity, becomes irresistible with Hitler’s brutal, suasive appeals and condemnations: “Patriotism can only become a single idea of this sort in a régime of the Hitlerian type.” In the “moral incoherence” of the Third Republic, especially after 1918, a disintegration of the inner life began which infected the atmosphere in which “children were brought up who, a little later on, were to be asked to go out and die”. The effect of France’s colonial history, the glamorisation of the most appalling cruelties in the name of civilisation, hastened this corruption. “This,” writes Weil, “ is a custom inherited from the Romans.” Now the Romans have become the Germans, and collaborators with the Germans accept that German (and French) atrocities too can be accepted because the perpetrators were the civilising makers of history and the victims ‑ Jews, Czechs, Vietnamese ‑ were impediments to its inevitable triumph. The German empire, like its Roman predecessor, which perverted Christianity into a worldly kingdom, has to be challenged and the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere of Europe, of the world, of modernity itself, has to be cleansed. Therefore, “a terrible responsibilty”, that of “refashioning the soul of the country”, without resorting to lies or propaganda, weighs on the present generation.

That generation, bedevilled by a harsh left/right divide, was in a pitiable state. An exhausted middle class, demoralised since 1918, shocked by the strikes of 1936, had no conception of politics that was not about national prestige ‑ the loss of it, the need to recover it. On the left are many admirable groups who “will be permanently reconciled with their country if they are offered a type of patriotism subordinated to the cause of justice”. And then there were the communists, who now had a spiritual home ‑ the USSR ‑ to which they were devoted; when the Russian armies suffered a reverse “they felt … in the same way as the early Christians would have felt if someone had supplied them with material proofs showing Christ’s resurrection to have been a fiction”. For such people, martyrdom for the international, universal cause will come more easily than any sacrifice for their own country; their class has become a country, via the 1917 revolution. Although “a finer example of humanity” than the “young middle-class Fascists”, how can they, animated by Marxist “working-class imperialism”, be brought to “love their own country sufficiently, without handing it over” to their right-wing enemies?

Weil was writing against the tide she herself had set running when she promoted the new patriotism in face of her belief that patriotism as such was a delusion. But it was in a way a gamble she had to make. There was no other bet available. Now it was the tiny minority group, soldered by loyalty to a spiritual ideal, that of “France”, betrayed by the collaborationist masses, invaded and enslaved by the demonic Roman-Germans, clearly analogous to the early Christians and as ready as they to brave martyrdom, for whom Weil was writing a much-needed political analysis that was also a spiritual credo. The analysis is indebted to Renan’s essays of 1882; it has echoes of Sorel, Maurras, Péguy, Bernanos, perhaps Bataille. And Bloch’s Strange Defeat, which mentions Renan’s Intellectual and Moral Reform, written before but published after L’Enracinement, now reads like a heroic, even saintly, exemplary text of the French renovation of which de Gaulle had been, for Weil, the living symbol. With its tentacular graspings of past and future, Weil’s work is a unique mix of political analysis and missionary vocation, embedded in a historical moment that disappears in the stronger light of eternity in which all obligations find their source. Yet, before it disappears, it has to be brought close.

Even in that light, or in the idea of it, Weil’s writing, especially in this volume, insists on the need for a community as a spiritual companionship, even though she equally insists on the need for and inevitability of its dissolution. Many of her efforts to belong could be called failures; trade unions, Marxism, political parties in France and in Spain held her allegiance only fleetingly. Any sense of herself as an intellectual was repeatedly rejected, even though she was one ‑ but not like others. Her sense of herself as a woman was also repudiated by her stern refusal to conform to the gender stereotypes that she thought were sanctioned by fashion, standard versions of sexualised attractiveness, cosmetics, any feminisation that threatened her autonomy as a person. Then there was the powerful dynamics of her family, the intense friendship with her brother André, a distinguished mathematician, and the propensity of her parents, especially her mother, to regard him as the success story of the household and Simone, whom she nevertheless loved, as very much his junior. The family itself, Jewish but assimilated almost completely into French culture, found itself in the twilight land of being Jewish enough to be oppressed by the Nazis and not French enough to be wholly French. Perhaps even more, there has been the predictably loud and often coarse reaction to her comparative indifference to the plight of the Jews under the Nazis (a slur repeated even by Susan Sontag in 1963) and to her wholesale rejection of the ancestral vision of Israel recorded in the Old Testament. The standard charge of the self-hating Jew, more and more used after 1930 and effectively an instrument of Zionist propaganda in later years (especially after Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963) to ridicule the identification of Israel as a criminal state, has inevitably debased the commentary on Weil. Further, when we learn that she resigned from the Free French movement in the month before she died, it seems painfully appropriate that she was buried at Ashford’s New Cemetery between the Jewish and the Catholic sections. Ultimately, belonging in any sense provoked in her an allergic reaction. She was Christian but not wholly Catholic; perhaps she was Catholic but not wholly Christian, being too much a Platonist to be that, unbaptised, unbaptisable.

It is hard to know from her fragmented work and from her anguished life if she should be understood as having embodied paradox or contradiction in what is, ultimately, however it is read, the career of a saint. She seems to have always believed that we live in a world where

Force rules. The first of her essays to be published in English (translated by Mary McCarthy), possibly still her most famous, was “The Iliad or the Poem of Force” (1940-41) in which she identifies Force itself as the hero of the poem. This Force, which included the coercive, military power to kill, was also a kind of Fate, to which we are all subject ‑ it determines birth, gender, class, education, appearance; those most victimised by it are the poor. This is the community to which she clearly did not belong, but it was the one to which she stayed most loyal, the urban and agricultural workers, the soldiers at the front ‑ the slaves for whom Christianity was “the only religion”. Work, labour, physical endurance, obedience, honour, amor fati, were all part of the composite structure of spirituality, the condition to which we effortfully belong but from which we almost effortlessly slide, down into one of the many pits of modern perdition ‑ money, massacre, racial hate, blind indifference, idolatry. The last pages of L’Enracinement, of Part III, “The Growing of Roots”, are almost rebarbative in the urgency about the need to accept physical work and death as the two central, always-connected forms of obedience: “Physical labour willingly consented to is, after death willingly consented to, the most perfect form of obedience.” She says we are all very proud of our modern civilisation, “but we also know that it is sick … It is sick because it doesn’t know exactly what place to give to physical labour and to those engaged in physical labour”. Death and labour are our punishments for placing ourselves “outside the current of Obedience”; by willingly undergoing them, we transfer ourselves back within that current. That is why Christ’s life is for us a model, not in the manner envisaged by Renan, but, in its “consent to suffer death”, and in its consent to physical labour, the “things of necessity and not of choice”, it teaches us how that form of obedience is the only kind that can constitute a true community. Physical labour, in “a well-ordered social life”, she writes, in the book’s last sentence, “should be its spiritual core”. TS Eliot composed a preface to the English translation of L’Enracinement in 1951. He wrote: “Prophets we are told were stoned in Jerusalem: but Simone Weil is exposed to lapidation from several quarters.” Nor will it cease now.

1/4/2019

Seamus Deane, formerly of UCD and now emeritus professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, USA, has published widely on Irish and French themes of the post-Enlightenment era.

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