Archive for June 23rd, 2014

Simone Weil and “the mark of slavery”

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
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George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “Only fine arts and torture changes a man.”

Simone Weil focused on the “torture” part. Malheur is usually translated as “affliction” – best option, perhaps, for describing the conditions necessary so that, as she wrote, “the human creature may un-create itself.” “Unhappiness” is too subjective and mild; though “affliction” doesn’t quite convey the inevitability and doom of “malheur.” In his introduction to the piece, which was pulled together from her notebooks, George Panichas wrote about affliction: “Along with beauty, it is the only thing piercing and devastating enough to penetrate the soul.”

I sent this to an ailing friend, not knowing what he’ll make of it. I’m having a Job-like day today, so I need to reread it, too:

weil2In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. Slavery as practiced by ancient Rome is only an extreme form of affliction. The men of antiquity, who knew all about this question, used to say: “A man loses half his soul the day he becomes a slave.”

Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. Even in the case of the absence or death of someone we love, the irreducible part of the sorrow is akin to physical pain, a difficulty in breathing, a constriction of the heart, an unsatisfied need, hunger, or the almost biological disorder caused by the brutal liberation of some energy, hitherto directed by an attachment and now left without a guide. A sorrow that is not centered around an irreducible core of such a nature is mere romanticism or literature. Humiliation is also a violent condition of the whole corporal being, which longs to surge up under the outrage but is forced, by impotence or fear, to hold itself in check.

On the other hand pain that is only physical is a very unimportant matter and leaves no trace in the soul. Toothache is an example. An hour or two of violent pain caused by a decayed tooth is nothing once it is over.

It is another matter if the physical suffering is very prolonged or frequent, but in such a case we are dealing with something quite different from an attack of pain; it is often an affliction.

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death. Here below, physical pain, and that alone, has the power to chain down our thoughts; on condition that we count as physical pain certain phenomena that, though difficult to describe, are bodily and exactly equivalent to it. Fear of physical pain is a notable example.

When thought is obliged by an attack of physical pain, however slight, to recognize the presence of affliction, a state of mind is brought about, as acute as that of a condemned man who is forced to look for hours at the guillotine the that is going to cut off his head. Human beings can live for twenty or fifty years in this acute state. …

Read more here.