Posts Tagged ‘Simone Weil’

Krzysztof Michalski: “without death – there is no me.”

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013
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Fan of the Andrews Sisters

We miss him.

Stringent book budget notwithstanding, I finally broke down and bought a copy of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought.  I carefully re-marked, lightly in pencil, the passages I had noted in my borrowed library book.  Michalski was a leading European thinker and founder of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, where I was a fellow (I wrote about him here).  He died in February, at 64.  His reflections on death provide some stunning passages in the book:

Death touches me differently, more radically and imperceptibly, than any other relation or relationship: it touches me not as a specimen of my species, nor as a member of my society, nor as a representative of some profession, but me as me alone, the me who this time cannot be replaced by anyone else, for no one else can die in my place.  Death is closer to me than any character trait or any momentary characterization, it is more mine than the person I love most or my most important task.  Without it – without death – there is no me.  Death defines me: me, an unrepeatable individual, and not merely a particular case of something.  It is only this prospect of death that makes the life I am living my own. …

michalski2If the confrontation with death characterizes my life every day and not just on occasion, then every moment of that life – and not just the very last one – contains some trace of it.  Death is not merely one of many – the most important – moments in my life, merely one of many events.  No moment, no instant of my life, is comprehensible without the relation to death concealed within it, without the relation to the nothingness of the world, without the negation of everything that is familiar, of everything comprehensible.  The possibility of the end of the world, the Apocalypse, is inscribed in every moment, in each individual instant of my life.  This possibility severs the continuity of my time; time is no longer the diligent accumulation of meaning, the gradual construction of identity, morning to night, Sunday to Saturday.  Between morning and night, today and tomorrow, between ‘now’ and ‘in a minute,’ the bottomless abyss of nothingness opens wide, the end of everything I know, of everything I can know, of everything I can rely on. …

simone-weil

Miss her, too

Reading every moment of my life with the possibility of nothingness, thereby introducing a radical, irreparable discontinuity, the prospect of death, by the same token, opens my life to something entirely new, to the possibility of an entirely new form of life…. On the other side of the fissure my identity up to now is just ashes, and the ‘I’ that I know becomes a dead letter.

Thus the prayer of Simone Weil: ‘Father, tear this body and this soul away from me, to make of them your things, and let nothing remain of me eternally but that tearing-away itself.’

The Book Haven goes to Lagrasse, home of “Banquet des Livres”

Thursday, November 29th, 2012
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Wine, books, philosophy, conviviality ... and a very good vieux prune and eau de vie.

Wine, books, philosophy, conviviality … and a very good vieux prune and eau de vie.

When I told friends in Paris I was going to Lagrasse, no one had even heard of it.  “Grasse?” they kept asking in puzzlement.  “Non, Lagrasse,” I kept insisting. They didn’t quite believe me.

Chez moi … at least for a day or two

Yet this little village in Languedoc-Roussillon is a gem is rated as one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.” Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrénées, it hosts a twice-a-year literary festival, Banquet des Livres and also hosts a very active philosophy society.  As Libération puts it: “Au cœur des Corbières, le village de Lagrasse mêle le goût du vin à celui de la parole, la philosophie à la littérature, l’exigence à la convivialité.”

Charlemagne okayed it.

I went on a walking tour along the narrow medieval streets with a friend I hadn’t seen in 35 years – the way-back days in Pokhara and Kathmandu.  The village of about 500 is easily walkable.  A few minutes walk away from his home, where I’m a guest for a few days, is the abbey built in the time of Charlemagne, and the 1303 Pont-Vieux à Lagrasse on the river l’Orbieu.

We are in the very south of France, close to the Spanish border.  Lots of signs say that this is “Pays Cathars” – an odd thing to brag about, since the Cathars were slaughtered mercilessly in these parts.  For me, it was a bit like seeing advertisements directing drivers to the locales of concentration camps.

But after a spirited dinner party (with an excellent locally made vieux prune and eau de vie), my dinner companions explained to me that the Cathar movement symbolized local resistance, and is a sign of local pride.

Maybe.  I guess I can see it.

Simone Weil of course wrote a great deal about the Albigensian crusades that routed out the Cathar heresy.  I like this quote from her the best: “Official history is believing the murderers at their word.”

 

“Distance is the soul of beauty.” Finally. He explains.

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
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His thought…

Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz‘s personal secretary Agnieszka Kosińska wrote the concluding essay, “Last Poems and Ars Moriendi,”  for my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

Here’s the final paragraph, translated by Artur Rosman: “For me, working with Milosz, being with him all day long, was like being locked in a submarine: it was a total submersion in Milosz’s world, coupled with incredible pressure from within and without. Now, six years after his death, I continually test myself against the saying of Simone Weil that Miłosz liked to cite, ‘Distance is the soul of beauty,’ and I try to understand what I saw and heard while working with him.”

I’ve puzzled over Weil’s thought for some time. Then, a few days ago, I found Jonas Mekas‘s There Is No Ithaka: Idylls of Semeniskiai and Reminiscences.  The Lithuanian poet’s collection has a foreword by the Lithuanian-born Miłosz – I don’t think it’s been collected in any of his volumes of essays.  So years after Agnieszka’s comment, the maestro finally offers this elucidation:

…building on hers.

“‘Distance is the soul of beauty.’ This sentence of Simone Weil expresses an old truth: only through a distance, in space or in time, does reality undergo purification. Our immediate concerns which were blinding us to the grace of ordinary things disappear and a look backward reveals them in their every minutest detail. Distance engendered by the passing of time is at the core of the oeuvre of Marcel Proust. Distance in space and awareness that borders with their barbed wire separated him from his country allowed a young Lithuanian to write his Idylls.”

Mekas turns 90 in December, and is better known as an avant-garde filmmaker than as a poet.  ”You have the possibility to give light a dimension in time,” he said. Poetry does the same, of course.

Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation – and a Cahiers Series giveaway

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012
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Update on 3/26:  Still some editions of this treasure available for free for a retweet (or Facebook “share”) during the giveaway: Go to Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it. The New York Review of Books called this series “exquisitely produced, lavishly illustrated, and lovingly edited”

“…but knowing him at all was my good fortune.”

With those words – iambic pentameter with a stranded, falling syllable at the end – Keith Botsford begins his “autobiography” of artist, author, and critic Józef Czapski in the Cahiers Series’ Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.

The Cahiers series/Sylph Editions will be hosting a giveaway on its Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it.

While visiting the Cahiers headquarters in Paris, Daniel Medin casually handed me Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.  I didn’t realize until some time later, after my return to America, what a gift it would prove to be.

Botsford uses Czapski’s own words, interrupted with his commentary and illustrated with twelve of Czapski’s paintings. He calls this a “biography from within,” but he begins on the outside, with externals: Czapski was “not just tall, he was elongated…enormously wide awake behind his glasses.”

“There were two odors about him: the saddle-soap smell of the Uhlan officer and the more delicate perfume of the diffident man of delicate sensibilities, a whiff of the ascetic.”

Czapski seems to have cast a salutary spell on Botsford: “How could one fail to love such an Eye?” he asks. But it’s not just the artist’s vision that haunts him: “I am setting down a quality of his mind: the way he made connections. Not table-talk. He spoke ill of no one; even about Picasso he changed his mind.”

Polish officer in 1943

It’s hard to read much of 20th century Polish literature without running across the name Józef Czapski, one of the founders of the influential Polish emigré monthly Kultura.

My visit to the Kultura office in Maisons-Laffitte last month more insistently reminded of the remarkable man I had so far overlooked. A crucial chunk of Czapski’s  bio is necessary to understand him:  he was one of about 400 officers to survive the Katyń massacre, in which the Soviets slaughtered 20,000 Polish officers.  In 1941 and 1942, Czapski was sent as an envoy of the Polish government to look for the missing officers in Russia. After the war, Czapski remained in exile in Maisons-Laffitte. He was in a key position to offer help to dissidents and defectors. And he did.

During Czesław Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Soviet government, Czapski had told him that if he decided to jump ship, Kultura would protect him.

Miłosz had other reasons to be grateful to Czapski, the man who introduced him to the writings of Simone Weil through her first published book, Gravity and Grace. Czapski also showed him Arthur de Gobineau’s pages about ketman, which would become a key concept in the poet’s influential denunciation of communism, Captive Mind.

Botsford writes of Czapski: “In fact he was serene, and good order reigned in his mind. I take it as significant that from a man who had, like every Pole, suffered greatly from Poland’s German and Russian neighbors, I never heard a word against either nation, only a very pure love of his childhood and Poland.”

Yet, “Poland, and his exile, weighed on him.”

“not just tall, he was elongated” (Self-portrait, 1984)

“Striking is the fact that I can recall no whining. As he’d faced all he alterations of his long life, that Tolstoyan and Catholic streak in him was powerfully directed towards what was actively good, to what could still be celebrated about life.”

Czapski wrote:

Matisse was visited by Rouault. The two men had not spoken to each other in years. Matisse had survived two major operations. He told Rouault: How quickly life goes by! It’s terrible. Yet he was quite calm, blessed the blue sky he saw out the window, and wished his daily work was more like prayer.

How does one escape history? One doesn’t. There is something unbreakable about one’s being who one is, how formed, what seen and heard, where been when.

I think that Miłosz would have characterized him by the word he repeatedly emphasized in my own interview with him, “piety,” a term that embraced a respect for an aesthetic hierarchy. Joseph Brodsky would likely have called it “a plane of regard.”

The Nobel laureate said of Czapski: “He was deeply religious. So many of his major influences were men who thought of a divine order in the world. He read Rozanov, he debated with Simone Weil. All that was private and internal to the man. He had an idea of the Good in his head.”

This “idea of the Good in his head” permeated Czapski’s views of his art: The fullness of art is reached by the strait and narrow path of absolute humility, by veneration for the world as we see it, the use of the hand to draw it.  (Words that remind me an awful lot of the poet Julia Hartwig.)

Botsford, however, met Czapski when the artist was 70 – and  this short, 42-page study becomes truly remarkable when describing Czapski’s old age.  Czapski’s words again:

Akhmatova said: I kissed boots among the higher officials to get some news of my son, whether he was alive or dead, and got nothing. So many extraordinary people I’ve known. Why do I recall my fellow-officers in Griazovietz? Why did Herling-Grudziński listen to the stories of his fellow-prisoners, and tell them?  Because the stories they had to tell deserve to be remembered. They are gone, but who they were should not disappear. The Communion of Saints, the talk of the living and he dead, goes on.

Somewhere I read or heard of a woman who begged God to show her – even if just for a second – what paradise was like. An angel visited her and told her to shut her eyes and He would grant her wish. When she opened them again and looked about her, she said, But that is what I see every day.

Czapski’s old age lasted decades.  He soldiered on until 1993, and was more than ready for his death at 96.

But at eighty-three: I see death differently: as a form of salvation, a deliverance, as an ‘enough.’ What remains is what is poetry and what is goodness.

And elsewhere – “die and become. As a moth alters.”

Check out the giveaway.

(Photos at top and at right reproduced from the Cahiers Series with permission.)

Hurry hurry hurry! Get your Simone Weil t-shirt! 10 hours to go!

Saturday, March 17th, 2012
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Okay, Okay, I know. What on earth would Simone Weil, the brilliant philosopher and mystic who worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and the disenfranchised, have thought of a t-shirt in her honor?  Nevertheless, I’m going to go for it. You should, too.

Here’s why: the funds go to her new movie, An Encounter with Simone Weil. Anything that promotes the work and writing of the woman Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our time” is a worthwhile endeavor, but this one especially so.  Here’s what filmmaker Michael Moore said of the film:

Julia Haslett has made a profound and moving film on a woman who continues to speak to all of us. Few Americans know of Simone Weil, but this deeply affecting documentary will make you want to know more. An Encounter with Simone Weil challenges all of us not to look the other way when we see the suffering of others. Julia’s personal journey through the film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.”

New York Magazine made it a “critic’s pick” with these words:

Haslett’s intensely personal and touching film about the twentieth-century French philosopher and activist uses Weil’s writings, spiritual journey, and short, sad life as a way to explore her own personal emotional landscape—from her relationship with postmodern capitalism to her relationship with her troubled family.

The event on Kickstarter is here, with 10 short hours to go.  A $75 pledge gets you a signed copy of Sylvie Weil‘s new book, At Home with André and Simone Weil.

Postscript:  So here’s the final tally: 247 backers signed in, pledging $20,077 on a $15,000 goal.  Good news!

V.S. Naipaul opens mouth, changes feet: A round-up of literary kerfuffles, and a soupçon of misogyny

Saturday, June 4th, 2011
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Friends again. (Photo: Daniel Mordzinski)

V.S. Naipaul has offered definitive proof against the adage that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader.

First, the happy news:  Naipaul has ended his 30-year feud-over-nothing with Paul Theroux.  The root of the matter seems to be that Naipaul thought Theroux was horsing around with his first wife.  From the Telegraph:

A furious Naipaul retaliated by trying to sell one of Theroux’s books, inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, online for $1,500. When Theroux found out, Naipaul told him to “take it on the chin and move on.” Naturally Theroux didn’t, and went on to write a book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he’s said to detail Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”. The fracas went on until last weekend when – in what is surely Hay [Festival]’s biggest literary coup to date – they made up, “corralled” into a handshake by Ian McEwan in the festival’s green room.

Perhaps Hallmark ought to create a card for the occasion.  The forgettable feud and its resolution is recounted here and here.

The episode has brought to mind other great literary feud of our times, recounted here:

We all love a good literary feud, not least because they are much more amusing and erudite than a spat between, say, a footballer and a reality television star. Of Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Norman Mailer wrote: “Reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Wolfe retaliated in his essay “My Three Stooges,” casting Mailer alongside his other critics, John Irving and John Updike.

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

Revenge can take many forms. Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” said Vidal. Evelyn Waugh used the name of his tutor at Oxford for such diverse characters as a quack doctor and a psychopathic burglar. Salman Rushdie and John le Carré had a row over who had suffered more at the hands of religious fanatics, which ended in Rushdie calling le Carré “an illiterate pompous ass”.

Rushdie not above the fray (Photo: Mae Ryan)

In 2006, Salman Rushdie also fell out with John Updike after the latter panned Shalimar the Clown, in particular Rushdie’s choice of names. “A name is just a name,” Rushdie retorted. “Somewhere in Las Vegas, there’s probably a male prostitute called John Updike.” The same year Bevis Hillier duped A.N. Wilson, the writer of a rival biography of John Betjeman, into publishing a spoof love letter; the first letter of each sentence spelt out: “A N Wilson is a —-.”

Which all goes to show that maturity or character, also, isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer, either.

But in the Telegraph here you can also read about the feuds between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman (that one will not be resolved; the principals are dead) and Harold Bloom and J.K. Rowling.

And I thought the Poles were bad with their acrimonious literary feuds – I’ve recounted the one between Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert here, in “The Worst Dinner Party Ever.”

Naipaul must be anxious to promote himself, because he made these cranky comments to the press.  From the Guardian:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

Queen of literary mathematics

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

Of course that dropped the cat among the pigeons.  Why?  Why would one expect Sir Vidia to say something sensible on the subject?  He’s obviously not a careful reader of Austen.

Oh yeah?

As for women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” I have only two words to say:  Simone Weil.

Jennifer Egan took the bait, however, and made these comments on the kerfuffle to the Wall Street Journal:

“He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man. It’s the classic case of how prejudice works – you feel like you see it confirmed all over the world but the prejudice is tainting your perception everywhere you look.”

“I would put money on the fact that he has not read Jane Austen in 10 years. She’s the most cool, mathematical writer to come along, male or female. It’s a word no one who’s familiar with her work would call her. The nature of the comments read as so silly that it’s hard to see it spurring a gigantic turmoil. They’re not remarks that lead to a deeply-engaged conversation because they’re just so easily dismissible, largely because of what he says about Austen. He raises questions about his authority by calling her sentimental. Only a person with an idea of what Austen is — and not actual familiarity with her work – would say that. She’s not a melodramatic writer.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian has published “The Naipaul Test:  Can You Tell an Author’s Sex?” – it’s here.

Naipaul is said to be a great writer (I haven’t read him, so I’m taking that on authority), but a crappy human being.  So why do we take any of his opinions seriously?

If you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, Vidal and Mailer wrangle on fuzzy clip from The Dick Cavett Show below – journalist Janet Flanner takes the better part.  


se più avvien che fortuna t’accoglia
dove sien genti in simigliante piato:

ché voler ciò udire è bassa voglia.

50th anniversary of René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel gets kisses and punches

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011
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Josh Landy’s practical application of Girard’s “mimetic theory”

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of René Girard‘s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, try looking at the website here for scheduled celebrations at Stanford, Berlin, São Paulo, Cambridge, and Yale.  Berkeley symposium is described  here.

I can’t say I sampled many of the events, but I did drop by for a few of the Stanford talks, notably Robert Harrison‘s opening and closing remarks, and Josh Landys anti-Girard talk, “Valentine’s Day,” especially since Josh said he had written his remarks with me in mind (we had quarreled somewhat over at Arcade months ago, which is how we met).

Robert noted that René is a leading Christian thinker – “to what degree is that a stumblingblock?” he asked.  He said “René is one of the titans of the 20th century – of whom there are few.”

Yet “Girard’s standing is in doubt,” he said. “Precisely the Christian framework within which people understand Deceit, Desire, and the Novel can turn people off.”

The conference, to circumvent the perceived problem, limited its scope to the 50-year-old book  they were celebrating, considering René’s mimetic theory and “the invidious nature of human desire,” but banishing his theories about the scapegoat mechanisms and civilizations from the event.  Robert wanted to explore “to what extent one doesn’t have to buy into the whole theory,” since modern people don’t want “to submit to a totalizing theory.”

“Girard does not believe the truth of literature is confined to the text,” said Robert.  “He believes that the truth has to be wrestled from concealment.”

Hence, he is “pressing to uncover the structure of certain psychological laws … the primary site of revelation.”  He is trying to learn “the truth that applies to human religions in general.”

Noting that “very, very few anthropologists give any credence” to René’s thoughts on the anthropology of religion” because “he comes to anthropology as an amateur” (René called it “poaching” when he spoke to me), Robert compared him to  Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman who was right about Troy, but whose successful amateur attempts to excavate destroyed important archaeological layers of the real Troy.

“Even if it’s true, they will not take him seriously.”

I did, also, attend a few of the events in Berkeley.  The two gatherings – one at Berkeley; one at Stanford – were like night and day.  The Berkeley gathering focused on the theological aspects of René’s work, as well as the literary, with presentations on Girardian connections with Simone Weil, Molière, Rousseau, and others.  The Berkeley crowd was older, and predominantly male; the Stanford crowd was younger, trendier, with more women.  But there was an more profound split in orientation, which has interesting presentiments for the thinker’s legacy.

At Berkeley, I scribbled a few of René’s sayings in my notebook, as they were related by others.  “Philosophers never include themselves in their philosophy.” “Laughter means a denial of reciprocity.” “Escaping from mimesis is something only geniuses and saints can do.” “I am really a positivist, but I’m too ashamed to admit that – it is such a peasant thing to be.” “All art is incarnation.”

Robert Hamerton Kelly, at Berkeley, trumped all with his quote, when René said of his work, “I really shouldn’t have called it a theory – but every French intellectual has to have a theory.  It’s just a few observations of human behavior.”

“That took the wind out of my sails,” he said.