Posts Tagged ‘Simone Weil’

What would Simone Weil say about our politics today? You won’t like it.

Monday, April 8th, 2019
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Wampole: A Weil Watcher

Princeton Prof. Christy Wampole, who got her PhD from Stanford a few years back, writing in Aeon recently about the French thinker Simone Weil:

“A Weil revival is underway, in part due to the surges in nationalism, populism, tribalism and nativism about which she had so much to say in her work. Weil, a firm believer in free thought, argued that: ‘The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thought is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we”.’ Uncritical collective thinking holds the free mind captive and does not allow for dissent. For this reason, she advocated the abolition of all political parties, which, she argued, were in essence totalitarian. To substantiate this claim, Weil offered three arguments:

1) A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.
2) A political party is an organization designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.
3) The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.

“These tentacular organizations make people stupid, requiring a member to endorse ‘a number of positions which he does not know’. Instead, the party thinks on his behalf, which amounts to him ‘having no thoughts at all’. People find comfort in the absence of the necessity to think, she claims, which is why they so readily join such groups. In a resonant passage in The Need for Roots, Weil writes: ‘A democracy where public life is made up of strife between political parties is incapable of preventing the formation of a party whose avowed aim is the overthrow of that democracy.’”

Power? No thanks.

That got me searching for a few supporting citations. How about this one? “Official history is believing the murderers at their word.” Here are a few others (taken from On the Abolition of Political Parties (NYRB Classics, except for the first):

“The necessity for power is obvious, because life cannot be lived without order; but the allocation of power is arbitrary because all men are alike, or very nearly. Yet power must not seem to be arbitrarily allocated, because it will not then be recognized as power. Therefore prestige, which is illusion, is of the very essence of power.”

“Nearly everywhere – often even when dealing with purely technical problems – instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking. This leprosy is killing us; it is doubtful whether it can be cured without first starting with the abolition of all political parties.”

“When a country has political parties, sooner or later it becomes impossible to intervene effectively in public affairs without joining a party and playing the game. Whoever is concerned for public affairs will wish his concern to bear fruit. Those who care about the public interest must either forget their concern and turn to other things, or submit to the grind of the parties. In the latter case, they shall experience worries that will soon supersede their original concern for the public interest.”

“In fact – and with very few exceptions – when a man joins a party, he submissively adopts a mental attitude which he will express later on with words such as, ‘As a monarchist, as a Socialist, I think that . . .’ It is so comfortable! It amounts to having no thoughts at all. Nothing is more comfortable than not having to think.”

“Of these three sorts of lies – lying to the party, lying to the public, lying to oneself – the first is by far the least evil. Yet if belonging to a party compels one to lie all the time, in every instance, then the very existence of political parties is absolutely and unconditionally an evil.”

“The petit-bourgeois temperament prefers the cosy picture of a slow, uninterrupted and endless progress. In both cases, the material growth of the party becomes the sole criterion by which to measure the good and the bad of all things. It is exactly as if the party were a head of cattle to be fattened, and as if the universe was created for its fattening.”

“We pretend that our present system is democratic, yet the people never have the chance nor the means to express their views on any problem of public life. Any issue that does not pertain to particular interests is abandoned to collective passions, which are systematically and officially inflamed.”

Adam Zagajewski and “the battle to imbue life with maximal meaning”

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018
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A distinctive, insistent, civilized stance.

Adam Zagajewski is an absolutely foundational figure for many of us – not only because of his own poems and essays, but for his quietly insistent, civilized stance towards a world that teeters on the edge of chaos – we’ve written about him here and here and here and here. I once asked him, in an email interview a dozen years ago, what do we do in a world that seems to be averting its face from the non-consumerist values of reading, literature, poetry, philosophy? His reply: “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.” It’s starting to sound like a good idea. Yet he remains in Kraków, and I stay put in Palo Alto.

So it was a privilege to review Slight Exaggeration, his book-length essay on… oh, just about everything. It’s up today at The Weekly Standard (and on the home page, too, no less). Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, an excerpt:

Gone, but still with us…

Zagajewski’s conversational style is distinctive, and the cadence is recognizable in his poems and essays. (Translator Clare Cavanagh conveys it well.) I was introduced to it a decade ago, an afternoon conversation that stretched into early evening, as we walked along the Planty, the public park that encircles Kraków. His words are tentative, unassertive, provisional, yet self-assured. The slight tonal “uptalk” lift at the end of his sentences as he turns a problem round, exploring its different angles, cannot ruffle his considerable authority. Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska are dead: Zagajewski has survived the generation of greats, and matched it with a greatness of his own, a postwar brand of metaphysical heft and gravity that shoulders the singular legacy of Polish literature into the 21st century.

The recurring Romanian…

Slight Exaggeration patiently picks up where the poet left off a dozen years ago with A Defense of Ardor, extending his line of thought on painters, poems, composers, and history. Initially, the observations seem disconnected and a little unpruned, until certain names begin recurring (French-Romanian writer E. M. Cioran, for example, or composer Gustav Mahler, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, novelist Robert Musil)—and each time he repeats, the impression on the reader is richer. Clearly, he is weaving on a very large loom, and the shuttle that disappears out of sight swings back to pull the threads tighter. The disparate reflections weave into a long thought, the result of years, decades, a lifetime. And occasionally his trademark associative musings open into seminal mini-essays.

The battle for clear vision…

Zagajewski wonders why the wartime letters of the lawyer Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, who resisted Hitler’s abuses nonviolently, move him so much with their impeccable moral brilliance; those of a favorite poet, the wily and self-protecting Gottfried Benn, so little. He also admires artist and writer Józef Czapskis integrity, too: “Czapski sometimes speaks of himself—but always in terms of the ceaseless battle he wages for clear vision, for full use of his gifts, the battle to imbue his life with maximal meaning.” And Simone Weil? “Weil tortured Czapski, and she still tortures us.” What does it mean that we celebrate the birthday of Mozart and the “liberation” of Auschwitz on the same day? (He hesitates to use the word “liberation,” which implies a certain energy and esprit, for the Allied soldiers’ entry into hell.)

Time teaches tolerance for what cannot be changed. And in the course of his telling, time overlaps and leaves traces on the present. For example, he observes that the Gestapo occupied his Kraków apartment during the occupation: “A Gestapo officer no doubt occupied the room in which I now write.”

Read the whole thing here.

Judy Stone interviewing Miłosz: In the West, “everything can be explained away; everything is relative.”

Monday, October 9th, 2017
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I had looked forward to meeting Judy Stone, The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic. She wasn’t solely a film buff. The passionate advocate for world cinema also published a number of stunning interviews with leading figures in literature and culture.

While going through old boxes of papers, I stumbled across a xerox I’d made of her excellent and insightful interview with Nobel poet laureate Czesław Miłosz, which was included in her 2006 Not Quite a Memoir: Of Films, Books, the World. I googled her, and learned she was still alive and living in the Bay Area … but not for long. The celebrated critic died in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 6, of natural causes.

An excerpt from the interview:

In his Nobel address, Miłosz referred to the number of published books that have denied that the Holocaust ever took place, suggesting that it was invented by Jewish propagandists. “If such an insanity is possible,” he asked, “is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable? And would it not present a danger more grave than genetic engineering and/or poisoning of the natural environment?”

Such a loss of memory is probable, he reasons. Referring to the television miniseries Holocaust, he asks with a sense of horror: “Do people really have to see reality changed into melodrama to come a little closer to visualizing how it really was?”

Are we losing memory?

Miłosz has played a role in stimulating different levels of consciousness in Poland – for instance, through his 1958 translation into Polish of the writing of Simone Weil. …

“I have been influenced by Weil in a profound way,” Miłosz says. “Primarily because of her very deep concern with evil. That was her main preoccupation: suffering, pain, the evil of the world. This goes back to my preconceptions when I was a schoolboy. I was interested in heresies which were concerned with evil and with suffering, and Simone Weil is a slightly heretical writer.”

Miłosz’s preoccupation with Weil and Dostoevsky is linked to his meditations on the figure of Job, who dared to question God but whose faith withstood the test of all calamities.

“Job is at the center of Weil’s attention, and I quote at length from her in my introduction to the Book of Job. We are again close to the Book of Job with Dostoevsky. It plays a crucial part in the structure of The Brothers Karamazov. I have never taught other Russian writers. Only Dostoevsky. I laughingly tell my students that Dostoevsky, who hated Poles and Catholics, is taught by a man who is very far from Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodox views. But I’m fascinated by those deeply felt contradictions in Dostoevsky and his sensitivity to the question of evil. So you see, we are always turning around the same problem.”

“Only Dostoevsky.”

I ask if he sees the world in terms of good and evil.

“Unfortunately, I guess I do,” Miłosz replies. “I have a very clear, very strong feeling of opposed forces of good or evil. It’s something which you acquire only through experience and very elemental. That’s precisely the gist of what Nadezhda Mandelstam says in her memoir. This is characteristic of her and of Solzhenitsyn and all who went through misfortune, affliction. In those extreme situations, good and evil acquire elemental force. Western civilization is losing that clear distinction: Everything can be explained away; everything is relative. In dramatic circumstances, you feel clearly the good forces and the demonic forces in action.”

***

I ask if his wartime experiences in Poland had influenced his decision to translate the Bible.

“To some extent, my memories elude my consciousness,” Miłosz replies. “I suspect it’s been operating on a much deeper level of horror, so translating the Bible is a quite logical way of coping with some subconscious things … like dreams.”

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.

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

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

We miss him.

I finally 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.”