In a short 1963 essay, Susan Sontag asks and answers why mid-century Americans might find it worthwhile to read Simone Weil. It’s not obvious, of course, why a culture of decadence like our own should have an appetite for an eccentric ascetic like Weil. If this was true in the 1960s, it’s surely the case today. Weil’s life was marked by an unremitting defiance of her world, of our world. Her writings grant no absolution to those in search of methods for managing the guilt of making our homes here, however hungry we are for spiritual guidance. This isn’t to say Weil wagers no prescription for our present devastation; she has an account of moral calamity and its cures clearer than most. It’s simply to say that she refuses to lie about the situation in which we find ourselves. On Sontag’s reading, it’s precisely this unflinching perspective on “liberal bourgeois civilization” that makes Weil so indispensable to the denizens of our secular age.1 She is everything we are not. Exactly so, says Sontag, we find her essential.
Sontag’s judgment, notice, is less an evaluation of Weil herself than it is a wry assessment of her reception among those who subscribe to The New York Review of Books (wherein this piece was originally published). Her essay is as much commentary on her cultural moment as her ostensible subject. Weil’s enduring interest, on Sontag’s reading, says something about the particular pathos of late modernity. Indeed, it diagnoses our desire for the pathological. “Ours,” Sontag writes, “is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness.” The only “truths” we’re wont to “respect are those born of affliction,” and so each of these truths “must have a martyr.” Our “culture-heroes,” therefore, become those reckless enough with their own wellbeing to embody the hard-won truths from which the rest of us are wont to shy away. Profligates of this sort, she says, are the closest thing we have to saints—if, Sontag stipulates, we use this latter term in an “aesthetic, rather than religious sense.”2 Simone Weil—with her lifelong affliction, what she called malheur—certainly fits the bill. She’s a “saint” not because we share her beliefs, much less her way of life, but because we admire her resolute commitment to those lofty ideals. Put simply, we revere those like Weil for “the example of their seriousness.”
Few American writers of the last century were better at diagnosing our cultural neuroses than Susan Sontag. Her assessment of our fixation on Simone Weil is no exception. With characteristic precision, Sontag exposes the customs by which Weil and other would-be saints are canonized by the “liberal bourgeois” imagination. What sets such figures apart, she notices, aren’t the particular truths to which they’re committed but just the sheer fact of their commitment. Zeal itself is a virtue in an age lacking specific conviction, and spiritual eccentricity a hallowed symbol of objectless devotion. Elsewhere, Sontag dubs this unmistakably modern condition “religious fellow-traveling.” It’s “piety without content,” she says, “religiosity without either faith or observance.”3 The death of God is usually a foregone conclusion for the religious fellow-traveler, of course, but this doesn’t prevent him or her from appreciating religious conviction where they can find it: “They merely collect exemplars of seriousness, or moral earnestness, or intellectual passion, which is what they identify the religious possibility with today.”4 Needless to say, religious fellow-travelling is a form of piety perfectly suited to a consumer culture like our own. One need only purchase a few titles from someone like Weil to renew your faith—in the human spirit or something else besides. It’s by no means necessary to adopt any of their particular beliefs. Better, in fact, if you don’t.
This commodification of faith—religions become “religion,” as Sontag puts it, just as “art” now stands in for culturally and historically specific painting and sculpture—has far-reaching effects, and not only for the consciously “post-religious man.” For confirmation that religious fellow-travelling is not the province of the nominal atheist alone, one need only spend a few hours walking the halls of the nearest divinity school. You’re sure to find no shortage of appreciation for the “seriousness” with which certain hallowed historical figures approached their faith, but somewhat less discussion of whether and why the claims they made were actually true. Even when such topics are broached, there is always an outer limit to what we moderns are willing to entertain. The understanding strains to take, say, Augustine all that seriously when he’s on about the angelic fall or why human nature depends on it—but it’s a nice sentiment, and we might even be able to wrest some meaning from it. Such incredulity, I suspect, isn’t merely a lack of personal faith on the part of religion’s cultured admirers and/or their more impressionable seminarian counterparts; a certain measure of skepticism is likely just an inescapable feature of late modern life, even or perhaps especially in our schools of divinity. But where well-meaning demythologization holds sway, religious fellow-traveling is sure to follow.
These much larger cultural issues aside, I wish here to register a more pedestrian point: that Simone Weil should be a particularly challenging figure for the religious fellow-traveler to incorporate within his canon; and that to do so, moreover, is to misread quite radically Weil’s peculiar witness. Indeed, what’s so odd about the liberal impulse to venerate Weil is how relatively few of her writings one would have to read to see how opposed she was to the sort of sentimentality with which she’s often remembered. She would have scorned the very thought that someone might deem her authoritative on the basis of her “seriousness” alone. In fact, she nearly says as much in a famous letter to Fr. Joseph-Marie Perrin regarding her hesitations before Christian baptism. That she finds herself “unworthy of the sacraments” is not pious “scrupulosity,” as Fr. Perrin seems to believe. Rather, she says, it’s the result of vigorous reflection on “very definite faults in the order of action and human relations…”5 These typically gnomic words compress a more complex argument—as she goes on to say, it’s the idea of individuating herself by a concrete “act” of conversion that really concerns her—but it should be obvious enough that Weil’s resistance to receiving the sacraments was more than just an instance of “moral seriousness.” She had principled reasons for doing so: difficult reasons, perhaps, but reasons nonetheless. To disregard the content of these reasons in favor of the firmness with which she held them is intellectually dishonest at best, patronizing at worst.
Despite her undeniable idiosyncrasies, moreover, it’s not as if it’s all that difficult to discern the chief sources of Weil’s ideas. Above all, there was Plato. His defining influence, in fact, makes it quite possible to read her texts within the history of Platonism, both Christian and pagan. Weil offered her own peculiar contributions to this tradition, to be sure, but the lineage should be sufficient to invite thorough engagement with her positions themselves rather than appreciation for her quaint commitment to some outmoded metaphysical system. Weil’s Platonism would have it no other way, after all. It was from Plato that she learned to have confidence in the intellect’s inalienable ability to recognize goodness, truth, beauty. Such is the arduous work of attention, to use Weil’s much-lauded term. But it’s precisely the Platonic inheritance that renders attention something more than a spiritual buzzword.
To wit, Weil defended the radically democratic claim at the heart of Plato’s thought: that the real is neither the possession of a privileged few nor the rhetorical effect of the charismatic but a common birthright of one and all. Once lifted from these metaphysical roots, however, attention soon atrophies in the direction of sentiment. Attending something, in Weil’s sense, is to be lifted above the private fantasies, opinions, and cults of personality (often, but not always, our own) by which we’re routinely ensnared, to be converted to the truth of that toward which we’re turned. Attention is self-abnegating: what finally matters is not the act itself, let alone the “seriousness” with which it’s undertaken, but that which comes into view when the act of attending runs its course. To make attention an issue of subjective earnestness, therefore, is to invert its very promise—namely, freedom from the self’s capricious legislation of the real. Which is to say, freedom from the self. If Weil urges attention, it’s never merely for attention’s own sake but for the sake of a world liberated from the myths that would make truth a matter of well-meaning rather than participation in a community of reason.
Which is why, for instance, when Weil insists political parties should be abolished it isn’t just a ploy of political organizing but the logical conclusion of a measured argument. “The mere fact that” political parties “exist today is not sufficient reason for us to preserve them,” she wrote in a 1943 essay, for the “only legitimate reason for preserving anything is its goodness.”6 If it can be shown that the evils of political parties outweigh their goods—and Weil thinks it can—then they should be abolished with dispatch and without remorse. Weil contends that political parties encourage a rather undemocratic debasement before party platforms rather than sober deliberation over the issues; that, in short, political parties absolve the duty to think. The details of the argument unfold across an entire pamphlet, but the point I wish to stress here is just this: even a claim as ostensibly outlandish as Weil’s appeal to abolish political parties is no melodramatic gesture of moral seriousness. In both content and form, the argument demonstrates Weil’s commitment to truth as the sole criterion for action. Cultural custom is not a sufficient basis on which to establish a common life, much less the personal authority of an earnest revolutionary. Weil would have you assent to her argument on its own merit, not by virtue of the fact it was she who said it.
So, too, if you wish to dissent—and there is plenty in Weil’s writings with which to take issue, particular arguments and guiding principles alike. But these, no less than the things for which she’s lauded, ought not be chocked up to eccentric effects of her personality. This applies, especially, to her frequently off-putting preoccupation with suffering. Weil’s several biographers have tended to take this self-denial as symptom of a disorder to be diagnosed rather than a principled position with which to contend. And while I don’t mean to reduce her bodily witness to an embodied argument, I do wish to say it’s as foolish to discount Weil’s sympathies for affliction without second thought as it is to applaud the moral seriousness her sufferings symbolize. If it seems to us her life was marked by a perverse desire for pain, perhaps this is only because she was more convinced than we of the crucifixion’s requirement. To be sure, her commentary on this score is often disturbing. But, precisely so, it requires our unsentimental attention. There may be (there are) objections to raise against, say, the discourse of divine distance which runs like a blood-red thread through Weil’s corpus; or the total erasure of subjectivity towards which her thought inevitably tends; or, for that matter, the near-tragic fatalism in which her entire thought is cast. But it’s just exactly reasoned responses these require. Dismissal by doxographic association—likening hers to a thought-form already condemned, usually Gnosticism or Catharism—won’t do, and neither will reducing her ideas to unfortunate ticks of the personality.
But, in the end, honest engagement with someone, whether it be assent or dissent, is much more difficult, much more demanding than enshrining them with admiration. Wasn’t this Sontag’s great insight? That counterfeit-canonization is among the most effective means the “liberal bourgeois” have of protecting themselves from the claims their would-be saints make upon them? That the religious fellow-traveler collects his “exemplars of seriousness” because it’s far safer to place a prophet on a pedestal than attend diligently to their preaching? Attending something, after all, requires you try taking it as true, and if you can’t to say so and why. To attend, that is, means to place in question the finality of one’s own perspective, to risk the ego’s all-sufficiency. Attention demands sacrifice. Wherefore religious fellow-travelling is not so much a conspicuously shallow encounter with Weil and company as it is a strategy for their avoidance. But, again, one can hardly imagine a form of “religion” more befitting the liberal bourgeois lifestyle than the sort of “piety without content” Sontag assays. In which case, we’re not likely to desist from religious fellow-travelling until, at the very least, we’re ready to form political economies based on ends to which we’re mutually attuned instead of purely formal agreements that only ensure our deepest convictions are little more than differences of opinion. At that point, perhaps, we could learn to see the work of attention as a common calling instead of the private crusade of a privileged few. Until then, though, we’d do best to leave Weil to her affliction than venerate her in bad faith.
- Susan Sontag, “Simone Weil,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 49.
- Sontag, “Simone Weil,” 49, 50.
- Sontag, “Piety without content,” in Against Interpretation, 250.
- Sontag, “Piety without content,” 251.
- Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Harper Colophon, 1971), 46.
- Simone Weil, On the Abolition of All Political Parties, trans. Simon Leys (New York: New York Review Books, 2013), 4.