more on simone weil
Simone Weil said that affliction (malheur) ‘takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. Slavery as practised 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.”’
‘Thought flies from affliction’… but when something like physical pain forces us to look affliction in the eye, ‘a state of mind is brought about which is as acute as that of a condemned man who is forced to look for hours at the guillotine which is going to cut off his head. Human beings can live for twenty or fifty years in this acute state. We pass quite close to them without realising it.’
Affliction is the death of human dignity which kills half the soul; it lowers, makes sub-human. Affliction is social degradation ‘or the fear of it in some form or another.’ The afflicted experience fear and paranoia at the hands of the state and its institutions. They notice surveillance cameras, they think every day of the laws and regulations which have tripped them up and trapped them. They become servile and sneaky. Sin piles up on them. Human frailty is such that there’s no way out of this situation except grace.
Affliction is not suffering, which can be borne. Affliction destroys something essential to the human person. It blots out the imago Dei and reduces a human being to her most primal state, feral and afraid.
Weil condemns the notion of rights. Legal rights are contentions of entitlement but people in affliction can’t seek rights. They have lost the ability to make a case for themselves. Weil says that the Greeks had no need for a concept of rights because they had justice. Justice demands that the afflicted are heard. The cry of the afflicted isn’t a demand for rights but a wounded howl.
To say that the afflicted have had their human rights violated is an offensively inadequate description of what’s happened to them. They’ve had their humanity stripped. Their state of existence is a naked offence against goodness. If anyone has an accurate sense of the value of a human soul then seeing affliction will be painful to them. It is the visible existence of hell.
The geometry of Weil’s thought makes sense to the afflicted. Events have a downward force. ‘And then a Plank in Reason, broke / And I dropped down, and down — / And hit a World, at every plunge, / And finished knowing — then —’; He descended into Hell.
Weil felt affliction after factory work. Alienation leads to it but isn’t equivalent to it. Systems and bureaucracies do it. A man tries to make a case for his life and is given another form to fill out. A criminal justice system that depends on rights and not on justice will produce more affliction. The afflicted cannot speak in a language a court will recognise.
‘The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction. It is not surprising that the innocent are killed, tortured, driven from their country, made destitute, or reduced to slavery, imprisoned in camps and cells… But it is surprising that God should have given affliction the power to seize the very souls of the innocent and to take possession of them as their sovereign lord. At the very best, he who is branded by affliction will only keep half his soul.’
I found this too pessimistic when I read it the first and second and third times. She wrote that ‘as for those who have been struck by one of those blows which leave a being struggling on the ground like a half-crushed worm, they have no words to express what is happening to them. Among the people they meet, those who have never had contact with affliction in its true sense can have no idea of what it is, even though they have suffered a great deal.’ I was like this latter person. Where she wrote that Job implores God to bear witness because he no longer hears the testimony of his own conscience, I wrote in the margin that this is too negative a view of human nature and revealing of her character. Someone who has known suffering but not affliction will think her dramatic.
‘Men have the same carnal nature as animals’; this is what makes people react with disgust, revulsion and fury when confronted with affliction. People see weakness and are primed to attack. They kill off the vulnerable of the herd. In this way once affliction starts the blows will land and land and never stop. Affliction removes the disguise of reason and reveals the lowest and most animal parts of our nature, for both the afflicted and the unafflicted. When people speak of being cursed it’s only the gravitational pull of affliction.
Addiction brought me there—below thought and below dignity, screaming, in pain, beyond sense and moral reason, absolute powerlessness. Only supernatural grace could ever be a remedy. It’s a miracle that this grace comes through people whose souls are also marred by affliction—that the wounds can become a means of healing.
She says that Christ experienced affliction on the cross without ceasing to perfectly love the Father. He experienced the kenotic self-abandonment which blotted out the awareness of His own divinity and obscured, briefly, the exchange of love between the persons of the Trinity. He believed himself forsaken by God just as a person in affliction forgets that she bears the image of God within her soul. But despite this He did not sin. The person who is separated from God by affliction has fallen into the sin of despair. Affliction leads to evil because it causes a soul to refuse grace. If grace is not refused—as on the cross and in the bodies of the martyrs—there is redemption. But a person who has been turned into an object and stripped of a soul cannot love or accept love.
Christ’s act of surrender—not my will but thine be done—means that even in the depths of affliction, His soul was not tarnished because He did not rage against his condition. Perfect surrender to suffering is the escape. The cry of the afflicted is ‘why am I being hurt?’—it rests in confusion, self-pity, a state which is intolerable and which the afflicted is powerless to change. ‘Not my will but thine be done’ is a recognition that no circumstance within this life could detract from the justice of divine will. An act of faith like this means that suffering, no matter how intolerable or unjust, will not lead to the affliction which separates a person from God. In this way a soul can be drawn out of affliction. He descended into Hell; on the third day He rose again from the dead.
Evil is gravity for Weil: irresistible force. When a man ‘turns away from God, he simply gives himself up to the law of gravity. He thinks that he can decide and choose, but he is only a thing, a stone that falls.’
‘Any attempt to gain this deliverance by means of my own energy would be like the eﬀorts of a cow which pulls at its hobble and so falls onto its knees.’
The same necessity which drives gravity also drives grace. In The Love of God and Affliction, she writes very beautifully about this:
‘The mechanism of necessity can be transposed on to any level while still remaining true to itself. It is the same in the world of pure matter, in the animal world, among nations and in souls. Seen from our present stand-point, and in human perspective, it is quite blind. If, however, we transport our hearts beyond ourselves, beyond the universe, beyond space and time to where our Father dwells, and if from there we behold this mechanism, it appears quite different. What seemed to be necessity becomes obedience. Matter is entirely passive and in consequence entirely obedient to God’s will. It is a perfect model for us. There cannot be any being other than God and that which obeys God. On account of its perfect obedience, matter deserves to be loved by those who love its master, in the same way as a needle, handled by the beloved wife he has lost, is cherished by a lover. The beauty of the world gives us an intimation of its claim to a place in out heart. In the beauty of the world rude necessity becomes an object of love. What is more beautiful than the action of weight on the fugitive waves of the sea as they fall in ever-moving folds, or in the almost eternal folds of the mountains? The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked. On the contrary this adds to its beauty. If it altered the movement of its waves to spare a boat, it would be a creature gifted with discernment and choice and not this fluid, perfectly obedient to every external pressure. It is this perfect obedience which constitutes the sea’s beauty.’
Obedience to gravity is the willing reception of grace. In this way a saint’s face can shine through suffering while someone who resists suffering and tries to become master of their own universe will become grey-skinned and dark under the eyes.
‘All the horrors which come about in this world are like the folds imposed upon the waves by gravity. That is why they contain an element of beauty. Sometimes a poem such as the Iliad brings this beauty to light.’ All ugliness results from an attempt to deny horror its symmetry—the downward cleave of a knife. We are drawn to blood despite ourselves. When we seek safety and deny risk we blind ourselves to beauty—this is the aesthetic of despair: hospital curtains, social distancing lines on pavements, people imprisoned by fear and the need for control. The saint kisses lepers.
It’s remarkable to notice the mental change which takes place when not my will but thine be done is meaningfully prayed. What was unendurable becomes light, almost pleasurable. Fear brings attempts to flee from fear and all the attendant consequences—a remarkable amount of damage can be done in a short time. Relief is miraculous.
Only from this position can the afflicted be loved. A saint can intercede for the afflicted because she has also been pierced by it and continued to love.
‘Affliction is a marvel of divine technique. It is a simple and ingenious device which introduces into the soul of a finite creature the immensity of force, blind, brutal and cold… The man to whom such a thing happens has no part in the operation. He struggles like a butterfly which is pinned alive into an album. But through all the horror he can continue to want to love… He whose soul remains ever turned in the direction of God while the nail pierces it, finds himself nailed on to the very centre of the universe.’
Modernity, with its cult of progress and belief in the freedom of the individual to shape his own life, leads many souls into destruction when they face the blunt force of affliction. A great deal of evil is caused by this misunderstanding. Weil’s commentary on the Iliad is a call to remember the constant inevitability of violence, which has not been overcome in advanced civilisations. At the centre of the universe is the cross.
The sense of human misery gives the Gospels that accent of simplicity that is the mark of the Greek genius, and that endows Greek tragedy and the Iliad with all their value. Certain phrases have a ring strangely reminiscent of the epic, and it is the Trojan lad dispatched to Hades, though he does not wish to go, who comes to mind when Christ says to Peter: “Another shall gird thee and carry thee whither thou wouldst not.” This accent cannot be separated from the idea that inspired the Gospels, for the sense of human misery is a pre-condition of justice and love. He who does not realize to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subjection every human spirit, cannot regard as fellow-creatures nor love as he loves himself those whom chance separated from him by an abyss.
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