Maria Clara Bingemer: Simone Weil. Mystic of Passion and Compassion
Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015
The most beautiful people are those who have suffered defeat, suffered suffering, struggles, losses and who have found their way out of the deep. Such people have a special ability to appreciate, a sensitivity and understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving care. "
This is how Professor of Theology at the University of Rio de Janeiro Maria Clara Bingemer begins her new book on Simone Weil, the latest in a series of new publications that seek to spread knowledge of Weil's teachings and shed light on her fascinating life and enigmatic form. Weil was born in 1909, and died in 1943, at the age of just 34 years. She was admitted to the famous elite school École Normal Superior at the same time as Simone de Beauvoir, leaving school with distinction in 1931.
But here too all similarities end. Beauvoir made an intellectual career; Weil remained a frontier marginal figure, a "wounded intellectual", a "prophetic voice who looked beyond his own time". She was a "social activist thinker" driven by a desire to reveal the hidden truth of things; a "boundary philosopher" for whom man is caught between a manipulated world and a longing for goodness and beauty that can only be legitimized by a source outside the world – and, finally, a homeless Christian mystic devoted to a Kenotic humiliation – a self-emptying of his own will in prayer to God.
What unites these three frontier experiences is a human yearning for transformation, change and renewal. Her life martyrdom "represents a radical sacrifice of a human life for a true reality." Bingemer is keen to describe the connection between the political, ethical and religious border experiences at Weil. Her thesis that links the three – and thus Simone Weil's teachings – is that only the full recognition of humiliation, suffering and despair paves the way for life and liberation and thus human transformation.
At war with himself. There is something at once appealing and repulsive about Simone Weil. One cannot separate her writings from her life. But there is probably in her writings an elegant tempered clairvoyance which did not get the same expression in her life. Both the worker and the student benefited from her well-balanced counsel, but she was ruthless towards herself. Her calling — taking on the burden of suffering humanity — made her difficult to get along with, and rather than compromise, she preferred radical loneliness. Simone Weil was an unusual child, and developed from an early age of an almost superhuman sense of other people's suffering. As soon as she discovered that she was getting more to eat than other, poor children, she saved larger and smaller rations, something she continued with for the rest of her life right up until the day she died.
The full realization of degradation, suffering, and despair paves the way for life and liberation.
The problem of work. Already during his studies at the university, Weil develops a strong interest in the cause of the workers and participates in the political work. Bingemer's concept of "a wounded intellectual" sheds light on Weil's own struggle as a universal struggle. She approaches the problem of workers from two sides: the spiritual liberation of the individual, and the humanization of our modern society. Only through a completely new assessment of bodily work can a way forward be found. It is about understanding the sensuous value of the work, its poetry. “One thing makes monotonous at work bearable; it's the beauty, 'as Weil writes in his notebooks. According to Weil, the worker had a brotherhood and a solidarity that holds the seeds for this beauty. After working as a teacher of philosophy, she signed up as a worker at the Renault factory in 1934 to experience the life of the worker on her own body. Her compassion for the oppressed human being was part of a formation project. She discovered that modern societies are built around activities that force man to act without thinking. "What drove her was an inner force, a love for man."
But at the factory, she experienced a daily cruelty and a violent loss of dignity, with the result that her idealization of the working class disappeared. But her sense of all that degrades man remained intact. "She went on to embody the experience of a working – class world." Bingemer dwells on this experience of fundamental dignity and empathy with the other human being as an essential empathic approach that instills life meaning and fullness. Weil was ahead of his time and laid the foundations for the later workers' clergy movements in France in the 50s and the liberation theology in South America in the 1970s. And anticipates the contemporary discussions of meaningless work and activation that dominate the rich northern European societies where politicians will not realize that full employment is an illusion.
Selfless attention. "A single piece of bread given to the poor is enough to save a soul – if given in the right way," Weil writes in his masterpiece Heaviness and grace. Bingemer enters into a strong dialogue with this writing and with Weil's last book The rooting, and draws threads back to her life to show the influence of Weil's thoughts in liberation theology and contemporary social movements. Important for the way to care is attention. Weil writes: “The unfortunate do not need anything in the world but people who pay attention to them. The ability to pay attention to those who suffer is a rare and difficult thing; it is a miracle. " The obligation to the poor is about "coming to terms with the situation of the poor." The ability to pay attention is the ability to break free from self-sufficiency through an experience of suffering. Bingemer sees in the ability to pay attention «a creative force», because attention, in addition to offering material goods and covering the basic needs of the poor, provides an opportunity to restore his dignity.
Weil turned to the completely autonomous person who himself makes his choices in a world without objective values, and presents an image of an ego that respects an external authority given by the good. Morality is not only the ability to act, but to see reality and one's fellow human beings. This happens through the attention, which in contrast to the imagination activates a selfless imagination. A process where, according to Weil, one is "empty and open" – and thus receptive. Weil's thoughts on an experience of vulnerability as a basic figure for political thinking are taken up in these years by Giorgio Agamben (homo sacer); Jacques Rancière (inequality) and Judith Butler (refugee mourning).
The ease of death. "Weil did not find a solution to the problem of reconciling the work with the meaningfulness of living conditions. After her experiences on the factory, she described the community as an 'idolatry'. She saw a close connection between the false life of the collective herd animal and the worship of the personality, the pursuit of personal things, possession and prestige. There are divided opinions about her strange martyrdom. Bingemer sees in Weil a kind of saint because «she strives for perfection» who in self-forgetfulness and death experiences «a kind of lightness». To die for the world is to be born completely into life. Thus, until the very end, she refused to receive more food than the French soldiers who fought at the front.
The work of the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho Simone's Passion, built a few weeks ago in Copenhagen, very well strikes this tension between weight and lightness. It takes time to appreciate unusual intelligence, new ways of thinking. Weil's example is not for compliance, but her struggle for the vulnerable and suffering humanity can be summed up in the need for a new concept of attention. And can be contained in a distrust of what we today call «the self».