Simone Weil by Susan Sontag (1963; and available in Against Interpretation and Other Essays):

The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force—not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live. It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering—rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer's words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

What revolted the mature Goethe in the young Kleist, who submitted his work to the elder statesman of German letters "on the knees of his heart"—the morbid, the hysterical, the sense of the unhealthy, the enormous indulgence in suffering out of which Kliest's plays and tales were mined—is just what we value today. Today Kleist gives pleasure, Goethe is to some a duty. In the same way, such writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet—and Simone Weil—have their authority with us because of their air of unhealthiness. Their unhealthiness is their soundness, and is what carries conviction. Little Bookroom / Savoir Fare London

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

Thus I do not mean to decry a fashion, but to underscore the motive behind the contemporary taste for the extreme in art and thought. All that is necessary is that we not be hypocritical, that we recognize why we read and admire writers like Simone Weil. I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas. Nor is it necessary—necessary to share Simone Weil's anguished and unconsummated love affair with the Catholic Church, or accept her gnostic theology of divine absence, or espouse her ideals of body denial, or concur in her violently unfair hatred of Roman civilization and the Jews. Similarly, with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; most of their modern admirers could not, and do not embrace their ideas. We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and—only piecemeal—for their "views." As the corrupt Alcibiades followed Socrates, unable and unwilling to change his own life, but moved, enriched, and full of love; so the sensitive modern reader pays his respect to a level of spiritual reality which is not, could not, be his own.

Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint (if one may use the latter term in an aesthetic, rather than a religious sense). Such a life, absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation—like Kleist's, like Kierkegaard's—was Simone Weil's. I am thinking of the fanatical asceticism of Simone Weil's life, her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction; and I do not exclude her homeliness, her physical clumsiness, her migraines, her tuberculosis. No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves. Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

Readers Comments

  1. This is so powerful, thank you Mark. It hit the mark for me today. No particular reason except I miss that edge in critical thought. Sontag had enormous glints of sudden brilliance.

  2. Yes Mark, thanks for that.

    As often with Sontag, enormously well expressed, capturing a truth you feel you already knew but which you had never seen meaningfully expressed before. I haven't read Weill, but her words apply incredibly well to Dosteyevsky, Genet and Nietzsche who she mentions, and a few others besides.

  3. Erm - I read Nietzsche for his ideas, & for his style(s). If I wanted to read about his 'exemplary life', I'd read a biography. Actually, I wouldn't, because I don't read biographies of writers - I read books by writers.

    And when I read Nietzsche, I don't read him with the intention of embracing his ideas, I read him critically. I would no more seek to imitate his ideas than I would seek to imitate his life.

    The worlds of contemporary letters & academe are too full of imitators & those more interested in gossiping about lives than grappling with ideas.

    As for Sontag - this piece strikes me as being superficially profound...

  4. Robin, I agree with you that Sontag is very often superficially profound, in my opinion she is so more often than not, but this particular quote struck me as different. Perhaps because it comes from an earlier time in her critical career, when she was less of a "figure". What I don't agree with in what you said is that Sontag meant the actual biographies of these writers. I think--I could be wrong of course--she meant their work, how their work is intensely extreme and carries a sort of air of what people would think of as "abnormal states"--and how their work insists on that extreme of personal vision. I really think she meant this intensity in their work and not in their actual lives.

  5. Mixed reaction to Sontag on this. Feeling a brilliant near-miss. Weil's all inclusive term for conventional politics, social ideas, habits was 'the Great Beast,' and her insight (as with the other thinkers mentioned, was in her unflinching recognition of the depth of the sickness, the insanity, the extremism of what passes as normal for the unmindful. What is unhealthy in Weil is not altogether on her side, but is in part the sickness she draws out of the object of her critique, draws out and uses against it. Her hatred of the created world, her radical duelism, is both a mythical abstraction, and way of giving imaginative substance to a real sickness in what is bound to be a failed attempt to distance from it, to find ground uncontaminated by its corruption, by the universal violence that holds together what passes as our rational order.

Leave a Comment

If you have not posted a comment on RSB before, it will need to be approved by the Managing Editor. Once you have an approved comment, you are safe to post further comments. We have also introduced a captcha code to prevent spam.




Enter the code shown here:   [captcha]

Note: If you cannot read the numbers in the above image, reload the page to generate a new one.