Sunday, September 26, 2010

Just Weil

In between humble supplications with my begging bowl in Zurich and Geneva, I read the introduction to the Penguin anthology of Simone Weil and the first essay, 'Human Personality'.

She was a living paradox. A secular Jew who was deeply sceptical of any and all collective identities, especially this one. An atheist until one day she was 'seized' by Christ who longed to join the Catholic Church but refused it because the Church would not recognize the presence of spiritual  truth outside of itself. A gifted teacher whose pupils were permanently indebted to her even as they were likely to fail their official examinations. An intellectual who sought out a range of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs to understand in the flesh the impacts of such  (often piece) work on people: physical, emotional and spiritual. No one can read her letters from the Renault factory without recoiling at the conditions imposed, knowing that such factories remain the norm. She was a person of the tenderest empathy, feeling people's, a person's pain with a visceral rawness and yet could, on the surface, often be astonishingly rude and thoughtless!

I have always admired (with a certain fear) her intensity - never has anyone given me a more vivid impression of burning themselves up in a short life - in such a fulfilled, rather than wasted, way.

She writes beautifully of the innate sense of justice and balance she felt was at the core of what it meant to be human; and, of those forces - internal and external - that take us away from that core sense and search.

"At the bottom of the heart of every human being," she writes in 'Human Personality',"from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being."

I was reminded by this of an incident from my childhood, so vividly remembered. I was playing marbles with my (elder) brother and a cousin. In the course of the game, my cousin stole my marbles. It was so audacious and unexpected an act that I was dumbfounded and I remember looking at my aunt and my mother for restitution out of a clear and outraged sense of injustice. It was so obviously, objectively wrong - I could not cry and I did not feel 'sorry for myself'. In a moment my brother had responded by dividing his share of the marbles in two and giving me an exact half. (He could have responded differently as the older and 'mightier' of the three). My mother witnessed this, and when my art failed to respond, she intervened and restored the status quo (though by now all enthusiasm for the game had vanished).

To this day, I remain puzzled as to my memory's tenacity in clinging to this event so lucidly. It does feel that in this 'simple' oft repeated incident (with multiple alternate scenarios) I did step across the threshold of the 'merely' personal and touched what Weil would have seen as an 'impersonal' objective core: the sacred ground of a recognized justice that we hold to as we betray it constantly.

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