Simone Weil is one tough cookie. Her writings are both luminous and infuriating, enlightening and neurotic. But this isn’t about the relative merit of her work. Weil’s influence is assured, regardless of where one comes down on the clarity or helpfulness of her ideas about God, suffering, prayer, and salvation. Her unique vocabulary makes her difficult to understand, and I am not going to comment on the contentious possibilities of her work, though many readers across multiple denominational fences have found her to be inspiring.
What I am interested in is Weil’s response to literature and what this can tell us about the inherent power of great literature. What Weil can help us see is that the contemporary academic approach to literature censors some of the best things great literature can do for us. Weil--a mystic, a philosopher, a non-Marxist leftist, a klutz who tried to live out the Gospel--read literature like The Iliad or George Herbert’s poems and was lifted to a higher vision than the secular realm can account for. Literature at its best can have an intrinsic power that is now more or less denied in the secular academy.
“Literature” is now a subject conditioned by academic speculation, controlled in classroom contexts, and burdened with au courant critical theory. At least that is what it has become for most people who encounter literature in the context of current academic study. Weil’s encounter with the power of literature helps us see that the boundaries between literature and theology is thin and permeable, and this is a good thing. Her reading of Greek classics and British poetry, for instance, flies in the face of most contemporary literature professors, yet Weil has far more academic and even leftist credentials in her little finger than an entire English department faculty will ever have. And she says that literature can show us something of God.
Take, for example, the metaphysical poet George Herbert. Weil, who suffered from excruciating migraine headaches, learned to recite Herbert’s poem “Love” in order to concentrate and to lessen the pain. The internalizing of Herbert’s God-enraptured poetry helped ease Weil into Christian faith by helping her discover the palpable love of God, and this is a use of literature scorned by or ignored by nearly all modern academia.
Another example. Weil also thought that The Iliad was suffused with a vision of life comporting with the deepest insights of the Christian vision of human . The epic showed that all human beings are subject to “force,” the violent necessities of passion, genetics, psychology, and culture. We are trapped but we know we want to be free. We hate violence, fear death, and just want to go home, yet when the blood lust of war strikes us, we want to kill and subjugate. Both sides--Greek and Trojan--and all warriors--major, minor, heroic or cowardly--are caught up beyond self-control, and Force rules all, making all turn temporarily into hateful monsters. When Force has run its course, for a while anyway, everyone returns to sanity and hates what he has become, but he will succumb again in short order until something breaks. Weil’s interesting take on the poem might or might not be true, but the point here is that she found Great Literature to be something more than a subject to write essays for in an English class. The Iliad offers one of the profoundest views ever composed in artistic form of human captivity and the hunger for freedom from necessity. Weil claims that literature at its best achieves an almost religious quality of revelation.
Katherine T. , in her The Redemption of Tragedy: the Literary Vision of Simone Weil, uses Weil’s ideas about literature to question recent academic trends that turn away from considering how and why literature can speak to us of pressing human realities. The qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty are laughed at in many (most?) colleges and universities, but deploys Weil's experiences to challenge the hegemonic discourse (and grading practices) of institutionalized secular education. This so far is a minority opinion, but that doesn't matter. It is the truth.