catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 23 :: 2008.12.19 — 2009.01.02


Outside looking in

A kind of bodyless bird, withdrawn inside itself, in a large black cloak down to her ankles that she never took off, still, silent…alien yet attentive, both observant and distant….  Extremely ugly at first sight, thin, ravaged face under her large black beret, thick ragged hair, only heavy black shoes to be seen under her ankle-length cloak-she would stare at you…her eyes very much to the fore as also her head and her bust, centering on whomever she watched with her invasive shortsightedness, with an intensity and also a kind of questioning avidity that I’ve never encountered elsewhere….  The eagerness in Weil’s eyes was almost unbearable.  In her presence, all ‘lies’ were out of question…her denuding, tearing and torn gaze…would grasp and render helpless the person she was looking at.
Poet Jean Tortel describing Simone Weil

I don’t remember a moment of conversion, but I do remember a season of life during which I discovered one of the qualities of true freedom.  After three, maybe four, years of trying to get in (and stay in) with the popular crowd, I realized it was much more interesting to be an outsider.  I won’t pretend I was the only 13-year-old saint ever to walk the earth-I showed my share of junior high disdain for those even farther gone than myself-but I really did find some kind of peace with my odd assortment of friends during eighth grade year.  We discovered Converse and theatre, British sitcoms and poetry together, but still managed to maintain our distinctiveness from one another.  Some of us finished the annual mile run in gym class dead last every time while others joined the track team.  Some of us were called fags (the middle school equivalent of lepers) while others were kissing the popular kids in games of truth or dare.  Some of us were ravenously intelligent while others just hoped to pass.

“Just be yourself.”  Who the hell knows what that means in junior high?  And yet it’s probably the most commonly abused mantra, equally misunderstood by teenagers and the thirty-something teachers who so sagely offer it as advice.  I like to think, however, that there was something more qualitatively enriching in spending recess kicking red rubber playground balls as far as we could while singing silly songs at the tops of our lungs than there was in standing around in tight poker-faced cliques vying for position. 

As change tends to do, the impending graduation upset the whole social order before we were done and I found myself in a relationship with a boy so maligned that one of our teachers once sent him on a fake errand to the office so she could tell the entire class to lay off of him.  Though we only lasted a weekend, I still remember the tenderness of the way he held my hand during the lock-in-sincere in a way that scared me because I had never witnessed it before in anyone else my age.

It’s the same desperate outsider sincerity that both intrigues and terrifies me in Simone Weil.  A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Francine du Plessix Gray’s biography of Weil on a Sunday morning, intending to peck at it and lay it down half-finished like I do with most non-fiction.  However, six hours later I was switching on the light as the sky outside my reading window darkened and another hour later, I was mourning the end of a book and the death of a person I will never fully understand.

I don’t doubt that Weil’s failure to fit into any circle at any point in her 34 years was an inextricable combination of nature and nurture.  Even adults scorned a young Simone and her brother Andre’s dense intellectual conversation that resulted from the intensity of their early education in classical languages, literature and advanced mathematics.  She smoked and dressed like a man, let her studies obsess her into insomnia, kept her body in a state of constant near-starvation and pursued extreme manual labor as a self-mortifying means of embracing suffering.  She was as beautiful as she was ugly, as tenaciously loving as she was scornful, as selfless as she was selfish, all the while transparently striving toward some transcendent embodiment of divine love.

I’m drawn to Weil because I want to see myself in her eccentric commitment to right ideas-just two bespectacled, misunderstood, bookish nerds on the fringes of the cultural playground-but I’m repelled by the way she convicts me otherwise.  You see, all through junior high and beyond, I’ve maintained my ability to straddle worlds, carefully compromising in order to shift loyalties when convenient.  Even when high school dropped me in the middle of the drama misfits, I still craved the attention of upperclassmen and the admiration of people I secretly despised.  Weil allowed herself no such luxury as a child or as an adult, within her family or her political party or the Church.  Given the dramatic conclusion of her story, some might see my approach as a justifiable survival instinct, but I can’t accept that analysis quite so easily, can’t shake the suspicion that in spite of all that sets me apart, I’ve made my peace with the empire.  Is the “cultural engagement” approach I’m so fond of promoting as the answer to being faithful in this world just an attempt to theologically justify fitting in?  Do I allow myself just enough righteous rebellion to shore up against the consuming tide that would otherwise wash away my fragile middle class existence?  These are questions I have to ask myself even while I embrace conversion as a lifelong process.

Weil, who clearly never cared to be of the world and barely managed to be in the world, challenges my smug insider-outsiderness with her insatiability, her focus, her abandon.  Yet even the purity of her commitment can be called into question.  “God is proven and posited by right action, and in no other way,” she wrote in her early twenties.  I underlined this statement.  She undertook every arduous path she could conceive of to live out this conviction, but toward the end of her life she simply couldn’t surrender her control in exchange for grace.  A Catholic philosopher friend writes of her,

This soul who wanted to be flexible to every movement of the divine will could not bear the course of events, or the kindness of her friends, altering by one iota the positioning of the stakes with which she had marked the path of self-immolation…the way she mounted guard around her void still displayed a terrible preoccupation with herself.

In the end, she lost what she was most determined to keep: control.  And in this, we are also alike, Simone and I, which leaves me with the sense that her tale is both motivating and cautionary.  “Just be yourself,” the saying goes, one Weil took to heart before it appeared on posters in middle school classrooms everywhere.  And yet how often we become our own most insurmountable obstacles when we think the path to self-actualization is doing rather than being, speaking rather than listening, keeping rather than sacrificing.

Being, listening, sacrificing. If these compose the path, it’s by the difficult grace of God that middle school so thoroughly deconstructs our egos.  Most of us sense that we emerged on the other side scarred for life-strangely akin to being marked with the cross of Christ, I suppose.  “We suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him,” Paul writes.  In our better moments, whether 13 or 34, we might even understand what the hell that means.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus