catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 7 :: 2006.04.07 — 2006.04.21


Of orthodoxy and orthopraxy

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? 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.

-Susan Sontag, ?Simone Weil?

Simone Weil?s book The Need for Roots was published in 1949, six years after the death of its author in an English sanatorium. The book was commissioned as part of Weil?s service to the Free French government in London during the Second World War. The ostensible purpose of the book was to analyze the reasons for France?s sudden collapse in the face of the German invasion in 1940, and to make recommendations for the restoration of French society in the wake of a victory over the Nazis. What she offered was a diagnosis of the ill health of the modern era during its darkest hour, and suggestions by which it might be made whole. It is the fullest expression of her mature thought, and she brought to it the experience of a remarkable, albeit sadly short life.

Raised as she was in an agnostic Jewish family, Weil was not predisposed to pay respect to orthodoxy of any stripe that could not withstand the inquiry of her formidable intellect and fierce determination to test the truth of any theory through direct experience, at any cost. The most dramatic example of this determination occurred in 1934 when she took a leave of absence from her teaching position in order to work as an unskilled laborer in a factory, and to live solely on the wages she earned for this work. She had, for several years, been a Marxist, heavily involved in trade union activism on behalf of the working class. This was her way of testing, to the fullest extent possible, the validity of her beliefs.

She was appalled at the working conditions faced by what one commentator has described as ?the most despised class in the French factory system?the class of unskilled women workers.? Weil?s journal of her year in the factory is a terse account of her inability to meet the production quotas on which her wages were based. ?Didn?t make the rate,? is the journal?s constant refrain of futility and frustration. The journal opens with a quote from The Iliad: ?Much against your will, under pressure of harsh necessity.? This sentiment is juxtaposed with what Weil considered a necessary precondition for dignity in labor:

Not only should man know what he is making, but if possible he should see how it is used?see how nature is changed by him. Every man?s work should be an object of contemplation for him.

It is the distance between these two extremes that the journal measures. When a woman is fired, Weil comments:

It seems that the woman had refused to do the order in question (probably for painstaking and badly paid work)work that was too hard,? someone says. The foreman had said to her, ?If this isn?t done by tomorrow morning It was probably thought she had botched the work on purpose. Not one word of sympathy from the women, even though they know the disgust you feel facing an exhausting job, knowing you will earn 2F or less and be bawled out for not having made the rate?a disgust that illness must increase tenfold. This lack of sympathy is explained by the fact that if one woman is spared a ?bad? job, it is done by another? One woman?s comment (Mme Forestier?): ?She shouldn?t have talked back? when you have to make a living, you have no choice? (repeated several times)

The journal also contains entertaining accounts of bureaucratic inefficiency, as well as accounts like the following:

11 to 5, heavy press cutting washers out of a bar of sheet metal with Robert. Didn?t make the rate (2F per hour; 2.28F for a thousand washers). Very violent headache, finished the work while weeping almost uninterruptedly. (When I got home, interminable fit of sobbing.) No blunders, however, aside from 3 or 4 botched pieces.

This is a woman who in 1928 had been admitted to the ?cole Normale Sup?rieure, the most prestigious academic institution in France, ranked ahead of Simone de Beauvoir, four years after the school had first been opened to women. She rejected the orthodoxy of every system of belief she engaged, beginning with her Jewish heritage. A Marxist who never joined the communist party, a scholar who went to work in a factory, a pacifist who?after her factory experience?fought briefly in the Spanish Civil War, she experienced a conversion to Christianity (in the same chapel in Assissi, Italy, where St. Francis used to pray) although she was never baptized and refused to join the institutional church.

It is revealing to note that the word heresy has its origin in the Greek word hairesis, meaning ?choice;? and that heretic comes from the Greek hairetikos, meaning ?able to choose.? The notion of heresy is based on a rational either/or dichotomy. Either one is within the fold of orthodox ?belief? and espouses the point of view prescribed by it, or one is beyond the pale, the realm of heresy. There is little room for mystery in this construction. Kathleen Norris provides another perspective in her book, The Spiral Staircase, where she describes the difference between orthodoxy, ?right belief? and orthopraxy, ?right practice.?

The question of ?right belief? seems never to have occurred to Weil. She was interested only in truth, which became for her synonymous with God, and with living as direct a relationship with truth as was humanly possible. She had the ability to choose, and she chose not to take comfort in untested theories or doctrines. She repeatedly exposed herself to the full violence of her time, in her determination to understand it. She was simultaneously deeply individual and utterly self-sacrificing. She made her entire life a protest against the modern forces which had resulted in the uprootedness that she understood to be the cause of the violence in society, at peace and at war. Her hope was that we might, in the wake of war and social and economic unrest, develop roots that would serve as the foundation of God?s Kingdom. The Need for Roots reflects her hard-won wisdom in this regard.

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

Some (but not all) heretics challenge our preconceptions. They think for themselves, and more importantly, they choose to act on what they have thought. They act, and, so doing, awaken us from our doctrinally-induced lethargy by forcing us to consider, not only what we believe, but through the power of their example (especially in Weil?s case) what we practice and why.

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