Declawing Simone Weil
Let’s just get this out of the way: any book about Simone Weil is, for one reason or another, worth reading. That might sound like too bold a claim, but some figures engender this sort of response. One needn’t have to write well about Weil, the supremely idiosyncratic mid-century French philosopher, mystic, and social theorist, for the gravity of her significance to pull both reader and writer beyond the event horizon of her thought. When a writer successfully conveys the heft of her ideas about attention and grace, it’s obvious. When a writer is able to effectively argue against the grain of her thought—her gnosticism, say—that’s useful also. And when a writer sort of falls on their face, totally failing to think either with or against Weil, that’s illuminating in its own way too. Sometimes examples of other people missing the mark are useful lessons in what not to do.
Unfortunately, novelist and essayist Karen Olsson’s recently published The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown is an example, albeit an enjoyable one, of how not to write about Weil. To be fair, the book itself is about much more (or less, depending on how you look at it) than Simone Weil and her ideas. Billing itself as “a meditation on the creative life,” The Weil Conjectures is a light and impressionistic sketch of the biographies of Simone and her math genius brother André, mixed with Olsson’s own autobiographical musings on being a math major in college. It’s very charming and socially sophisticated, yet ubiquitously accessible in the same way that mid-century modernist furniture is. There are many gestures at the ineffability of life, along with a sort of watercolor dappling of upper-class emotional bromides:
A quality of both good literature and good mathematics is that they lead you to a result that is wholly surprising yet seems inevitable once you’ve been shown the way, so that – aha! – you become newly aware of connections you didn’t see before.
Does the value lie in what he’s writing down or in this moment of lucid exaltation itself, this obscure bliss? Could it be a new porthole on reality, the theorem that is taking form, or is it better considered as a kind of access to the innermost architecture of thought? An infinitely nested diagram, unfolding itself.
Channeling probably the most cloying aspects of the American WASP middlebrow tradition, Olsson has written a book that conveys reality and life as composed solipsistically of wistful observations and drawing room emotions. Unfortunately, it’s “obscure bliss” all the way down. Which, of course, is confusing for a book ostensibly at least in part about Simone Weil, that knocker off of self-satisfied bourgeoisie hats. Weil, who waited for God in silence and love and starved herself to death in existential commitment to her stern, baroque spirituality, seems almost like an indigestible pebble lodged in Olsson’s maw. Olsson doesn’t quite have the spiritual vision to know what to do with Weil. And this is exactly the manner in which The Weil Conjectures seems most useful. In all the ways that Olsson is unable to quite wrap her mind around Weil and the demands that her thoughts make on us, we see starkly illuminated so many of the spiritual failures of the modern world and the inability of our contemporary social elite to address or even acknowledge them.
“Contemporary social elite” might carry the din of the cliché, but that’s exactly what Karen Olsson is, or at least what she represents. Educated at Harvard, married to a “mumblecore” film director, a contributing editor for Texas Monthly and twee mid-range novelist, every Olsson book should come with a free NPR tote. But in avoiding the ad hominem, it’s necessary to understand how the kind of cultural lassitude that Olsson represents manifests in the realm of ideas. Luckily for us, Olsson herself provides a metaphor by mentioning Kafka’s short story “The Top,” about a philosopher who hangs out around children spinning tops, convinced that “the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things.” Of course, as soon as the philosopher grabs at a top in motion, he’s left with the letdown of holding an inert piece of wood in his hand. Very disappointing. But as Olsson explains, “It’s the pursuit, the running after knowledge, that takes [the philosopher’s] breath away.”
She goes on to write: “Running breathlessly after tops, in that heightened state that comes out of being deprived not only of the thing you’re chasing but of the air you need to chase it. Sometimes I think of writing as in this light, too; as running after tops.”
I can’t imagine a sentiment that Weil would be more disgusted with. But then again, one wonders whether this is truly a book about Weil or whether Weil was made into an occasion to reminisce about the bric a brac of Olsson’s own life. Is Weil and her demanding metaphysics just another top to be temporarily distracted by? A convenient surface to project Olsson’s own fleeting emotions onto? There’s this thing that yuppies do, like a mix between the pathetic fallacy and the Brooklyn flea market, where they anthropomorphize animals in the most narcissistic way possible: by treating them as if they’re simply fellow yuppies in costumes. Olsson does something similar to Weil, transforming the dangerous claws of her thought into the familiar sensitivities of a gifted suburban American girl floating through the dappled seasons of her emotions. But to honestly encounter Weil is to be challenged by her. She’s heavy. She’s demanding. And most importantly, she’s Christian, however odd and heretical. She crashes through your pliant conformist sensitivities like an elephant through a sliding glass door. Writing about Weil shouldn’t be quaint or pleasant or nice. It should shock you and it should leave you disturbed.
Olsson’s bloodless initial description of Weil’s spiritual awakening is itself a red flag. Traveling with her family in Portugal, Weil “has one of the first mystical encounters that impel her towards Christianity.” After witnessing a procession of a village women venerating a local patron saint, “A thought – a conviction – comes to her: that Christianity is the religion of slaves.”
Olsson goes on to write:
She will say that not only the Christian religion but elements of other religious traditions and the beauty of the world and its reflection in great works of art delivered her “into Christ’s hands as a captive.” She becomes an idiosyncratic almost-Catholic, at once mystical and scholarly, skeptical of the church and declining to be baptized but believing herself possessed by Christ, believing the invisible world to be more real than the visible.
Well, sure. There’s nothing factually inaccurate about Olsson’s depiction, but it’s sort of like describing the sun as simply “a glowing disc in the sky.” The power and energy coiled in Weil’s thought, the very attributes that define it, are in fact conspicuously absent. You could choose from any number of examples: Weil’s work on the spiritual necessity of silence, her equating attention with love, her brutal and high-minded dissections of how violence works on us metaphysically, her veneration of affliction, and so on.
A complete examination of even one topic is probably too much for a book review, but for point of comparison, take Weil’s notion of the creative act. For Weil, all truth and goodness emanate from God, and all creativity begins with modeling what Weil took to be the essence of God’s creative act in emptying the self of itself. As Miklos Veto explains in The Religious Metaphysics of Simone Weil, “For God, the act of creation was not an expansion of self, but much more a renunciation or abdication. This universe is an abandoned kingdom; its price is the withdrawal of God, and its very existence is the cause of separation from God.” Therefore, creativity is ultimately tied to a sacrificial impulse. Without it, we’re trapped in what Weil called “the imagination”—a solipsistic self-referentiality in which we find ways to quite literally “fictionalize” the fellow souls we encounter, making them unreal in order to serve the purpose of maintaining a personality ourselves. In Weil’s harsh metaphysics, to desire existence is both self-defeating and sinful. Of course, literal suicide would be to kill oneself before the act of renunciation—putting the cart before the horse, as it were, and possibly echoing the same bright moments of self-forgetting that the philosopher feels as he chases the top. It’s also nearly the same spirit in which Olsson herself lunges after the ineffable ghosts of her own personality, illustrating the exact opposite of what she took creativity to be: an expansion of self into the imagined figures of the past. A colonization of silence by personality.
But this is exactly why Olsson’s book is useful. Of course, it’s enjoyable to read, and there’s much to learn about the life of Weil’s genius brother and the biographies of a few other mathematicians. Olsson has a natural, clean, and sophisticated voice. But most importantly, The Weil Conjectures is a counter-demonstration of Weil’s principles. It represents all of the emotionally vibrant bourgeois spiritual lassitude that Weil lived her very life against. And so, in the end, its faults are a kind of fascinating felix culpa.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.