Experiencing Affliction

17 October 2009


Simone Weil, 03 February 1909 to 24 August 1943

Simone Weil, 03 February 1909 to 24 August 1943

I can remember with surprising clarity a conversation that I had some many years ago (about fifteen years ago, give or take) with a former roommate. We shared a third floor apartment on Belmont Street in southeast Portland with a window that looked down directly on the Belmont Inn, and shared a good many intense conversations, but this conversation in particular stands out in the my memory.

We were discussing the experience of prejudice and intolerance, and I maintained at the time that one could reproduce the conditions of intolerance and obtain a more or less authentic experience of prejudice, citing Black Like Me as an example of what might be called experimental role playing. My friend maintained that this would not be an authentic experience of prejudice because one knows even while one is experiencing the prejudice that one can voluntarily end it at any time, whereas the authentic experience involves a consciousness of the permanence of the condition. This observation is based upon a distinction between voluntary and involuntary experiences of affliction.

Job experienced involuntary affliction, and then had to listen to his 'friends' tell him that it must have been his fault. Very frustrating, no doubt.

This old conversation came back to me today as I was listening to a biography of Simone Weil by Francine Du Plessix Gray. The biography recounts how Weil, who after a comfortable childhood attended the École Normale Supérieure (the most elite of all French schools), became a teacher of philosophy in a girl’s secondary school. This, however, did not satisfy Weil’s need for suffering, and while, as a philosopher, she should have been aware of the distinction between voluntary suffering and involuntary suffering, she determined that she would suffer as the working class suffered.

'We shall send the Red Virgin as far away as possible so that we shall never hear of her again.' Director of Career Placement at the École Normale Supérieure.

Like many early twentieth century intellectuals, she began with strong communist sympathies, though the Soviet brand of communism did not live up to her moral ideals and she turned against it. Eventually she had a mystical experience and turned to Christianity, but, before this, her strong leftist views and her need to experience the difficulties and privations of ordinary working class people led her to ask for a year off from teaching, during which time she obtained jobs for unskilled factory labor. I will admit that I took a dim view of her experimental sociology and voluntary suffering as a factory worker, and for the same reason that my friend had pointed out years before.

Simone Weil felt the need to experience the conditions of the life of the industrial proletariat, so she joined their ranks for a year. In her notebooks of this period she wrote: 'When I think that the great Bolshevik leaders claimed to be creating a free working class and probably not one of them -- surely not Trotsky, and I don't think Lenin did either -- ever set foot in a factory and hence did not have the faintest idea of the real conditions which determine the servitude or freedom of these workers -- politics seems a sinister farce indeed'.

There is something spectacularly theatrical about a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure taking a job in a factory and allowing herself to become so reduced in circumstances that sufficient money for food became an issue. She had professional parents, and she had an elite degree, but chose — for a year, at least — to live the life of the underprivileged. “Chose” is the crucial term here, for the episode was voluntary. I don’t say that she didn’t learn from it, and I don’t say that it didn’t change her life and her outlook, but it was not the experience of someone who has to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow because they have no other options. For such an one, factory labor is not a one year essay in experimental sociology, it is a life sentence.

'Slowly and with suffering, I have reconquered through slavery my feeling of the dignity of being human, a feeling that this time did not reside in anything external, and was always accompanied by the consciousness that I had no right to anything, that each instant free from suffering and humiliations was to be received as a grace, as the simple result of favorable luck. This slavery is defined by two factors: speed and orders.' Simone Weil

I was also reminded of Chris McCandless, of whom I recently wrote, who also came from a privileged background and received an elite education but turned his back on this. Weil the European went into the wilds of industrialized society; McCandless the American sought the faceless anonymity of the untrammeled wilderness. The environments could not have been more different, but the drive to prove that one can survive on one’s own is almost frightening in its similarity (as is the drive to self-mortification).

Christopher Johnson McCandless, AKA Alexander Supertramp, like Simone Weil, submitted himself to an ordeal. In both cases the need to experience voluntary suffering was fatal.

I have written elsewhere that the accomplishments of the elite and the privileged are always tainted by the fact that what they have attained has not been earned. But it is apparent that there are always a few honest individuals among the privileged who are acutely aware that their position has not been earned, that it is tainted, and the only way to prove that one can make it on one’s own is to cut one’s ties to one’s privileged background and strike out on one’s own.

The voluntary suffering of a rigorous quest has been a part of Western civilization since its beginning.

A quest of this intensity is not the result of ratiocination or rational calculation. It is emotional and intuitive, instinctive and visceral. Few if any would risk their life, or lose their life, on the basis of a rational calculation. One calculates a risk precisely because one wants to come out on the winning side, although one may well still be wrong and end up losing. But a spiritual quest is made of different material. It does not answer to rational calculation, and it would not recognize the limitation my friend recognized years ago, and which I only today found in myself.

Weil, like McCandless, died young from the rigors of her quest.

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