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Simone Weil

Eva Hesse

The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”

Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”

I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.

Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:

I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.

But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.


Another passage from Christian Wiman* that speaks to poetry writing but could apply to all the rest of us who are inveterate makers:

Reality doesn’t need us. A poet knows this, and then, in the midst of a poem, when reality streams through the words that would hold it, doesn’t quite. W.S. Di Pietro, probably the most consistently compelling and idiosyncratic prose writer among contemporary poets, writes of the moment when one realizes that one’s “attempts to write poetry, with all its halting correctiveness and will towards coherence, is of no consequence to the starry sky.” And yet it was the starry sky that occasioned the poem, perhaps, that seems to be not simply its subject but somehow in the poem, of it. It is a calling, we say, trying to explain this need to make things the world can do without, as if the plain givenness of reality could ever be a call, as if a poem could ever be an answer.

The need to make things the world can do without. And yet.

Another great passage from Wiman.

*Other memorable passages from the poet Christian Wiman’s only prose book, Ambition and Survival are included in these posts:

Wimanian Wisdom
Wimanian Wisdom Part 2

Whether Utah (like this image) or Wiman’s West Texas, the desert can be a crucible for poets and pietists

This is a continuation of the theme from my previous post…Here are a few more passages from Ambition and Survival, Becoming a Poet by Christian Wiman. His insights into creating—poetry and painting share so many aspects in that regard—as well as a childhood spent among fundamentalist Christians (I grew up in the Mormon faith) speak deeply to me.

On the discipline of preparedness:

I find I can get prose written in just about any circumstances, but I’ve never been able to write poetry, which I find infinitely more satisfying, without having vast tracts of dead time. Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world, including many prose writers (even, at times, this one), doesn’t recognize as discipline. It is, though. It’s the discipline to endure hours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry, though you may in fact not be able to write a word of it just then, and though it may be playing practical havoc with your life. It’s the discipline of preparedness.

On growing up within the Christian fundamentalism of West Texas:

I grew up with a notion of radical conversion, a sudden, sometimes ravaging call for which the only answer was your life.

The religious extremity, the way some people seemed to have looked too long at God as into the sun, so that everything they saw subsequently both was and wasn’t that blaze. You must be born again. For most people this happened in puberty, and may be seen, of course, merely as one religion’s way of trying to restrain the animal volatility and confusion of that time, the body’s imperatives countered by God’s.

I’d seen my share of people…using God like a drug to both heighten and dull a reality that’s too ordinary and painful to bear, and i’d seen my share of people…who had turned his annihilating loneliness into a spiritual mission.

On moving beyond the religion of one’s childhood:

It seems that a god possessed ecstatically, as mine was in my childhood, not by books but in my blood and bones, would make a hard departure. I can’t find the scar, though, and I’ve done some serious searching. I’ve begun to wonder if doubt, like grief, is less one moment you can point to, one would you can heal, than all the moments of past and future, memory and imagination, into which that doubt, that grief, has blend. Iv’e begun to wonder if the god I knew so bodily and utterly in my childhood could ever be completely gone.

At some point, though, that whole visceral energy of image and language, that charge with which my childhood was both enlivened and fraught, became mere myth and symbol, as if the current simply went out of them. That is happened so easily, was so devoid of crisis, might argue that my faith had no real purchase on me; that I seem prone to periods of apparently sourceless despair might argue the opposite. At any rate, whether that loss is cause or effect, whether it has infiltrated my life in other ways or is merely one dimension of a wide loss, which I would call consciousness, the fact is I don’t give myself over to much. I don’t trust.

A ringing headache…persisted…as if my brain were a bell that God, running out of options, sometimes strikes.

Christian Wiman

I wasn’t familiar with the poet Christian Wiman before watching his interview with Bill Moyers. But his tone in that conversation—the comfort with the “don’t know” mind, a willingness to drop into the interior landscape in spite of many prevailing cultural trends that favor distance and detachment, a fearlessness in facing up to the exacting demands of the creative life—was so singular and memorable that I immediately ordered a volume of his poems and his only prose book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

Once I started reading the essays in A&E, there was no putting it down. It is all I’ve read for days. Already well worn and dog-eared, my copy has marks and annotations on every page. What a great book. What an extraordinary writer.

Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has published several volumes of his own work. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of blood cancer, one that mysteriously might end his life immediately or then again, may not. The profound precariousness of his life has, understandably, sharpened and concentrated his wisdom about poetry and about life. He has a voice that merges the poetic with the spiritual without falling prey to the usual disbalancing distortions that often occur when those two are coupled up. What is often a source of discomfort for many contemporary readers is a seamless ride in Wiman’s world. The refiner’s fire of his life has clarified and crystallized the personal into something much larger than one man’s journey, one man’s life.

There’s food for weeks in this book (and I’ll be pulling more from it in future posts) but here’s a few samplings to whet your appetite for Wimanian wisdom:

Any writing that is merely personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is…inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.

There are people of abstract passion, people whose emotional lives are intense but, for one reason or another, interior, their energies accumulating always at the edge of action, either finding no outlet into reality, or ones too small for the force that warps them.

What happens to a passion that, though it fuels art, remains in some essential human sense abstract, never altogether attaching itself to any one person, any one time or token of the perishable earth? Does art, at least in some instances, and for some artists, demand this, that they always feel most intensely the life they’ve failed to feel? Is it worth it? The will, at least in its higher manifestations, is not a capacity that humans have learned to exercise with much precision. Always there are secondary casualties, collateral damages inflicted upon whoever happens to be in the way. To love is to really be in the way.

If you one day find that you are living outside of your life, that whatever activity you thought was life is in fact a defense against it, or a crowding out of it, or just somehow misses it, you might work hard to retain some faith in the years that suddenly seem to have happened without you. You might, like Milton, give yourself over to some epic work in which you find a coherence and control that eluded you in life. You might, like me, begin recounting vaguely exotic anecdotes to account for a time when you were so utterly unconscious you may as well have been living in Dubuque—might present them in such a way that your real subject remains largely in the shadows they cast. You might find that the hardest things to let go are those you never really took hold of in the first place.