Man only escapes from the laws of this world in lightning flashes. Instants where everything stands still, instants of contemplation, of pure intuition, of mental void, of acceptance of the moral void. It is through such instants that he is capable of the supernatural. (11)
As I read through Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, first published in 1947 and consisting of passages culled from her notebooks by Gustave Thibon, I note early on the devotion to and search for “the void.” Here Weil posits the experience of what is truly divine, holy and sacred. Her words in the above quote carry something of the “mysterium tremendum” as elucidated by Rudolf Otto in his seminal work, The Idea of the Holy.
It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of–whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures. (13)
“In the presence of whom or what?” First, let’s consider what Weil considers the world as-such, “the laws of this world” and “all the natural movements of the soul . . . controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception.” Nature and soul. Soul being those appetites and drives that mirror flora and fauna around us. For Weil grace or χάρις could be “a returning of what has been received” and as Otto defines as “a demanding back” or a “turning away . . . taking the form of expiation and propitiation.” In this understanding, the act of grace is to avert and avoid the natural laws of the natural world. Weil seeks (though “seeking” is an action she might not approve) to go further with grace and further into the void than mere denial. She’s ever shedding her “self” to approach the numinous, what Otto offers as the experience and quality of the inexpressible. I must detach myself not only from material possessions, but also detach from my desire for all good things–who I love, who I revere. As Weil writes, “We must give up everything which is not grace and not even desire grace.” And this path to the void turns existence and being into the unreal. And for Weil, this unreal must be be found by negating our natural soul in order to enter the supernatural–to unmake ourselves as human beings and become something other, as other as grace itself, to go beyond into non-being.
To accept a void in ourselves is supernatural. (11)
In this way, our very interior becomes something other than daughter and son, father and mother, husband and wife; something other than ethics and morality; something other than work–something other than a natural life and death, something other than culture and identity.
To let go of Gabriela and Demian. To let go of any love and attachment to them. To move beyond defining myself by the love of others and the care of my natural self. And here, I began to sense the terror of this grace, this void. Unreal our marriage, unreal our parenting. This is awful, this is monstrous, this is other and beyond. Weil’s detachment has the ring of lessons Arjuna receives in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna is horrified by what the divine, that which is numinous asks him to do.
When one has let go
to the fruits of action,
even when turning
that one does nothing at all.
Commit an action such as helping someone off the ground who has fallen, and commit the action without believing it is good, believing it is true, believing that this makes you a certain type of person, and that you are any person at all who deserves anything that usually falls to a person. It is not just the “fruits of action” for Weil, she writes
There must be no consolation–no apparent consolation. Ineffable consolation then comes down. (12)
Suffering is not detachment. The experience of suffering must be cast aside. Do not console the person who has fallen and expect nor want consolation yourself. To “empty ourselves of the world” she writes, and to empty ourselves of ourselves. There is only a consolation never to be uttered nor understood. The unknowable consolation of the supernatural. So for Weil, grace and the supernatural returns us to the beginning as in Genesis 1.2 from the Torah translated by the Jewish Publication Society: “the earth being unformed and void.” The same in the New Revised Standard Version Bible: “the earth was a formless void.” And as in the Tao Te Ching translated by Robert G. Henricks as the Te-Tao Ching: “The things of the world originate in being, / And being originates in nonbeing.”
The return to the beginning, from whence all that must be given away had its birth. The mystery of rapture is to “unbecome,” to “unbe” who and what we are. We must understand we are not real, the real residing in going back to nonbeing, to nothingness. Something dreadful in this. Truly a vision, a mystical vision beyond any natural definition of the world you and I find ourselves in right now, the you and I we find within our skins right now. And here Weil meets E.M. Cioran On The Heights of Despair.
How I would love one day to see all people, young and old, sad or happy, men and women, married or not, serious or superficial leave their homes and their work places, relinquish their duties and responsibilities, gather in the streets and refuse to do anything anymore.
Let all form become formless, and chaos swallow the structure of the world in a gigantic maelstrom. Let there be tremendous commotion and noise, terror, and explosion, and then let there be eternal silence and total forgetfulness. And in those final moments, let all that humanity has felt until now, hope, regret, love, despair, and hatred, explode with such force that nothing is left behind. Would not such moments be the triumph of nothingness and the final apotheosis of nonbeing? (52-53)
The mystic opens itself to the divine and the divine opens the mystic–this is the heart of theophany, this is what it means to become possessed by the numinous. And in this possession, to relinquish any possession, any attribute, any affections, any sentiment. It is to desire without desiring the end of joy and misery, the end of being beholden and beholder. To be one with the ineffable, and in so doing be unspoken.
I have to think about this terrible beauty. The songs of Fiona Apple turn me inside out, lift emotions out of me, tear away mundane gripes, the everyday afflictions; and yet, also ground me very much in sadness and fear and ecstasy, though she also sings of leaving behind pain, walking into pain, living with joyful suffering and also kicking it out the door. Her voice to me is not of this muddled world, but is it of the other? Time to fetch the bold cutters–one way or the other. Bon Appétit!