Why have there not been more great works of art by women? This is the question around which Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” spins. Its widening ellipses—one almost sees them on the paper, the pendulum swinging from the still point above—trace a path from Jane Austen to Christina Rossetti to Woolf’s own day. The reader need not recoil from dizziness, though, since the whole is balanced by Woolf’s confident, conversational tone. One almost feels one is with her, trespassing on the college green and pulling tomes from the shelves of the British Library. One wishes it were possible, she seems so amiable. For all her dissent from the norms of her time she has none of the shrill of a dissident and all of the dexterity of a wit. How deftly she skewers her opponents! Her case is admirably simple: a lock on the door and a check in the mail are necessary to write great work. Who are we to disagree? It is just these, she says, that have been denied women until the present time. Without privacy and material independence we cannot expect great art. Let us be glad she was afforded both.
That which is difficult to say, should still be said: Simone Weil’s writing is more important than anything I can say about it. I won’t say much. Simone Weil was a philosopher and mystic who lived in France in the first half of the 20th century. Brought up by secular Jewish parents in Paris, Weil studied and taught philosophy before her activity with labor organizing ended her teaching career. When she was 25 years old, she spent a year working in the Renault automobile factory, an experience that compromised her already weak disposition and forced her to give up her experiment in living in solidarity with the working class. During her time recovering, Weil had a series of mystical encounters. Though she refused baptism into the Catholic Church, spiritual matters dominated her thinking in her later life. She died in England at the age of 34, exiled from her homeland by the Nazis. She is believed to have died of voluntary starvation, which she had undertaken to protest the plight of her French compatriots.
Her writing is, by turns, brilliant and frightening, sometimes simultaneously. It is always lucid: what Leslie Fiedler called the ‘terrible purity of her life’ is reflected in her parsimonious prose. Here are ten aphorisms that I’ve been reflecting on recently (taken from notebooks and letters, collected in Waiting for God, Gravity & Grace, and Simone Weil: An Anthology):
1. It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day.
2. Method of investigation: as soon as we have thought something, try to see in what way the contrary is true.
3. It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me.
4. Social enthusiasms have such power today … that I think it is well that a few sheep should remain outside the fold in order to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different.
5. To accept the fact that [other people] are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God. I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.
6. Love for our neighbor, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.
7. We are incapable of progressing vertically. We cannot take a step toward the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us.
8. I have to be like God, but like God crucified.
9. The children of God should not have any other country here below but the universe itself, with the totality of all the reasoning creatures it ever has contained, contains, or ever will contain. That is the native city to which we owe our love.