Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature, by Marie Cabaud Meaney (Oxford University Press, 2007)


It seems that anyone who pursues an interest in Greek literature and/or spiritual writing sooner or later encounters the work of Simone Weil.  She left little in the way of completed works, but filled many notebooks and letters, from which much of the material in this book is drawn.  She is always described as a brilliant intellect, but who later in her short life experienced a mystical vision about which she wrote that “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

She was famously not a “joiner,” either of the academy or of the (Catholic) Church, but cultivated and expressed a unique vision that attempted to reconcile the two.  In this book, which is really an apologia to Weil’s apologia (in the ancient Greek sense of “defense”), Cabaud Meaney sets out to provide the kind of coherent support for this vision that Weil herself in fact may have if she had lived longer.  Their basic premise is that the ancient Greek tragedies prefigure many of the themes that became central to Christianity: forgiveness, the duty of love, obedience to God vs. obedience to the law, the soul-killing effects of force, etc.

While Weil’s focus was on Greek literature, she was not the first to see this continuity.  I happened to be alternating between this book and one by Patrick Leigh Fermer called Mani (New York Review Books, 1958), which describes a walking tour he took of a remote Greek peninsula of that name in the 1950’s.  He describes seeing representations of Greek philosophers in an old church there, although “bereft of haloes.”  He goes on, “Their presence, due to passages in their work interpreted as prophecy or ratification of the incarnation of Christ, seems to announce the age-old truth that the Greek Orthodox Church glorifies not only the Christian miracle as revealed to the Evangelists but the continuity and indestructibility of Hellenism and the part played in Christianity by the thought and discipline of the pagan Greek philosophers.” (p. 243-4)  Weil, and Cabaud Meaney, make the case that this glorification can also be found in the tragedians: Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, as well as Homer.

Without her visionary experience, this insight might have been relegated to an academic journal somewhere, but it gains more force from her description of the personal encounter with Christ, and her subsequent efforts to help revive interest in the Catholic Church.  But while I admire Weil’s insistence on an outsider status (something I share), I can’t help but wonder why she remained loyal to the institution of the Church after her revelation.  From my own experience and other accounts I’ve read, such glimpses of the “supernatural” or “transcendental” are beyond name and form, which is what makes them so impossible to describe and so often results in their being dismissed by pure rationalists.

That is certainly not to say that they aren’t valid; my point is that both the Greeks and the Christians are expressing something more universal than either.  In another famous passage, Weil speaks of the Greeks “building bridges,” but which we have turned into habitations–we choose to live there rather than be transported to some unknowable “other side.”   I think if she had retained the mystery of what is on the other side, rather than providing the safe image of the Church, or even of the Christ, her work would be more universal.  It is unfortunate that she died so young, still it would seem in the “material-gathering” phase of her work, and not having time to express it fully, even if it meant developing a new language.  This book by Cabaud Meaney may be closest we get to that expression, and I’d recommend it to those interested in Weil’s thought.

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