Weil and Hesse


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.

6 Comment

  1. Sally Reed says:

    SW was the rare very articulate both-brilliant-and-deep mind. I try to keep these words of hers in mind when I am sitting with someone who is suffering.

    “Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.”

  2. Deborah, your reservation about a categorical reading of Wiman’s statement is reasonable. Otherwise, life becomes centered around suffering, which while inevitable, pervasive, and integral to whatever meaning life has, does not define it. I have a similar reservation about Weil herself, whom in most respects I adore, that she too enthusiastically embraced a vocation in suffering.

  3. A, that’s it–a too enthusiastic embracing of the vocation of suffering. I too adore Simone but she’s an elixir that is too concentrated on its own.

  4. I love the Berry quote. So apt for these times. Or maybe, for all times.
    I like your idea of placing Weill and Hesse side-by-side, as it were. Intriguing possibilities.

    1. Ann, Thanks for your words and for stopping by. And yes, the two of them have a surprising number of commonalities.

  5. dmarshall58 says:

    I don’t know Weil or Hesse well, so you’ve given me more to explore. I was particularly interested in the statement from Christian Winman you quoted near the end. I’d say self-consciousness and comfort are incompatible. When you know too much about subjectivity, you learn to distrust everything. That’s not at all a bad thing–it does make each day new–and, especially for an artist, comfort is the enemy.

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