a retrograde quality we perhaps should never completely abandon

May 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

From an interesting email response to a post I wrote elsewhere concerning Simone Weil & Wallace Stevens:

I hope this won’t seem tediously contrarian, but I must say that in some respects I find Stevens more of an ascetic than  Weil.  True, it’s a peculiar kind of opulent asceticism, but in his poetry the real world is consistently devalued for the realm of pure imagination. When reality does make an appearance it’s usually as a rude intruder, the  source of horrible sorrow, as in the great short poem “Gallant Chateau.”  Elsewhere, as in “Arrival at the Waldorf,” he actually seems to mock this world with all its supposed wonders and adventures, suggesting that they’re all basically interchangeable and equally banal.  At best the world may be a source of imagery for his solitary meditations.

I read Stevens most deeply during a time of acute loneliness; he was a great solace.  His poetry teaches you how to be alone.

It was around the same time that I was reading Weil, and her effect was almost the opposite. [. . .]  They represent two distinct spiritual practices.  Even when she is most abstract, and seemingly pure, I can never forget the world with which she was passionately engaged til the horrible end.

It delights me to no end to get such responses. I responded in kind, via email, but thought I might extend the reflections here as well.

* * *

Though I see & sympathize with what my friend says about Wallace Stevens as more ascetic than Weil, I cannot help but continue to resist. I see Stevens, like Paul Valéry, as rather being invested fully in creation itself. The use of this creation may be maligned by the crude vulgarities to which it is put to use or that are its settings, but this, it seems to me, is all the more reason to keep creating. The Creator, Stevens says in one of his Prefaces of Valéry’s Dialogues, thus puts himself in the place of God (“not meaning that he becomes God”) — who, I might note, was so disappointed in His creation He quite willingly allowed himself to be killed off by it. (Pardon the gendered divinity, but I’m more content having a dead Father than Mother.)

In contrast, though Weil is inextricably enmeshed in the world, she is so in such a way as finally to lose the world. Her desire, as it were, is de-creation/un-creation — there’s probably an appropriate French term eluding me at the moment. Unlike the creator, her terminal declaration can never be “it was good,” with its attending “be fruitful and multiply,” etc.; but, rather, an exhausted “at last,” collapsing into “it is finished.”

Though my friend does not pursue this, I would affirm that Weil perhaps seeks a grace that is arguably more creative for its being on “a higher plane” — a higher plane, we should note, that is achieved only by one’s embodiment in the depths of the “lower plane” of existence. There is something beautiful and seductive about this kind of mysticism, and I do not necessarily regard as fruitless the pursuit. Quite simply, I remain wary of the achievement that abides in all its fleshly frustrations. Her Messiah, we’ll recall, has already come.

Here I will venture a claim with which  my friend (and perhaps many of you) will disagree: in Weil I, quite plainly, find too much hope (namely, her sense that there is a point to pain, and that this point makes possible one’s knowing endurance), and far too little creative anticipation. By the latter I mean an anticipation without hope: that is, a creation of the conditions for which it awaits, and thus a creation that in fact never stops. (I am prepared to be called on the carpet for an over-emphasis, or rather an assertion wholly of beginnings — of beginnings that are wholly beginnings, pregnant with ends, perhaps, but never pointed to a single one — of possibilities.)

As is no doubt clear, I align Stevens with the “creative anticipation” perspective. As such, it could very well be that my friend has a point concerning loneliness. It seems to me, though, that loneliness can ever only goes so far, particularly when it is invested in somehow animating the possibility of (&, I would add, the continuance of) creativity. One need only read Genesis 1 & 2 to see that the articulation of beginnings & possibilities can be a lonely affair, and indeed many a starry-eyed romantic sentiment has been stirred such — but the effects of these lonely articulations and sentiments, because they are ultimately experienced in the world, are never so nakedly individual. In effect, could we then say that Stevens, like YHWH (?), moves from the loneliness of creation to the experience of a world itself?

For her part, Weil seems immersed within a world that because it is created but once, and poorly at that, can only result in abject loneliness. For her, grace brings creation to its end — it hard to tell, at least for me, whether this means it is creation’s purpose (which I think assumes a lot, but fair enough) or creation’s actual cessation (which sounds more reasonable in a way, if ultimately stifling).

By my eyes– heavily influenced as I am by a man who wrote the book (well, a book) on the subject — we would do better to identify Weil as the ascetic, and Stevens the aesthete. As my friend rightly notes, two distinct practices, each with significant overlay, both sharing, I would add, a retrograde quality we perhaps should never completely abandon.

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