The King of Love is Dead: The Ethics of Self-Effacement in Weil, Krishna, and MLK Jr.

January 18, 2007 at 2:27 am | Posted in attention, authorial agency, buddhism, christianity, ethics, exemplarity, gender, love, materiality, mysticism, no-self, political, sacrifice, the sacred, weil, writing | 10 Comments

First of all, I’d like to welcome Oublié Sur La Carte to the blogosphere and urge you to go check him out. His inaugural post deals with Baudelaire, writing, and memory — three of our favorite themes here at uncomplicatedly — and the lyrical prose already in evidence promises that future posts will not only be interesting, but beautiful to read.

Second of all, I’d like to make an excuse for myself. This post might have come into being a few days earlier, and been a little better researched, if the US postal service did not insist on depriving me for a week longer than promised of the books that I mailed myself from my parents’ house at the end of winter break. (Next time, I’ll use W.A.S.T.E. for sure.) So what I submit for your inspection this evening is the beginning of a theory rather than a fully worked-out one, subject to revision in future postings. On with the show.

“Let’s develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last time, I explored the idea present in both Bataille and Weil of turning one’s life into writing — both in the usual sense of writing autobiographically and in the decidedly unusual sense of making one’s life itself into a kind of message. What I would like to address today is the particular form this latter desire takes for Weil, and how understanding this desire, even if we do not share it, can help us to understand a few things about what it might mean to be ethical.

Previously I emphasized the communicative aspect of this desire, arguing that becoming a living message is a way of orienting one’s life towards others. What I glossed over, as some of you picked up in the comment thread, was the fact that Weil did not want to send her own individual message (in contrast, I would argue, to Bataille), but rather to erase herself and become simply an instrument of God. This raises a host of agency issues that date back to the Delphic Oracle and have haunted the mystical tradition ever since: If the words belong to the gods, is the oracle a poet or just a mouthpiece? Moreover, it’s a question that is profoundly gendered. It’s hard for women to rally around a figure whose fondest wish was to erase her individuality and allow the words of the patriarchal Christian God to exist in her place. Some feminist scholars reject Weil for precisely this reason, but it is my contention that to do so too hastily is to overlook important dimensions of her thought.

It’s important, first of all, to recognize the violence of Weil’s wish. It was not a feminine demurral she wanted to make, but a gruesome self-sacrifice:

Father, in the name of Christ grant me this, That I may be unable to will any bodily movement, like a total paralytic. That I may be incapable of receiving any sensation, like someone who is completely blind, deaf, and deprived of all the senses. That I may be unable to make the slightest connection between two thoughts, even the simplest, like the total idiots who not only cannot read or count but have never learned to speak. That I may be insensible to every kind of grief and joy, and incapable of any love for any being or thing, and not even for myself like old people in the last stage of decrepitude. Father, in the name of Christ grant me all this in reality.

[. . . ]

Father, since thou art Good and I am mediocrity, rend this body and soul away from me to make them into things for your use and let nothing remain of me, forever, except this rending itself, or nothingness.

Critics call this Weil’s “terrible prayer,” and it’s easy to see why. It is a wish for a kind of living death; it seems downright perverse to desire such affliction. All of us, myself included, who love life and are grateful for daily miracles such as friendship and puppies and good strong cups of tea, recoil at such a dire pronouncement. “What good,” we cry, “can come from such a naked death wish?”

Kugelmass proposed, in a recent conversation, that Weil’s desire to erase her individuality might be read as an attempt to escape the whole problem of individuality that haunts our daily ethical decisions — the problem that takes the form of the question, “But what can I do? I’m just one person.” The fantasy of making herself an instrument for God’s use, he suggested, is a fantasy of “acting sufficiently,” which no one person can ever really do.

What I would add to this formulation, then, is that the fantasy of sufficient action (that is, of actually being able to solve the world’s problems) is not simply escapist, but representative of a sincere desire to be as helpful as possible to one’s fellow human beings. In Weil’s life, this desire translated into the sort of sacrifice that nearly all of us have talked ourselves out of: she lived in bare, unheated rooms, wore shapeless black rags, and distributed nearly all her wages to the poor. By contrast, at a talk I attended once, radical ethicist Peter Singer was asked by an audience member whether he owned CDs and responded in the affirmative. Viewed in this light, Weil’s desire for self-effacement begins to seem less like a tragically misguided death wish and more like a rigorous ethics carried to the logical conclusions that most of us do not have the stomach for.

Her schoolmates called her “the categorical imperative in skirts.” But it’s important to note that Weil’s desire to become a “living metaphor” was not a desire to lead by heroic example; remember that she wanted to erase herself. She wanted “to be only an intermediary between the uncultivated ground and the plowed field, between the data of a problem and the solution, between the blank page and the poem, between the starving beggar and the beggar who has been fed.” This is extremely suggestive of the extinguishing of selfhood that one finds in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and it’s no coincidence: Weil could read Sanskrit, and refers to the Bhagavad Gita and several Buddhist sutras frequently in her notebooks.

In eastern philosophy, the extinguishing of selfhood is associated with the shattering of delusions. Only when you overcome your desires, fears, worries, joys, etc — all of the things that make you you — can you transcend your individual perspective and see the reality of the universe. This kind of total enlightenment is extremely difficult to obtain and takes most people many lifetimes to achieve; for practical purposes, it is a distant horizon toward which one aims. What one does on a day to day basis, according many Buddhist and Hindu practices, is simply learn to sit perfectly still and quiet one’s mind. But this is not a purely negative effort; in most of these practices, what you are concentrating on is not nothing, but your own breathing. The idea is that you stop multitasking at last. You practice breathing with perfect attention, and with cultivation this attention can be turned toward more complex objects: people, problems.

This pure attention is what Weil strives for, at bottom, in her drive toward self-effacement. Her reading of the command to love thy neighbor is remarkable. She writes of the beaten man lying by the side of the road in the parable of the good Samaritan that he is “deprived of human personality . . . [he is] only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him.” The priest and the Levite pass by without stopping, and what the Samaritan does is “give his attention all the same to this absent humanity.” This act of creative attention, imagining humanity where there is none, is the Samaritan’s true accomplishment; the actions which follow, Weil writes, are just the “automatic effect” of this attention, which is fundamentally “a renunciation.”

From a purely Buddhist perspective, the line connecting attention to renunciation is easy to draw. Though Weil was aware of this perspective, in the essay in question (“Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” available in the collection Waiting for God) as in all her “public” writing, she is working within the western Christian tradition and writing to a western Christian audience. This is how she formulates it:

Whatever a man may want, in cases of crime as in those of the highest virtue, in the minutest preoccupations as in the greatest designs, the essence of his desire always consists in this, that he wants above all things to be able to exercise his will freely. To wish for the existence of this free consent in another, deprived of it by affliction, is to transport oneself into him; it is to consent to affliction oneself. It is to deny oneself. In denying oneself, one becomes capable under God of establishing someone else by a creative affirmation. One gives oneself in ransom of the other. It is a redemptive act.

The implied comparison is, of course, to Christ. How did God save mankind? By coming down here and suffering among us. He’s God, he’s magic — presumably he could have just erased original sin with a wave of his hand. But the reason he doesn’t do it is the same reason it’s not sufficient just to toss a handful of change to the man by the side of the road: when we use the forces at our disposal to help somebody in need, we do not uplift or change him. In fact, we continue to deprive him of the ability to exercise his will freely — what happens to him is what we choose to have happen to him. The way Weil sees it, God chose instead to pay attention to us — and he didn’t just sit up there in paradise listening to us bitch, either; he came down here and bled and loved and lost and wept, so he could really understand what we were talking about. He gave himself up for us, gave up that which made him God (namely, his immunity to such suffering) in order to feel what we feel. We should, Weil argues, imitate Christ and strive to lose ourselves in attention to the suffering of others. The actions which follow will be automatic.

Eric O. Springsted, to whom I owe some of the insights in the above paragraph, points out in Simone Weil and the Suffering of Love that while Weil spills a great deal of ink over the crucifixtion, the resurrection does not figure very prominently in her theology. While Springsted is sure, and I am mostly sure, that she believed in Christ’s resurrection, it seems that this omission was deliberate. If one pays attention to the resurrection instead of the suffering and death of Christ, one risks modeling one’s behavior on entirely the wrong thing: the vain hope for eternal selfhood rather than the infinite compassion of sacrifice, the renunciation of that selfhood. The King of Love, as it were, must be a dead one.

This brings us to the work of another Simone: Nina. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a DJ on my local college radio station played a song written by Gene Taylor, Simone’s bassist, after receiving the news of Dr. King’s assassination. “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” is a simple song with forthright lyrics, exactly the sort of thing you might scratch down in the throes of grief, but Simone’s voice gives it enormity. The performance on the album Nuff Said was recorded just three days after King’s death:

Turn the other cheek, he’d plead,
Love thy neighbor was his creed,
Pain, humiliation, death he did not dread

[. . .]

‘Cause he’d seen the mountain top
And he knew he could not stop
Always living with the threat of death ahead

If you were unaware of the context, for the first three verses of this song you might very well think it was a song about Christ. It’s not until verse four that you get “with his Bible at his side” whose anachronicity would cause you to question this assumption, and not until verse six that King is named explicitly. The pun in the final line, which is also the title of the song, hardly registers as such: it is a song about both men. Hearing it made me realize that King, Christ, and Weil all understood that to stand up to the forces of oppression, even if it’s just to help a man by the side of the road, is to fundamentally imperil yourself.

The epigraph to this post was taken from King’s final speech, “I See the Promised Land” (to which I was pointed by — who else? — Kugelmass, after describing to him the above song). Its major subject is, uncannily enough, the specter of King’s own death. He starts by describing the tour through famous revolutions he might make if God gave him the chance to live at any time in history, declaring that in spite of all those past victories, there is no time he would rather have lived than his own, the mid-twentieth century on the verge of a civil rights revolution. He then discusses an attempt that was made on his life earlier in his career — apparently he was stabbed just above the heart and it was rather miraculous that he lived. He declares how glad he is to have survived that attack and witnessed the victories of the early 1960s, and then he concludes the speech this way:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

While this statement contains a Weilian wish to “just” do God’s will, you might point out that King seems to be accepting death here rather than seeking it. I would reply: was what he did not suicide? The man got death threats practically every day of his life. He was not seeking death for its own sake, but for the good it could do to others — in this, Weil is no different. She cuts a grim figure, but she does so in order to remind us of the importance of real sacrifice: the squalid, all-too-real kind rather than the idealized kind that leads to a sort of immortality.

So no: I don’t think that Weil’s desire for self-effacement is morbid, and I don’t think it’s antifeminist. When she makes her life into a message, she erases her authorship in order to be pure communication, all outward-turning with no inward-turning, all love with no ego. Weil has been to a mountaintop all her own — it’s not quite King’s mountaintop, and not quite Christ’s either, but it’s definitely on the same map.

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