In December, the journal Brain Connectivity published a paper called "Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain," based on a study conducted at Emory University. The researchers did MRI scans of the brains of 21 undergraduate students over a period of days before, during, and after they read a best-selling historical page-turner called Pompeii over the course of nine evenings. A significant increase of activity in "the left angular supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri" occurred during the novel-reading phase of the experiment, which fell off rapidly once they finished the book -- the gyri being, the report explained, regions of the brain "associated with perspective taking and story comprehension."
Not a big surprise; you'd figure as much. But the researchers also found that an elevated level of activity continued in the bilateral somatosensory cortex for some time after the subjects were done reading. In the novel, a young Roman aqueduct engineer visiting the ancient vacation resort of Pompeii "soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work -- both natural and man-made -- threatening to destroy him." Presumably the readers had identified with the protagonist, and parts of their brains were still running away from the volcano for up to five days after they finished the book.
So one might construe the findings, anyway. The authors are more cautious. But they raise the question of whether the experience of reading novels "is sufficiently powerful to cause a detectable reorganization of cortical networks" -- what they call a "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration." Or to put it another way, a long-term rearrangement of the mind's furniture.
It isn't a work of fiction, and I am but a solitary reader without so much as access to an electroencephalograph, but A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, a French best-seller from 2011 just published in English by Verso, seems to have been setting up its own "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration" within my head over the past few days. Maybe it's the weather. After so many months of cold weather and leaden skies, Gros's evocation of the pleasures of being outside, moving freely, in no particular hurry, stirs something deep within.
The author, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, has, among other things, edited volumes in the posthumous edition of Michel Foucault's lectures at the College de France. But the authority Gros brings to his reflections on walking comes only in part from knowing the lives and writings of ambulatory thinkers across the millennia, beginning in ancient Greece. He is a scholar but also a connoisseur -- someone who has hiked and wandered enough in his time, over a sufficient variety of terrains, to know at first hand the range of moods (ecstasy, monotony, exhaustion) that go with long walks.
It is a work of advocacy, and of propaganda against sedentary thinking. The first of Gros's biographical essays is on Nietzsche, who took up walking in the open air while suffering from migraine headaches, eyestrain, and late-night vomiting spasms. It did not cure him, but it did transform him. He might be the one spending time at health resorts, but it was contemporary intellectual life that manifested invalidism.
"We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books," Nietzsche wrote. "It is our habit to think outdoors -- walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or of a musical composition, are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?" Long, solitary hikes such as those taken by Nietzsche -- and also by Rousseau, the subject of another essay -- are only one mode of philosophical pedestrianism. The precisely timed daily constitutional that Kant took each day, so regular that his neighbors could set their watches by it, has gone down in history as an example of his extreme rigor (one easily recognized even by the layman who can't tell his an a posteriori from his elbow). Gros adds a telling detail to this otherwise commonplace biographical fact: Kant took care to walk at a measured, even pace, since he was profoundly averse to sweating.
At the other extreme was the ancient philosophical school known as the Cynics, with its cultivation of an almost violent indifference to comfort and propriety. The Cynics were homeless vagrants on principle. They denied themselves, as much as possible, every luxury, or even convenience, taken for granted by their fellow Greeks.
That included footwear: "They had done so much walking," Gros says, "that they hardly needed shoes or even sandals, the soles of their feet being much like leather." When the Cynics showed up in a town square, their constant exposure to nature's elements gave a jagged edge to the harangues in which they attacked commonplace ideas and values. Gros sees walking, then, as the foundation of the Cynics' philosophical method:
"Philosophers of the type one might call sedentary enjoy contrasting the appearance with the essence of things. Behind the curtain of tangible sights, behind the veil of visibilities, they try to identify what is pure and essential, hoping perhaps to display, above the colors of the world, the glittering, timeless transparency of their own thought…. The Cynic cut through that classic opposition. He was not out to seek or reconstruct some truth behind appearances. He would flush it out from the radical nature of immanence: just below the world's images, he was searching for what supported them. The elemental: nothing true but sun, wind, earth and sky; their truth residing in their unsurpassable vigor."
Walking is not a sport, Gros takes care to emphasize. You don't need any equipment (not even shoes, for an old-school Cynic) nor is any instruction required. The skill set is extremely limited and mastered by most people in infancy. Its practice is noncompetitive.
But in a paradox that gives the book much of its force, we don't all do it equally well. It's not just that some of us are clumsy or susceptible to blisters. Gros contrasts the experience of a group of people talking to one another while marching their way through a walking tour (an example of goal-driven and efficiency-minded behavior) and the unhurried pace of someone for whom the walk has become an end in itself, a point of access to the sublimely ordinary. And so he has been able to give the matter a lot of thought:
"Basically, walking is always the same, putting one foot in front of the other. But the secret of that monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom. Boredom is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind. The repetitiveness of walking eliminates boredom, for, with the body active, the mind is no longer affected by its lassitude, no longer drawn from its inertia the vague vertigo in an endless spiral.… The body's monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one's disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape."
As for the clumsiness and blisters, I hope they will disappear soon. It's the practice of walking, not reading about it, that makes all the difference. But no book has rewired my bilateral somatosensory cortex so thoroughly in a long while.
Nothing sharpens memory quite like regret, so I cannot help noting the anniversary of a tossed-off phrase that has come back to haunt me many times over the past 10 years.
In early 2004, I began writing an occasional series of two- or three-paragraph squibs on the latest publications and doings of the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where it ran under the title "Žižek Watch." In the subhead for one such mini-article, I referred to him as "the Elvis of cultural theory." The expression took wings and has been repeated on more occasions than any sane person could track. (As of this writing, it gets 79,000 returns from Google.)
The phrase will outlive me. Last year it appeared in an article in the journal Critical Inquiry, as well as in a Canadian dissertation on the concept of totalitarian evil in the work Hannah Arendt. Someone will eventually write a book using it as a title. Remembering the line always make me cringe, as if from mild food poisoning. For the most salient quality of "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- judged, by any standard, as a characterization of Žižek's work or career -- is its near perfect meaninglessness, verging on hopeless and absolute stupidity.
Unless you know the inside joke, anyway. By my count, roughly two people in the world are in on it. So to mark the anniversary, it is time finally to put the backstory on the record.
The idea for "Žižek Watch" came from my editor at the time, Richard Byrne, an estimable playwright and cultural journalist with family roots in the Balkans. These days Rich is at the helm of the University of Maryland Baltimore County's UMBC Magazine, of which he is the founding editor. We shared a fascination with Žižek's close but complex relationship with the Slovenian post-punk band Laibach and the avant garde movement around it. Given the pace of his output (two or three books a year, just in English) and the growing frequency with which he had begun appearing in odd corners of the mass media, it felt like a matter of time before he graced The National Enquirer, or at least Weekly World News.
So it was that through a chain of associations that "Žižek Watch" alluded -- very much in passing -- to the definitive song about the improbable ubiquity of a tabloid phenomenon: "Elvis is Everywhere" by Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper.
And the rest is, if not history, at least a decade-long lesson in the sliding of the signifier across the greased skids of digital-age publicity.
A footnote in one article from 2005 did trace "the Elvis of cultural theory" back to its first appearance, albeit without identifying the origins of the phrase as such. But by now, context is irrelevant. The expression has long since escaped meaning. And even though nobody seems to get it, does not the very circulation of my remark participate in what Žižek identifies as the "mystery" of jokes -- that they seemingly appear "all of a sudden out of nowhere," produced by "the anonymous symbolic order" through "the very unfathomable contingent generative power of language"?
So writes Elvis, or somebody, in the introduction to Žižek's Jokes (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?), published by MIT Press. It is an anthology of the theorist's shtick, not an analysis of it. The cover describes it as "contain[ing] every joke cited, paraphrased, or narrated in Žižek's work in English (including some in unpublished manuscripts), including different versions of the same joke that make different points in different contexts." The sources of the collected passages are given in the book's endnotes, followed with a brief yet oddly repetitive afterword by a novelist and songwriter from Scotland who lives in Japan and writes under the pen name Momus.
The claim to be exhaustive is difficult to credit, and so is the rationale offered for its existence: "The larger point being that comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness." Along with his frequent digressions into popular culture, Žižek's use of jokes has lent his books an appearance of accessibility that accounts for his fame with a broad audience. But that quality is misleading. Žižek practices a form of what Freud called "wild psychoanalysis," with contemporary culture as the analysand. The remarks, quoted earlier, about the free-floating and anonymous nature of jokes are just Žižek's paraphrase of a point made in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where Freud interpreted the erotic and aggressive drives manifested through manipulation of the funny bone.
By spelling that out, I've just told you more about why "comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness" than Žižek's Jokes ever does. In the afterword, Momus speculates that "the joke has become for Zizek what algebra is for his old ally and rival Badiou: the most concise way Žižek knows how to sum up a universal situational shape." The idea might well be developed further, preferably by someone who knows that Badiou's interest is in formalized set theory rather than algebra. But as formulated it is more a gesture than an insight
A gesture serving mainly to distract attention from two striking things about the book. The first is that Žižek's Jokes makes unavoidably obvious something that it was still possible to overlook 10 years ago: the dynamic role of cut-and-paste in Žižekian production.
Žižek once said that his completed theoretical edifice, spanning several volumes, would amount to a Summa Lacanica rivaling Aquinas's Summa for both scope and cohesion. But along the way, he has met the growing demand for his work from the editors of books, magazines, and newspapers by tearing off suitably sized chunks of whatever manuscript he had in progress. Sometimes he tweaked things to make it appear like freestanding essay or topical news commentary. And sometimes he did not, though publication was almost certain either way. (I know of one case where the author of a book tried, without success, to have the introduction commissioned from Žižek removed since it had nothing to do with the volume in question.)
Over time, reading Žižek became an experience in déjà vu, with passages from one volume reappearing in others or, in one case, twice in the same book. Žižek's Jokes takes this to a new level. He wrote nothing new for it. Even his two-page introduction consists of one long paragraph from an earlier book. It is a remarkable accomplishment and I do not imagine he will be able to surpass it.
The other striking feature of Žižek's Jokes is how grim the experience of reading it quickly proves to be. In accord with Freudian principles, they revolve almost entirely around sex and/or aggression, often involving racist or misogynist sentiments. All of which is fine when they appear as specimens in a cultural critique -- where they might even elicit a laugh, given the incongruity of seeing them in a context where Hegel or Heidegger have set the terms for analysis. But running through them one after another, in the service of no argument, is deadening. It ceases to be shocking. It just seems lame. Maybe he should be known as "the Jay Leno of cultural theory?" (If, you know, Leno had Tourettes.)
Of course it's also possible that Žižek has a hidden agenda -- that he's sick of being considered hilarious by people who aren't really interested in Hegel, et al., and so has decided to destroy that reputation in the most efficient way possible. And I'm not even joking about that. It makes a certain amount of sense.
Over the last year there has been a steady stream of articles about the “crisis in the humanities,” fostering a sense that students are stampeding from liberal education toward more vocationally oriented studies. In fact, the decline in humanities enrollments, as some have pointed out, is wildly overstated, and much of that decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the press is filled with tales about parents riding herd on their offspring lest they be attracted to literature or history rather than to courses that teach them to develop new apps for the next, smarter phone.
America has long been ambivalent about learning for its own sake, at times investing heavily in free inquiry and lifelong learning, and at other times worrying that we need more specialized training to be economically competitive. A century ago these worries were intense, and then, as now, pundits talked about a flight from the humanities toward the hard sciences.
Liberal education was a core American value in the first half of the 20th century, but a value under enormous pressure from demographic expansion and the development of more consistent public schooling. The increase in the population considering postsecondary education was dramatic. In 1910 only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; by 1940 it was 50 percent. For the great majority of those who went on to college, that education would be primarily vocational, whether in agriculture, business, or the mechanical arts. But even vocationally oriented programs usually included a liberal curriculum -- a curriculum that would provide an educational base on which one could continue to learn -- rather than just skills for the next job. Still, there were some then (as now) who worried that the lower classes were getting “too much education.”
Within the academy, between the World Wars, the sciences assumed greater and greater importance. Discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology did not seem to depend on the moral, political, or cultural education of the researchers – specialization seemed to trump broad humanistic learning. These discoveries had a powerful impact on industry, the military, and health care; they created jobs! Specialized scientific research at universities produced tangible results, and its methodologies – especially rigorous experimentation – could be exported to transform private industry and the public sphere. Science was seen to be racing into the future, and some questioned whether the traditional ideas of liberal learning were merely archaic vestiges of a mode of education that should be left behind.
In reaction to this ascendancy of the sciences, many literature departments reimagined themselves as realms of value and heightened subjectivity, as opposed to so-called value-free, objective work. These “new humanists” of the 1920s portrayed the study of literature as an antidote to the spiritual vacuum left by hyperspecialization. They saw the study of literature as leading to a greater appreciation of cultural significance and a personal search for meaning, and these notions quickly spilled over into other areas of humanistic study. Historians and philosophers emphasized the synthetic dimensions of their endeavors, pointing out how they were able to bring ideas and facts together to help students create meaning. And arts instruction was reimagined as part of the development of a student’s ability to explore great works that expressed the highest values of a civilization. Artists were brought to campuses to inspire students rather than to teach them the nuances of their craft. During this interwar period a liberal education surely included the sciences, but many educators insisted that it not be reduced to them. The critical development of values and meaning was a core function of education.
Thus, despite the pressures of social change and of the compelling results of specialized scientific research, there remained strong support for the notion that liberal education and learning for its own sake were essential for an educated citizenry. And rather than restrict a nonvocational education to established elites, many saw this broad teaching as a vehicle for ensuring commonality in a country of immigrants. Free inquiry would model basic democratic values, and young people would be socialized to American civil society by learning to think for themselves.
By the 1930s, an era in which ideological indoctrination and fanaticism were recognized as antithetical to American civil society, liberal education was acclaimed as key to the development of free citizens. Totalitarian regimes embraced technological development, but they could not tolerate the free discussion that led to a critical appraisal of civic values. Here is the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, speaking to undergraduates just two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany:
To my mind, one of the most important aspects of a college education is that it provides a vigorous stimulus to independent thinking.... The desire to know more about the different sides of a question, a craving to understand something of the opinions of other peoples and other times mark the educated man. Education should not put the mind in a straitjacket of conventional formulas but should provide it with the nourishment on which it may unceasingly expand and grow. Think for yourselves! Absorb knowledge wherever possible and listen to the opinions of those more experienced than yourself, but don’t let any one do your thinking for you.
This was the 1930s version of liberal learning, and in it you can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of autonomy and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance.
In the interwar period the emphasis on science did not, in fact, lead to a rejection of broad humanistic education. Science was a facet of this education. Today, we must not let our embrace of STEM fields undermine our well-founded faith in the capacity of the humanities to help us resist “the straitjackets of conventional formulas.” Our independence, our freedom, has depended on not letting anyone else do our thinking for us. And that has demanded learning for its own sake; it has demanded a liberal education. It still does.
Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, will be published next year by Yale University Press.His Twitter handle is@mroth78
In some fields, the ground tone of reviews is normally subtle and soothing: the sound of logs being gently rolled. Poets are especially prone to giving one another gold stars for effort. Journals devoted to contemporary art have cultivated a dialect in which even the syntax is oblique. The reviewers’ judgments (if that is what they are) resist paraphrase.
Philosophy is another matter. Extremely critical and even brutal book reviews, while hardly the norm, are at least an occupational hazard. The drubbing may be delivered in measured terms and an even tone. But the really memorable assessments nip near the jugular vein, when not ripping it wide open. Consider, for instance, this classic, from a notice appearing in the venerable British journal Mind, in 1921: “[The author’s] method of exegesis consists, in fact, of a combination of the suppressio veri with the suggestio falsi, both, of course, practised in the absolute good faith which comes from propagandist enthusiasm unchecked by any infusion of historical sense.... It is because Mr. Urwick's book is one long dogmatising without knowledge that I feel bound to put it on record that of all bad books on Plato his is the very worst.”
In a subsequent issue, Mr. Urwick called it “a delightfully abusive review,” which in the science of fistics is called “taking it on the chin.”
An enterprising publisher could put together an anthology of the such colorful passages of philosophers shellacking one another’s work. The anthologist would need to limit the scope to reviews from professional journals; invective from blogs or general-interest publications render the volume unwieldy. Another challenge would be limiting how much space it devotes to reviews by Colin McGinn are included.
As aggressive in the stately pages of The Philosophical Review as when writing for The New York Review of Books, McGinn set a new benchmark for philosophical savaging in 2007 with his comments on Ted Honderich's On Consciousness. But his published opinion of the book (“the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad.... painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed”) is by no means as rough as it could have been. “The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it,” reads McGinn’s note accompanying the piece in The Philosophical Review. “The editors asked me to 'soften the tone' of the original; I have done so, though against my better judgment.”
The men were once colleagues at University College London, as it is somehow proves unsurprising to learn, and they have a long history of personal and intellectual hostilities, during which Honderich gave as good as he got. (Honderich is now professor emeritus of philosophy of mind and logic. McGinn was professor of philosophy at the University of Miami until his recent resignation.)
The review, and its prehistory and aftermath, inspired an interesting and unusual paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. It elucidates the technical questions at issue involved while also bringing the distance between gossip and intellectual history to an all-time low. McGinn is prolific, and I have not kept up with work in the two years since writing about The Meaning of Disgust in this column. But in the meantime, certain of his writings have generated even more attention and commentary than his phillipic against Honderich did.
The prose in question took the form of email and text messages to a research assistant in which he allegedly told her he “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.” (Here is one account of the matter, behind a paywall, though you can also find a PDF of the article for free at this site; and here is another.) I attach the word “allegedly” per protocol, but McGinn has defended his use of the expression “hand job” as part of the philosophical banter around his work on a theory “that ostension and prehension are connected and that the mind is a ‘grasping organ,’ ” as the abstract for a lecture he gave last year puts it. Hence, most forms of human activity are -- ultimately, in a certain sense – “hand jobs.” He has issued a manifesto.
The new issue of Harper’s magazine reprints, under the title “Out on a Limb,” a blog post by McGinn from June 2013 in which he explains: “I have in fact written a whole book about the hand, Prehension, in which its ubiquity is noted and celebrated… I have given a semester-long seminar discussing the hand and locutions related to it. I now tend to use ‘hand job’ in the capacious sense just outlined, sometimes with humorous intent…. Academics like riddles and word games.”
Some more than others, clearly. McGinn then considers the complexity of the speech-act of one professional glassblower asking another, “Will you do a blow job for me while I eat my sandwich?” The argument here is that nothing he did should be regarded as sexual harassment of a graduate student, and the real victim here is McGinn himself: “One has a duty to take all aspects of the speech situation into account and not indulge in rash paraphrases. And one should also not underestimate the sophistication of the speaker.”
Nor overestimate the usefulness of sophistication as a shovel, once one has dug oneself into a hole and needs to get back out. McGinn subsequently thought the better of this little essay and deleted it from his blog, but the Harper’s “Readings” section preserves it for posterity. Life would be much simpler if good judgment weren’t so tardy at times.
The whole matter might reveal its true philosophical depths once Prehension is available. But Amazon doesn’t list it as forthcoming, and lately McGinn’s name seems to come up most often in discussions of sexual harassment, or of the tendency of philosophy as a discipline to resemble the Little Rascals’ treehouse.
But a recent review in Mind ( the journal that gave Urwick such delight in 1921) might shift attention away from McGinn’s alleged peccadillos and the hazards of paraphrase. Arguably it raises the bar higher than even his critique of Honderich did. It starts out with relatively understated and rather donnish clucking over the author’s transgression of specialist boundaries. By the end the end, the gloves are off:
“As was said of the Sokal hoax, there is simply no way to do justice to the cringe-inducing nature of this text without quoting it in its entirety. But, in a nutshell, Basic Structures of Reality is an impressively inept contribution to philosophy of physics, and one exemplifying everything that can possibly go wrong with metaphysics: it is mind-numbingly repetitive, toe-curlingly pretentious, and amateurish in the extreme regarding the incorporation of physical fact. With work this grim, the only interesting questions one can raise concern not the content directly but the conditions that made it possible; and in this connection, one might be tempted to present the book as further evidence of the lack of engagement of metaphysicians with real science — something that has lately been subject to lively discussion (and I myself have slung some of the mud). But I would insist that to use this work to make a general point about the discipline would in fact be entirely unfair...
“For all the epistemic faux-modesty that this book purports to defend, the image that persists while grinding through its pages is of an individual ludicrously fancying themselves as uniquely positioned to solve the big questions for us, from scratch and unassisted, as if none of the rest of us working in the field have had anything worth a damn to contribute. It will however be clear by now that I take the reality to be substantially different. For me, then, the one pertinent question this work raises is why all of this went unrecognized: this book, after all, issues not from one of the many spurious publishing houses currently trolling graduate students, but Oxford University Press — a press whose stated aim is to ‘publish works that further Oxford University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education’. So why did they publish this?”
The reviewer ventures an explanation: The author of the offending volume “is a ‘big name’; and if that is sufficient for getting work this farcical in print with [Oxford University Press], then shame on our field as a whole.” The book could well provoke a worthwhile discussion, though sadly one focused on concerns rather different from those he himself had in mind.”
I came across this takedown within about an hour of reading the blog post reprinted by Harper’s. The author is Colin McGinn – the author of the book in question, that is, Basic Structures of Reality: Essays in Meta-Physics (Oxford, 2011). The reviewer is Kerry McKenzie, a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. The piece in Mind is only her second review-essay, but I’d say it’s one for the anthology. (Note: This essay has been updated from an earlier version to correct Kerry McKenzie's current institution.)
Philosophers have lives; saints have legends. No miracles are associated with Simone Weil (1909-43), and a glance at reference books on philosophy finds her listed alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, her classmates at the École normale supérieure. But she looks odd in their company -- in any company, really. Frail but indomitable, she was in the world but not quite of it.
French intellectuals of her generation wrote essays on Marxism and the Spanish Civil War, while she worked in a factory and went to the front as part of an antifascist militia. She had an extraordinarily acute (some would say morbid) awareness of the depths and the extent of human suffering; it made comfort seem like complicity. Combine that sensitivity with her conviction that our world is the diminished or faulty image of a realm in which truth and justice are real and absolute – a Platonic notion, flecked perhaps with Gnostic elements -- and you have someone with a vocation, rather than a career.
Weil died at the age of 34, under what seem to have been suspiciously beatific circumstances: she succumbed to tuberculosis after months of refusing to eat more than the rations available to the French compatriots under German occupation. Her collected writings, which run to several stout volumes, range from pacifist essays and interventions in trade-union debates to reflections on atheism and mysticism (not entirely antithetical terms, in her experience) and studies of classical Greek literature and philosophy. Most of this work remained unpublished during her lifetime, apart from scattered essays in journals of no wide circulation.
At a couple of points in Julia Haslett’s film “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” the camera focuses on a few lines of a manuscript, the words in French and Greek. Her handwriting appears small, precise, and highly concentrated – like Weil herself, by all accounts. “She was apparently unacquainted with doubt,” wrote Raymond Aron, a philosopher and political journalist who knew her in the 1920s, “and, although her opinions might change, they were always thoroughly categorical.” His choice of words may allude to one of Weil’s nicknames from their student days: “The Categorical Imperative in Skirts.”
“An Encounter with Simone Weil,” billed on its Facebook promotional page as “a documentary by Julia Haslett,” made the rounds of film festivals in 2011, and in the meantime the director (a visiting associate professor of cinema and comparative literature at the University of Iowa) has screened it at two dozen colleges and universities throughout the United States. It will be available on DVD and various digital platforms sometime in the next few months. Upon request, the director sent me a screener, indicating that she had just finished work on the French language version. The film is already available in Italian, with the German and Japanese translations due out this fall, and a Korean version in the works.
“Encounter” is at least as much a personal essay as a biographical portrait. Haslett’s fascination began when she came across a quotation from one of Weil’s letters: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It was an ideal point of entry, given how often Weil’s aphorisms sound like one of Pascal’s Pensées, and also how much moral and intellectual significance the word “attention” turns out to have in her work.
But it also carried a strong personal connotation. In the voiceover Haslett tells us of her father’s suicide when she was young, and in a video clip her brother discusses his struggle with anxiety and depression. “My father's death taught me that if I don't pay attention, someone might die," she says -- an enormous burden to have to carry.
Although Weil cannot be said to lighten the load, she at least understood the stakes. “The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing,” she says in another passage that Haslett quotes. “It is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”
In short order she read Francine Du Plessix Gray’s biography of Weil (published by Penguin in 2001) in a single sitting. "Here was this brilliant, deeply ethical young woman speaking truth to power, putting her body on the line for her convictions, and providing such an incisive critique of political and economic power,” she told me an in e-mail exchange. “And yet I'd never read her. That despite studying philosophy, religion, and history at Swarthmore College -- an institution that embodies the Weil-like values of rigorous intellectual inquiry and a deeply held commitment to social justice.”
In recounting Weil’s period as a left-wing militant in the early years of the Great Depression, “Encounter” shows Haslett going over film footage of mass demonstrations in the archives of the French Communist Party – searching, almost desperately, to catch a glimpse of Weil in the crowd, but with no luck. She visits the apartment building in New York where Weil lived for a few months in 1942, and interviews the (very) few remaining people who knew Weil, as well as one of the editors preparing her collected works.
The effort to establish a connection with the philosopher even extends to having Soraya Broukhim (an actress with some resemblance to Weil) read enough of Weil's work to improvise responses in a mock interview. The sequence is odd. By the end, the situation has become unmistakably awkward for both parties. When Broukhim complains that Haslett seems to want answers she can’t give, the effect is strangely revealing. For a moment, it’s not quite clear whether she’s doing so in character, as Weil, or in real life.
To call Haslett’s quest a kind of pilgrimage would be tempting, if not for the most striking thing about the film: its emphasis on her as a secular figure and an activist. Most people who become interested in Weil do so through the theological side of her work. Even her appeal for nonbelievers, such as Albert Camus, comes in large measure from an awareness of her "tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church, like a starving wild animal,” to borrow the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s apt characterization.
Weil’s spiritual writings “are certainly the reason she gets studied in this country,” Haslett acknowledged by e-mail. “For example, many of the annual meetings of the American Weil Society are held at theological seminaries and most participants are religious scholars or at least people of faith.” But for the director, “it was the way she combined such an incisive critique of power and her willingness to sacrifice everything to tell the truth as she knew it (by directly experiencing that about which she wrote) that drew me in so completely.… She became a guide for me through the very dark first decade of this century, when our politicians were dispensing with the truth and our media wasn't holding them accountable.”
The film gives due attention to Weil's religious passion, but suggests that her mystical turn came after deep disillusionment with radical politics. Haslett seems largely uninterested in the very difficult matter of Weil’s relationship to Judaism. (Her parents were so completely assimilated into French secular culture that they neglected to mention this element of her identity until she was about 10 years old). And the director treads lightly around the topic of Weil’s mental health, although she does briefly consider the possibility that the final period of self-denial may have been a kind of suicide by self-starvation.
Haslett makes her resistance to certain aspects of her subject’s life and thought explicit, saying in one voiceover that she felt “betrayed by Weil’s turn toward God.” This does not detract from the value of the film in the least.
On the contrary, ambivalence and discomfort are essential to any meaningful encounter with Weil. To borrow a remark by T.S. Eliot, whose grounds for admiration were as different from Haslett’s as they could be: “I cannot conceive of anybody agreeing with all of her views, or of not disagreeing violently with some of them. But agreement and rejection are secondary: what matters is to make contact with a great soul.”