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Simone Weil and the Text as Organ of Perception

Literature is a protean phenomenon. Nobody seems quite sure how to classify it. Is it an object, immutable and self-contained? Or is it an event that happens when a self makes contact with a line of letters on a page? Nowadays, critics regard the text primarily as a resource. “There’s a lot of useful knowledge here,” we say, and our job is to show how this knowledge can help us in real life. Recently, I have come upon a fourth option. What if the text were an organ of perception, an extension of the body that structures our muddled, all-too-narrow picture of reality?

I hesitate to call this option new. It’s not. I’ve actually come across it many times, in many different thinkers, but it coalesces most clearly and most recently in the thought of Michael Clune. The work of literature, Clune argues in A Defense of Judgment, is like a blind person’s cane. Just as a blind person senses the world through a pattern of wooden prods and taps, so the reader senses the world through literary texts. It takes a lot of training to perceive the world through a cane; it takes a lot of training to perceive the world through a text. But gradually, arduously, painfully, the object enters the body and elaborates upon our perceptual faculties.[1] Canes and texts, then, are not like other tools. If the carpenter misplaces a wrench or the cook a spatula, they can buy another wrench or spatula and get back to work without skipping a beat. But an unfamiliar cane must tap an unfamiliar world into place. And if it were possible to detach a text, fiber by fiber, from the body of a deep and longtime devotee, imagine how alien life would then appear.

But how, exactly, do texts come to merge with bodies? How do they thread themselves throughout the fabric of our nervous systems? I don’t have a complete answer to this question. It is a complicated, multi-step process. But I can, with the help of the French philosopher-activist-mystic Simone Weil, at least identify what one of those steps might be.

Photo of Simone Weil
Fig. 1. Simone Weil, public domain.

For Weil too, a cane dilates the body’s soft parameters: “Let the whole universe be for me, in relation to my body, what the stick of a blind man is in relation to his hand. His sensibility is really no longer in his hand but at the end of the stick,” and this constitutes “a transference of the consciousness into an object other than the body itself.”[2] These hands, these eyes, this torso, form only one locus in which the mind resides—the nearest and the most familiar. A stick affords an equally hospitable receptacle. Why not, then, a tree or sky or work of art? One possible objection is that trees, skies, and works of art are not tools. Maybe the only reason a cane merges with the body so seamlessly is that we use it. But Weil does not seem to mean that we should use trees, skies, and universes. The process by which consciousness enters an object outside the body must then, be germane but not specific to utility. What is this process, and in what other domains of life is it involved?

When we use a tool, we break it into us: new shoes soften to the shape of our feet—but tools also break us into them. Think of what a violin does to the hands and posture of a violinist. Until my fingers can curl upward from their joints as tight as fiddleheads; until I can wrench my head perfectly in line with my shoulder and keep it there for a long time; and until these contortions feel not only painless but natural; my violin will make no pleasant sound.

Tom Roberts, “The Violin Lesson,” 1889, painting of two boys playing violin
Fig. 2. Tom Roberts, “The Violin Lesson,” 1889

It is our submission to the world, not the world’s submission to us, Weil suggests, that consummates the union of embodiment: “getting hurt: this is the trade entering into the body. May all suffering make the universe enter the body” (Gravity and Grace 141). Weil strikes a sad note here: suffering can imbue us with the universe, but that doesn’t mean it always does. Knives, needles, fists pierce us in the wrong sort of way. We flinch, curl, shiver—all gestures of contraction. I retreat from the world instead of opening myself towards it. So what, then, is the right kind of suffering?

Perhaps Weil has in mind the suffering of beauty, that “joy which by reason of its unmixed purity hurts, a pain which by reason of its unmixed purity brings peace” (Gravity and Grace 150). Beauty hurts, the poets ceaselessly remind us. There’s nothing frivolous or extravagant about it. It breaks and then resets the self as doctors break and reset bones. A friend of mine once confessed that Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan precipitated an aesthetic experience so intense that he can’t honestly say he enjoyed it, a rapture too overwhelming to be pleasurable. My husband and I recently rewatched Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, and the word “entertainment” seems inadequate to its administrations. We did not have fun, we did not enjoy ourselves. Instead, it left us feeling as though we had just come out of surgery. The career-oriented pursuits that had occupied us all day long now seemed trivial. Our habitual frames of mind now seemed complacent and self-absorbed. Any wounds to our pride that we had been nursing now seemed childish and indulgent. Beauty cuts something out of us that we hold dear: the pacifying lull of the mundane, the comfort of a stable bounded ego.

Weil’s word for this kind of suffering is “renunciation”: “The beautiful is a carnal attraction which keeps us at a distance and implies a renunciation. This includes the renunciation of that which is most deep-seated, the imagination” (Gravity and Grace 149). By “imagination,” Weil means our flattering self-images, our dreams of wealth and status. We must hollow ourselves out for the text to inhabit us; and once the text inhabits us, a hollowing inevitably commences. At first, the process is passive. The eyes take in a line, a page, a book, quickly and with ease, and the immediate, pre-reflective enticements weaken our egotistical resistances. Yet it is also possible for us to participate in our renunciation. Insofar as we read consciously, with attention and control, we assent to the text’s aesthetic regimen. Interpretation, analysis, savoring, intensifies and prolongs our experience of beauty. And if intensified and prolonged enough, beauty deepens from an acute to a chronic form of suffering. We shut and shelve Paradise Lost or Emma or Citizen, yet find it follows us through waking life, dogged as any pathology.

The body must change permanently to receive the text. And the text, upon a deep, attentive reception, changes the body forever. What we end up with is something similar to virtue ethics, but also very different. For virtue ethicists, the text functions like a piece of training equipment: by reading Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, we cultivate the virtue of empathy, and empathy is distinct from The Golden Bowl such that another text with comparable affordances could cultivate it just as well.[3] But training equipment does not weld itself into the body. It does not follow us home from the gym. A poem, an essay, a novel, does. It’s the text itself we cultivate and strengthen, the text itself that furnishes political and moral life. Taking Clune and Weil as my mentors, I would not read The Golden to cultivate empathy or, God forbid, critical thinking. I would read The Golden Bowl because it violates the encrustations of routine and extends consciousness into an apparatus of language which can sense things that would be invisible without it.

I cannot say what, exactly, I obtain from the text’s exalted vantage. If I could, the text would not be necessary. And what I obtain is not an isolated scrap of knowledge, a new star appended to the constellation of my worldview. Instead, I put the book down to find that the entire constellation itself has shifted: a new order, a new configuration, has settled around what I already know. Rearrange the furniture, and it looks like an entirely different room; rearrange the facts, values, beliefs, associations, and it looks like an entirely different existence. There are texts so interwoven through my past that they could not depart from memory without taking memory itself along. There are texts so embedded in my life that I’m not entirely sure I could remember how to walk without them.


Notes

[1] Michael Clune, A Defense of Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 67-70.

[2] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Crawford and Mario von her Ruhr (New York: Routledge, 2002), 141.

[3] See Martha Nussbaum, “James’s The Golden Bowl: Literature as Moral Philosophy” in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 125-147.