An aphorism by Simone Weil sits atop a manuscript I’ve never been able to finish. The manuscript is called “The Problem of Good” and the quotation from Weil goes:
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.[i]
Weil was not one of the figures I engaged in the manuscript, but the argument had something in common with her often-tortured thought. The true subject matter of the discourse of evil is the good. Indeed, evil is perhaps the only way to talk compellingly about good — but it is not a very good one.
The Book of Job is another common interest. Job is one of the few parts of the Hebrew scriptures Weil can abide, and it gets top billing in her surveys of works of genius, along with Hesiod’s Prometheus, Racine’s Phèdre, King Lear and the Iliad. In her Notebooks it often appears as the first part of a twofer: “Job. The Cross.”
Job is a kind of proof-text for Weil’s central category of malheur, unhappily translated to English as “affliction.” Affliction is more than suffering: it is the destruction of the soul through the body. “The event that has seized and uprooted a life attacks it, directly or indirectly, in all its parts, social, psychological, and physical.”[ii] The kind of event Weil had in mind was not paradigmatically persecution or torture but slavery, including the enslavement of workers by machines, and, perhaps, all of us by capitalism. Her descriptions are stark and often disturbing. I find her characterizations of “slaves” in “The Iliad: The Poem of Force” inhuman. Weil’s slave, like the loser in battle, is rendered a thing. Their story is over. There is nothing left. (In her late “Human Personality” Weil relents a little, conceding that even the person nearly obliterated by affliction can respond to love.)
Weil’s point is that we dramatically underestimate the harm of suffering and overestimate our capacity to respond to it. “Compassion for the afflicted is an impossibility,” she asserts.[iii] We think suffering can be ennobling or at least borne heroically but it is nothing of the sort. In affliction there is nothing left, nobody for whom to feel compassion. And all of us are prone to be leveled by it unless, by some grace, we are prepared to accept it. The most we can do, when not ourselves in affliction, is to arm ourselves and others for this acceptance, not through compassion but through attention and an “impersonal” kind of love.
What does this arming for acceptance look like to people? Perhaps we could read them the Book of Job. In “The Love of God and Affliction,” Weil writes:
The Book of Job is a pure marvel of truth and authenticity from beginning to end. As regards affliction, all that departs from this model is more or less stained with falsehood.[iv]
Weil is, to put it mildly, given to hyperbole. The violent clarity of her writing is part of the power of her witness. I want to take her at her word here, but not because I’m convinced she does full justice to the Book of Job. I’ve written elsewhere that the Book of Job is a mousetrap for theodicies. There is always more to the Book of Job than any reading can interpret. Job’s friends’ failure to make sense of his story is recapitulated in the history of Job interpreters, each of whom thinks they can be the true friend Job needs and deserves.
In the context of the history of interpretation of the Book of Job, Weil’s understanding of “affliction” makes a signal contribution:
If Job cries out that he is innocent in such despairing accents, it is because he himself is beginning not to believe in it; it is because his soul within him is taking the side of his friends. He implores God himself to bear witness, because he no longer hears the testimony of his own conscience; it is no longer anything but an abstract, lifeless memory for him.[v]
As Weil asserts, the natural human reaction to affliction is mockery and disdain, not compassionate engagement but violent recoil at the “mutilated” soul and the “non-being” it presents. And this is something that happens not only towards the affliction of others but also toward our own. This is a hard truth, if truth it is. (I think there’s a lot to it.) It illuminates the Book of Job, helping us see Job’s exchanges with his friends as a final trial, and perhaps the one that pushes him over the edge. Job does, after all, talk a lot. But he doesn’t just, as many moderns like to think, protest: he protests too much. If he calls for a divine mediator, it’s because he needs one to defend himself — not just against his friends, not just against God, but against himself.
As Weil reads the story, Job’s friends fail him, as they must. As they do so, Job enters the state in which grace can be apprehended, that of “affliction without consolation.”[vi] God appears to Job when everything, including his individuality, is lost. “Once the veil of flesh had been rent by affliction, the world’s stark beauty was revealed.”[vii] Job loses his “I” and gains the world of necessity. As Weil wrote in “Letter to a Priest,” penned while she was in New York in 1942:
Christ cites as the supreme characteristic of God’s justice precisely what is always brought forward (example of Job) with the object of accusing Him of injustice, namely, that he favours the good and the wicked indifferently.[viii]
Weil thought this was something more honestly seen by atheists than by many religious folk who are, by contrast, “puerile.”
Job is one of a small set of texts which, Weil thinks, confront us with the true reality of our existence and so can prepare our souls to find God in affliction, rather than be snuffed out by it. She doesn’t think the Book of Job does this work because it’s revealed, or because the story it tells actually happened. Its power is in the beauty of its telling. Indeed beauty appears in the Book of Job long before God does. Job’s very complaint is beautiful.[ix] Its beauty enables us to regard his affliction as impersonal necessity, even without losing sight of him. The very aesthetic detachment from Job which interpreters like Carol Newsom and D. J. A. Clines see as a profound ethical problem for the Book of Job is part of what makes it a proof-text for Weil.
* * *
Weil makes valuable contributions to Job’s interpretation, but it may seem she has use only for the part of the Book of Job sometimes called the “poem of Job.” She calls the book a “marvel of truth and authenticity from beginning to end” but there are parts of it she doesn’t name — notably the beginning and the end.
I have found only one reference to the prologue in heaven, but I’ve already suggested that her understanding is consonant with it. We stand outside the story, able to see that what befalls Job defies any puerile conception of providence. (It’s important for her view that Job’s affliction was not bestowed by a God seeking to grant him a special vision. “If I thought that God sends me pain by an act of his will and for my good, I should think that I was something, and I should disregard the principal use of pain, which is to teach me that I am nothing.”[x])
What seems to be elided is the epilogue. The Job invoked repeatedly by Weil is the one who has lost all and, and reduced to a dimensionless point, gains the world — confirmed, presumably, by his response to the theophany. “I despise myself, and repent in [perhaps of] dust and ashes” (42:6). But the biblical Job, having lost a rich life, gains a new one even richer. More troubling for many contemporary readings, he accepts it. What has become of righteous indignation, demands Cynthia Ozick? Has he forgotten his dead children, asks Richard Rubenstein? Has he once again forgotten the suffering of others, wonders Elsa Tamez?
Many a contemporary reader thinks this ending was added to the story by a mediocrity, reducing a work of sublimity to a fairy tale. Doesn’t the ending wind up confirming everything the Book of Job is calling into question? Not a few contemporary interpreters think readers are faced with a choice between the “patient Job” of the puerile frame, and the “impatient Job” of the book’s prophetic poetic center. Such interpretive moves were available to Weil. Yet she — so quick to discard most of the “Old Testament” as unworthy — doesn’t make use of them. Still, one imagines she would have shared other moderns’ disgust for of the saccharine ending of the story.
Was it, then, just hyperbole when Weil praised Job “from beginning to end,” when she asserted that “all that departs from this model is more or less stained with falsehood”? Her truncated Job certainly seems at odds with the “model.” But maybe she meant what she wrote after all. Perhaps Weil never refers to Job’s life in the Epilogue because she knew her readers would know the whole story of Job; she didn’t need to remind them of it.
The Book of Job as a whole has the structure of Weil’s understanding of grace. Finitude is extinguished, necessity is given — and then, miraculously, finitude is returned to. We lose everything, are cracked open to see that we and all else are nothing. Then, somehow, through an amor fati that consents to evil, we return to the world in love, able to attend to what is sacred in each of us — now even in the person in affliction whom we would otherwise condescend and revile. “Decreation” is necessary yet it ends not in disembodied non-being but in an embodied love of the created world.
Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and others have thought the Book of Job’s greatest challenge lay precisely in the fact that Job does live on. He has new children and loves them, and lives to see their children too. He is new, too, in ways we cannot fathom. The story only works if Job, in affliction, has no hope or even wish for a restoration of his life, if Job loses that life and accepts the loss. The epilogue works only if it is a miracle, not the dénouement of the story but its transcendence.
One searches long and hard in Weil’s work for accounts of how a Job might have cared for his new family. Her descriptions of love focus on attention to the afflicted or the not yet but always prone to be afflicted. The rigors of attention to the afflicted — my body-prone-to-destruction simply next to yours in mute solidarity — pale compared to the difficulty of what Weil thinks we owe those we love who are not yet confronted with affliction:
I am not the girl who is waiting for her lover, but the tiresome third party who is sitting with two lovers and has to get up and go away if they are to be really together.
We must reply to the absence of God, who is Love, by our own absence and love.
My presence does infinite harm to those whom I love by maintaining in position the screen which I form between them and God …[xi]
It is easy to imagine Job as an absent presence in the lives of his new family. (James Jacques Joseph Tissot’s Job Joins His Family in Happiness, in the collection of the Jewish Museum, suggests something like this.) Job’s children would have been emotional wrecks if raised with such love. Or is Job, come out the other side of affliction, capable of something more — something inconceivable from this side of his ordeal?
Let me return to the aphorism with which I began, this time with its title:
Literature and morality. Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.
A work of genius, confronting us with the beauty of the terror of our existence, the Book of Job is for Weil still a work of imagination. As such it illustrates her point “from beginning to end.” Job’s initial life, family, health and status are notional, there just to be offed. Their spectacular destruction is all the notice we take of them. The goods of his new life are imaginary, too, and thus boring.
“Real good” may be “always new, marvelous, intoxicating,” like new children, but it can’t be described. Weil is unsparing in her condemnation of language’s inability to convey the good. A few lines after her aphorisms about literature and evil she wrote: “We experience good only by doing it.” Perhaps Weil says nothing about the epilogue of the Book of Job because there was nothing which could be said about it which wouldn’t be “stained with falsehood.”
For all her limitations, Simone Weil confronts us with a terrible fact. More unthinkable even than death is life. More miraculous than understanding evil is grasping the good.
[i] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Craufurd (London: Routledge, 1963), 62.
[ii] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 119.
[iii] Waiting for God, 120.
[iv] Waiting for God, 120.
[v] Waiting for God, 121-22.
[vi] The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans Arthur Wills (London & NY: Routledge 2004 ), 276, cp. Gravity and Grace, 38.
[vii] The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas (NY: David McKay, 1977), 456.
[viii] Simone Weil, Letter to a Priest, trans. A. F. Wills (London & NY: Routledge Great Minds, 2014), 44.
[ix] Notebooks, 255, 260.
[x] Notebooks, 261.
[xi] Notebooks, 404.