The Decreationist

Simone Weil’s thoughts on the unmaking of the self

Simone Weil in Marseilles, France (Wikimedia Commons)
Simone Weil in Marseilles, France (Wikimedia Commons)

Eighty years ago on this date, one of the 20th century’s most unusual and unsettling thinkers died at a sanatorium in Ashford, England. The patient had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, but her immediate cause of death was cardiac arrest. Yet the coroner’s report concluded that the patient herself was responsible for her death: “The deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.”

If only it were so simple.

As with every other facet to her short life, the meaning of Simone Weil’s death is complicated. And as with everything else she did—the product of France’s elite schools who went to work in a series of factories, the pacifist who went to war against Franco in Spain, and the daughter of Jewish parents who became a Christian mystic—how Weil died is at one with her life. Eighty years later, it may be that how she lived and how she died are lessons for a world no less a mess now than it was in Weil’s time.

Most of what Weil wrote during her lifetime was published only after her death. Her best-known book, Gravity and Grace, resulted from the work of Gustave Thibon, the Provençal winegrower, amateur theologian, and ardent anti-Semite who cobbled together passages from the notebooks Weil had left in his care. Similarly, Waiting for God consists of a collection of letters, along with a few essays, that Weil had sent to Jean-Marie Perrin, the Dominican priest who, when not participating in the Resistance, met with Weil to discuss conversion. But the postwar publication of the great bulk of her writings, including The Need for Roots, was overseen by one of her greatest admirers, Albert Camus.

These works teem with notions that rattle our understanding of the world and our place in it: affliction and attention, force and friendship, necessity and rootedness, the Good and God. Yet Weil’s most thought-provoking, if not thought-defying notion is decreation. Decreation declares that God, in making the universe, had to unmake Himself. “In a sense,” she wrote, “God renounces being everything.” In return, Weil held, “we should renounce being something. That is our only good.” Put crudely, Weil believed that the cosmos was not big enough for both God and His creatures. Those who were created from God’s sacrifice must thus reciprocate by the same act of sacrifice—by decreating themselves. It’s as if Descartes, in a moment of mystical rapture, announced, “I am, therefore I must no longer be.”

Though Weil coined the term decreation, she never treated it at length in a single text. Instead, she seeds passages on the subject through her later notebooks, not living long enough to give them shape. (Depending on your perspective, Thibon helpfully or misleadingly grouped several of these passages under the rubric of “Décréation” in Gravity and Grace.) But honestly, how much more she could have said about this claim? There are only so many ways to express the thought that I should unmake the being who is expressing that same thought. I have read and written a good deal on Weil’s work and life, but the passages on decreation still shock me. They are steeped in Christian imagery and ideals, and I sometimes wonder if my reaction to them has to do with the fact that I am neither a Christian nor religious. (Besides, I know Christians who, like me, are just as stunned by these fragments.) And my shock is not, I believe, because I do not accept a transcendental reality. Instead, I am shocked because her notion of decreation questions not just how I have lived my life but why I should have ever bothered to live in the first place—other than, that is, to surrender my life as quickly and gladly as possible. “Our existence,” she observes matter-of-factly, “is made up only of his waiting for our acceptance of not being.”

Is it possible that, during the last weeks of her life, Weil was acting on this assertion? We know that Weil continued to eat far less than what her body required. And though we cannot know, of course, it is not a great stretch, as Costica Bradatan suggests in his brilliant book In Praise of Failure, that Weil “practiced death as a matter of philosophical conviction and personal vocation.” Indeed, Bradatan compares Weil’s ethical stance to that of the medieval Cathars, a sect of Christians who, condemned as heretics by Rome, practiced what they called the “endura”—a form of ritual self-starvation that attested to their purity.

I become less flummoxed by this quest for purity when I recast Weil’s claim in secular language. What would change if we replaced “God” with “Good” and “the extinction of my life” with “the extinction of my ego?” A great deal, I believe. At times, Weil suggests performing the very same action: “We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say ‘I.’” By this phrase, Weil seems to mean that it is only by suppressing my own self—the knot of needs, demands, and desires called Rob Zaretsky—that I can allow the world in.

Weil being Weil, however, she takes this notion to an uncomfortable extreme. When she writes about her effort to “disappear in order that these things I see may become perfect in their beauty from the very fact that they are no longer things that I see,” I note her point, but it also deeply perturbs me. As I reflect on her desire “to see a landscape when I am not there,” I get her aspiration for utter transparency, but it makes me gasp because it is utterly inhuman. Susan Sontag’s response to Weil seems fitting: “No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves.”

Sontag did immediately qualify her statement about Weil’s life: “But insofar as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it.” But can we also be taught by it? Another remarkable 20th-century thinker and novelist, Iris Murdoch, thought we can. In a series of ravishingly beautiful philosophical essays, Murdoch, who had discovered Weil’s writings in the 1950s, reframed the French thinker’s ethical and metaphysical beliefs in terms not of Christian theology but of Platonic philosophy.

Any ethics worth its salt, Murdoch contended, must be founded on seeing the world as it really is. This is no easy task for a simple reason: what Murdoch called our “fat, lazy ego”—the Weilian “I”—is always in the way. The great obstacle to knowing, and thus acting on the Good, Murdoch declared, is “personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one.” When I see the world as it is, not as I wish it to be, I lose sight of my own self and win insight into others.

Citing Weil, Murdoch insisted that morality is nothing more, and nothing less, “than a matter of attention.” This ideal required what Murdoch called “unselfing,” a prerequisite to turning fully to others while leaving oneself behind. To wait, patiently and fully, for the world and others to reveal themselves. The consequences, for both Weil and Murdoch, are so obvious yet so startling; when we transform how we see the world, we also transform how we relate to the world and those who inhabit it. To paraphrase John Kennedy’s famous phrase, it is not what the world can do for us, but instead what we can do for the world. The first step is to make my own self smaller. It is a relationship in which the other is always the focus. “The more the separateness and differentness of other people is realized, and the fact seen that another man has needs and wishes as demanding as one’s own, the harder it becomes to treat a person as a thing.”

Like Sontag, Murdoch was incapable of devoting her life to the martyrdom embraced by Weil. But also like Sontag, Murdoch grasped the reasons why that life holds our attention. As she wrote in an early review of the English translation of Weil’s notebooks, Murdoch affirmed that “to read her is to be reminded of a standard.” On the anniversary of Weil’s death, it is a reminder well worth recalling.

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Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author most recently of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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