Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Nostalgia of the Everyday: Earthly Things as Poetic Criteria in Weil and Jacottet

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Nostalgia of the Everyday: Earthly Things as Poetic Criteria in Weil and Jacottet

Article excerpt

Simone Weil had a life-long interest in poetry and, especially in the wake of her trip to Italy in 1937, a passionate interest in fine art. Her entire way of thinking is marked by a sensitivity to the instance of the beautiful, yet scholarly attention to the implications of her thought for poetry and aesthetics has been belated. (1) In this article, I undertake to begin working out the implications of one particular strand of her thought for modern poetry: Weil's attention to the status of things as metaxu, or bridges, in human perception and experience. My point of comparison will be the work of the Swiss-French poet Philippe Jaccottet. The first part of the article is dedicated to Well's concept of metaxu and its particular relevance to works of art, while the second part uses Jaccottet's writings to elicit Weil's continuing relevance.

In the First and Last Notebooks, first published in French as La connaissance surnaturelle, Weil makes the arresting statement that "earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things" (147). That earthly things are the criterion of spiritual means that earthly things are portals of the spirit--or, in the Greek Weil used "metaxu," "bridges"--just as the body is to the soul. If there is a transcendent dimension to being, it will only show itself in the way we treat earthly things. Weil's text continues:

   This is what we generally don't want to recognize,
   because we are frightened of a criterion.
   The virtue of anything is manifested outside the thing.
   If, on the pretext that only spiritual things are of value,
   we refuse to take the light thrown on earthly things as a
   criterion, we are in danger of having a non-existent
   treasure. (FLN 147)

Irremediably transient, the sensible world has at best an intermediary status. Yet the transcendent world, if it exists, is known only indirectly through the reflection it casts on the world below. Weil writes, "The object of my search is not the supernatural, but this world. The supernatural is the light. We must not presume to make an object of it, or else we degrade it" (Notebooks 173). Earthly things are thus bridges in a more than transitional sense. They are pure criteria that measure us by the use we make of them.

From the outset, Weil's thinking brings to the fore an ambiguity that inheres in the nature of metaxis, though an ambiguity that lies in the nature of the thing and not in her thinking. On one hand, no object is an end in itself. If it becomes an end in itself, then it has been made the object of unregulated desire or idolatry. On the other hand, making the right use of earthly things means lending to them a certain limited finality. This is most evident in the case of works of art. If metaphysics is proven on the material and transient, poetry for its part raises the transient up to the permanent. In a late conversational text titled "Philosophy," Weil makes this point with her usual penetration: "Man cannot get over regretting that he has not been given the infinite, and he has more than one way of fabricating, with the finite, an equivalent of the infinite for himself--which is perhaps the definition of art" (Formative Writings 284). (2)

We treat works of art as singular objects serving no end beyond themselves, and yet, at the same time, we never entirely escape the sense that what compels attention in the work of art is the promise of something left unmanifest. We stay with it, we are reluctant to leave it, and yet this reluctance is the function of a desire kindled by the work for something that the work does not contain. In this sense, works of art are a limited instance of what is true of objects in general: insofar as they manifest the beautiful we wish to stay with them, while at the same time they are points of transit.

The work of art thus features a contradictoriness inherent in earthly life: transient, it nevertheless solicits attachment; vulnerable, it nevertheless gives a glimpse of the permanent. …

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