Magazine article Cross Currents

Devoured by God: Cannibalism, Mysticism, and Ethics in Simone Weil

Magazine article Cross Currents

Devoured by God: Cannibalism, Mysticism, and Ethics in Simone Weil

Article excerpt

Vishnu, seeing you brush

the clouds with flames

of countless colors,

your mouths agape,

your huge eyes blazing

my inner self quakes...

Seeing the fangs


from your mouths

like the fires of time,

I lose my bearings...

Bhagavad Gita [1]

He really appears to feel himself being devoured from within. Without doubt this is true, but he does not suspect that he is eating himself.

Anthropologist's description of a Tibetan spiritual practitioner, copied by Simone Weil in her notebook, January 1942 [2]

God wants to eat our flesh. Those who have seen him [3] know this. Arjuna, in the Bhagaved Gita, is in no doubt on the question. When Krishna/Vishnu reveals the totality of his cosmic form in the poem's famous eleventh chapter, Arjuna cries out: "Rushing through I your fangs / into grim / mouths,/ [men] are dangling / from heads / crushed / between your teeth. ... Homage to you. Best of Gods!" (Gita, 102-3)

We know other connoisseurs of God's hunger: the bhakti poets of South India, medieval Christian mystics like the Flemish beguine Hadewijch. Or, closer to us, an avid latter-day reader of the Bhagavad Gita: the French philosopher, political activist, and mystic Simone Weil. Weil died in 1943, at the age of 34, a victim of tuberculosis and of self-imposed food austerities she understood as obedience to God's love. In a notebook, along with passages from the Gita, Weil had copied a fragment from Heraclitus: "'Mortals are immortals and immortals are mortals, living each other's death and dying each other's life."' Weil's exegesis: "To live the death of a being is to eat it. The reverse is to be eaten. Man eats God and is eaten by God" (OC VI.2.,454). A year and a half after writing these lines, Weil herself was dead, consumed by mycobacterium tuberculosis, by self-starvation, perhaps by the God she yearned to encounter in the depths of affliction.

It has become standard practice among liberal commentators to praise Simone Weil's contributions to philosophy and political theory, while deploring the psychological wounds and theological distortions that led Weil to her extravagant self-mortification. For many, Weil was a brilliant philosopher whose gifts were undermined by archaic religious beliefs, self-hatred aimed at her identity as a woman and a Jew, and the effects of anorexia nervosa. This is not my view. Or rather these are not the aspects of Weil's thought I find it most useful to emphasize. It is true and important that Weil internalized the patterns of social denigration connected with her status as a Jewish woman intellectual in France between the World Wars. Yet Weil's self-hatred and anorexia (if that's what they were) did not stop her from discerning certain truths with redoubtable lucidity. Above all, I think Weil was right about God. If God exists, he has an ogre's appetite for human flesh. And maybe the vocation of flesh, ours and his, i s to be eaten.

In the Bible and in Christian theological literature, the violence of God has been variously described, celebrated, qualified, justified. Military, judicial, and paternal metaphors predominate, presenting God by turns as a triumphant warrior, a stern judge, a father obliged to punish his children for their own good. Recent feminist and other progressive theo/thealogians have expressed dismay at the violence attributed to God. They have proposed new theological metaphors intended to downplay the savage, irrational side of the divine. This attitude is more than understandable. Yet something crucial is lost when we set out to construct an image of God or the sacred from which the violent, frightening aspects have been purged. I suspect that such bowdlerization moves our God-talk farther away from, not closer to, the heart of most people's experience of relation to the divine.

Under these circumstances, a different set of symbols -- whose relationship to violence is ambiguous -- may shed fresh light. …

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