I have a friend, a Benedictine monk who has lived a hermetic way of life in California outside his community, for decades. It was not always so. He began his life in diplomacy and the foreign service.
In 1945 he was the youngest Vice Consul in the country and was set to sail to Egypt on a boat out of New York.
Before he boarded ship, he went to a second hand bookstore on the lower east side and browsed. In the process he casually pulled a book off a shelf; it was written by Simone Weil. He took the book away to a restaurant, ordered beef and sat in a paneled booth, examining her writing as if he had awakened from a sleep. He said, “What I read was the truth. And I knew that I must devote my life to that, or it would all be meaningless.”
The substantial part of the story, as he explains, is its impossibility: no work of Weil's had been translated into English then. The book was, as it were, a slip in time. It fell out of the future into his hands. He could never find it again. No scholar of her work has ever seen a piece of writing by her that could have landed in a New York bookstore that year.
My friend, a realist and monastic, has asked and asked, attempting to explain the mystery. By now it has become an important part of his story, the story of his religious experience, his understanding of time and prophecy, mysticism and the daily life of the body in a world of objective fact.
As it turns out, Mary McCarthy translated Weil’s great meditation on the Iliad and war in 1945, that same year. It was published in a periodical called “Politics” under an anagrammatic pseudonym, Emile Novis that Weil used to hide from the Nazis. This may be why it was so hard to locate. In some way the monk was right, even though he was wrong.
I was born a North-easterner, with my eyes turned towards Europe. My parents were born at nearly the same time as George Oppen, one in Boston and one in Ireland, and the War interfered with childhood by keeping my mother, by now in Boston, from her family for a few years, and her husband from his (us) for the same length of time. It is through images of the Atlantic Ocean and war and parents that I really come to Oppen.
That is, his communism makes him a Fellow Traveler to my parents who were, unofficially, sympathetically, democratic socialists, determined by the values of the century they entered from his parents. He, like my father, emerged from childhood into a wholly different world from his parents. During their time many Americans didn’t have the vote, there was rampant prejudice against Jews and Blacks, and Europe was the hub of the Universe.
Oppen grew out of that hierarchical society at the turn of the turn of the century, carrying along with him a particular skepticism that nonetheless takes account of the mysteries. Psychoanalysis was still fresh and witty in those days. Political systems were untrustworthy but considered worth struggling inside and against, and there was still an ethics that was governed by the hint of a natural order. The Civil War was barely settled. God was still half-alive in the form of a system of belief rather than a belief system. Birth and extinction were wonders of equal proportion. But almost all of these would soon become extinct attitudes.
I can read Oppen (who is such a fatherly poet) with a nod of familiarity because I am the age of his child, and grew up in the world war he fought in. I carry remnants of the Old World, as it is called, but have had to adapt also to a nihilistic environment, in the sense of there being no fixed way of reading what things signify anymore. Ethics are moral judgments pasted together hastily, out of self-interest or competition in courtroom and class. Science and the material methods have dominated the world I know.
I think youth is like convalescence, a recovery from previous generations, especially parents, and then a leave-taking. You have your strength and your depth of recognition, acquired in strange ways but you might misread certain signals and texts because of the competition waged between past and future inside your body.
Does a child realize she has value just because she exists?
I think so.
But it lasts for a short time and then, years later, she begins to remember in order to “see the difference” between what is now given as a value and what was a given value.
I have been touched by an image of Oppen and Simone Weil passing on ships through the night, though their actual passage was many months apart from each other. I see the black Atlantic Ocean, with its litter of slaves and mines, and the sky weighing down with stars, and somehow their minds and imaginations intersect there, out in that darkness. In fact they crossed the Atlantic Ocean during the War, each between the same ports, of Marseilles and New York. Both were young and shared many ideas about the world situation. And after he was home and safe again, he read her writing and recognized what she was after.
He said, There are things we live among, and 'to see them is to know ourselves.'
She said, We are forced to accept the postulates and axioms precisely because we are unable to give an account of them. What we can do is try to explain why they seem obvious to us.
Why do we know what we know?
In 1944 Oppen sailed into the harbor at Marseille with the 103rd Antitank Division. In those days it would have taken two weeks to cross the Atlantic because of the mines planted by Germans many leagues deep in the sea. The ship would have had to pick its way across the waves. They missed passing each other on the sea by two years.
He arrived in Marseille two years after Weil had sailed out of it, heading first to Casablanca where she was one of 900 mostly Jewish refugees bundled onto floors, and then on board the Serpa Pinto that docked in New York in July 1942. All the passengers were fleeing the occupation of the Nazis.
She was writing an essay on pre-Christian beliefs and avoiding the people around her. (She already held the radical position that Hinduism and ancient religions practiced Christianity more perfectly than the Church did.)
On this journey she had to repeat to herself that being away from France would be temporary and involve her in some vital war-effort made from New York. She was a passionate French patriot and resistance fighter.
Nonetheless she said, “If we plan to do to the Germans what they did to us, we should be defeated.”
The needle’s eye
Of the horizon in the noise
Of their entrance row on row the waves
Move landward conviction’s
Net of branches
In the horde of events the sacred swarm avalanche
Masked in the sunset
Needle after needle more numerous than planets…
There are many correspondences between Weil's and Oppen's thoughts, but on the surface we can identify certain common interests in Marx, Maritain, Heidegger, Trotsky, collectivity, trade unions and the plight of factory workers. They shared an unyielding commitment to social justice and both were anti-bourgeois in reaction to their own comfortable backgrounds.
Both engaged with the historical moment in which they lived and let it take root with such a grip that their lives became expiations for the social wrongs being done around them. Weil felt that one must continually compensate for violence done to others, if only because equilibrium is what maintains order in the natural and social worlds.
Both kept notebooks, but one turned his notes into poetry, the other turned hers into essays on a variety of social and metaphysical questions. In his serial poem called Seascape: Needle’s Eye, abstract thoughts of theirs converge: necessity, obedience, decreation, and the mystery of the sea.
She sailed from Marseille in the summer and returned to England on a winter ocean, which is when she contracted tuberculosis. She was writing in her notebook all this time and coming closer to an experience of egolessness.
“The thing we believe to be our self is as ephemeral and automatic a product of external circumstance as the form of a sea wave.” In her theory of decreation she recommends self-annihilation for anyone who wants to live a religious and activist life. This is a familiar theme in all traditions, but she takes it into the secular realm and dwells on its difficulties.
I began this essay in a clapboard seaside house on a rise once called Socialist Hill in Martha's Vineyard.
The house belongs to an artist, simply called Gramms, who is herself nearly a hundred, who was a Communist Party member, print-maker for the Federal Art Project of the WPA and lithographer, involved with the Workers Film and Photo League.
As a member of the Artists Union she made her greatest work during the thirties. Her house is now circled by SUVs coming and going to the picturesque fishing village called Menemsha. There are some dress shops and antique stores and take-outs in ramshackle sheds.
Her pictures had titles like Dock Workers, Miner's Head, Soup Kitchen, Sweat Shop, Park Bench.
Inside the house is a tattered collection of books, paintings, and photographs that represent a radical consciousness of friendship, manual labor and the arts as amounting to one action. These three are no longer mentioned by any political movement I can think of.
But in this small wooden house, set among five others like it, stands the remnant of a neighborhood that was visited by refugees from Europe before and after the War. Trotsky stayed at the home of Max Eastman near this house on his way to Mexico.
These would be the Americans with whom Oppen would identify as he identified his view of the world with the pre-War and post-Depression Thirties.
Trotsky once wrote to a friend in 1936 that he had had long discussions with Simone Weil. “For a period of time,” he wrote, “she was more or less in sympathy with our cause but then she lost faith in the proletariat and in Marxism.”
We change our tunes.
The loss of faith in Communism was more crushing than the loss of religious belief in the city and time where I grew up. They occurred in tandem.
The overlap between the tormenting ideologies of Communism and Christianity would signal the weakening of each.
Yet it was something else that stirred Weil, when in the last year of her life, 1943, she wrote an essay on human personality, a concept she found impossible to define especially in a mass society. What could the value of human personality in the singular possibly be? What would make a single individual sacred in a mass society? Why not silence or step on anyone who gets in your way? If the collective is the arbiter, any deviation from the law will require immediate removal of dissenters. Only by finding a common value that transcended the collective would an individual be able to flower. Without a common description of the good, how could you locate the deviant, the bad.
Her answer to herself: “There is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.”
There is no implicit reason for human beings to expect the good, given the suffering and loss we live through until the end. Therefore, this insistence on the good is a longing for something alien, in excess of the given. The desire for the good, and astonishment when it is withheld or injured, are signs of its power over us.
For Weil, encouraged by her passionate readings of Hinduism and the Greeks, only through the “existential renunciation of the ego” was it possible to discover this secret. The sacred.
This is, I believe, what Oppen called “the bright light of shipwreck.” He too was an analyst of the collective, of being numerous, and he too hammered away at an impersonal, ethereal, needle’s eye view of the world as seen by an individual alone when he wrote
Lust of the eyes the pride of life and foremost of the storm's
Multitude moves the wave belly-lovely
Glass of the glass sea shadow of water
On the open water no other way
To come here the outer
Limit of the ego
Paradoxically egolessness, established as a spiritual goal, occurred simultaneously with the recovery of the ego, or individual self, from the collective. The day you decided to develop independently as a person was the same day you decided to renounce your ego. The two acts seem opposites. Interestingly, they are and they are not.
This now is Simone Weil's story in brief, for those of you who don't know.
She was born in Paris in 1909 to a comfortable family, but early on she identified with those without comfort. They were assimilated Jews who cherished education. Her father was a physician.
Her mother had a neurotic horror of germs. Simone knew Greek by age 12, learned Sanskrit so she could read the Baghavadgita, passed her Baccalaureate at age 16, was top of her class always and attended the Sorbonne where she was called The Red Virgin or The Martian by fellow students, including Simone de Beauvoir.
She sometimes wore a monk's robe, and almost always she kept her body swaddled in capes. She taught girls philosophy, worked in an automobile factory, joined the Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, visited parts of Europe with her parents, had a mystical encounter with Christ in the church of St. Francis of Assisi, wrote for politically left newspapers and trade union journals, worked in vineyards in the south of France, but only became widely known after she died, when fragments from her notebooks were published and translated into English as Gravity and Grace.
Then came a book called Waiting for God, her brilliant essay on The Iliad, essays on factory work and social upheaval and her Letters to a Priest which relentlessly questions the Church's oppression of free thought. It is impossible to label her. You could say she was an existentialist or a neo-Platonic Utopian pessimistic gnostic mystical philosopher who suffered from what is now called “a beautiful mind.” Camus called her “the only great spirit of our time.”
Her philosophy is rooted in her own physical affliction, her blinding migraines, pleurisy, awkwardness, and finally tuberculosis. In Waiting for God, she speaks of “a nail whose point is applied to the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time.” She was, between the ages of 29 and 34 when she died, seized by idea after idea, all of which she scribbled into her notebooks.
There is a legendary gate in Jerusalem called the Needle's Eye where a camel had to be unloaded and kneel down in order to pass through its portal. Unburdening is the message of Christ in the parable of the camel passing through a needle's eye. “The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle's eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and camels.”
Remember how you lift the silver needle to the light to see all the way through the eye and out the other side. You could see a camel walking through that eye. But a camel could not, in reality, come in.
And a needle is not a nail.
In Seascape: A Needle's Eye, he writes and here is she being quoted:
“...as if a nail whose wide head
were time and space...”
“at the nail's point the hammer-blow
He was taking notes on his readings in Plotinus and Jung as well as Weil when he was writing this set of poems. In a sense he was analyzing his own notes as if they were dreams, and discovering a surfeit of meaning behind his jotted images, in particular the needle’s eye as he juxtaposed it with the cosmic visions of Plotinus and the unconscious. It hadn’t occurred to him before, when he chose the image for his new book’s title, “of the needle’s eye” that it was feminine. A vulva-shaped cut in a pin, made only for thread that only goes in one way.
There is always the needle of the compass, but it has no eye. Oppen put his attention on objects in order to recognize his interior life, and in this way shared Simone Weil's commitment to full attention, a form of waiting, with eyes wide open, for certain truths to be revealed.
Eye of the needle image
Of the horizon destitute metal
The I singular is also the Eye
That through the tiny aperture can see the sky.
Needle’s eye center center of the mandala shadowless
Water, shadow of water--------------Void But is perhaps also
The center (tho it is a void) of individuation
Both shared a vision of the universe as an extension of each person’s skin and perception. You wore the universe, so to speak, like lineaments so grand you didn’t, couldn’t know where they began or ended.
As she wrote: “Even though I die, the universe continues. That does not console me if I am anything other than the universe. If, however, the universe is, as it were, another body to my soul, my death ceases to have any more importance for me than that of a stranger. The same is true of my sufferings.”
When she spoke of the nail standing in for time and space, she is referring to her agonizing migraines that seemed to be crushed down from the universe and hammered into her brain. She felt in this way the weight of the universe
as a literal physical burden.
It was his experience in the war and the trenches that shook him into a similar consciousness of living out of a void and back into one.
The failure of religions to understand their complicity in mass murder was one of Simone Weil's obsessions.
Limbo for non-baptized babies was a particular horror to her and not unrelated to the abandonment of people to prison camps.
Though she could be seen as a philosopher of suicide, she was known in person as funny, ironic, a compulsive talker and suddenly kind.
“Kindness is the only miracle,” she once said.
She lived a monkish life and found happiness in picking grapes and sleeping in a hovel. Appropriately her great work, her poetic work was the un-worked prose of her notebooks and in her essays. War horrified her but she joined the anti-fascist Brigades in Spain after being a pacifist, then being injured and seeing a child deliberately killed by a member of her own Brigade, she renounced war and became a pacifist again.
She worked with agricultural and factory laborers and believed that manual labor cannot be reduced to empty and driven necessity but must be taught in relation to the order of the natural world—geometry, for instance, through carpentry, so that the individual has an experience of creative education even when he or she works. The rhythms of any mechanical apparatus were artificial and abusive to the person subject to them. But the active pursuit of harmony and order in a person’s relationship to the objective world was infused with the divine.
“The Greeks believed that only truth was suitable for divine things, not error or approximations. The divine character of anything made them more exacting with regard to accuracy. It was because they saw geometry as a divine revelation that they invented a rigorous system of demonstration.”
Oppen’s decision to stop writing poetry was a voluntary act only balanced by his decision to start again. Such self-conscious choices might be made by a political prisoner or a monk entering a religious order.
In either case, it suggests that he could not do two whole-hearted actions at the same time: not activism while gripped by the requirements of poetry. Weil’s Gravity and Grace was published the same year he decided to return to poetry and abandon social action.
I wonder if he read these lines of hers:
“However much we give of ourselves to others or to a great cause, whatever suffering we endure, if it is out of pure obedience to a clear conception of the relationship of things and to necessity, we make up our minds to it without effort, although we accomplish it with effort. We cannot do otherwise, and there is no reversal, no void to be filled, no thought of reward, no spite, no loss of dignity.”
And the hammered nails of necessity
Carried through the oceans
Where the moon rises grandly
In the grandeur of cause.
Oppen would have gladly agreed to sacrifice the writing of poetry for the rescue and salvation of children in peril. But this was not even a choice of interest to anyone.
Miracle of the children the brilliant
Children the word
Liquid as woodlands Children?
…Miracle of the children
The brilliant children Miracle
Of their brilliance Miracle
Outside where I am writing now the hydrangea petals have turned from plump pinks into brown balls, quivering in a yellow autumn wind. I am as far from France as I am from San Francisco and as far from the mainland of the United States as I can manage to get and live. The attempt to shuck a hugely symbolic system has driven me to life off the beaten track. The last century was the one my parents inhabited, just as they inherited their own skins and families. I am always trying to say goodbye to them, but there is something that arrests me, riveted.
I am looking at what they are looking for. Studying the path of Oppen’s poems and returning to the anorectic perfection of some of Weil’s writings, it is that image of the sea that is both interval and link between them. (My parents also crossed that sea in the same period.) I can’t help thinking of her again crossing out of Marseilles in May and then crossing it back six months later, in November, on a Swedish boat bound for Liverpool while Oppen was being inducted into the army during that same November. Two years later in November, Oppen crossed to Marseilles and she had already died many months before. But their ghosts keep glancing to me, as they do at each other outside of time.
I see them as waving from a past time that at the same time stands as a marker, all fluid, for where we stand now. They are like two pilgrims who are investigating the coming nihilism as a state of mind both fatal and fruitful. Few had seen it so clearly and how it is expressed in single words, words that are now extinct and attitudes that are sternly ethical and stamped by experience. What the consequences of our alienation would be, they were seeing and putting on paper. History is as mystifying as the future.
The litter of bones and ruins stands on earth, but what is time, and why are these objects here now?
Weil’s brief life seems still exemplary for those of us seeking a way that is both secular and religious. Her call as a writer was as much of a vocation as that of someone in a religious order. It was as if she had taken a vow in her teens to be alone, to be lucid, to be watching and listening, to embody in her emotions and acts the imperatives of an invisible and transcendent force, which could not be described and at the same time had to be faced.
She admired equally the Pagans, the Gnostics, the Stoics, the Buddhists, the Christians, and only excoriated the one tradition to which she belonged by birth because of the cruelty of its God. But she was stuck with a Jewish identity and treated it with irony. She couldn’t have a teaching job because of it and she had to use a pseudonym for her writing for fear of being cornered. Anything that contributed to a fixed description of a human being was horrifying to her as if it could only lead to genocide. This was a consistent obsession of hers, spilling into all categories, not just the ethnic.
She wrote, prophetically:
“After the collapse of our civilization there must be one of two things: Either the whole of it will perish like the ancient civilizations, or it will adapt itself to a decentralized world.”
The twist for Weil was her relationship to God that didn’t leave her, and the twist for Oppen was his poetry. These are old-fashioned preoccupations in an era of Freud and secularism, atomic weapons and high finance.
Weil was a realist tending towards despair, and developed a theory which came close to being a justification for suicide. She wrote in Supernatural Knowledge: “Our sin consists in willing to be, and our punishment is to believe that we are. The expiation is to want not to be any longer, and the salvation for us consists in seeing that we are not.”
In the annihilation of all that is attached to us, we find ourselves nowhere, without an identity, obedient to God or Universe, depending on what we call it, and according to culture and/or personality.
It is like the image of Amelia Earhart in her little plane lost and pressed between the Atlantic ocean and a cloudbank, flying so close to the water, she could dip her fingers in it, but she didn’t know where she was going. She had lost her directions. She was nowhere, and no one could reach her.
At this level of experience, the objective natural world promises you nothing. The facts have drowned in other facts. Courage and supernatural attention keep you going.
“The errors of our time come from Christianity without the supernatural,” she wrote once as she became ever nearer to a philosophy that prefigured that kind being practiced in certain places today and propounded by the philosopher Gianni Vattimo.
The essential difference is that she saw nihilism as a reduction to something given, rather than to a place of choice.
No one in my family or school had any interest in theology. They were good atheists, it was enough, and after the catastrophes of the Shoah and Hiroshima, there was no reason to spend time on that queenly subject. History was the great determining force, just as weather and money are now. I believe they (and Oppen) would have stood with Weil when she said,
“Of the two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one. We have to believe in a God who is like the true God in Everything, except he does not exist, since we have not reached the point where God exists.”
In this completely non-religious environment, as a young person I took a theological approach to every study I made of the world, from dissecting frogs, to geometry, species of bird, poetry, human love, and plots in novels. This was one way to assure perpetual confusion and ridicule but it was not a choice. Even today I cannot reduce or expand it to a psychological conundrum.
Weil despised the Church for its opulence, arrogance, dogma, she loved science as it was practiced by the ancients, and hated quantum mechanics because it separated humans from the order of the universe, loved the Catholic liturgy and supernatural imagination and longed for the blessed sacrament, but would not accept it.
My sense is that Oppen's relationship to Judaism was familial and detached as in these lines of his about ships:
Old ships are preserved
for their queer silence of obedient seas
Their cutwaters floating in the still water
With their cozy black iron work
The cozy black ironwork that sits in still water to me is an image of a discarded tradition. It floats as if it is somewhere, when it is as lost as the cutwaters on the obedient sea....
This obedient sea is an image that Simone Weil returned to in her notebooks as the purest metaphor for an enlightened relationship to God.
To Gustav Thibon, a farmer of vineyards for whom Weil worked, she entrusted her mass of papers, all of them written before May 1942, scrawled in exercise books. He came to say goodbye to her in Marseille in her tiny flat that looked across the sea.
He never saw her again but received an extraordinary letter from her later that gave him the justification to publish many of her thoughts. In that letter she said, “What is within me is either valueless, or else it exists outside me in a perfect form, in a place of purity where no harm can come to it, and whence it will always be able to come down again.”
The Platonic influence in her thinking is captured in those three words, “come down again.”
In order to even think about this question, I have to make a digression and even pull some thoughts out of my book of prose, The Winter Sun, and Hinduism. I will start by talking about the act of writing and at the most elementary level.
In those last decades of letter-writing and note-taking, handwriting revealed personality, education, even the land you came from. The weak e’s and g’s on Alger Hiss’s typewriter now seem like the last kicks from a dying machine that would soon be replaced by illuminated composition lacking any stain of personality. In those days people could still discern whom the letter belonged to, so to speak, from the ink and the pressure on the keys.
I mention this because of the presence of notebooks, kept by both Oppen and Weil, where we get a physical sense of their being real people.
Through the first two thirds of the 20th century, as we all know, handwriting identified the writer of any piece of work. After all, handwriting is another kind of drawing. Letters are figures more than signs, alive and in multiple telling positions like dancers or insects.
If you look at pages from Oppen’s notes and from Weil’s, you see at once the differences in their backgrounds and personalities, one being a free-wheeling American, the other a more constrained European. But both have rounded letters that lean backwards as if in astonishment or blown backwards by a wind. Both scrawl and strike out and replace and erase. He is known for pasting words over words. She practiced Greek and mathematics in the margins and on the covers of her notebooks, and scratched words out.
The notebook as a genre is the closest form to speech, and therefore (I think) to thought. While the notebook collects and comments, stands back and leans in close, the poem attends to thought more as sound leaping around the brain. The notebook exacts material from the objective world around. The poem remembers and hears. The notebook tries out some thoughts on paper, and copies other people’s writing, has no desire to be read or analysed, but exists like a sketchbook, a quick response.
However, some people edit their notebooks. Change words, scratch out phrases, even though there is no particular next stage for the effort. Some people, like Oppen, begin to make poems out of the observations they have written into their notebooks. They change the shapes of the lines, not for the sake of music or a concrete text, but to make the thought more “recognizable,” so to speak, to others. There is something incredibly powerful about the hand-written and lonely notebook, with its modest takes on the world, and its physical presence as evidence of a day in a life long passed. The litter of a mind.
I have often thought that revision is a literal reversing of the process that
Bharthrari describes as the origin of thought and speech.
It is a way of learning what he has taught us.
After all, what are you seeking when you erase or replace a word?
What is the figure that you are after but cannot foresee?
Does the perfect word lie ahead of you or behind you, buried in your mind?
Are you discovering what you knew already, or are you bringing back to life an old phrase uttered once, unconsciously?
Are you learning from the words you first put down what the words before them were? Much in our work is going back, not forwards, especially re-working.
“Art's face.. ..We know that face,” Oppen wrote.
Both Weil and Oppen faced, full-on, the drastic state of things in the Western world mid-century. Both, by writing with a devotion to the truth of the object under examination, were strengthening a quality that Weil articulated again and again: the word she gave to it was attention.
She believed that the most difficult thing a person can do is to pay full attention to whatever person or object or poem is in front of her, and this difficulty must be overcome in order to love what exists.
The question of attention is central to her philosophy as it unfolded in her notebooks and essays and it became the foundation of her thinking about work, education, religion, politics, and human obligations. It has astonished me to see the convergences between Oppen's thoughts and hers, and to sense them as inevitable in historical terms, but simultaneously ancient.
“ We could not be born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything,” Weil wrote.
Exemplary lives tend to have certain qualities in common. They are directed outwards, towards benefiting others. They are solitary for lengths of time, and therefore contemplative. They are hard-working yet idealistic, pointed towards infinity. They practice discipline in a traditional fashion, yet they use what is given as a tool for change. They are non-aggressive and honest.
In fact they are tolerant to so many methods and discoveries, you feel they could give everything away in a minute, including you.
How an exemplary writer lives in the world becomes increasingly important as we become ever more conscious of human negligence and cruelty and their consequences.
We trail and precede past figures simultaneously. The more aimless and lost those figures are, the more errant and reckless we become.
I have come to believe that writing is best when the life behind it is equal to it. This I think will be the case as long we are needing directives to survive the unfolding global technology and the simultaneous immolation of the natural world. If we can't recognize who we are, then we are dangerous to ourselves and others.
Both Oppen and Weil have left behind writing that can serve as an aid to a younger generation that is ready to move away from nuclear weapons, colonialist wars, neglect and ruin of the earth, and arrogance towards those who share the planet with us. The two of them, for me, have named and known the place in which contemporary failure was made manifest. They took it on as a focus of study, and sacrificed their lives to documenting its actual effects. I think we must pay attention to both of them equally and then wait to see what the next generation makes of such an era, when two great minds appeared during the worst of times.
For me this is a goodbye to my parents, and a hello to my young friends, my children and their children. But it is also only the beginning of some new thoughts I am having and the thread has not yet snapped.
My friend the monk, who lived through the same seasons Weil and Oppen, seems to exist outside historical time. He has said that the church changes its rules as slowly as the Queen Mary changes course. And as he sits among ikons and a very modern dvd player in a tiny room in assisted living, a black cap on his head. He translates Isaac the Syrian from French and keeps a photograph of Simone Weil beside him. He finds the contemporary world devoid of ethics, or attention to the truth of things. He is cheerfully waiting for his end to come.
I will end with these lines of Oppen's:
Carpenter, plunge and drip in the sea Art’s face
We know that face
More blinding than the sea a haunted house a limited
Towards the thread’s end…
Fanny Howe's most recent books are What Did I Do Wrong? (Flood Editions) and The Winter Sun (Graywolf).