Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Susan Sontag on Simone Weil

An old essay by Susan Sontag on Simone Weil. She points out how writers interested in extremes of art and thought continue to fascinate us in our contemporary culture. Something I can attest to personally as well. (Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt are two writers I have pushed up on my reading list in line with the project of acquainting myself with more women writers and thinkers. I am already slightly familiar with Arendt, but I found her ideas and style a bit too dense and reader-unfriendly the last time I picked up The Origins of Totalitarianism. I think I will pick up the Eichmann book this time.) Anyway here is the essay:

"The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force—not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live. It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering—rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer's words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

What revolted the mature Goethe in the young Kleist, who submitted his work to the elder statesman of German letters "on the knees of his heart"—the morbid, the hysterical, the sense of the unhealthy, the enormous indulgence in suffering out of which Kliest's plays and tales were mined—is just what we value today. Today Kleist gives pleasure, Goethe is to some a duty. In the same way, such writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet—and Simone Weil—have their authority with us because of their air of unhealthiness. Their unhealthiness is their soundness, and is what carries conviction.

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie."

6 comments:

ted said...

Thanks for posting the link to this essay. I love Simon Weil, and can't wait to see what Sontag has to say about her.

Alok said...

I am yet to discover her writings. This is not really a comprehensive essay, more like a short appreciative article.

Antonia said...

she is also still terra incognita for me.
alok I wonder have you seen Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev? am planning to do it this weekend.

Alok said...

yes it is a great film. A little long and it might put you to sleep but you will emerge enlightened after watching it :) it has got some beautiful and haunting landscape photography...

Antonia said...

oh that sounds good. and it even will put me to sleep. what can one want more. :)
but I won't blog about it.

Alok said...

That comment came from a person suffering from narcolepsy (too much sleep disorder) may not work for an insomniac :)