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Stephanie Gehring

A Face in Black and Ivory

Julia Haslett's Encounter with Simone Weil.

I first "met" Simone Weil on the cover of Gravity and Grace. Above the title (which was in pencil-thin red letters), there was her name in heavy black, and above that, against a pure ivory backdrop, a nearly abstract face given form by its shadows, stamped in black—the lips, a bit of shadow under the nose, the lashes and one lower lid, the solid irises each with one spot of light, the outline of the round horn glasses. No chin, no eyebrows; no edges to the face, exactly, and the black splotches on the side might conceivably be hair, or they might not.

"Two ways of renouncing material possessions," she wrote:

To give them up with a view to some spiritual advantage.
To conceive of them and feel them as conducive to spiritual well-being (for example, hunger, fatigue, and humiliation cloud the mind and hinder meditation) and yet to renounce them.
Only the second kind of renunciation means nakedness of spirit.

Weil abstracted herself nearly out of existence while she was alive (the black-and-white cover image is true to her in this, and her notebook entries, as above, avoid "I" whenever possible). Given this abstractness, it is striking that she should so often produce a powerfully personal response in those who encounter her words. "She scares me shitless," Stanley Hauerwas has said. "That ferocious intelligence coupled with her self-destructive tendencies." She asks such deep and honest questions; she is compelling. And yet she cannot simply be followed, and so she is terrifying.

Weil was overcome on the one hand by the unspeakable suffering that fills the world, and on the other hand by encounters with the love and the absence of God—and the God she had in mind is the one described by Catholicism. Those of us whose moral imagination has been captured by the young Parisian Jewish woman come to her words and the story of her life asking many different kinds of questions. Filmmaker Julia Haslett comes asking, "How am I to live in a world with such depth of suffering?" ...

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