There’s a repeating image in José Ortega y Gasset’s first book, Meditations on Quixote, of a bird flying through and then falling from the sky. When we first see the bird, it is gliding over a “miasmic swamp,” a metaphor for the “past falling dead within our memory.” The bird then becomes a truth hunted by great scientists and falling lifeless at their feet. An “ideal bird,” representing creatures of a heroic future which are unable to yet exist in the harsh conditions of the imperfect present, is laughed at as it pathetically falls from its branch. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Gasset, birds sing on the edges of a forest which we are trying to penetrate, messengers of a depth which we can only intimate through their music. The notes of their song express a sylvan interiority which is “condemned to become a surface if it wants to be visible.”
Meditations is only partially about the Quixote. It is more a rumination on the national spirit of Spain. But more than that even, Gasset’s book is proto-phenomenology. And it uses the old tradition of reading “the book of nature” in order to give full voice to its ideas. As Gasset writes,
I now have around me as many as two dozen grave oaks and graceful ashes. Is this a forest? Certainly not. What I see here is the trees of the forest. The real forest is composed of the trees I do not see. The forest is invisible nature—hence the halo of mystery its name preserves in all languages. I can now get up and take one of these blurred trails ahead of me, crisscrossed by the blackbirds [Those birds again!]. The trees which I saw before will be replaced by similar ones. The forest will be breaking up into a series of successively visible portions, but I shall never find it where I am. The forest flees from one’s eye.
Gasset’s observation that depth requires surface in order to express itself can really only be experienced firsthand as a kind of reading, the final consequence of which suggests a supernatural fundament to reality. Though she only really focused on it in a single later essay entitled “Essay on the Notion of Reading,” in our century it is Simone Weil who perhaps most clearly articulates what this type of reading entails and what it suggests about the world which we inhabit.
Historically, it has been thought in Christianity that God could be apprehend through the reading of both scripture and nature. Like Gasset’s trees, the visible surface of the world suggests an underlying depth which finds expression only in the particular. Or as Kallistos Ware writes in “Ways of Prayer and Contemplation,” we are able to “discern, in and through each created reality, the divine presence that is within and at the same time beyond it. It is to treat each thing as a sacrament, to view the whole of nature as God’s book.” Literacy of “God’s book” is the kind of reading Weil deals with. As Diogenes Allen tells, Weil calls her notion of apprehending reality “reading” because “it is analogous to actual reading.” The meaning of marks we read on paper or screens, the images that your own eyes are moving across now, are the surface which depth requires in order to express itself. Without the depth, the lines are chaos. Without the lines, the depth is unable to articulate itself. “We are not given sensations and meanings;” Weil writes, “only what we read is given; we do not see the letters.”
Coming out of a tradition of rational skepticism, it is no surprise that Weil makes the imaginative leap in comparing her notion of reading with the cane of Descartes’s blind man. In both cases, one feels out a fuller awareness of the world through the surface interactions of sensation. As Weil writes, using the image of a pen in the place of a cane to make the same point:
Everyone can convince himself in handling a penholder that to use it is as if one is carried to the end of the pen. If the pen runs into some unevenness on the paper, the skip of the pen is immediately given, and the sensations of the fingers and hand across which we read it never even appear. And yet the skip of the pen is only something that we read.
Diogenes Allen again, writing in “The Concept of Reading and The Book of Nature,” writes that:
Simone Weil may also be said to represent an advance on Kant because it is from an analysis of concrete situations that she gains access to what is not constructed by us. It is precisely the emotional effects produced by representations that enable us to realize that we are gripped by reality, even when our reading is inadequate.
It is important to note Allen’s “not constructed by us.” We are not, Weil says, merely engaging with our own thoughts. There is a world outside of our heads which impinges on us. But just as importantly, it is not so much that we grip reality as we allow ourselves to be gripped by it. There is a sense of renunciation (always an important theme in Weil’s thought) in this notion of reading, of allowing the full heft of reality to grasp us and lift us up. To allow ourselves to be integrated within the fuller order of reality, and to let our reading become a sort of mediation between the surface and depth of things. Or, as Allen puts it, to become “transparent as a windowpane for God’s love to pass through us to other creatures.” Weil elaborates on this notion in Gravity and Grace:
To be what the pencil is for me when, blindfolded, I feel the table by means of its point—to be that for Christ. It is possible for us to be mediators between God and the part of creation which is confined to us. Our consent is necessary in order that he may perceive his own creation through us. With our consent he performs this marvel. If I knew how to withdraw from my own soul it would be enough to enable this table in front of me to have the incomparable good fortune of being seen by God. God can love in us only this consent to withdraw in order to make way for him, just as he himself, our creator, withdrew in order that we might come into being. This double operation has no other meaning than love, it is like a father giving his child something which will enable the child to give a present on his father’s birthday. God who is no other thing than love has not created anything but love.
The question naturally arises as to how we know if we are reading well, or if there might be a way of somehow reading better or more accurately. I believe the answer is two-fold. We read better by re-reading, by allowing ourselves to be gripped by time, by withdrawing into time. And we know that we are reading well because our reactions are touched with wonder. Weil suggests something like this herself when she writes in her essay “The Love of God and Affliction”:
As one has to learn to read, or to learn to practice a trade, so one must learn to feel in all things, first and almost solely, the obedience of the universe to God. It is truly an apprenticeship; and like every apprenticeship it calls for time and effort . . . Whoever has finished his apprenticeship recognizes things and events, everywhere and always, as vibrations of the same divine and infinitely sweet word.
There might not be a better literary example of this sort of apprenticeship, of developing the ability to read, in Weil’s sense of the word, better over time, than the narrator of Proust’s Combray coming to see the resemblance between his pregnant house maid struggling with a heavy basket and Giotto’s “Charity” in Padua’s Arena Chapel. It is Swann who first points out the similarities, referring to the physical resemblances and particularly the house maid’s basket and smock. It is the narrator, however, who reads more deeply, or allows himself to be more fully gripped by the depth of world:
For just as the figure of this girl had been enlarged by the additional symbol which she carried before her, without appearing to understand its meaning, with no awareness in her facial expression of its beauty and spiritual significance, as if it were an ordinary, rather heavy burden, so it is without any apparent suspicion of what she is about that the powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena Chapel beneath the label “Caritas” . . . embodies that virtue, for it seems impossible that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face.
Proust’s narrator here is reading more deeply, through and beyond physical resemblances, to another level of depth and as such feels a more profound sense of wonder than Swann. This is still a reading of surfaces, of course, just a more sophisticated one. Or, as Simone Weil aphoristically puts it, echoing Proust’s “vulgar and energetic face,” “A beautiful woman who looks at her reflection in the mirror can very well believe she is that. An ugly woman knows that she is not that.”
As Gabriel Josipovici points out in his masterful On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, much of the Combray episodes “consist of Marcel’s growing awareness of mystery, his cautious circling around it in an effort to grasp its dimensions rather than attempting to resolve it. In this instance that circling round is directed at and inspired by the images of Giotto.” The circling around, reminiscent in some ways of Gasset’s messenger birds from eternity, is also the meandering path of a reader gripped simultaneously by God and time. The image of Charity, like Giotto’s image of Envy, does not necessarily conjure up the concept of Charity from a quick superficial reading.
Marcel must enter an apprenticeship with time, language, and image in order to learn to read better. As Josipovici puts it, “it took him a long time to appreciate the Charity devoid of Charity and this Envy who ‘looked like nothing so much as a plate in some medical book.’ His initial response . . . [is] the natural response of someone who has been brought up on Romantic and post-Romantic art and criticism.” Yet his apprenticeship with time is rewarding. Proust writes:
In later years I came to understand the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes derived from the great part played in them by symbolism, and the fact that this was represented not as a symbol (for the thought symbolized was nowhere expressed) but as a reality, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to the meaning of the work, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson it imparted.
This reality which Proust expresses, beyond both symbol and surface, Weil takes as the supernatural. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Weil takes our reading supreme reality through the movements of the material world as a supernatural act. Weil writes in The Need for Roots, “The operations of the intellect in scientific study makes sovereign necessity over matter appear to the mind as a network of relations which are immaterial and without force. Necessity can only be perfectly conceived so long as relations appear as absolutely immaterial.” A dense couple of sentences, but illustrative of Weil’s contrast of the limited and unlimited. Picking up shades of contemporary object-oriented ontology (but actually hearkening back to Greek conceptions of how humans read the natural world), Weil is saying that brute matter is not itself able to be penetrated by thought. Thought, being immaterial, understands in ratios and proportions. And so it is through this immaterial thought that the brute and unlimited chaos of the material world becomes ordered cosmos. The better we think, or read, the limits of nature and the unifying associations between phenomena, the more our own minds cohere with the immaterial mind of the Creator.
Diogenes Allen writes that:
Simone Weil’s more fundamental argument that nature’s necessities are actually obedience to God . . . is less foreign and clearly quite plausible. We do see nature as a tissue of necessary relations, save on the quantum level, and mathematical relations are immaterial on all levels. Weil gives a religious reading of these facts by pointing out that since we are not masters of the universe, nature’s necessities are not our thoughts, and the beauty that is a result of necessity calls forth our love.
Perhaps this love is the wonder we feel when we read well. Essential to the wonder is a radical sense of humility that all this beauty which we read does not come from us, but that we are gripped by it and allowed to experience it. As Gasset writes, Greek poetry finds the ancient beautiful not because it is old but because “they contain in themselves the foundations and causes.” Our humble recognition that it is impossible to invent beauty for the same reason that it is impossible to invent a mechanical law is what crowns wonder with majesty.
Gasset writes that “life is the eternal text, the burning bush by the edge of the path from which God speaks.” What Weil’s conception of reading gives us is a method of reading this text and, in our limited way, understanding it. And as profundity needs surface, so our recognition of God’s presence needs the skin of the material world. When we err too far towards the surface signs only, we court the chaotic banal. When we try instead to penetrate directly into the depths we confuse our own abstractions for reality. As Josipovici writes in his novel Infiinity: The Story of a Moment,
The world is being swallowed up by superficiality . . . and the artists and intellectuals react to this by seeking profundity. When they grow tired of profundity they play ironically with superficiality. But they are wrong on both counts. They should not seek the depths and they should not seek the surfaces, they should seek the truth.
An artist who seeks this might hope to live, as Weil writes in her First and Last Notebooks, “A life in which supernatural truths would be read in every kind of work, in every act of labor, in all festivals, in all hierarchical social relations, in all art, in all science, in all philosophy.” A life in which signs fall like birds at their feet.