Simone Weil's Beautiful Shipwreck

When I was in the Army and stationed in Germany, I spent as many long weekends as possible in France and Italy. I would drive out of Bavaria, a wet emerald of farms and forests, through the unsettlingly long tunnels cutting under the Alps, and after what seemed like no time at all, find myself delivered to the low, brown plains of Northern Italy. My town was Jesolo. A packed beach resort during the Summer, Jesolo was mostly abandoned in the off-season, making me a familiar face to the locals working in the empty restaurants and wandering along the cool, wind-swept beach. A genial man selling roses from a bicycle had a bit where he would pretend to forget that he had already pitched me, even though we might be the only two people on the street. He would circle by, again and again, grinning. “Rosa?,” “No,” “Rosa?,” “No.” Until finally I bought one just to reward his wry humor and persistence. Being a tourist in the off-season, you felt like you were in on the joke. It was like going backstage at a circus. You were able to occupy some role halfway between audience and performer, granting you a privileged perspective on both.

But the best part of staying in Jesolo was leaving Jesolo and coming into Venice by sea. First you take the bus from Lido de Jesolo to Punta Sabionni, and from there the ferry slowly churns thick water past Sant’Erasmo and Le Vignole to disembark at San Zaccaria in San Marco, Venice proper. It is the same motionless sea and sky that lured Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach to sleep, an infinite refraction of gray and lime stillness. The city seemed permanently lodged between two complementary infinities. It felt ancient, abandoned and then recently reoccupied, oscillating between decay and reconstruction. Like Brugel the Elder’s Tower of Babel series, where you cannot quite tell if the towers are in the midst of construction or ruin, Venice has always seemed to me to fully occupy that liminal space between creation and destruction. In this sense, the city can be read like a physical synecdoche for the world itself. A symbol for what Simone Weil called the perpetually “shipwrecked” status of our human state.

A shipwreck—something that might once more be made to move but is at least temporarily a victim of contingency—feels like an apt symbol for Simone Weil as well. As she wrote in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, “We are like shipwrecked persons clinging to logs upon the sea and tossed in an entirely passive manner by every movement of the waves.” Hers was a life abruptly cut short. When she died at 34 from tuberculosis while living as an exile in England during the Second World War, her work ceased at the very height of her abilities. And yet, by grace, it somehow survives to live on in our hearts and minds, aphoristically and half-finished in many cases, as if waiting for our attention to bring it to some fuller sense of life.

Like Brughel’s towers, Weil’s writing encourages the same double-vision of creation and incompletion as Venice approached from the sea. But there is also a literal connection between Weil and Venice. Beginning sometime in the year 1940, the same year in which France fell to German forces, Weil began work on a play that was never completed, much less performed, during her lifetime. The plot of Venice Saved is simple: A Spanish conspiracy in the year 1618 to overthrow Venice—to rape and pillage the city—is undermined by Jaffier, one of the officers of the conspiracy. Jaffier is so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the city on the lagoon that he betrays the secret of the conspiracy to Venice’s Council of Ten.

After assuring Jaffier that the lives of his friends will be spared in return for the information, the Council goes back on their promise. Jaffier, becoming what Simone Weil would call a truly “afflicted” man, chooses to join with the remnants of the plot and die fighting alongside his conspirators. As the editors write in the introduction to the most recent Bloomsbury translation of the play, Venice Saved “can thus be read as a literary study of the nature of force, affliction, attention, and friendship, informed by philosophical reflection.”

If the city of Venice can be read like a palimpsest, so can the history of Venice Saved. The play in its original form first comes to us in 1674 as La conjuration des Espagnols contra la république de Venise from the Abbé de Saint-Réal. Then in 1682 Thomas Otway published Venice Preserv’d, which was eventually followed by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Das gerette Venedig in 1905. These plays existed in dialogue with each other, but the conversation was relatively melodramatic. Unlike Weil’s portrayal of a man moved by the insistent reality of the city, overcome with the truth of a place and people existing outside of himself, the other plays utilize self-preservation, fear, revenge, and lust as the forces moving the plot forward.

In a sense, Weil had spiritualized the play, wresting it away from Saint-Réal’s preoccupation with melodramatic passion and Otway’s lightly-camouflaged political allegory (he meant the play as a takedown of the Whigs) and presenting it as a showcase for how grace operates in the world despite force and contingency. Weil’s biographer Simone Pétrement insisted that Weil believed,

Otway and others had not understood the nobility of the motive which . . . led Jaffier to denounce the plot: pity for the city. Such a rare sentiment must have seemed impossible to them, to the extent that they invented other motives. But it was this very motive that made the beauty of the story, and it seemed to her that she was the first to realize this.

The Grand Canal, Rio Novo, Rio del Carmini, Rio del Gaffaro, Rio de la Salute—these waterways simultaneously separate neighborhoods while also binding the city together into a unified whole. What might on a map appear broken, actually represents a unique unity. Weil’s own thinking and writing mirrors this “unity in multeity,” to use Coleridge’s phrase. She was ever the philosopher of the aphorism, the mystic of the essay, but by studiously avoiding the systemization of her own ideas, she nevertheless achieved a thematic organic whole. The living fruit of her spiritual work is brought together and beautifully expressed in Venice Saved, most notably: the lures of “The Social Beast”, the significance of rootedness, and how a true experience of beauty means the decreation of the self.

In her 1943 essay “On the Abolition of All Political Parties,” Weil effectively argues that social groups are typically more dedicated to their own preservation and expansion than discovering the truth. The tactics they use to enforce themselves consists mainly of different types of social pressures—peer pressure, in other words. But what makes the lure of social pressures so seductive is that groups usually adorn themselves in the trappings of some vaguely eschatological goal. In the case of Venice Saved, the conspirators working on behalf of the Spanish empire gas themselves up, so to speak, on the fumes of the group dream: imperial metastization without limits. Animated as it is by the energy of the group, it is a dream beyond morality, beyond moderation, and one that mistakes its own goals for the will of God. In the second act of the play, co-conspirator Renaud motivates Jaffier with the following words:

You are going to make history. You will destroy a power that is tyrannical, full of intrigue, hated by its own citizens, and which opposes the unity of Europe. Thanks to you, the whole of Europe will be united under the Hapsburg dynasty, and the ships of this united Europe will cross the seas to conquer the entire globe.

Writing this play when Weil did, comparisons with the Nazi project of world domination are obvious. In The Need for Roots, Weil even explicitly charges Hitler with desiring this kind of expansionist fame while trying to pass it off as an ersatz redemption. She writes:

[Hitler] desired one thing alone, and he has it: to play a part in History. He can be killed, tortured, imprisoned, humiliated, History will always be there to shield his spirit from all the ravages of suffering and death. What we inflict on him will be, inevitably, an historical death, an historical suffering—in fact, History. Just as in the same way anyone who has reached the perfect love of God, whatever happens is good as coming from God; so for this idolizer of History, everything connected with History must be good.

The kind of Glory (could the case be made that Hitler was revitalizing a notion of kleos for the mechanized age?) that both the Nazis and the conspirators against Venice desire is, Weil tells us, almost the perfect ersatz deity. In Gravity and Grace she writes, using Plato’s pejorative term for society, that “The Great Beast is the only object of idolatry, the only ersatz of God, the only imitation of something which is infinitely far from me and which is I myself.” This is why social pressure is so adept at deceiving the conscious: it feels all-powerful and redemptive, lying both fully within and outside of ourselves simultaneously. Externally, it gives shape to our works and days. Internally, we are deceived into completely identifying with it. And to a certain extent, this is correct. The Social is in many ways greater or transcendent to us individually. However, Weil continues, “It is only by entering the transcendental, the supernatural, the authentically spiritual order that man rises above the social. Until then, whatever he may do, the social is transcendent in relation to him.”

Weil’s math is simple: The Social is greater than me, but God is greater than the social. And if there is anything that the Social force abhors, it is something that transcends it. In her notes for Venice Saved, Weil contrasted the Social with the City as oppositional forces within the world. She writes, “It must be apparent that this is a conspiracy of exiles, of uprooted men”. These men “all hate the Venetians for having a home—apart from Jaffier.” The conspirators hate Venice for its rootedness, its equilibrium, specificity, and uniqueness. Their fantasies of limitless empire are a fugue state moving over their spirits, piquing their metaphysical hunger while leaving their souls starving.

Some say that Venice Saved is an artistic compliment to her meaty work The Need for Roots, written for the Free French government in exile while living in London as a guide to rebuilding French culture after the war. In The Need for Roots, Weil offers up a detailed account of what rootedness actually means, writing:

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, professional and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellneigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

This, Jaffier discovers, is what Venice offers its inhabitants. Instead of the phantasmagoric lust of acquisition, a bounded and specific reality. Instead of the promise of a fake paradise, the actual embodied conditions in which spiritual cultivation is possible. It offers morality instead of violent glory and life instead of death. Ultimately, though, the difference can be reduced to the rooted reality of Venice and the uprooted fever dream of conquest. Truth versus illusion, this dichotomy is made explicit during an exchange with a co-conspirator:

Jaffier: I see this city, so beautiful and powerful and peaceful, and I think that in one night we, a few unknown men, will become its masters. And I think I must be dreaming.

Renaud: Yes, we are dreaming. Men of action and enterprise are dreamers; they prefer the dream to reality. But they use arms to make others dream their dreams. The victor lives his dream; the vanquished lives another’s dream.

Jaffier is unable to fully give himself over to the dream of conquest because he has been gripped by the beauty of Venice. Supernatural beauty—and all beauty is supernatural—stays his hand. As Jaffier confides to the Venetian Violletta, “No man could ever make something as beautiful as Venice. Only God. The greatest thing a man can do, the thing that brings him closest to God, is to preserve the marvels that exist, given that he cannot create them.” Astonished, the Secretary to The Council of Ten responds, “My child, who would have thought that a city would be defended by its beauty!” Weil thought so, obviously. In her essay “Love of the Order of the World,” Weil writes that beauty is a form which the love of God takes, and a privileged one at that, being more accessible to human perception than things such as flashes of mystical insight or the spiritual usefulness of affliction.

There is a special trick to beauty, Weil tells us, a kind of metaphysical shell game which it plays. In the same moment that it elicits desire from us, it resists possession. This is the dual movement of beauty, to attract us towards something and away from ourselves without actually relinquishing its autonomy. The dynamic gives a new metaphysical glow to Keats’s dictum that beauty is truth. As Weil explains at length in the essay, “Human Personality,” collected in Simone Weil: An Anthology:

Beauty is the supreme mystery of this world. It is a gleam which attracts attention and yet does nothing to sustain it. Beauty always promises, but never gives anything; it stimulates hunger but has no nourishment for the part of the soul which looks in this world for sustenance. It feeds only the part of the soul that gazes. While exciting desire, it makes clear that there is nothing in it to be desired, because the one thing we want is that it should not change. If one does not seek means to evade the exquisite anguish it inflicts, then desire is gradually transformed into love.

Jaffier is clutched by beauty. He lets the beauty become love, and that love spares Venice. But it does not save Jaffier, who ends up cursed by his co-conspirators and loathed by the city he saved. He is tortured before he is killed. In the end, he imitates in miniature the Passion of Christ, reviled and brutally murdered on behalf of a people who owe him their lives. His final words are even “it is finished”. What Weil wanted to show was how contact with the absolute is possible if we allow ourselves to be gripped and emptied by beauty. It is Issac Luria’s tzimtzum, or a kenosis writ small, wherein we reenact God’s “withdrawal” in order to let the autonomous beauty of the world continue to stand. For Weil, loving a city totally and selflessly means creating a space within ourselves where we prepare a throne for God. This truth is the antidote to the dream of the Social Beast.

I did not see Venice the way Jaffier did. Perhaps Venice did not need me to. But in a much more muted way, I was awakened to the non-dream reality of Jesolo in all of its off-season grittiness. It is difficult to be a man of action, and to dream the dreams of a man of action, when there is nothing to do except buy roses from someone on a bicycle. The ambiance that usually muzzles Jesolo in a thick miasma of beachside resort clichés had lifted. The banality went with it. My expectations and illusions as well. For a moment, standing alone holding a rose on the salty street, I was held by the thought that no human could have created a scene this beautiful.

Featured Image: Tintoretto, Doge Mocenigo Presented to the Redeemer, 1577; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Scott Beauchamp

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Affairs, and Bookforum, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.

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