The Geometric Elasticity of Force

On July 14, 2020 by admin

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 Prasanta Chakravarty 


An Honest Letter

An exceptional testament about the nature of violence in times of civil war appears in the form of a letter: the one sent by Simone Weil to the novelist Georges Bernanos around 1938, being moved by his novel A Diary of My Times. In his work Bernanos, a devoted monarchist and a visionary, candidly describes the ferocity and casualness of violence on the part of the nationalists and church dignitaries as it unfolds at Majorca during the Spanish Civil War.  Weil had participated in the war on the Republican side. In her first encounter of the Civil War in 1936, nearsighted as she was, Weil stepped in a pot of boiling oil and completely burnt her lower left leg and instep. She found enough courage to return to combat. Should there be any confusion about the sides the two chose, she tells Bernanos early on in the letter that her native inclination has always been to side with the ‘despised strata of social hierarchy.’ This was the left radical Simone Weil who in her many teaching assignments and the grueling factory work among unskilled female labourers in the early 1930s realized and conveyed to everyone that ‘the organization of labour is the deepest root of oppression’—something that produced humiliation, which in turn, produced fatigue. But that confession of being with the oppressed strata is qualified immediately in the letter by a simple yet momentous addition: that the same associations were of a nature that proved instrumental in ‘discouraging all sympathies’ for her.

What had happened that had led to such a fundamental perceptual hardening in a person who is exceptionally dedicated and driven in her acts, politics and thoughts? What did dehumanization look like at the front? The letter is actually a dialogue and an inner battle with her selfhood and its alterations as it passes through such extraordinary violent times. Writing the letter to her ideological antagonist who is equally alive to little acts of fiendish bestiality and its effects during extraordinary violent times seemed an obligation to Weil.  It was a leveling with what actually happens behind the lines during violent outbursts that takes humans to the brink of the purgatorial state of nature. In such circumstances, what does it mean to participate emotionally in a war, and at what price such first-hand knowledge?

In the letter we come to witness Weil addressing a fundamental truth about nodes of intensity among the combatants: that grandeur and vice sometimes find a simultaneous natural outlet, so that all idealistic, righteous ventures are always sieved and purified at a point through the realist-determinist lens. But when the volunteer who joins the battle of resisting and fighting fascistic forces comes to square up with the realities of actual warfare, she often begins to weigh in the returns of her idealist immersion in the first place. On the one hand, the realist lens refracts back to sacrificial ideals as she ruminates upon the large catholicity of the anarchists. They did allow everyone to join their ranks. But what happens when idealists begin to waste themselves in a rut that begins to take a life of its own? Were the genuine radicals outnumbered by those who were impelled to political action by baser forms of violence? On the other hand, it is evident to those who live such a bloody war that love, an ambiance of brotherhood and, the demand for dignity among the humiliated are more than recompensed by a mix of immorality, cynicism and cruelty among those who profess equity and human dignity.  In Bernanos, Weil found a kindred soul who breathed the same odour of blood and terror as her, albeit the two nurtured diametrically opposite views about the political temperament of their times.

In the rambling, confessional middle of the letter, Weil recounts several tales which depict the unleashing of actual anarchist terror, which is always offhand and banal: her almost witnessing the execution of a priest, a boy killed and his father instantly going mad, and a young prisoner given twenty-four hours to join the anarchist camp and having refused that option, shot dead in cold blood when he refuses.  In a different instance, the radicals, having discovered some haggard souls in the caves, shoot them to death lest they join the fascists. The reasoning for the mass murder is the key point: since the poor souls had not joined them and awaited the fascists, they were considered to be fascists themselves. It is not possible to hold on to any middle ground to those caught in the crossfire of civil war. And there are always justifications for such brutality: as some others were spared the anarchists considered their acts as humane and just.

The final story concerns the manner in which an anarchist leader narrated the following incident to Weil: two priests were apprehended by the anarchists. Having shot one, the other was asked to leave. At twenty paces he was shot down too. Weil concludes the tale by pointing out the surprise on the face of the leader when he noticed that she was not laughing at his retelling of the incident.  Such punitive and murderous expeditions were rife in Barcelona at that time.  But the vital point is not about the number of people murdered. It has more to do with the attitude of those who committed those crimes in the name of transformation and equity. Weil emphasizes that she never saw among the intellectuals any remorse or disgust for the pointless killings. Rather the obverse was more forthcoming: ‘a brotherly smile’ whenever the killing of the priests/fascists was recounted to others.  Civil war converts human beings to automatons.  Fear is offset by a strange kind of courage among the partisan which inures them to all human loss and tragedy. After a point, you go with the tides and perform the motions. Shall we call this courage? Perhaps every act of courage has an underside. Perhaps there is no use in giving names to such doings.

It was there. It is here.

At this juncture in the letter, Weil comes up with an extraordinary insight about our creaturely predicament:

“I acquired the feeling that, whenever the temporal and spiritual authorities have placed a category of human beings outside of those whose life has a value, there is nothing more natural to a man than to kill. When one knows it is possible to kill without risking either punishment or blame, one kills; or at least one surrounds those who kill with encouraging smiles. If perchance one feels a little disgust, one keeps quiet about it, and before long one extinguishes it, for fear of seeming to lack manliness. One is swept up.”

The attestation that the tendency of being ‘swept up,’ is an instinctive human condition is not idle speculation on Weil’s part. She has already given actual evidence of casual lynching perpetrated by a group of which she was a part. More importantly, she dwells upon the curious connection between valueless drifting and bizarre workings of the restive, crooked human mind.  Indeed, she has given us ample grounds to ponder as to why a group of renegades and exiled people are likely to flee from all rationalizations of human behavior—may those well be modes of communicative reason or appeals to higher values of human interaction and respect for forms of life. Perfectly normal people kill and maim with a brotherly smile. Others encourage such acts by being fellow travelers or by remaining passive and silent so as to not disturb the settled codes of group dynamics. There is yet a third group, vile and canny, the members of which “bathed in this atmosphere soaking in blood with visible pleasure.” Weil reserves her greatest revulsion for such a category of opportunists.  In the letter, Weil calls such turns as intoxication, impossible to resist without some exceptional strength of soul, which she was yet to encounter in the battlefront. Henceforth, one coordinate of Weil’s philosophy would be to seek and define the nature of such an exceptional strength of soul in the face of spiraling downward force—what she calls gravity.

She concludes the letter by affirming that such an ambiance immediately negates the very goal of struggle. There is a twofold disjunction among those who are apparently on the same side—one that develops between the revolutionary intellectuals and the militia and the second between the militia and the common people. As Weil puts it—“an abyss separated the armed men from the unarmed population,” like the one that separates the rich from the poor.  The first group is nonchalant and condescending while the second is submissive and panicky.  This temporal condition where creatures and classes would be at once separated and connected is what Weil would call metaxu, a term borrowed from the Platonic vocabulary. What kind of equity and transformation are we talking about with such an inbuilt wall that distributes and redistributes power among those who are supposed to fight a common war? Who acts the savior and under what people’s mandate? And there is no question of any regard for the enemy. The whole tenor and thrust of the letter come from a realization that the ideals of sacrifice that drive the volunteers to join a radical Republican movement in the first place, turns eventually into partaking of a cruel and casual war of the mercenaries. And it is in this bedrock realization: war is the repugnant business of humiliating one’s enemy—that Weil finds herself infinitely close to Bernanos, her ideological foe, instead of her fellow militiamen of Aragon. It was the innermost camaraderie of two souls who have experienced wanton brutality of the basest order and the ‘elastic reciprocity’ of violence that impelled Weil to pen the letter.

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No Comforting Fiction

In a crucial section in Gravity and Grace, Weil delves into the root cause of war as well as the delusion that follows: “there is in every man and in every group of men a feeling that they have a just and legitimate claim to be masters of the universe—to possess it. But this possession is not rightly understood because they do not know that each one has access to it (in so far as this is possible for man on this earth) through his own body. Alexander is to a peasant proprietor what Don Juan is to a happily married husband.”  Possession is a richly created trompe l’oeil. For war, like eros, is an ever-receding pursuit. It is impossible to be the master of the universe for the simple reason that all possession is partial and piecemeal, relative to the creatures. Every being possesses a part of the earth by means of its very embodiment. Our views are also partial. To Alexander, possession means owning and maintaining large swathes of several continents, whereas for the peasant his holdings are his lifeline—all that is worth possessing. The very idea of possession accurues differently from differing vantage points.

In a couple of years’ time, in the December 1940-January 1941 issue of the monthly Cahiers du Sud. Weil published her long, magisterial essay–The Iliad, or the Poem of Force. She took an acrostic pseudonym—Emile Navis to write the piece. The celebrated opening lines are worth quoting one more time:

“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.”

 Only those acute souls who realize the intensity and might of force shall appreciate the power of that ‘purest and the loveliest of mirrors,’ which is the Iliad.  One of the running threads in the essay concerns the truth that the pitilessness of force shrouds the perpetrator and the sufferer alike. To the perpetrator, force is an intoxicating weapon; to the victim—a crushing, blind machine. But neither possesses it truly. In the Iliad almost everyone has to encounter the blinding power of force at one time or another.  Nor is any hero—Achilles, Ajax or Hector, spared from confronting fear, an otherwise unheroic emotion.  Victory is much less about valour and more about destiny.  But destiny is not blind. It is wryly just in the sense it apportions misfortunes equally among all participants. There is parity in misery. Weil goes back to the Gospels in order to make her point: “Ares is just, and kills those who kill.”

The fundamental and nagging disquiet about violence, experienced in close contact during the Spanish Civil War that Weil had spelled out in the letter to Bernanos reappears as force in the essay as she confronts the epic in a totally unsentimental and direct manner but with an enormous understanding of creaturely contacts and conflicts. We shall do well to remember that during 1938, after spending the Holy Week in Solesmes, a great illumination descended upon her: “Christ came down and took possession of me,” she says. Clearly it is a different kind of possession; the only possible one according to Weil’s perceptions. She left Paris around 1941 once it was declared an open city, and as anti-Jewish strictures began to take a toll upon her daily routine.  She soon reached Marseilles and wanted to share work with agricultural labourers. This was not an idle wish but a well thought out, long term plan. Later in the Fall of 1941, she would work full 8 hours in a grape harvest in the Ardeche region. She would assiduously carry Plato’s Symposium with her to the vineyards and try to teach and discuss the work with her fellow labourers during recess. It is in the middle of such a context that she began thinking afresh about the Iliad.

The first trait of force is that it converts anybody who is subject to it literally into a thing.  The Iliad shows us that the creature called human being with all its vaulting ambitions and desires is turned into complete inert matter in quicksilver time: “Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all,” in the words of Weil. The empty chariots rattle about in the battlegrounds but the noble charioteers lie defiled and lifeless on the ground, pure carrion—closer to the birds of prey than their loved ones. As the soul flies away to Hades, all pride of youth and valour comes to naught. And Weil is equally unsparing:

“The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted. No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality; and on the hero’s head no washed out halo of patriotism descends.”

 The force that annihilates is unswerving and plain. But there is an even greater and more poignant variety of force: to be unpersoned.  It can kill but will not.  It suspends the final move by always tending to kill. Such a force also turns creatures into inert bodies: living dead, by exercising the power to halt body movements and by repressing flights and fancies of the soul. The energy and power of the soul of the creature is folded and pleated in such a suspended state. The weapon pointed at him is focused and the man, who is aimed at, still breathes but “he is simply matter; still thinking, he can think no longer.” In the epic, suppliants often lose the right to even twitch their nerves and muscles—like Priam standing in front of Achilles, killer of so many of his sons. Everyone can see the suffering creature but none can see it. There is no overt sentence issued against him. Yet he is forgotten. This is affliction proper.

It is a permanent state of torpor. Even if in some future moment there is a chance to resurrect, the inert beings refuse to believe in any form of human cordiality, for there are none when creatures scar and maim each other intimately: “Pushed, they fall. Fallen, they lie where they are, unless chance gives somebody the idea of raising them up again. But supposing that at long last they have been picked up, honored with cordial remarks, they still do not venture to take this resurrection seriously; they dare not express a wish lest an irritated voice returns them forever to silence.”  Life congeals to matter. So, such creatures tremble and acquiesce, a cross between a man and a corpse.  Curses, complaints and weeping is a privilege to others—not for someone with no right to plea or show emotion. Not for a slave or an exiled one. The slave loses his inner life. Weil compares the tyranny and relentlessness of force with nature and extreme hunger—those having the power of life and death. It even silences the grief of the mother or the suppliant’s ability to communicate in a coherent manner. Slaves keep silent or blabber in sotto voce.  Bereaved mothers live on—

“But the thought of eating came to her, when she was tired of tears.”

The one who exerts force seems to be shielded by some strange element that does not allow anything to come between the instinct and the act. Most of all there is no reflection in the one who wields the scimitar. Reflection is a later development and shall forever remain an ideal. Rather, in such moments man relishes his apparent capacity to humiliate, numb or maim other beings at will. There is no greater delight than making the other man silent, trembling in some unknown fear.  But what rout lasts indefinitely? Does not misery and confusion, which he thought was the lot of the Greeks, haunt Achilles and become the reason for his own death? Weil reminds us that the enforcer often forgets that force is given to him only on loan. It is not a free pass. He forgets that his relation with other humans is a kind of balance between unequal amounts of force. Therefore he exceeds the limits of enforcing his will upon other kindred creatures—composed of sinews and bones, blood and pus, enthusiasm and reflection. But the wheel of fortune must turn. And at some point, there lies no armour between him and the tormented ones. As Weil puts it: retribution has a geometrical rigour to its workings. Nemesis is the soul of Greek literature. The nature of man and the universe turns radiant through its workings.  No limits, no measures of equilibrium can dare put an end to its unerring, periodic rumblings.


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A Tilting Board      

But the ebb and flow of fortune is a continual see-saw. So is a war, especially the one that relies on attrition. All victory is transitory. Perhaps the victor will be there tomorrow to rejoice? Perhaps not. Both Hector and Agamemnon make the same mistake—nurturing a sense of invincibility.  They have to, therefore, stand alone when fortune strikes. Each must stand alone to face his death, trying to steady the soul. As Weil memorably puts it: “But the auditors of the Iliad knew that the death of Hector would be but a brief joy to Achilles, and the death of Achilles but a brief joy to the Trojans, and the destruction of Troy but a brief joy to the Achaeans.”

Violence must exterminate all who come within its purview.  Moderation is not a virtue in the epic though we sometimes hear the voice of reason. But an all-pervading sense of indifference in the enforcer is the fatal temptation to which man hurtles. It is a contagion that engulfs others too. Whose doing—these our giving in to excesses? Fate’s dicta? Or opportunities that we grab now and resent later? Are we condemned to such cycles?

At certain conjunctures, those who feel that force is on their side, simply embark.  Embarking is an instinct and a temptation. As if it is a game. The other side has still not shown its presence or its fangs. The war still seems an abstraction. Heroism turns performative to one group as it begins to destroy life, like children breaking toys. In an epic, this sense of invincibility is doubly reinforced if it is sensed by the heroes that some divine machinery shall intervene on their behalf. To win becomes an inevitable gamble:

“Then war is easy and basely, coarsely loved.”

But soon war takes its own life. The participants begin to smell death. They start to lose comrades and raw fear hovers about their existence. Death becomes an unendurable prospect, lurking at close quarters. Indeed, for the warrior, death is not a limit to the future but the future itself. He wakes up to its presence every dawn. Is this the appointed day? The soul is then “strung to a pitch it can stand only for a short time; but each new dawn reintroduces the same necessity.”  The soul begins to shear off all aspirations. Bit by bit it castrates itself.  The whole purpose of the war itself turns blurry. What was the original aim of the bloody conflict? Such deathly conflicts cannot stand any moderate end.  To be outside of the spiraling bloodiness seems unthinkable to the combatants, for the price would be too steep to pay. To be inside it is to be unable to fathom its end.  The sufferers are not given any straw to extricate themselves. A dead-end is reached.  War of such dimension staggers and meanders. The only deliverance is death. And thus violence finds its own gravity.

Any moderate form of a solution in unthinkable; that cannot be held up— even as memory. Terror and humiliation, grief and exhaustion, deaths and lynching of comrades—the drowning power of force—continually devours the soul: “The idea that an unlimited effort should bring in only a limited profit or no profit at all is terribly painful.”  How can one master such terrible memory? One wishes to die then and there as the loved ones are maimed and destroyed. And on the other hand, the soul wishes to destroy the enemy. When such a dual need for death consumes the whole of the being of a man, he becomes part of a different race from the race of the living.

“To respect life in somebody else when you have had to castrate yourself of all yearning for it demands a truly heartbreaking exertion of the powers of generosity.”

 Homer rarely gives us such generous characters (except for Patroclus?). The conquering Homeric hero constantly dodges the spear thrust of his antagonist and awaits the opportunity to repay the debt.  He is possessed— in every sense of the term. The hero and the slave are finally one and the same matter. Inert thing. Pure momentum.  That is the reason heroes in the Iliad are often described as fire, wind, or wild beasts or as trees and frightened creatures—all set in motion by force. The true object of such deathly conflict is the transmutation of the soul of the characters that cross each other’s path. Once admitted in the realm of force our souls must petrify. Force purifies all ambiguities by burning them in pure luminosity.  Rarely do miracles take place in the epic. There are only few moments of hospitality, courage and love (often condemned to sorrow, which is when love basks in absolute purity) in which man rediscovers his self. Inner deliberations are even rarer. The greatest miracles happen when mortal enemies turn to friendship. Those are the moments of pure grace.

At the conclusion of the essay, Weil touches upon a unique theme: “bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight.” Bitterness never degrades into lamentation in the epic, and yet everyone’s unhappiness is laid bare. The equity of misery is universal; the common fate of humanity. Caprice and malice of the Gods bear fruit.

“Neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scorned, or hated.”

There is only that single regret: that man is capable of such transformations. Each spirit bears the subjection of force differently according to his or her virtue, but the apportioning is equitable. Is subjection to force, our common lot?  Are we to love only sorrowfully, for the dominion of force lurks about us?  But the affliction must be attended to—the one in which “the shame of the coerced spirit is neither disguised, nor enveloped in facile pity, nor held up to scorn; here more than one spirit bruised and degraded by misfortune is offered for our admiration.” It is in the simultaneous laying bare of our divinity and our bestiality that we rise above the common muck.  Misery is the absolute precondition for love. And a sense of shifting fortune marks all human traffic and transaction.

“Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.”

 This is the lucidity and simplicity that Weil brings into all her works, acts and silences. To pass through the flames of the force—to undergo suffering and death joyfully—is also for her the greatest Christian and communist act. This is the message she has also gleaned from Bhagawad Gita. The forces of gravity, which pulls us down, and grace, which gives us flightare inextricably intertwined.  One bears one’s anguish in perfect love—lets it pass through the eye of the heart.  And in order to face the misery that force must inflict upon us and to rise above it, Weil proposes an illuminative technique that she would call decreation. But that story is for another occasion.

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