Dorothy Tuck McFarland (1983) views Simone Weil as a “writer with profoundly holistic vision of man [sic] and his [sic] relationship to the world” (pp. 168-169). This vision is demonstrated in Weil’s use of Attention, Decreation, and, most specifically, Metaxu to integrate her words into a singular and consistent corpus of literature that we find today. As a hysteric, Weil demands all the knowledge that she possibly can and then is not satisfied and desires more knowledge. The hysteric’s discourse demands knowledge beyond what is given by the master narrative, by the hegemony of the time, and this is exactly what Weil does in her discussion of Metaxu.
I understand the word Metaxu to refer to three main cognitive actions which Weil employs in description of the term: 1) Weil uses action when she postulates that a wall or veil is both a barrier and a way through, 2) She further uses an insistence on looking for and holding together contradiction, 3) And Weil intends the view of the idea of a means versus an ends. This demonstrates the ways I see Weil’s ambiguous use of Metaxu and its multiple, complementary meanings. These themes run throughout Simone Weil’s prose. I note work from Gravity and Grace, as well as The Power of Words.
Weil (2002) does acknowledge a Platonic understanding of Metaxu as a “between” which she refers frequently to “the distance between the necessary and the good” (p. 105). However, her concepts explored in this article demonstrate that Weil is concerned not with middle ground between two contradictories, but the bridge that allows one the means to travel back-andforth between these points. This use is somewhat different that the traditional use of Metaxu.
For Weil, Metaxu has many different connotations including suffering, contradiction, impossibility, and certain contradictions that connect us to our humanity. What is of premium importance in understanding Weil’s use of Metaxu is its process or action. Weil takes her action use of Metaxu to accept challenges, contradictions and power struggles as they lead her further along the path of the hysteric’s search for more truth or knowledge.
I have found Weil to be a hysteric, especially from the perspective of the psychoanalytic characterization of the hysteric based on the theory of Jacques Lacan. The hysteric, in this conception, is the person who cannot accept authorities’ definitions. The hysteric seeks the fill lack; it should be understood that in Lacanian theory lack can never be filled. Therefore, though not accepting truth Weil continues to seek it out.
Weil was a political activist and thinker who also used theological notions in her writing. Weil does not make a distinction between political and spiritual realms in her idea of Metaxu. The message of Metaxu refers to the transcendent or a “higher plane.” Therefore, Weil’s methods of Metaxu also lead her to an understanding of a move, which is never fully complete, which conflates the spiritual and the political.
The following quote expresses Weil’s statement about her intentionality and missionality toward seeking more and more knowledge of inviolability of God, while demonstrating her ambiguous use of the term Metaxu: In Weil (2002):
What is it a sacrilege to destroy? Not that which is base, for that is of no importance. Not that which is high, for even should we want to, we cannot touch that. The Metaxu. The Metaxu form the region of good and evil. No human being should be deprived of his Metaxu, that is to say of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, traditions, culture, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible. (p. 147)
This missionality is holistic in nature and she is speaking of that which cannot be put into language, which reaffirms Lacan’s acknowledgment that communication cannot truly take place. It is that dissonance of the Lacanian split subject and the dissonance of all experiences of difficulties, hardships and injustices which are approached by Weil through Metaxu.
Weil (2002) first cognitive action helps us to understand Metaxu with the metaphor of a barrier or a wall:
Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us with God; every separation is a link. (p. 145)
Weil (2002) also writes, “This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through” (p. 145). This is a cognitive exercise of seeing obstacles as something more. Necessity is a barrier and a bridge between us and the holy. Weil attempts to reach an understanding from the hysteric’s point of view, note here that this understanding can never be reached.
Weil uses the concept of “necessity” to apply this cognitive exercise on a grand scale, as demonstrated in the following quotes. Weil (2002) states that “God has committed all phenomena without exception to the mechanism of the world” (p. 104). The mechanism of the world rests on necessity and the obligation that the sun and all stars do shine and all matter does create gravity. These are necessary elements and fundamental to the continuous nature of the cosmos. Necessity is the subsistence of all things both finite and eternal, earth and heaven. Weil (2002) supposes that “There are necessity and laws in the realm of grace … Even hell has its laws (Goethe). So has heaven” (p. 92).
It is important to define what Weil means by “necessity.” To Weil, necessity encompasses all the laws that the physical world we know are ruled by; these laws apply equally to all people. Weil repeatedly returns to the idea of necessity as a foundational concept in her philosophy and uses it in a variety of ways to resolve subjective angst. In spite of her obsession with necessity, Weil is always in pursuit of more knowledge (as a hysteric).
From Weil’s point of view, the mechanisms of the physical and metaphysical world cause man great suffering; however these mechanisms also provide protection from being consumed by God’s full power and holiness. Again this is an illustration of how the barrier, or the wall, is also the way through, or the means of communication. Weil’s pessimistic views of necessity prove to be, according to McFarland, (1983) “no less threatening to the future of civilization now than they were in the 1930s” (p. 169).
McFarland brings forward necessity as the driving force for the whole cosmos, which is very fundamental to Weil’s work. Weil (2012) writes of it this way:
This universe where we live, of which we are just a particle, is that distance placed by divine love between God and God. We are a point in that distance. Space, time and the mechanisms that govern matter are that distance. All that we call evil is only that mechanism. God made it so that His grace, when it penetrates to someone’s very center and illuminates their whole being, permits that person to walk on water without violating the laws of nature. But when someone turns away from God, they simply give themselves over to gravity. Then they believe they will and choose, but they are only a thing, a falling stone. (p. 39)
Without the protection of space, time, and matter humanity would evaporate as water in direct sunlight. Per Weil (2002), “Necessity is God’s veil” (p. 104). The veil is necessity which keeps humans from being scorched by God’s radiance; necessity perpetuates the universe in its increasing infinitude, necessity guarantees the ex-sistence of space, time, and matter (p. 32). For Weil (2002) “Necessity is the screen set between God and us so that we can be” (p. 33), indeed, that which prevents our evaporation.
Metaxu, demonstrated as seeing obstacles and as something more, is perpetuated by the gravity of laws in the universe which preserve life. As I have said, Necessity is a barrier and a bridge (Metaxu) between us and the holy. Weil (2002) theorizes that “The distance between necessity and good: this is a subject for endless contemplation” (p. 105). This is an example of the way in which Weil thinks with Metaxu.
The mechanisms of necessity display ultimate obedience to divine Wisdom; therefore, being subject to necessity can be our bridge to obedience to divine Wisdom as well. In terms of the veil, it is used in the following way: “In such cases suffering, emptiness are the mode of existence of the objects of our desire. We only have to draw aside the veil of unreality and we shall see that they are given to us in this way. When we see that, we still suffer, but we are happy” (Weil, 2002, p. 23).
Weil’s approach to the somatic aspect of life is explained well by Charity K. M. Hamilton (2013), who refers to “the body [as] that space which can connect us with God or separate us from God” (p. 93). The body is a site of Metaxu for Weil according to Hamilton. It serves as a theological bridge between a person and God. The physical world was strangely inviting to a woman with such an emotional and physical struggle with anorexia.
Out of Weil’s compassion, she sees a different reality than that of the Lacanian discourse of the master; again, as a hysteric, she seeks knowledge beyond what is known even to experts. Weil’s political thought focuses on justice, morality and recognition of the hard-working individual who was oppressed and exploited. Fred Rosen (1979) reminds readers about “Weil’s insight into the double deprivation of the workers which consisted not only of low wages but also of loss of dignity.” (p.306) As Weil (2002) proclaims:
The true earthly blessings are metaxu. We can respect those of others only insofar as we regard those we ourselves possess as metaxu. This implies that we are already making our way towards the point where it is possible to do without them. For example, if we are to respect foreign countries, we must make of our own country not an idol, but a stepping stone toward God. (p. 147)
Weil’s approach is spiritual, humanistic and compassionate, not highbrow and elitist. She found herself in the factory with the worker and single-handedly negotiated a philosophy honoring what she refers to as Metaxu, man’s [sic] connection with “earthly blessing.” Weil is focused on the person one at a time; her compassion led her to the conclusion that she does not have comprehensive solutions but rather individual approaches. Each works out justice through attentive labor and practice. Weil’s sense of Metaxu as involving contradiction plays out in her view that what is transcendent is also lowly. Weil believed that the entire world is contradiction.
In Howe’s (2009) estimation, “Weil’s conception of roots is heavily influenced by the Greek idea of Metaxu: in this case the existence of intermediaries that form bridges between earth and heaven. Weil placed such importance on these aspects of human [sic] existence” that the result was that she was inclined to embrace earth and heaven. Weil believes all of the cosmos is contradiction, and this contradiction is what grounds us, connects us to the transcendent, or gives us roots. The world is the social and physical realm in which there is “baseness,” “lowness” and a “property of evil,” (p. 77) in Weil’s writing it is apparently the social realm that creates a barrier “which keeps evil away” from some.
For Weil (2002), Metaxu is acceptance of contraries, e.g. “every man is the slave of necessity, but the conscious slave is far superior.” Weil (2002) conflates “necessity” and “submission” in “The only way to preserve our dignity when submission is forced upon us is to consider our chief as a thing. Every man [sic] is the slave of necessity, but the conscious slave is far superior” as well as stating Metaxu with the following: “if one day we are driven, under pain of cowardice, to go and break ourselves against their power, we must consider ourselves as vanquished by the nature of things and not by men [sic]” (p. 157- 158); here that Metaxu is applicable to “the nature of things” and “men [sic].” It again is seeing more when faced with a barrier, remembering that very barrier is our aid.
The second cognitive action Weil uses as part of her doing Metaxu is to retrieve a picture of the whole by looking at extremes. Weil as the hysteric (in the manner of the hysteric’s discourse) questions the master signifier. This is because the full truth can never be spoken; she considers truth as something to pursue, even though she can only get glimpses of it. The balancing of the challenges she faces include finding the complication with the use of dichotomies, or finding the contradiction in the way we typically think of opposites.
These typical notions have to be taken apart, which happens through suffering, so we can have a better understanding of the true relationship of these ideas. Weil seeks out the “right union” of opposites, which is not about a between, but about what is found on a “higher plane.” Dialectics for Weil are not seen as dichotomous, but rather as meeting and joining by way of a bridge for getting back and forth, and even in contradiction, often being in both places at the same time, which may appear as coalescence, but not a compromise.
This is the nature of Metaxu, to bring together contradictories in spite of their contrariness. Weil (2002) writes that “We must seek equilibrium on another plane” (p. 6). This plane might seem difficult to conceive of or even entertain cognitively, but Weil gives the following metaphor to assist in understanding “another plane” by stating:
If I am walking on the side of a mountain I can see first a lake, then, after a few steps, a forest. I have to choose either the lake or the forest. If I want to see both lake and forest at once, I have to climb higher. (p. 99)
Weil kept her own philosophical position and did not give way to the thoughts of the day, especially political ones. Fiori attests to the potential contradictions and inconsistency in Weil’s ideas which only positions Weil as truly a human [sic] and unpretentious political figure. Fiori (1989) writes, “de Kadt declared at the same time that he did not at all share Simone’s ideas, which were drawing ever closer to Gandhi’s” (p. 93) approach to protest. According to Fiori, “The nonviolent editors of the Dutch monthly, Liberation, published a translation of her articles in the form of a booklet. They had quickly discerned her detachment from every separatist scheme and from all factionalism” (p. 93).
Weil was not a joiner, according to her friend Simone Pétrement. Towards the last part of her “political life” Weil differed in opinions from many, an example, for Bataille, “(the Russian) revolution is the triumph of the irrational,” for Weil, it is the triumph of the “rational.” What for him is a “catastrophe,” for Weil is a “methodical action for which we should strive in every way to mitigate the damage.” While for him the revolution is “liberation of the instincts, especially those considered currently to be pathological,” for Weil it means the need for, as in Fiori (1989) “a superior morality” (p. 96).
Weil seeks to find truth when the opposite is true, and seeks the balance which opposites bring into the foreground. Weil’s likelihood to contradict theories in order to bed within the confines of the discourse of the hysteric is, which is indicated by her symptoms. Those would be the desire to fight on the front lines while refusing to eat or stay healthy. These problems did not prevent her from voicing and conveying her political-self.
Weil had particular understanding of the political era she lived in and she presented a holistic and unique perspective on the nature of revolution; one could say that Weil was not interested in the same sort of revolution than that which Trotsky had in mind. Weil didn’t fit into a particular camp of thought on the matters of political import. Whereas Trotsky was interested in revolution within the whole of social order, Weil understood the needs of the individual worker as more important than a revolution that would just instate a new rule.
Blum and Seidler (1989) contend that in Weil’s view “revolutionary insurrection has nothing to do with genuine radical change … [she also thought such insurrections] … do not touch the real sources of oppression and dignity, which concern the structure of work and work relationship” (pp. 62-63). Weil interprets change as illusory to the masses and theorists, a contradiction in their thought to the extent that Weil can see through it into the psyche and have a further knowledge, again as the hysteric seeking what is beyond the truth of theorist.
Again Blum and Seidler remind us that “Weil suggests that genuine radical change can come about without a violent insurrection” (p. 63). Metaxu interestingly is used by Weil to find the abolition of all political parties. Weil (1977) explains that “revolution is the opium of the masses” (p. 120). It is quite clear that Marxism “constitutes an improvement on the naive expressions of indignation which it replaced, one cannot say that it throws light on the mechanism of oppression” (p. 127).
Weil again states that even the French Revolution left people standing by, “helpless, watching a new oppression immediately being set up,” (p. 127) even after the beheading of the aristocrats. Metaxu is an active way of understanding the moment of actual change, not a conceptual or cognitive construction of an understanding of a historical process. Metaxu is the active process of dealing with contradictions to be worked through starting with action-based awareness (which Weil terms Attention) on the part of the people with which she worked side-by-side.
This can only happen through being-with the workers and educating them on the nature of the action-based awareness, “Attention,” which is state akin to mindfulness and concentration. Weil’s insistence on Metaxu as a cognitive action continues her search for truth, which leads her to the use of Attention. Weil agrees with Marx that oppression can only end if the structure of power has changed. However, Weil contends that what society sees as change is not genuine change, but further oppression.
When Weil uses Metaxu she works through oppositions and contradiction related to work life. This is a union of opposites not in the typical conceptual understanding, but rather through concrete happening. This is due to the political and public sectors being not as they seem. Weil dismantles both sides of the opposites and finds through active awareness that the right union of opposites happened on a higher plane. Weil (2002) writes to the worker, “The desire for vengeance is a desire for essential equilibrium. We must seek equilibrium on another plane” (p. 6).
There is another division in the thought of Weil which demonstrates the nature of dichotomies, as Weil understands it. Thus, she writes in Oppression and Liberty,
As Plato said, an infinite distance separates the good from necessity. They have nothing in common. They are totally other. Although we are forced to assign them a unity this unity is a mystery; it remains for us a secret. The genuine religious life is the contemplation of this unknown unity. The manufacture of a fictitious, mistaken equivalent of this unity, brought within the grasp of the human faculties, is an inadequacy as a philosophy through the description of Marxism as being a religion in the bottom of the inferior forms of the religious life. (p. 165)
Weil on the same page indicts Marxism as being a “fully fledged-religion,” in the “impurest sense of the word” (p. 165).
Weil continues to develop the notion that Marx is only a shade away from Plato’s spirituality in comparison to materialism (p. 165). Weil states elsewhere in the same work that “it is possible to say, without fear of exaggeration, that as a theory of the workers’ revolution Marxism is a nullity” (p. 175). Revolutionary Marxism is based on a reductive ideology, whereas Weil emphasized revolution is a hope that never fulfills its promise. Hence, the nature of the hysterics reality comes alive in the non-fulfilling nature of revolution.
In addition to seeing a barrier as a way through and seeking out contradiction, the third cognitive action that Weil frequently takes in this process of Metaxu is looking at the means versus the ends. The metaphor of the bridge illustrates the concept of means, nicely. The summarization of Weil’s use of the bridge comes in the following text from Gravity and Grace:
The bridges of the Greeks. We have inherited them but we do not know how to use them. We thought they were intended to have houses built upon them. We have erected skyscrapers on them to which we ceaselessly add stories. We no longer know that they are bridges, things made so that we may pass along them, and that by passing along them we go towards God. (p. 146)
Bridges are necessary in order to cross terrain that is impossible to cross otherwise; Weil was only interested in the means, the bridge itself, or the crossing over. Weil’s focus was not on the ends; for her that would be a trap, the end of knowing. Because of the hysteric’s need to continue toward truth, Weil felt nothing was as important as the bridge as the means not the ends.
Weil pictures the bridge as that which can readily be passed over to connect and investigate difference. Weil writes “Only he who loves God with a supernatural love can look upon means simply as means” (p.146). Weil’s concern that humans not use ends, but rather continue with means is for her as being of high importance. When ends come to be a prospect, as a solution to problems or as a way to complete a transaction or communication, this is the lowest of notions, it is the completion of desire.
Desire as means leading to desire as a means is the essence of beauty, because of the infinite nature of such; therefore, ends in themselves or means to an end are like blowing out candles in order to save wax, which is turning the world into darkness and bitterness (because of Weil’s anorexia, this concept of beauty makes sense). Means is a significant philosophical and theological concept and can be applied to Weil’s representation of the human [sic] ends in the case of endeavors completed, finite, objectified or totalized. Weil saw great distress in a world of only ends.
The importance of means for means’ sake and means leading to further means emphasized synchronicity and spontaneity of the world. It was godly and noble to be of the understanding that means are fluid and related to the flux of life. Weil has numerous commentaries on power, money and resources; and on how they are indeed means that produce more means as they are applied correctly to life.
Weil speaks, the “miser’s treasure is the shadow of an imitation of what is good. It is doubly unreal. For, to start with, a means to an end (such as money) is, in itself, something other than a good. But diverted from its function as a means and set up as an end, it is still further from being a good” (p. 52). Good was for Weil a function or cognitive action entailing means only.
Weil maintains a moral sense which informs her political and religious scruples. She is strongly against what she considers harmful in the shaping of humans, individually and collectively. Weil states that “The Metaxu form the region of good and evil” (p. 147). For Weil, good and evil are equivalent when on the transcendent plane; they are separate otherwise in human [sic] existence.
In the discussion of good and evil, the work that Weil does covers the divide between good and evil which demonstrates a just and spiritual understanding of these realities. Weil reinvigorates those who would give her voice and delivers a sense of values that are above discriminatory morals and provides an approach toward a way of truer liberty. She had, again as Blum and Seidler (1989) have pointed out, escaped the terms of moral relativism that have become the common-sense assumptions within social theory and anthropology because they seemed to be the only alternative to nineteenth century rationalism, which tacitly judged other cultures in terms of the values and institutions of Western culture (p. 213).
Weil seeks to connect philosophy to concrete history. Weil’ s accumulation of writing as collected by Gustav Thibon, from Weil’s work which he entitled Gravity and Grace, amasses material that covers many topics; nonetheless, throughout Weil’s work there is the thread of material on Metaxu.
In various passages of her writings Weil comes close to a depiction of imagination which coincides with the Lacanian notion of the imaginary. For Weil as for Lacan, as Evans (1996) has it, “The imagination, filler up of the void, is essentially a liar.” (p. 16) A Lacanian understanding of the imagination sheds light on Weil’s understanding of the imaginary. As Evans (1996) puts it,
The imaginary is the realm of image and imagination, deception and lure. The principal illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and, above all, similarity. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure; the effects are such phenomena. (p. 82)
Weil (2002) points to the aspect of evil which is the ”Monotony of evil: never anything new, everything about it is equivalent. Never anything real, everything about it is imaginary” (p. 69). All aspects of evil manifest in the same monotony participated in when on farm and in factory. Weil honors work and the worker as doing the equivalent of divine work, when attended to in the proper way.
If the imaginary is filling the void, then it seems to follow that the cosmos is imaginary or illusion. This is why the image is so powerful in determining the outcome of one’s deliberation about subjectivity. This is where our values are implicated, as Weil (2002) says: “Illusions about the things of this world (e.g. the image in the mirror, as I see it) do not concern their existence but their value” (51). Again, Weil thinks positive outcomes of revolution are illusory, because the outcome is always the same; meaning a power structure is still formulated and a bureaucracy remains. Within the filler of the void is where Weil’s words given capital letters come to play. For many would shed blood for this illusory state of affairs based on the perception of a greater good found in the revolutionary spirit, as defined by those words.
But according to Weil (1977) “when empty words are given capital letters, then, on the slightest pretext, men will begin shedding blood for them and piling up ruin in their name” (p. 270). For example, Greeks experienced frenzy for Troy; Christians retaliation for the sake of good over evil, Knights for chivalry, or Liberty for Americans. Means are the bridge that Weil envisions, while ends are the capital letters. Bracher (1993) suggests that “the more fully these master signifiers are exposed, the less capable they are of exercising their mesmerizing power” (p. 59). Weil exposes the master signifier in the moves which the powerful make in order for them to remain the hegemony.
Three cognitive actions are in place in Weil’s prose; they represent cause for a significant and meaningful understanding of revolution and work. They help Weil deliver a message of hope, justice, and ethical politics. These add-up to a move toward the illusion of the world found in contradiction. This does not refer to paradox; Weil quite frankly understands opposites to stand side-by-side and not coalescing or forming some One notion. Therefore, Weil can write about the abolition of all political parties, seeming disarray, and the revolution of work-practices. The nature of Weil’s subversive thought indicates that “revolution is the opium of the masses” and that meaningful work is necessary for hope and justice.
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