Readings: Alan Jacobs, Simone Weil, and ‘totalitarian spirituality’

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A lot going on with this Alan Jacobs interview with the LA Review of Books, but this feels super-relevant:

I want to talk about Simone Weil. Her story is devastating, and I think it’s the heart of your book. You write movingly of her choice to remain unbaptized, to be among “those outside” the Roman Catholic Church, her specific context.

She’s always standing with those outside. That’s why she’s so important to this story, because the older figures are all about restoring and renewing and rebuilding institutions, and Weil says, sorry, institutions are the “Social Beast.”

I’d love to have you tease this out for me, the way her resistance to being baptized, and to the institutional Church, is centered on her reaction againstanathema sit and what she called “totalitarian spirituality” — as you say, a shocking phrase.

Absolutely. The word “totalitarian” was a very new word. It was only in the ’30s that it started taking off. So for her to use it in that context is, I think, an intentionally jarring thing.

When Simone Weil looks at various secular utopias, or attempts at creating secular utopias — from the French Revolution to National Socialism to Soviet Communism — and she asks, Where did this come from?, she says to her fellow believers, They learned it from us. That’s where they got it. They got it from us.

The Grand Inquisitor.

Yeah. For her, the decisive turning point, in the culture that she knew, happened when the Church decided to exterminate the Cathars in the early 13th century. This idea that what you do with heresy is exterminate it, rather than try to live peaceably — yes, striving to teach, striving to correct, by all means, but refusing force, refusing any kind of coercion. When the Church chose coercion, chose force, it unleashed demons, demons that came back to attack it. I don’t know whether that’s right. I don’t know how you would even assess whether it’s right or not. But it’s an incredibly powerful, prophetic claim.

Author: joeldermole

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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