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The Beauty of the Beast: Fairy Tales as Mystical Texts in Simone Weil and Cristina Campo
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The Beauty of the Beast:
Fairy Tales as Mystical Texts in Simone Weil and Cristina Campo

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Take Me Away

© Anja Bührer

[End Page 156]

My father was an effective diagnostician and not the most tactful of men; it often happened that, upon meeting someone, he would tell that person to get her liver checked, or his thyroid. He never learned English well; so that, even after moving to the U.S. in his middle age, he continued to call this habit of his a deformazione professionale (the English "professional bias" does not begin to convey the image of a mind irremediably deformed by one's work), claiming there was nothing to be done about it. Now, after over two decades spent analyzing texts for a living, I too have my own deformazione professionale: it is difficult for those of us trained in literary criticism to read something and not interpret it—and, occasionally, over-interpret it. In the immensely popular tetralogy of vampire romances by Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, for example, I saw so much of my own familiar mystics: the nubile female protagonist is distraught with her love for a flawlessly beautiful, immortal male lover, whose perfection highlights her own insignificance. To me, the love affair between Edward the vampire and Bella the high-school senior is imaged, in some small ways, as the love between God and the human soul—the bridegroom and bride of Christian mysticism: like God, Edward is superhuman, perfect, male, and compellingly if a bit dangerously attractive; like the human soul, Bella risks much in close proximity with his fearsome intensity—if you would forgive the comparison, think of how shattered, how undone Teresa of Avila is during her ecstatic encounters.

In terms of interpretive single-mindedness, I have found in Simone Weil's and Cristina Campo's readings of fairy tales kindred spirits—if you would once again forgive the comparison: their discovery of mystical love in fairy tales is not unlike mine in the Twilight series (Meyer's books have indeed been likened to Campo's favorite fairy tale, "Beauty and the Beast," "La Belle et la Bête": Bella Swan, the motherless female protagonist, is in love with a charming yet deadly monster). To different extents, popular narratives such as Twilight and fairy tales—not unlike spiritual texts such as mystical accounts and scriptural parables—abound in metaphors and extended similes pointing to another order of reality beyond the physical world. As Weil and Campo insist, proper attention to the deceptively simple surface of folktales and fairy tales leads the [End Page 157] reader to perceive what these stories are also about—divine, mystical love. For a professional reader of mystical texts and fairy tales such as myself, the discovery of how Weil and Campo were able to seamlessly join together these two seemingly disparate genres within a single interpretive reading has been irresistible; their facility at mixing spiritual insight with narrative analysis, in their reading of fairy tales, and scriptural exegesis with the explication of symbols, has proven spellbinding. And all of this the two writers carried out in a context that speaks to contemporary literary theories, too. What Campo, drawing from Weil, calls "attention" parallels in some ways Paul Ricoeur's philosophical elaboration—repeatedly borrowed, through the years, by the field of literary studies—of a "hermeneutics of restoration" or "of retrieval," namely a manner of interpreting that restores their fullness of meaning to the texts being read. Ricoeur's hermeneutics of restoration encourages reading for self-understanding and, ultimately, for transformation.1 This, we will see, corresponds perfectly to Weil's and Campo's interpretive approach to fairy tales: they listen to fairy tales as revelatory of the sacred and thus treat them as spiritual classics, namely as texts, in the words of theologian David Tracy, in which "we recognize nothing less than the disclosure of a reality we cannot but name truth."2

In the same pages where Ricoeur describes the hermeneutics of restoration, however, the French philosopher also posits another type of hermeneutics, one that he vividly calls the "hermeneutics of suspicion." This way of reading...