restricted access The Mouth of a Labyrinth: Beauty’s Invitation to a New Violence
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The Mouth of a Labyrinth
Beauty’s Invitation to a New Violence

I. Introduction

In 1955, Simone Pétrement interviewed Abbé de Naurois, chaplain for the Free French forces, who visited Simone Weil while she was in the Middlesex Hospital in London in the spring of 1943. Of the few memories he recounted of his conversations with Weil, thorough bewilderment was foremost: “What confusion . . . between the principal propositions and the subordinate or interpolated clauses, what continuous swerves and strayings . . . the acrobatics of a squirrel in a revolving cage!”1 For Weil’s readers de Naurois’s bewilderment is often shared, as for Weil truth hit upon contradiction only to be reconciled in mystery. Perhaps one of the greatest contradictions in Weil’s writings—and even in her life—was the role of violence. In Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, we see several lines from Aeschylus quoted: first, from Agamemnon, Weil writes, “From the gods who sit at the celestial helm, grace comes violently”;2 then, from Suppliants, we read, “Zeus strikes down ruined mortals from their hopes lofty as towers but he arms himself with no violence.”3 While on one level contradictory, Weil argues that in a much deeper [End Page 164] way both of these passages speak truly of man’s relationship with God. Grace comes violently, Weil affirms, but ultimately no violence can be predicated of the divine.

The nuance of Weil’s understanding of God’s violence contributes to her ambivalence toward the Old Testament, in which God is at times depicted as a mere “master to his slaves.”4 The books of the Old Testament she deems most troubling recount acts of war and genocide perpetrated by Israel and ordered by God; this attribution of violence to God was to Weil’s mind “the greatest mistake possible to make with regard to him,”5 and Weil saw in it the roots of a new order ultimately predicated upon the violence of collectivism.

At the same time, Weil’s own discussion of God’s activity within the moral agent often includes attributions of violence to God, especially in her consideration of beauty, through which the divine is said to enter, devour, digest and kill its often unsuspecting victims. In this article, I will explore the concept of violence in Weil’s writings, discuss in part some of her concerns regarding the violence of God in the Old Testament, and ultimately show how her understanding of beauty points to the establishment of a new violence through which man becomes a new sacrifice to God. Finally, I will conclude by distinguishing God’s violence from collective violence.

II. Israel’s Violence as Collective Violence

From the excommunicated Marcion of the early Church to the canonized St. Thomas Aquinas, numerous theologians and biblical scholars have acknowledged differences between the Old and New Testaments with respect to how God reveals himself to man. Traditionally, the means of reconciliation is achieved by transposing the biblical narrative into the context of mankind’s moral maturation. Aquinas, for instance, implies that in the Old Testament God enforces the law by temporal threats and promises to initially encourage the practice of virtue as if among children. Thus, Aquinas proposes, while “the New Law is not distinct from the Old Law: because they both have [End Page 165] the same end, namely, man’s subjection to God . . . the New Law is distinct from the Old Law: because the Old Law is like a pedagogue of children . . . whereas the New Law is the law of perfection.”6 Though of itself insufficient, the Old Law is seen as prefiguring the New Law, and the precepts of the Old Law that fall beyond the purview of natural law are deemed provisional, but are nonetheless upheld as rational and illuminative.

The contrast with Weil’s analysis could scarcely be greater. In a letter to the historian of religion Déodat Roché, she writes: “I have never been able to understand how it is possible for a reasonable mind to regard the Jehovah of the Bible and the Father who is invoked in the Gospel as one and the same being.”7...