Friday, March 26, 2010

The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil and Exiles from Nowhere: Reviews by Brad Jersak

Book Reviews by Brad Jersak

E. Jane Doering and Eric O. Springsted, The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil (Notre Dame: UND Press, 2004.

Alan Mendelson, Exiles from Nowhere: The Jews and the Canadian Elite (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008).

In reviewing these two scholarly gems, I read them from a particular perspective. I am at the fledgling stage of George P. Grant research, with a special interest in enucleating the animating core of his life as a contemplative theologian and Canadian ‘prophet.’ One cannot hope to understand Grant’s work as a philosopher, political scientist and activist apart from the context of his Weilian Christian Platonism, for in his spiritual journey out of the dark cave of modernity (think Plato), Simone Weil was truly his ‘Diotima.’[1] Further, Grant’s emergence as one of Canada’s preeminent thinkers must be understood in light of his progressivist liberal pedigree. From that point of view, a book of essays on Weil’s Christian Platonism and a history that situates him among Canada’s intellectual elite are must-reads.

P00933Doering and Springsted’s collection of essays on The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil provide a great service on a number of important fronts. The ongoing assessment and appropriation of the life and thought of Simone Weil into North American scholarship is important, but this seems an understatement. George Grant, who effectively introduced her to Canada in a 1951 review of Waiting on God for the CBC,[2] regarded her as a genuine modern saint, divinely inspired, possessed by Christ! After thirty years of meditating on her journals he testified, “her thought is next to the Gospels the highest authority for me.”[3]

Why? One must “take and read” her for oneself—a difficult task given Weil’s eclectic interests; the variety and depth of her expertise; her radical-creative speculations—rational and mystical—all scattered throughout apparently random journal entries. One must not replace a reading of Weil with books about her. Indeed, the reader should probably pick up a biography of her life and a few of her works (e.g. Gravity and GraceWaiting for God) before starting this collection (as they require some familiarity with her) … but the essays in The Christian Platonism of SW do bring together her scattered thoughts and themes into a measure of cohesion, something I am grateful for.

The essays in the book are as follows:
1. Simone Weil and Platonism: an Introductory Reading / Louis Dupre
2. The Limits and Significance of Simone Weil's Platonism / Michel Narcy
3. Transcendence, Immanence, and Practical Deliberation in Simone Weil's Early and Middle years / Michael Ross
4. Simone Weil: Completing Platonism through a Consistent Materialism / Robert Chenavier
5. The Christian Materialism of Simone Weil / Patrick Patterson and Lawrence E. Schmidt
6. Simone Weil and the Divine Poetry of Mathematics / Vance G. Morgan
7. To On: a Nameless Something over which the Mind Stumbles / Florence de Lussy
8. Reconstructing Platonism: the Trinitarian Metaxology of Simone Weil / Emmanuel Gabellieri
9. Freedom / Martin Andic
10. Countermimesis and Simone Weil's Christian Platonism / Cyril O'Regan
11. "I dreamed I saw St. Augustine ..." / Eric O. Springsted
12. Simone Weil: the Impossible / David Tracy
I mentioned other important fronts where these essays gain significant territory as they lead us to thinkwith Weil (as Grant did), not only about her:

(i) Thinking with Weil and engaging with her startling mind is a marvelous corrective for those who’ve dismissed Plato and his idea of the Good and God as archaic and passé. Weil’s Plato is a mystic whose intellect is enlightened by love, a lover of God whose noetic knowledge is validated by a love ethic for a just society. Having lived in an era where the brutal facts of history had discredited modernity’s so-called enlightenment as morally bankrupt, both Weil and Grant look back in time. They see Plato’s Good fulfilled in the Cross, providing an intersection between the goodness of God and the affliction of humanity.

(ii) Thinking with Weil carves out a little space to bring “God” back into the semantic range of philosophy. University philosophers may roll their eyes at talk of God; or variously mock or scream bloody murder at Christianity; or recount the litany of horrors perpetrated by the Church throughout history (with a great measure of warrant) … but their students are writing poems to Simone Weil. She gives us permission to remember a time when we could seriously wrestle with ultimate reality, goodness, beauty and justice, and the great question of theodicy. She, like George Grant, explored the relationship of rational and noetic knowledge, reason and revelation, “Athens and Jerusalem”—a marriage our culture has attempted to divorce in our hearts for a number of centuries.

(iii) Thinking with Simone Weil provides a healthy balance for those who have sought to make early Christianity exclusively the child of Judaism. They do well to remind us that Jesus and his early followers were Jewish practitioners of the Torah and that anti-Semitism in Christ’s name is as ridiculous as it is evil. And yet … Simone Weil, a secular Jew who recoiled at the violence of God in her people’s own Scriptures, reminds us of the intimations of Greek thought and Platonic theology to be found in the early Christian writings (esp. John and Paul). She sees Socrates as every bit the forerunner of the Gospel that we have traditionally in Isaiah or John the Baptist, something the reader may want to see firsthand in herIntimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks.
* * * * *
Page11_sidebar_1Exiles from Nowhere by Alan Mendelson is of course written in a completely different genre. For the most part, this is a careful and fair work of Canadian history through a particular lens: anti-Semitism—ranging from vulgar to genteel—across 150 years of Canadian history. Mendelson examines the relationship of Canada’s political and intellectual elite with the Jewish community, and some interesting connections emerge with specific reference to George P. Grant’s place in Canadian history.

Although the book’s subtitle names Canada’s elite, Mendelson really focuses on English-speaking Ontario and one thread that he brings to a climax in George Parkin Grant, his colleague at McMaster University in the late seventies. First, the Exiles from Nowhere covers the relationship between Grant’s political and familial forerunners (Goldwin Smith, Henri Bourassa, Mackenzie King, George M. Grant, George Parkin, and Vincent Massey) with the Jews. And second, it examines some of Grant’s influences (his “intellectual pantheon”: Arnold Toynbee, Martin Heidegger, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and Simone Weil) and their relationship with the Jews.

One cannot help but be impressed with the sheer magnitude of research that stands behind this work. The diligence is manifest in the sixty pages of notes that show us Mendelson's digging through primary sources, including scores of personal letters between the characters involved. Considering Mendelson’s scholarship, his personal acquaintance with Grant, and the importance of this book to a Canadian historian’s library, I’m loathe to presume a critique of it. Nevertheless …

When one dons lenses in search of anti-Semitism, a historian may become vulnerable to distortions in their read of people, intentions, and events … even their alleged silence (e.g. Grant’s silence [!?] re: Heidegger and the Nazis, p. 227). In Mendelson’s case, the distortion should not be exaggerated, but at times, manifests as unfortunate understatements and overstatements. For example, minimizing Grant’s self-acknowledged “great debt” to Jewish scholar Leo Strauss as a “brief flirtation” or exalting Oxford’s Arnold Toynbee into a place in Grant’s “intellectual pantheon” are bizarre and obvious errors that should be impossible for such a careful scholar. Such missteps occur when one’s critical eye has come too close to the magnifying glass.

Mendelson’s brilliance truly shines in setting a contextual stage on which to analyze particular statements or acts of anti-Semitism (e.g. Grant vs. Leonard Cohen, p. 288ff). But certain small-p prejudices also surface when he moves from explicit acts of anti-Semitic negligence or exclusion (e.g. by Grant’s uncle Vincent Massey, p. 136ff) into what he calls “genteel anti-Semitism” (p. 2-3) as distinguished from “vulgar” anti-Semitism. The former entails an intellectual disagreement with Judaism (i.e. a critique of Jewish non-acceptance of Christianity or oppression of non-Jews) while the latter proposes vulgar hatred and violence towards Jews.

The trouble I have with the label “genteel anti-Semitism” is that it paints virtually anyone who does not promote Zionism with the same brush as Hitler, admitting only that they take a subtler form. It stirs ideological, political, and theological disagreement into the same bowl as holocausts and atrocities. Just a few examples suffice: (i) Do Grant and Weil’s abhorrence of God-commanded genocides in the Hebrew Scriptures constitute hatred of the Jews? (ii) Does Grant and Weil’s conviction that the Cross of Christ is the supreme expression of God’s love and justice amount to anti-Semitism? (iii) Is Weil an anti-Semite because she is unwilling to be excluded from the teaching profession due to her Jewish bloodline, in spite of the fact that she was a non-practicing, secular French Jew? (iv) Does Grant and Weil’s pacifism; their hatred of the carnage of two World Wars; their hopes for peaceful solutions (however naïve), make them silent assenters to the holocaust? Mendelson might not say as much. But by his own standards of implication, I would have to conclude that disagreement and critique, whether on theological or political grounds (their own prophets notwithstanding!), makes one anti-Semitic in its most subtle—and perhaps most dangerous—form.

Brad Jersak is working at Ph.D. studies related to George Grant through Bangor University (Wales). He co-edites Clarion Journal of Spirituality and Justice 

[1] Larry Schmidt (ed.), George Grant in Process: Essays and Conversations, (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1998), 199.
[2] William Christian, George Grant: A Biography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 157.
[3] William Christian and Sheila Grant (eds.), The George Grant Reader (Toronto, London, Buffalo: The University of Toronto Press, 1998), 237.

No comments:

Post a Comment