“In the case of sensible perception, if one is not sure about what one sees, one shifts one’s position while going on looking (for example, one goes around the object) and the real appears. In the life of the spirit, time takes the place of space. Time brings modifications in us, and if throughout these modifications we keep our gaze directed on to a certain thing, finally what is illusory is dissipated and what is real appears; always provided that our attention consists of a contemplative look and not one of attachment.”The Notebooks of Simone Weil, vol. II, p. 334
It is such a rare experience of “going around the object” with “a contemplative look and not one of attachment” that Christine Ann Evans’ new book offers. The object of Evans’ contemplative look is itself a look, a reading — namely, France’s “sacred history” that (re-)starts French history on July 14, 1789 as the base point of a Hegelian arrow of progress, downplaying all subsequent periods of terror and empire as temporal aberrations and fluctuations. Evans shows how this “sacred history” is such a powerful, benchmark magnet that even those nostalgic of the pre-revolution ancien regime weave their narrative vis-a-vis this benchmark, and not around their object of nostalgia. And, even more strikingly, under the Nazi occupation sworn to a reich of a thousand years following its Blitzkrieg of May-June 1940, the French progress proponents like Leon Blum and Marc Bloch still held fast to this “sacred history” of unbeatable progress, thus downplaying the then-present horrors. Evans then shows how Simone Weil’s view was, in contrast, so unique when she proposed to surpass this “sacred history” with a substantially new view of France as a nourishing milieu vital, whose historical bursts of grandeur are actually frailties, a milieu vital that needs continuous protection and cultivation by the French in view of its precarity.
The French Historical Narrative and the Fall of France: Simone Weil and Her Contemporaries Face the Debacle, by Christine Ann Evans (Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlewood, 2022)
And if history is story(ies), then, claims Evans convincingly, history needs to be analyzed with the tools of narrative theory from literature and culture studies, and not only with the classical methods whereby historical studies imitate the natural sciences use of external tools, thus distancing the researcher from its object of study in order to certify “objective facts” that all can hopefully agree upon. If history is about understanding the past, then the foremost tool for its study is the human mind itself. The human mind is not an external tool detached from ourselves and it is therefore susceptible to distortions due to our emotions and passions. And yet our interpretative mind is just indispensable for studying historical narrative — restricting ourselves only to the study of physical historical artifacts (archeological findings, buildings, works of art, documents) to describe without interpreting from multiple angles would amount to looking under the lamp and thus missing the essential.
Evans, therefore, recruits her expertise in methods from literary studies “to go around the object” and to read and interpret a large wealth of documents from three different periods. Chapter 1 is devoted to the onset of the “sacred history” narrative at the beginning of the Third Republic, founded in 1871. Chapter 2 concerns the 150th commemoration of the French revolution in 1939, concomitant with the polar approaches of pacifism and militarism towards Nazi Germany and the imminent war. Chapter 3 deals with the different retrospective views during the war regarding the causes of the debacle and the ways to apprehend France’s “sacred history” given the defeat. Evans’s thick descriptions with pertinent quotations proceeds effectively and swiftly in fewer than a 100 pages, no small feat in and of itself.
I actually wish that all my history studies in high school had been carried out in this fashion, that I would get exposed to multiple concurrent readings of the same events, without having to sense only vaguely that I am sold a one-dimensional story. Education ministries’ tendency to raise young adults on the knees of a one-dimensional interpretation of national history may contribute to zeal but not necessarily to resilience: Multiple concurrent readings, by which the external (or internal) adversaries are not demonic but rather follow their own coherent reading of the world, actually open the door for more efficient resistance; understanding the other may imply an even more firm defense of one’s own stance and stand, because the cost of losing them becomes clearer.
This is, in particular, the way Simone Weil proposes in The Need for Roots to the French to read their history. Just like a plant nourishes on the benefiting soil minerals while rejecting the harmful ones, embracing the soil in its entirety as its milieu vital, so should better, according to Weil, the French treat their own past; rather than judge it or conceal some of its parts, recognize it in its entirety as their own, and draw inspiration from its benefiting aspects.
According to Evans, “Weil presents this milieu vital in a decidedly non-narrative way.” (p. 76) And Evans concludes in a personal tone:
“This reader of Weil has focused on narrative, both in her academic life and outside of it. I rely on narrative sense-making to order experience, to minimize chaos, and to impose meaning on the seemingly accidental. (…) Given this, I can’t but stand in admiration at the audacity of Weil’s project. (…) She worked to detach her compatriots from a familiar, comforting but distorting vision of the order of the world. She invited them to embark on another reading of the past, one that would require an arduous apprenticeship and few recognizable consolations.”p. 78
This leads to the last, and perhaps most pertinent chapter of the book, on the wars on narrative in contemporary USA. Evans brings, for example, the 2019-launched New York Times “1619 Project” (the year the first slaves were brought to North America, constituting since then the economic pillars on which the American nation was built), a project whose aim, according to its mission statement, is (…) to reframe the American history (…) to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” (quoted in Evans, p. 93) — riposted in 2021 by the Trump administration “1776 Project“, and by the 2021 Texas law outlawing the teaching in schools the “1619 Project” as a content insinuating (1) that individuals may bear responsibility for the actions committed by their ancestors and hence “cause discomfort, guilt or anguish on account of one’s race”, and (2) that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” (quoted in Evans, p. 97).
If in democracies that were founded as such, like the US and Israel, democracy is not essentially thwarted by such multiplicity of narratives, then perhaps the more narratives the livelier (even if obviously not the merrier). If, in contrast, born democracies are subject to the risk of turning only formally democratic (as it so happened to democracies like Hungary or Turkey that were not democratic countries in some period of their past), then narrative wars might be acutely detrimental — as in the case of France’s 1940 debacle in the face of an (external rather than an internal) non-democratic threat.
Weil diagnosed that
“Words of the middle region – rights, democracy, person – have a proper use in their own region, which is the region of middle institutions. The inspiration from which all institutions proceed, of which all institutions are the outworkings, needs another language. (…)
Above the institutions that are meant to protect rights, persons, democratic liberties, it is necessary to invent other ones that are meant to discern and abolish all that which, in contemporary life, buries souls under injustice, lies and ugliness.
It is necessary to invent them, for they are unknown, and it is impossible to doubt that they are indispensable.”(What is sacred in every human being? in Late Philosophical Writings, p. 128-29)
Weil would obviously include under “lies and ugliness” the fake news, talkbacks, alternative facts, and narrative wars carried out today in the echo chambers of social media. To avert these she proposed embracing the past as our milieu vital, in a way that Evans describes as “decidedly non-narrative.” But perhaps thinking of Weil’s proposal as trans-narrative rather than non-narrative may be more fruitful, in inventive ways (“an arduous apprenticeship” in Evans’ words) which may actually be, as Weil wrote, “impossible to doubt that they are indispensable” for us these very days.
About the reviewer
Aviad Heifetz is a professor at the Open Univerity of Israel in the Department of Management and Economics. His writings on Weil include: A. Heifetz & E. Minelli, “Overlapping Consensus Thin and Thick: John Rawls and Simone Weil,” Philosophical Investigations, vol. 39 (no. 4), pp. 311–400 (2016); A. Heifetz, “On Sublimation and The Erotic Experience: Simone Weil and Hans Loewald,” Psychoanalytic Psychology, vol. 34(no. 3), pp. 346-351 (2017); and A. Heifetz, “From innate morality towards a new political ethos: Simone Weil with Carol Gilligan and Judith Butler,” Ethics, Politics & Society vol. 4, pp. 175-188 (2021).1 Recommendation