Written in 1941 and published in 1951 in Cahiers du Sud, a literary journal based in Marseilles, this letter is Simone Weil's response to the journal's editor-in-chief Léon-Gabriel Gros who contributed two chronicles, the first in October 1940 and the second in March 1941, that evoke the responsibility of writers. Gros presents two theses in his two contributions: The first thesis is the official thesis, that of the Vichy government, that blames writers for the fall of France. The second is that of the Zone Libre that wish writers would adopt a more moral stance to help France.
Throughout the translation I underlined some sentences. These sentences I believe are either key points in Weil's argument, or are one of her assumptions, beliefs, or observations. Similarly the footnotes present are also entirely my own and represent my notes and reflections about the text. The original letter has neither footnotes nor underlines.
About this translation: this translation is entirely my own. I have tried
to preserve the structure of the sentences and Weil's choice of words,
therefore some sentences may sound clunky. Throughout the letter Weil uses
the expression le bon et le mal which could either mean "the good
and the bad", or "the good and the evil". I have chosen to use the word
bad always instead of evil as to avoid any extremization. In one
instance where Weil uses opposition du bien et du mal I have chosen
to translate it as "good vs. evil" as opposed to the more literal "opposition
of the good and the bad".
Very brief summary: Writers have responsibilities (paragraph 2). And literature's been losing value, but has not lost its prestige which adds responsibility to the writers (paragraph 3). But there's more (paragraph 4). Because the writers have always had access and knowledge to values (paragraph 5). But we have to act quickly before movements like Dadaism and Surrealism become the norm (paragraph 6), just look at the words they, and those before them, have used (paragraph 7). Now, the contemporaries show signs of lack of values (paragraph 8). So let's go back to owning values (paragraph 9) by looking inside (paragraph 10).
While reading Gros'1 allusion to the controversy surrounding the responsibility of writers, I was not able to resist going back to this question and defend a point of view contrary to the journal's, contrary to that of almost all who are sympathetic to me, and resembling in form, by bad luck, that of people for whom I have no sympathy.
I believe in the responsibility of the writers of that era that just passed towards the misfortune of our time. By that I do not only mean the defeat of France; the misfortune goes back a long way. It goes around the whole world, that is in Europe, in America, and in the other continents, for as long as Western influence has penetrated there2.
It is true, just as Mauriac3 remarked, that the best contemporary books are hardly ever read. But the responsibility of the writers cannot be measured by the number of books sold. Because the prestige of literature is immense. We can verify this if we consider the efforts done in the past by some political groups to insure the names of popular writers for demagogic goals. For those who even the name of some popular writer is unknown to, do not experience any less the prestige of that literature they are unaware of. We have never read more than we are reading today. We do not read books, but we read mediocre and bad periodicals; these periodicals are everywhere, in the villages, in the suburbs, and now, due to the effect of our time's literary customs, between the worse of these periodicals and the best of our writers there are no ruptures of continuity. This fact, which is known or rather confusedly felt by the public, adorns in their eyes the most ignoble advertising firms with all the prestige of high literature. There was, throughout the previous years, an incredible baseness, such as some sentimental consultations accorded by some known writers. With no doubt all doesn't fall like so; a lot was needed. But those who fell like so were not disavowed nor pushed-back by others; they did not lose any consideration from their peers' milieu. This ease of literary manners, this tolerance of the baseness gives to our most eminent writers, a responsibility in the demoralisation of any farm-girl who never left her village and who never heard their names4.
But writers have a more direct responsibility.
The essential character of the first half of the 20th century is the weakening and the near collapse of the notion of value. It is one of the rare phenomena that seem to be, for as long as we know, really new in the history of humanity. It could be, of course, the case that this happened before through periods whose memory faded due to forgetfulness, as it could be later the case for our time. This phenomenon manifested itself in many domains foreign to literature, even in everything. The substitution for quantity of quality in the industrial production, the discredit that fell on qualified work among the workers, the substitution for the diploma of the culture as the goal of studies among the studious youth5 are some of these manifestations. Even science does not hold the same criteria for value ever since the abandonment of classical science6. But writers were par excellence, the guardians of the lost treasure7, and some drew vanity from that loss.
Dadaism, and Surrealism are extreme cases. They expressed the drunkenness of a total license, the drunkenness where the soul dives when, rejecting any consideration for any value, it delivers itself to the immediate. The good is the pole to which is necessary oriented the human spirit, not only in action, but in all efforts, including the effort of pure intelligence. The surrealists erected as a model disoriented thinking; they chose as supreme value the complete absence of values8. The license has always intoxicated men, and is the reason why, all along history cities were sacked. But the sacking of cities didn't always have a literary equivalent. Surrealism, as such, is an equivalent.
The other writers of the same period and the previous one did not go as far, but almost all - three or four excluded - are more or less affected by the same lack, the lack of any sense of value. Some words such as spontaneity, sincerity, gratuity, richness, enrichment, words that imply an indifference almost entire to the oppositions of values, started appearing more frequently under their pens than words that relate to the good and the bad. In fact this last species of words has degraded, especially those that are related to the good, as Valéry9 remarked some years ago. Words such as virtue, nobility, honour, honesty, and generosity either became almost impossible to pronounce or held a bastardised meaning; the language doesn't provide anymore any resource to legitimately praise the character of a human. It provides a little bit more, but hardly any to praise the spirit; even the word spirit itself, the words of intelligence, intelligent and others similar have also been degraded. The destiny of words portrays sensibly the progressive collapse of the sense of value, and though this destiny does not depend on the writers, we cannot prevent making them particularly responsible, since words are part of their business.
We have lately praised a lot, and righteously, the book of Bergson10; we have talked a lot about the influence this work had on the thoughts and the literature of our time. However, in the center of the philosophy that guides his first three books lies a notion essentially foreign to any account of value, maybe even foreign to any account of life. Not surprisingly in vain some willed this philosophy to be foundations to Catholicism, which in fact did not need any, since its own are much older. The work of Proust11 is full of analyses that try to describe the state of disoriented souls; the good only appears in rare moments, or as a consequence of either memory, or beauty, eternity lets itself be sensed throughout Time. We could make analogous remarks on many writers before and certainly after 1914. In a general manner the literature of the 20th century is essentially psychological. And psychology consists of describing the state of souls in laying them all out on the same plane without discriminating for values, as if the good and the bad are exterior to them, and as if the effort towards the good could be absent at any moment during the thought process of any human12.
The writers are not to be professors of morals, but they are to express the human condition. Since nothing is as essential to human life, for every human and at every instant, as the good and the bad. When literature becomes in part indifferent to the problem of good vs. evil, it betrays its function and cannot begin to claim excellence13. Racine made fun of Jansenists in his youth, but he stopped making fun of them while writing Phèdre, and Phèdre is his masterpiece. From that point of view it is not true that there is a continuity in french literature. It is not true that Rimbaud and his successors (putting aside some passages from A Season In Hell) follow the footsteps of Villon14. Why does it matter that Villon has stolen? The act of stealing became, on its part, probably an effect of necessity, or probably a sin, but it was not an adventure nor a free act. The feeling of the good and the bad impregnate all his verses, just as he is impregnated in all works that are not foreign to human destiny15.
Certainly, there are things more foreign still to the good and the bad than amorality, and it's a certain morality. Those who blame now the popular writers are worth infinitely less16, and the "redress" that some would like to impose will be much worse than the state of things we're pretending to remedy. If the current sufferings never lead to a redress, it will certainly not happen because of slogans, but through the silence and the solitude of morality, through the penalties, the misery, the terrors, and in the most intimate place in each spirit.
Note on the conclusion: Simone Weil is not being a professor of moral in this letter, she is not teaching us or giving us a moral idea. She is not trying to grade (by blaming) other writers, and seems to be vehemently opposed to that idea. Instead what we see is a communication of an observation by Simone Weil, she's pointing something out; she's expressing a human condition. Her observation is: if any redress or improvement needs to be done then it will never come from another person, nor a group, nor their ideas, nor their slogans. The only source of redress needs to come from within every person, "in the silence and the moral solitude [...] and in the most intimate place in each spirit". She's inviting us to dig deep within.
- Léon-Gabriel Gros (1905-1985) was the editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Sud who contributed two chronicles about the responsibility of writers. Read also the introduction of this translation. [back]
On the surface this may look like an Americo-Eurocentric position, but one must
keep in mind that Simone Weil read the Mahabharata and knew Sanskrit, so she is
very well aware of the rest of the world.
In my opinion, in this sentence she only means that Western thinking is a fundamental part of this misfortune, she doesn't seem to find that misfortune in the East. [back]
- François Charles Mauriac (1885-1970) was a writer, journalist, member of the Académie Française, and Nobel Literature prize laureate. [back]
- So we can conclude that it is the responsibility of eminent writers to seek out the readers that do not know them. In other words, to be promoted from a writer to an eminent writer it is one's job to advertise oneself and give as broad an audience as possible to one's writings. [back]
- These are supposed to be arguments for the collapse of values. It is true that these examples represent the collapse of the old values, but I do not think it is fair to describe these as only a collapse. To me these represent a shift, a change, a substitution as she says, of values. So people are not losing their values, they are just changing them. [back]
- I do not know what Weil means by classical science. The best guess I can provide is that she means natural philosophy by classical science, i.e. science as it was up to the late 19th century before the rise of modern science. [back]
Imagine you were locked up underground during a nuclear explosion. You go back
up to the world and realize the only survivors are a handful of children.
Will you not feel responsible towards their education? Will you not tell them
the stories of old, or teach them what it is to be human?
Similarly, I imagine Weil would believe that it is the responsibility of religious hermits and recluses to go back to society and share the revelations they receive in the wild. [back]
- The Dadaists and the Surrealists have explicitly adopted the antithesis of Simone Weil, so they are "the enemy", it is not surprising to see that paragraph end the way it does. [back]
- Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry (1871-1945) was a writer and philosopher. He was nominated to the Nobel Literature prize 12 times. [back]
- Henri Bergson (1859-1941) was a philosopher. I am not knowledgeable enough to infer the exact ideas that offend Weil. [back]
- The work Weil alludes to is Marcel Proust's (1871-1922) In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927, earlier title is: Remembrance of Things Past). [back]
I suppose we can conclude that for Simone Weil the good and the bad, ethics,
and morals are never entirely exterior to anyone.
We could also infer that, for Weil, psychology (as she interpreted it, or as the standard interpretation of the time was) is a futile project. [back]
- Therefore literature is primarily about the good vs. the evil. Its function is to tell moral stories about human lives. [back]
François Villon (1431-1463) is the best known French medieval poet. His
(short) life was shrouded in mystery and crime.
In June 1455 he committed his first crime: killing Philippe Chermoye, a priest who attacked him first (or so were the priest's last words) after a brawl started. Since self-defense was not a legal excuse at the time Villon had to suffer banishment from Paris, his place of birth.
The following January Villon received two pardons from King Charles VII, one for François des Loges, aka Villon, and the other for François de Montcorbier, de Loges and de Montcorbier appear both in his official documents. He used the last name Villon to refer to himself in his writings. Villon is the last name of his foster father.
The following December Villon participated in robbing the chapel of Collège de Navarre which went unnoticed for some six-months. It is said that Villon fled Paris shortly after committing the crime. Anyways, in November 1462 Villon was arrested for an unrelated crime. During his arrest the Collège de Navarre theft was revived and he was sentenced to death, which was later wavered to banishment in January 1943.
Nothing is known of his whereabouts after January 1943 and it is assumed he died soon after being banished.
The question that follows in the letter refers to the theft of the chapel. [back]
- Contrast this with the way Weil describes Proust's In Search of Lost Time. [back]
I think this sentence is very nuanced. On the surface it may seem that Weil is,
herself, blaming writers such as the Dadaists and the Surrealists in paragraph 6.
So she must be making a distinction between popular writers (écrivains
célèbre) and eminent writers (les écrivains les
plus éminants in paragraph 3).
The only (arguably) popular writers she criticises in the letter are Bergson, Proust, and Rimbaud. She never blamed any of these five writers for the loss of values (even if they personally, or their work, lacked values), she only refers to them as exhibiting the symptoms of loss of values. At worse she blames them for unknowingly spreading the loss of values. [back]