Art and the Fat Ego

Light of truth

The great enemy of moral or spiritual life is the fat relentless ego within. “What is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him.” Says Simon Weil: “Everything which is impersonal in man is sacred, and nothing else.” The dispassionate look is inevitable to see reality. She has often said that attention is prayer. The way to forget and come over the ego is to attend to the other, which is impersonal. Attention reveals the impersonal, is a mediator to the sacred. Attention is to forget oneself and be with the other. “Moral philosophy is properly the discussion of this ego and of the techniques for its defeat. The techniques for the defeat of the ego as already indicated depend on the attention to nature, to art, and to intellectual disciplines. Of the three, she eloquently and forcefully affirms about art, which accords a distinctively high status in human affairs. She is going so far as to say that “for both the collective and the individual salvation of the human race, art is doubtless more important than philosophy, and literature most important of all.”

Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavour, which overcomes empirical limitations of personality. She proceeds to offer an account in contemporary terms of what such attention comes to, and slowly her discussion drifts in the direction of art. This well describes the role of great art as an educator and revealer. The value of art, especially literature and painting, is that it provides an occasion for contact with reality, a focus for attention whereby we may free ourselves of selfish concerns, to be unsentimental and detached. Great art teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self. She also makes a connection between art and virtues saying that “the enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue.” The reason is that art serves no practical purpose and reveals—at least some art does—the purposelessness of life itself through a representation of the detail of the world in a form fit for contemplation and for nothing else. We may go a step further and say that art “exhibits to us the connection, in human beings, of clear realistic vision with compassion. The realism of a great artist is not a photographic realism; it is essentially both pity and justice.”

Art is that it occasionally proves capable of “reporting the truth” of affliction, which may in no other way be known except by experiencing it oneself, which is undesirable—literally not capable of being desired—and rarely understood even by those whom it touches or claims. In proportion to the hideousness of affliction is the supreme beauty of its true representation. Aeschylus and Sophocles, and far better still, the Iliad, the book of Job and certain folk poems; and far beyond these again are the accounts of the Passion in the Gospels. The radiance of beauty illumines affliction with the light of the spirit of justice and love, which is the only light by which human thought can confront affliction and report the truth of it. For Weil, affliction is as real as a landscape and may be lived or witnessed, but “the truth of it” may be communicated only through art, and when this is achieved, “the spirit of love and justice” are present, because it is impossible to see affliction in any other way.

Similarly, only art can faithfully represent affliction, she writes: It is very difficult to concentrate attention upon suffering and sin, in others or in oneself, without falsifying the picture in some way while making it bearable. Only the very greatest art can manage it, and that is the only public evidence that it can be done at all. Weil became interested in Christianity not earlier than in her twenties and only just then experienced a religious ecstasy, that, in her own words, made her “go down on her knees.” She was “in fact… incapable of thinking of him without thinking of him as God.” What is more, one encounters God every time one encounters beauty, as it was the God Creator, the basis, who made existence possible.

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