Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Gravity and Grace Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

Although she remained formally outside the Christian church, Weil throughout Gravity and Grace affirmed the core of Christian teaching. She believed, for example, in the necessity of the Incarnation and suffering of God. Her understanding of suffering, sacrifice, and service was derived from the Gospels; she speaks approvingly of Paul, John of the Cross, and certain English mystical poets. Although she was never baptized, Weil believed herself intellectually, spiritually, and morally an heir to essential Catholic Christianity.

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Since its publication, most of the critical attention given to Gravity and Grace has come from Christian, especially Roman Catholic, readers. Some have expressed dissatisfaction with Gravity and Grace. A few think that Weil’s reputation may have been harmed by the early and hurried publication of these extracts from her notebooks because they do not reflect her more developed thought. They argue that although Gravity and Grace reveals the spirit and outline of Weil’s thinking, the entries are too often fragmentary and too undeveloped to serve as proper introductions to her extensive writings. In spite of her acknowledged integrity and success in the aphoristic style, all agree that these selected extracts also contain embarrassingly pompous pronouncements. Weil’s opinion on beautiful drama, for example, is difficult to accept:Only drama without movement is truly beautiful. Shakespeare’s tragedies are second class, with the exception of Lear. Those of Racine third class, except for Phedre. Those of Corneille of the nth class.

If such judgments are unacceptable, some entries are incomprehensible as well. Few if any readers know what Weil means when she says, “The demonstrable correlation of opposites is an image of the transcendental correlation of contradictories.” Such abstruse writing, however, is infrequent. Nevertheless, examples of odd literary criticism and several unintelligible extracts have tended to make Weil’s readers wary of her judgments in other matters. Thus, Weil’s success in aphoristic terseness has also proven to be a liability in Gravity and Grace. Many find her statements too compressed, too painfully extreme, too self-assured in tone.

The theology of Gravity and Grace has been accorded various degrees of acceptance. Even Roman Catholic readers, who tend to be her most appreciative audience, do not embrace her ideas wholeheartedly. Indeed, implicit throughout her writings and discernible in Gravity and Grace is a denial of any exclusive revelation entrusted to the Catholic church. Numerous Catholic critics have therefore unhappily judged her to be heterodox at best and clearly heretical on more than one occasion. Her understanding of grace is said to be Jansenist in that it absolutely requires a special grace from God for the performance of any good. Others have judged Weil to be Manichaean in that her vision of the world is essentially dualistic: In Weil’s universe, it is asserted, good and evil stand too radically apart from each other; Weil does not deal adequately with the problems of ambiguity.

More important, however, Gravity and Grace has also been described as the work of a visionary, mystic, and prophet. Indeed, Weil has been described as “the greatest ‘pilgrim of the absolute’ of our time.” Living between the two world wars, Weil was a displaced person. The notebook selections reveal a woman preoccupied with a sense of separation, deprivation, and emptiness. At the same time, her writings are remarkably free from sentimentalism and self-pity. Sympathetic readers have noted that Weil’s refusals of consolation do not place her outside the religious tradition. On the contrary, they place her directly within the tradition of Christian mysticism. Her notebooks, according to these critics, frequently echo the statement of John of the Cross as expressed by T.S. Eliot: “If you wish to possess what you do not possess, you must go by the way of dispossession.” That Weil’s religious philosophy has been both praised and discredited is not surprising; her thinking is simply too expansive and too eclectic for any institution, religious or political, to claim her.

Clearly Gravity and Grace has proved to be an attractive and frustrating book. It is attractive because so many of its entries convey the impression that Weil actually lived out her convictions. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Weil philosophically or theologically, all readers are driven to confess that Gravity and Grace is the product of an immense integrity. As Thibon makes clear in his introduction to the first edition, Weil’s life and death are testimony that her writings accurately mirror her life. In addition to a passionate commitment to ideas, Weil was a passionate and informed thinker whose work is worthy of careful consideration. The entries in her notebooks demonstrate that she was in conversation with great minds: Homer, Plato, Rene Descartes, to name but a few. Her aphorisms contain frequent allusions to the classical literature of both the Eastern and Western traditions. Finally, her meditations are compelling because Weil is a master of aphoristic writing. Terse and epigrammatic, her notebook entries are concentrations of thought which reflect the passionate energy with which Weil lived out her short life. Although she herself did not greatly admire Blaise Pascal, Gravity and Grace has often been favorably compared to his Pensees (1670; English translation, 1688).

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