Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Gravity and Grace Analysis
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.
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...
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