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During the Second World War, the French writer Simone Weil died of malnutrition. Her medieval foremothers, who were, according to circumstances, vilified as witches, honored as saints, or regarded as madwomen, experienced their accesses of grace so intensely that they frequently forgot to eat. This sisterhood, in its happiest moments, became immersed in the divine Spirit like tears in the ocean.
But No, But No, She Said
She was so fair, she was so fair. No fairer maiden could be found, not anywhere on Polish ground. But no, but no, she said, not this; I never kiss.
In this soldiers' song about a Polish girl, male desire encounters a female refusal, and the less the young woman is prepared to change her mind, the more delightful she becomes. As they sing, the marching troops grow familiar with images that urge them to rape. Deeds that are taboo in peacetime go unpunished in war. The troops have long ago grasped the notion that relations between the sexes are equivalent to war. In this age-old order of things, the Polish girl really doesn't have a chance.
I never kiss. Unexpectedly, as though emerging out of fogtheir outlines are still blurredcertain female forms enter the history of couples and their relations. These are girls who say no, and they're made of sterner stuff than the Polish maiden of the soldiers' fantasy. They are women whose daily bread doesn't come from the bakery. They speak, down through the centuries, with a single voice.
Like this, for example:
He came into my room and said, You poor wretch, you understand nothing. Come with me and I shall teach you some things you haven't even an inkling of. I followed him. He led me into a church. It was new and ugly. He walked me up to the altar and told me, Kneel down. I said to him, I haven't been baptized. He said, Fall on your knees with love before this place as though before the place where truth is. I obeyed. He had me leave the church and climb up to an attic room with an open window from which one could see the whole city, a few wooden scaffolds, the river where ships were unloaded. He told me to sit down. We were alone. He talked. Sometimes someone would come in, join the conversation, and then leave. It wasn't winter anymore. It wasn't yet spring. The branches of the trees were bare, without buds, and the air was cold and full of sunlight. The light brightened, grew radiant, faded, then the stars and the moon came in through the window. Then the dawn brightened again. Sometimes he stopped talking, went to the cupboard and took out a loaf of bread, and we shared it. This bread truly had the taste of bread. I've never found that taste again. He poured me and himself some wine that tasted like the sun and like the earth on which this city is built. Sometimes we stretched out on the floor of the attic room, and the sweetness of sleep descended upon me. Then I woke up again and drank the sunlight. He had promised to teach me something, but he taught me nothing. We chatted about all sorts of things, in a general way, as old friends do. One day he told me, Now go. I fell on my knees, I embraced his legs, I begged him not to send me away. But he threw me onto the stairs. I went down them without knowing anything, my heart seemed to be in pieces. I walked through the streets. Then I realized that I didn't have any idea where that house was. I never tried to find it again. I understood that he had come looking for me by mistake. My place is not in that attic room. Sometimes I can't stop myself from repeating, with fear and remorse, a little of what he told me. How can I know if I remember correctly? He isn't there to tell me so. I know well that he doesn't love me. How could he love me? And yet deep inside me something, some part of me, trembles with fear and can't stop thinking that maybe, in spite of everything, he loves me.
Simone Weil (1909-1943), a teacher in a secondary school, wanted to use the above text as the prologue to a book she was planning. As it turned out, the publication of her writings began only after her death, and since 1988 several volumes of a planned sixteen-volume collection of her works have appeared. She looks out quite cheerfully upon the world from the few photographs of her that exist. But appearances are deceiving. There were the chronic headaches, there was the chronic problem of money. And always, the sensation of hunger. A note on Simone Weil's death certificate reads: "cardial failure due to degeneration of the heart muscles due to starvation and pulmonary tuberculosis."
Self-starvation, practiced by young women until their bodies are fatally exhausted, is called anorexia nervosa, "nervous loss of appetite," by medical science, which in this case is fairly helpless. In the fall of 1906, the French neurologist Pierre Janet was invited by the Harvard Medical School to give a series of lectures, in one of which the eminent psychiatrist discussed anorexia. In the first stage, Janet observed, a girl complains about vague stomach pains and takes her medicine willingly. Next, when the medicine doesn't work and her parents are getting exasperated, she vomits whatever she has been induced to swallow. This stage can last ten years and includes hyperactivity on the part of the patient. Finally, according to Janet, the girl has little urine and is constantly constipated, her breath is foul, her skin dry and cracked; her pulse quickens; she is bedridden and now delirious. At the last minute, some girls realize what is happening to them, yield to the authority of their doctors, and recover. The others die.
Physicians treating the disease were struck by the remarkable euphoria their patients displayed during the second and longest phase of the disease. Janet compared this elevated mood with the state of consciousness reached by ecstatic saints. Anorexia, the lecturer concluded, is to be traced back to much deeper sources than was supposed.
The comparison with the female ecstatics was not chosen at random. Since 1896, ten years before his journey to America, Janet had been treating a woman who gave her name as "Scapegoat" (le bouc), because she had to atone for the sins of the world. In the photographs that Janet made of his patient, one could see a petite, pretty person wearing light sandals, standing on tiptoe, and lifting her skirt a little, as if to show off her shapely legs. From time to time, the stigmata of the Crucified appeared on her body, twice in 1896, five times in 1897, ten times in 1899. The wounds would be bandaged and allowed to heal, but then they would reappear in the same places, usually just before the onset of her period. Once a day, the patient had to be compelled to eat at least a small piece of bread and to drink some milk. Even this modest nourishment was skipped when the woman went into ecstasy, which lasted for two or three days.
Janet discharged his patient from the Salpêtrière sanatorium in Paris after a stay of six and a half years. She was then forty-seven years old. After her death in 1921, Janet began to write a two-volume account of her story, under the title From Anxiety to Ecstasy. In studying his patient, the neurologist was unable to detect very much more than a vague connection between her refusal to take nourishment and her propensity to go into ecstasies. Her ecstasies, Janet wrote, exhibit the essential characteristics of all the ecstasies of genuine mystics. Apparently Madeleine, as Janet called his patient, had come into the world at the wrong time. Her true place was in the Middle Ages. Medieval mysticism is without significance today, declared the professor.
Who knows. The refusal of women to take nourishment is not an invention of contemporary prima ballerinas and models. It can be traced to the Middle Ages, all the way back to Saint Clare of Assisi, a hunger artist of the first rank, whose reputation quickly spread far beyond Italy. In Prague, for example, the Princess Agnes founded a convent on the model of the Poor Ladies of Assisi and entered it on Pentecost Sunday, 1234. She fasted so excessively that Saint Clare felt obliged to warn her against going to extremes: "We are not made of bronze or granite, rather we are, unfortunately, quite fragile and weak," she wrote to Agnes.
That was only the beginning. In the following centuries, father confessors throughout Europe were obliged to deal with women whose deliberate self-starvation made the fasting customs of the male orders look like gluttony. Of a group of 170 Italian women whom the Vatican has declared worthy of veneration between 1200 and the present day, more than half displayed clear signs of anorexia. Whenever the most famous of them, Saint Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), tried to eat something to humor her father confessor, she vomited everything she managed to swallow, and she died from general debilitation at the age of thirty-three. In the Trecento, the scene of her visionary marriage to Christ was so popular that it was immortalized in hundreds of paintings.
There was the occasional hoax. Around the middle of the thirteenth century, in the little town of Marsal, France (northwest of Nancy), a young woman named Sybilla drew attention to herself by her particularly assiduous attendance at early Mass. She also told tales of visits from both heaven and hell and was wont to withdraw to her bed without food or drink, and so she became a frequent topic of conversation among her fellow citizens. The bishop of Metz was already thinking about building a chapel for Sybilla so that the people might better admire her miraculous way of life. Then, however, a priest became suspicious and peeped through a crack in the locked door behind which the pious woman could be heard struggling with the demons. He saw Sybilla simulating the bawling and hissing of the devilish brood while calmly making her bed. An inspection of her lodging brought to light from under her bed a supply of food that a young clergyman was providing for her at night. The incensed bishop had the false saint impri soned and starved to death.
Men remained vigilant. The appearance of high-performance female mysticism between 1200 and 1600 engaged the father confessors in a theater of sublime eroticism about which they had not the slightest clue.
It's always a supernatural lover whom Clare, Catherine, Madeleine, and Simone encounter. . . . deep inside me something . . . trembles with fear and can't stop thinking that maybe, in spite of everything, he loves me. Clare and Catherine know that it is Christ who appears to them in the mirror of their soul. In the lunatic asylum, Madeleine hints at the incomparable pleasure that God gives her with his burning hands. Only the unbaptized Simone leaves the name of the Other unspoken.
What are friends and relatives, what are father confessors, inquisitors, neurologists supposed to say to such extravagances?
In the streets of Siena, a satirical poem was recited against the hysterical young miss from the house of Benincasa. Did Catherine consider herself holier than the apostles, who had followed Jesus' advice to eat everything that was set before them? Was she starving herself because she craved admiration? Si lo Spirito ti mena, non cercar loda terrena. "If the Holy Spirit guides your ways, you shouldn't look for earthly praise."
This was the question that interested the Holy Inquisition as well. Was it the Holy Spirit or the devil that spoke from the mouths of these hunger virtuosos and ecstatics? Was one dealing with saints, or with witches?
Now and then the Other could be quite direct. "Lay yourself on top of me," he commanded his maidservant, "just as the prophet Elisha lay upon the boy. Lay your hands in my hands, your eyes to my eyes, your limbs against my limbs."
Such desires from on high were dangerously reminiscent of the tricks played by the fallen angels, who slipped into the bed of many a woman and engaged in disgraceful behavior there while the husband lay snoring alongside.
The inquisitors wanted to know everything, and as precisely as possible. If nothing transpired at the hearing, they showed the suspected woman the instruments of torture. If that didn't help, then the torture itself began. This resulted in the clarity that mattered so much to the inquisitors: Yes, I was at the witches' Sabbath, and there I kissed the devil's behind.
Women who were God's lovers could be helped against the omnipresent danger of being hauled before a court as a witch. A regular father confessor, intimately familiar with their inner lives, could keep a positive character reference ready in case it was needed. Without this sort of protection, the holy woman was as helpless as a whore without a pimp. Catherine had a certain Raymond of Capua, Madeleine had her Dr. Janet.
I, who had hidden my soul so bashfully, how could I open myself to you in a way I had never yet used with anybody? This is the complaint Madeleine makes when she's in despair over the incomprehension of the man who is the only person she talks to. He will never allow himself to get too close to her. He doesn't wear a cassock, but he has remained what his predecessors were, an ear behind a grille into which unspeakable confessions are whispered.
The father confessor, for his part, had in his head that single question so superbly formulated by Sigmund Freud: What do women want?
The Other, too, desires to discover what wish he is to fulfill for his beloved. The answer given by the Florentine Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi (1566-1607) has become famous. Pati non mori. "To suffer, to suffer more and more, but not to die doing so." Three hundred years later, Madeleine Le Bouc received the name "Passionflower" in Dr. Janet's card index of patients, which he called his Herbarium. Her sufferings and her ecstasies were mutually dependent, they alternated with each other, they became virtually interchangeable. Physical pain can turn into pleasure. The yellowed label of female masochism, invented by men, does nothing to explain the riddle posed by the stories of the sufferings that Spirit-intoxicated women practicing advanced methods of self-discovery have undergone over the course of eight hundred years.
Three weeks before her death, Simone Weil wrote a letter to her parents in which she asserted that only the creatures who have fallen to the lowest depths of degradation in this world are qualified to tell the truth. All others lie.
The letter was written in godless times. As prophesied in the Apocalypse, both monstrous Antichrists had climbed up out of the depths and made themselves at home in the world. Because she was of Jewish extraction, Simone was obliged to escape from Hitler. When she arrived in England, she immediately applied to the Forces de la France Libre to be sent back to France as a partisan. Her proposals got so thoroughly on General de Gaulle's nerves that he dismissed them as madness.
Simone understood more about theology than she did about fighting for the Resistance. Faced with the godlessness of her century, she played a waiting game. "I can say," she wrote, "that I have never at any moment in my entire life been searching for God." The initiative must have come from the Other.
The Other was conspicuous by his absence.
Simone was waiting for Godot. Why didn't he come? In Sartre's opinion, Beckett makes us understand that we're too flabby to have real need of Godot; we're missing the literally insane stubbornness that would alone be capable of making us an urgent case.
Simone Weil possessed that literally insane stubbornness. She had grown up as an atheist, and this preserved her from falling into the trap of the father confessors. For Simone, atheism remained a kind of purification exercise, a talisman of great value against the blindness of self-delusion.
Then, however, when she was twenty-seven years old, in Assisi: "Something stronger than I forced me, for the first time in my life, to kneel down."
But that was as far as she went. A Dominican priest whom Simone befriended in Marseilles soon noticed the spirit of resistance in this woman, who had traveled to Spain in 1936 to help the communists against Franco. Nothing that smacked of institution or establishment, even in its Catholic form, could seduce Simone. Despite her strong desire to consume the body of Christ in the consecrated bread, she remained unbaptized. The sight of the light and slender body of God on the cross was enough to make her forget the weight of the world.
Something stronger than I. For Simone Weil's medieval sisters, it was the Holy Spirit who had placed his sail in their souls. He had lost his name in the disillusionment of Europe, which had become godless. But he was far from having disappeared on that account.
A Taste Sweeter Than Honey
Dr. Janet, whose meticulousness in observing his patient, the mystical lady hospitalized in the Salpêtrière, has remained unsurpassed, didn't believe in the Holy Spirit. Instead he recorded in detail what his Madeleine experienced in her ecstasies.
I tasted everywhere the sweetness of these kisses. Pleasure in the mouth and on the lips is endless, it can be compared with nothing else, it's sweeter than honey. I sense a fresh, sweet taste, my tongue is delighted as never before. This sweetness in my mouth is intoxicating. What kind of sweet and intoxicating liqueur is this that fills my mouth? It's like honey I don't dare swallow, it's as if I were eating sugar candy.
I taste an immense sweetness on my lips and in my stomach, which contracts in truly divine spasms. Something happens to my bladder, its opening is sealed, and this inability to make water is not a torment but a pleasure. God has sealed me everywhere with his kisses, and I shall never be able to make water again.
What an indescribable pleasure it is to keep moving with your feet off the ground, the imagination cannot impart the sweetness you feel when you can fly all over in this way.
For reasons of propriety, the doctor deleted "the all-too-crude expressions" from his patient's statements. All the same, one may suspect that it wasn't only in her mouth that Madeleine sensed the divine sweetness. Janet also recorded that she would ask for something sweet to drink before the approach of her ecstasies. In India, where competence in mystical experience is developed more highly than it is in Europe, this would have caused no surprise. Every child who lives there knows that the swamis have a weakness for sweet snacks. Madeleine came into the world in the wrong country.