Simone Weil on the Beach

by Michael Abraham-Fiallos

“The Iliad, or The Poem of Force” is a now-canonical lyrical-critical essay by the French anarchist and Christian mystic, Simone Weil. In it, Weil critiques the Iliad to arrive at an understanding of what she calls force, something just beyond human action, alive in and ruling over the interactions of persons. “In this work,” Weil writes of the Iliad at the top of the essay, “at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” The truth of force, she writes later, is that “nobody really possesses it”; instead, it possesses us: it intoxicates, destroys, instigates conflict and props of hierarchy between the weak and the strong, strikes finally and surely with the intensity of what Weil calls “blind destiny” against both the weak and the strong. “He that takes the sword will perish by the sword,” Weil writes, and then she cites the Iliad: “Ares is just, and kills those who kill.”

What force really does for Weil is turn the human into an object. “Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment,” Weil argues, “our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” The soul who discovers death’s omnipresence must castrate itself, she continues, of all yearning for life; its sole aim becomes the destruction of others. There might be a way out of this bind, she suggests: “To respect life in somebody else when you have had to castrate yourself of all yearning for it demands a truly heart-breaking exertion of generosity,” a generosity which Weil believes attaches only to Patroclus in the poem. But, she dismisses out of hand that such generosity is a historical force. Those who possess force—which is to say, those for whom force is acting in the benefit for the moment only—do not have space for this generosity. “Lacking this generosity,” she continues, in a dark mood, “the conquering soldier is like a scourge of nature. Possessed by war, he, like the slave, becomes a thing … Such is the nature of force. Its power of converting man into a thing is a double one”—double for it takes hold of the soul of the possessor of force, remaking him into a mere peon of force’s action, the aim of which action is to reduce the victim of force to mere body, to destroy them. 

The essay is professedly about war, but it needn’t be. Force, as Weil understands it, is a concept that rules over more than war. What, for instance, is the nature of the state but to objectify the subject, to reduce to mere data that which has a full existence, a soul? What do the forces of white supremacy and capitalism and heteropatriarchy accomplish but the double thingification of subjects, making over some into agents of force’s action against others, who, in becoming marginal, become permeable, fragile bodies, bodies always in danger of the “death that lies locked up in each moment?” A world like ours is perhaps not so different from a battlefield. We live in an ambient state of war, by which I mean that we live in a world where the soul is at stake, where it is everywhere and at all times “modified by its relations with force.” Force, by necessity, governs our interactions; it is generated by the meeting of my face with yours, by the inequities of power that always inhere in these meetings. 

The evils of force are only half of Weil’s essay however. What Weil has to say about force and its powers is not actually so revelatory. It is something we all know in the gut, or, to follow Weil, in the soul: we feel our thingification distinctly, whether the thing we become is a “scourge of nature” or a mere body subject to that scourge. Each of us, in our lives, encounters moments of soullessness, of the contest of spirits against the force that is so natural to us that it appears to be “blind destiny,” and so each of us might have written the first half of Weil’s essay. But, Weil notices something else in the Iliad. She notices love and grace and justice. “Justice and love,” she writes, “which have hardly any place in this study of extremes and of unjust acts of violence, nevertheless bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent.” In other words, love and justice and grace are not present in the work so much as they illuminate it from within; they do not offer a counterweight to force, for there is no outside of force, but communicate something from within force for which force itself cannot account, which force itself does not cover. 

Weil’s essay ultimately becomes about finding one’s soul in a world where the total domination of force puts the soul at mighty risk: “A monotonous desolation would result were it not for those few luminous moments, scattered here and there throughout the poem, those brief, celestial moments in which man possesses his soul.” While finding the soul is not a permanent state of affairs, it is nonetheless a revelation: “The soul that awakes then, to live for an instant only and be lost almost at once in force’s vast kingdom, awakes pure and whole; it contains no ambiguities, nothing complicated or turbid; it has no room for anything but courage and love.” Ah, yes, love. It is in love, Weil posits, that the soul is most alive. She, like the poem, treats all kinds of love, from the love of brothers to that of spouses to comrades to mortal enemies. In each of these instances, those who were but a moment ago mere things become subjects, naked in glory before each other, shining with grace. For, love is an escape, albeit an imperfect one. “Whoever, within his own soul and in human relations,” Weil triumphantly declares, “escapes the dominion of force is loved but,” she reminds, “loved sorrowfully because of the threat of destruction that constantly hangs over him.” 

What Weil notices, I think, is that force is the flow of event that makes the world over and over again, that makes a dynamic moving portrait of what the world is and what it means. This is why each of her instances of force is a battle or heroic showdown between the principle warriors of the poem, for together these form the spine of event; they make up the material of the poem. The world of human actors comes into being continuously through force in the form of events, small and large, quotidian and world-historical. Love, in this formulation, would then be something like non-event, not outside of force but within it, as its suspension, a moment that paradoxically eschews momentariness, that halts for the briefest time the play of event upon event, of interaction on interaction—a tiny little halting of the world’s making and remaking for a few particular people in space and time together. Love is not a moment of interaction but a moment of intersubjection, of being together at once and as the same. It is the only grace which a world of soullessness has to offer as its consolation for force. 

This idea has always made me think of the book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by the seminal queer theorist, José Esteban Muñoz—specifically, his notion that the queer is a moment outside of what he calls “straight time,” the time patterned by heteropatriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism and the state, the time patterned by force. For Muñoz, there is something utopian about the moment outside of straight time in which the queer is manifest; this moment never results in a utopia of the future, but it opens up possibilities for thinking and feeling the present and the future differently. The queer interrogates the actual, suggests a future somehow other to the one that straight time hurtles toward inevitably, a future that arises in and of the present but does not belong to it. The work of the utopian thinker “is the work of not settling for the present, of asking and looking beyond the here and now.” Importantly, Muñoz initially makes his point about the utopic moment of queer time by critiquing the Frank O’Hara poem, “Having a Coke with You,” a touching little poem about a moment so seemingly ordinary—having a Coke—which is infused with meaning not by the actions of another but by their presence, their being together with O’Hara outside of action. I don’t want to suggest a false equivalence between Weil’s idea of love and Muñoz’s idea of queer temporality. But, there is in both of them a utopian yearning, an idea that, though impossible to escape the world of force, there are moments when that world is inconsistent, when it gives way to something else charged with the potential of an entirely different order.

I am a young, queer writer with nothing to write about but love, for it is in my love and its queerness that I sense something meaningful, something ecstatic and immensely possible if not yet—maybe not ever, or maybe only very momentarily—actual. This sense never solidifies into event. In Muñoz’s words, it is “that which follows the event as the thing-that-is-not-yet-imagined.” This undimmed potentiality in the moment of love is a non-event, an “accent” to use Weil’s word, a flourish, a certain spectacular maybe that cannot last. The more I invest in love and its queerness, the more I find myself particularly attentive to Weil’s “celestial moments” of grace. Grace, the queer—both involve subsisting in a different mode, a mode in which the mere thing that I am is, for a brief and shining instant, a subject naked before another. “Taking ecstasy with one another, in as many ways as possible,” Muñoz writes, “can perhaps be our best way of enacting a queer time that is not yet here but nonetheless always potentially dawning.” 

[CASE STUDY: On Rockaway Beach with you … ]

… i understand what they’re talking about when they talk about queer utopia. i mean that you’re napping, and i’m doing magic, and the ocean, when you really think about it, is where all the strong and weak forces of the world congregate. then, i’m in for a dive, and it’s freezing, and you’re reading. children screech, and maduros from the place a few blocks away have set our stomachs well. there are snatches of music everywhere. 

the longer the sun touches its resting, the finer the mahogany of your body, your legs sculpted, and your belly peeking out of your sleeveless Pink Floyd t-shirt. i remember that the world’s going to hell, and i laugh, i laugh uproariously. i wave a cigarette about like a blessing. and then the world and all its news vanish. we’ve half-buried your empty beer cans and my iced tea tall boy. there’s sand in the watermelon, and we crunch it. no one bothers to look at us. they’re all caught up in sangria and gossip and frisbee.

that spell i did while you napped—it was simple. there was this perfect, tiny shell, creamy orange, and just the least bit chipped, and it looked precisely like our fragile day away from everyone else together. i kissed it, tied it in the bright red bag of witchery at my neck. i danced some to myself, to the beat of your snoring. the dancing was an important part of the spell. 

see, the really important thing was feeling kept—by the light and the wind, in the shock of the undertow and through the slow beat of afternoon. kept by you, by your fluttering eyelids and your fine face, your body stretched long or your body in giggles. on the beach with you, that tender stuff pushes up, not just in us, but everywhere, like violets through the sand, like strange marvelous cacti that tickle but do not wound. perhaps this means we are gods of immense power. perhaps we are simply doing escape tricks with time.

the brutal condos watch, but they don’t see, as we make a nomad square, with a little blanket and flip flops and consumables; and then, later, as we don our jeans and trundle back. 


Citations: José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009); Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad, trans. Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).