Sylvia and Simone

This is my third try at a post this week. With the arrival of warmer days, of sun, I find that my need to write is superseded. By what, I can’t just say. I feel slow and happy. Sylvia would disagree.

Is anyone happy? No, not unless they are living in a dream or in an artifice that they or someone else made. For a time I was lulled in the arms of a blind optimism with breasts full of champagne and nipples full of caviar. I thought she was true, and that the true was the beautiful. But the true is the ugly mixed up everywhere, like a peck of dirt scattered through your life. The true is that there is no security, no artifice to stop the unsavory changes, the rat unrace, the death unwish…

Sylvia Plath, May 14, 1953, The Unabridged Journals

“The true is that there is no security, no artifice to stop the unsavory changes…” Part of my necessary slowness is the finally come spring. Any kind of change, even (or especially) the longed-for revolution of temperature, color and growth puts me in fuzzy place. If I slow to the pace of my unsight, I don’t mind the scattered dirt (John and Gabriel stomping the garden off their boots across the kitchen floor and up the stairs). It’s a way to best my doubt. To enter into it rather than run from it.

Just a month earlier, Sylvia—a sensuous lover of the material, of line and form—wrote:

The human tragedy: to be reactionary, the conservative, and to always choose the certainty of daily bread above the light and airy inconsistencies of foreign pastries.

April 9, 1953, The Unabridged Journals

While I’m not the fan of caviar that Ms. Plath was reported to be, my taste in food is often more expensive than I have the resources to be. The deliciously round and not-overly pungent flavor of fancy Greek olives (unsoaked in vinegar or stuffed with slimy pimentos) that run about $6 a 6 ounce jar. Dense and dark, almost purple, buckwheat pancakes with fat pats of hard European butter, Grade B maple syrup and fresh strawberries.

But I must dispute her “certainty of daily bread.” I find daily bread to be anything but certain. Some days, my every action is motivated by the fear that daily bread will Not be given. Isn’t that what worry and anxiety are? A fear of the unknown and the fear that what we need will remain ungiven? And so we try to please ourselves. We take what we can. We build for a future unknown.

Enter Ms. Weil. She realigns the question, essentially flipping our understanding of necessity and the essential, clarifying the concept of energy:

Bread is a necessity for us. We are beings who continually draw our energy from outside, for as we receive it we use it up in effort. If our energy is not daily renewed, we become feeble and incapable of movement. Besides actual food, in the literal sense of the word, all incentives are sources of energy for us. Money, ambition, consideration, decorations, celebrity, power, our loved ones, everything that puts into us the capacity for action is like bread…

All these objects of attachment go together with food, in the ordinary sense of the word, to make up the daily bread of this world. It depends entirely on circumstances whether we have it or not. We should ask nothing with regard to circumstances unless it be that they may conform to the will of God. We should not ask for earthly bread.

There is a transcendent energy whose source is in heaven and this flows into us as soon as we wish for it. It is a real energy; it performs actions through the agency of our souls and of our bodies.

We should ask for this food. At the moment of asking, and by the very fact that we ask for it, we know that God will give it to us. We ought not to be able to bear to go without it for a single day, for when our actions only depend on earthly energies, subject to the necessity of this world, we are incapable of thinking and doing anything but evil…

Christ is our bread. We can only ask to have him now…We cannot bind our will today for tomorrow; we cannot make a pact with him that tomorrow he will be within us, even in spite of ourselves…We have not been given a will that can be applied to the future.

from Simone Weil’s “Concerning the Our Father” in Waiting for God

I’d like to tattoo that last sentence into the soft underside of my forearm. It has that sort of potential, bringing to mind the parable of the rich fool who tore down his storehouse to build a bigger one. Aside from their conspicuous (and somewhat) superficial differences, Syliva and Simone inhabit a similar space. Both relished, and rightly so, the immediacy and power of the present moment. Weil acknowledges our need for earthly energy but makes it clear that living only for the material ultimately leads to evil. Plath herself sees the deception of living for happiness when she speaks of being “lulled in the arms of a blind optimism with breasts full of champagne and nipples full of caviar” (what an image).

For as long as I have been conscious of living in the world, I have struggled to fully inhabit my body and its material existence while being equally drawn to the life of the spirit—that transcendent energy I have been lucky enough (though I don’t believe in luck) to experience from time to time, in time and outside of it. Contrary to what I inherited from my Mennonite/Baptist upbringing, I no longer believe the two are oppositional.

Simone has helped me understand the prayer we pray repeatedly in the Orthodox Church during nearly all her services, “That He will deliver us from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity, let us pray to the Lord.” Sylvia reminds me to relish “the light and airy inconsistencies of foreign pastries”—like the changes in weather and in myself, in those I love. And I wonder if Sylvia ever read this by Simone: “All art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.”

Taken together, Ms. Weil and Ms. Plath nearly expunge my need for artifice and my disgust of dirt, at least intellectually. My material-spiritual self continues to play catch-up, one present moment at a time.

simone weil 2sylvia plath types

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