The Holy Anorexic

The Holy Anorexic

 

Simone Weil, Between Materialism and Mysticism

Saint Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, Supported by Two Angels (ca. 1630-60) by Pieter de Bailliu

In Sunday school, we were in the practice of learning lists. Diligently, we recited, employing mnemonic devices, hand gestures, and catchy tunes to assist in the information’s crystallization. Along with the Ten Commandments and the Fruits of the Spirit, we regurgitated the Seven Deadly Sins with the same perfunctory delivery as we would with, say, the Pledge of Allegiance or John 3:16. However, I do recall being struck by the inclusion of gluttony as one of the cardinal misdeeds. It seemed minor in comparison to “pride” and “wrath.” Why should my inclination to overindulge in birthday cake be comparable to an act of violence? As I grew up, I would discover and, in turn, internalize the gravity of overindulgence as dictated by Christianity. Unregulated desire runs diametrically opposed to piety, privileging the carnal over the celestial.

I would soon learn that other sources, often from the most unexpected of places, participate in the policing of desire. Despite the rampant consumerism of Western contemporary society, a degree of asceticism, the dedication to the disavowal of sensual pleasures, is tacitly upheld as a key ingredient in acquiring fiscal success. Capitalism champions self-restraint and moderation as conduits for optimizing efficiency, which is conveniently equated to moral superiority. In the grand tradition of the Protestant work ethic, the accumulation of capital is treated as an end in itself—for hoarding not expenditure. Under spiritual mysticism, the mode of being is brought to its fullest expression, eschewing moderation in favor of total self-abnegation. As Protestant asceticism aims for the fulfillment of pragmatic ends, mystical asceticism is distinctly unproductive, seeking to transcend the trivialities of earthly pursuits. In order that they might reach a holier state, the devout inflict suffering upon themselves, engaging in life-denying rituals like celibacy and fasting. To put it in today’s parlance, these rituals are acts of radical resistance—against the temptations that debase the human spirit and against the institutions that encourage such debasement. 

Simone Weil, a prominent twentieth-century communist and mystic, devoted her life to radical resistance in political and spiritual realms. To her, the two were utterly inseparable. Similarly, she observed no demarcations between the personal and public and wielded her body as a site for activism. Weil regularly fasted despite a tuberculosis diagnosis, meeting her death after limiting her food intake to that imposed upon German-occupied France.1 So, it is unsurprising that Weil is often referred to as the “anorexic philosopher,” but it’s an unfortunate misnomer—reductive if not altogether dismissive. Extreme fasting was a tool Weil employed in her practice of radical resistance against the inequities of the world and the psychic deterrents of being human. She proposed a more nuanced iteration of asceticism than preceding paradigms by attempting to synthesize the material with the mystical—a seemingly paradoxical endeavour. 

In Aliens and Anorexia, a part-memoir and part-meditation on Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Chris Kraus remarks that within the public imagination it is “impossible to accept the self-destruction of a woman as strategic . . . to conceive a female life that might extend outside itself.”2 Perhaps Weil starved herself not due to a personal pathology but a drive to transcend society’s imperative to privatize suffering. Perhaps she sought attention not for herself but for the intent behind her actions, which delivered an urgent, universal message. Weil’s fasting philosophy, when given its due consideration, does not align with our current understanding of anorexia. It is a call not for help but for action. 

In order to differentiate Weil’s case of self-starvation, it is important to characterize anorexia nervosa. Disproportionately affecting women, the disorder begets drastic weight loss, achieved by severely limited food intake, obsessive exercise, and rigid “food rules” that dictate when, where, and how food is consumed. It causes physical deterioration, disrupting the functioning of the body’s metabolism, heart, and menstrual cycle. Anorexia also damages mental and emotional life; sufferers tend to withdraw into themselves and develop an increasingly low sense of self-worth. The prototypical character profile of an anorexic is an introverted, neurotic, ambitious perfectionist, who is predisposed to depression and anxiety. Weight loss is likely a coping mechanism in response to the feeling of lack of control. Social factors, such as beauty ideals imposed by the fashion industry, also contribute to the disease’s ubiquity. So, in many cases, anorexia fundamentally signals an underlying psychological dysfunction. 

Weil likely possessed many of these characteristics; she certainly was introverted and ambitious. Critically, however, her self-starvation was a response to the dysfunction rampant in humanity—not within herself. Before Weil turned to mysticism, she was first an avowed political dissident. From an early age, she aligned herself with communist ideology, supporting the anarchist Durutti Column during the Spanish Civil war.3 Later, in an attempt to better understand the working class, she became a laborer for a year—although with her frail form she wasn’t of much assistance.4 Weil then spent time in Germany to ingratiate herself in the Marxist movement but quickly became disillusioned with its manifestation.5 While she championed Marx’s analysis of the development of industrial capitalism, she also identified within it a strong current of dangerous utopian ideation. Weil criticized the assumption that capitalism will necessarily bring about its own demise by inciting a proletariat revolution. To reduce the history of society to the evolution of class conflict indicated a negligence “of any real effort of scientific thought” and instead “took refuge in a dream and called it dialectical materialism.”6 Ultimately, she charged the famous historical materialist for being insufficiently materialist; he tethered his faith to the romanticized concept of revolution: “Marxism is a badly constructed religion; it has always possessed a religious character.”7

It follows, then, that the hunger strikes she participated in functioned as a response to the Marxists’ absence of concrete action. Swept up by the promise of eminent revolution, the intellectual class, according to Weil, lost touch with the physical conditions workers encountered daily—hunger being a key component of that reality. Truly in the spirit of redistribution, Weil found it unjust to eat well while many others could not. Thus, she fasted as an expression of solidarity and civil-disobedience, joining a long tradition in political activism. 

Weil’s religious rationale for fasting did not emerge until later in life. In fact, Weil grew up agnostic. She experienced an ecstatic religious awakening in 1937 at the Basilica of Saint Maria degli Angeii where she prayed for the first time. From then on, she devoted herself to God but didn’t follow any one institution of religion, cultivating her own distinct spirituality. She believed that we must “fix our will on the void”  in order to carve out a space to be filled by the presence of God.8 Thus, an undoing of the ego must be undergone: “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves.”9 To destroy our self-conception allows for the movement of grace, of God, through our being. She also asserted that deep affliction is necessary in accessing deep joy; the two are mutually reinforcing. Thus, fasting to Weil is a rather literal means to produce a void for God to fill. To satiate one’s self with food allows no room for spiritual bread, nourishing the present corporal form instead of the aspirational, transcendent one that is unified with God. 

Weil claimed that in order to fully love and appreciate beauty we must abstain from its consumption: “The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it. We desire that it should be.”10 On an abstract level, this conveys the sentiment that love should operate without expectation of possession. We should appreciate love for what it is, as an end in itself, without our connection to it.  On a concrete level, however, it expresses Weil’s reticence towards eating food, fearing that its consumption debases the beauty God imbued within it. 

Weil’s holy anorexia has an official name, “anorexia mirabilis,” which simply denotes the refusal to eat due to religious reasons.11 It is common among mystics of all religious beliefs but is particularly associated with Catholic nuns from the medieval period.12 What makes Weil’s case so distinct and contentious is not only that she lived in the modern age, but also that she synthesized her religious justifications for starvation so thoroughly with her pre-existing political ones. Like Marx, Weil’s politics, too, possessed a “religious character.” More acutely, her politics always possessed a mystical character, insofar as she demanded nothing less than a fully unified, devoted political structure. Weil’s insistence on a more actualized materialism, paradoxically, is deeply intertwined with her desire to transcend the material. Following her logic of gravity, perhaps she thought that the further she detached herself from the essential components of human reality, the more those who suffer could tether themselves to them. Equilibrium established, grace flooding through. 

The similarity between my adolescent recitation of sins and commandments, the Protestant imperative to maximize profit by imposing self-discipline, and Weil’s commitment to decreation is apparent. They share a drive towards self-denial and moral regulation: Pleasure distracts us from religion, profit, God. I propose that what distinguishes Weil’s mode of asceticism from the others is that her end goal is total surrender rather than total control. Growing up in the church, I could not escape my relentless self-surveillance. God was surveilling me too, of course, hovering omniscient above in the sky, forgiving but also rationing out convictions of eternal damnation. Nevertheless, it was my own surveillance that took precedent. I was my own God; I inflicted my own punishments and dished out my own rewards. Weil sought to disintegrate any barriers between her consciousness and God. If self-surveillance is a form of will to power, then Weil strove for the reverse, a will to sublime nothingness.

  1. Christy Wampole, “Strange and Intelligent,” Aeon, October 25 2018.
  2. Chris Kraus, Aliens and Anorexia, (Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2000), 18.
  3. Christy Wampole, “Strange and Intelligent,” Aeon, October 25 2018. 
  4. Christy Wampole, “Strange and Intelligent,” Aeon, October 25 2018.
  5.  Michael Doliner, “Simone Weil, Marx, and Revolution.” counterpunch, 21 December 2017.
  6. Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty, (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2001), 180.
  7. Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty, (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2001), 154.
  8. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 13.
  9. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 33.
  10. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 149.
  11.  Hilary Mantel, “Holy Disorders,” The Guardian, 4 March 2004.
  12.  Hilary Mantel, “Holy Disorders,” The Guardian, 4 March 2004.
 
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