Dorothy Day and Simone Weil
Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion
By Robert Coles
Pages: 182 pages
Review Author: William D. Miller
If Prof. Robert Coles were a member of the usual academic department in the American university system, his publication output might produce some uneasiness among departmental members on the score that he was making his colleagues appear to be lacking in industry. But since they, as properly conditioned academics, are people whose overriding consideration is the attainment of some supertechnical structure which will support what they call “objective reality,” their concern should come from a position more lofty than envy. Their concern, they might say, is that Coles’s work is not of the sort that adds refinement to technique. He gets out of bounds; he takes great leaps; he writes at times as if beyond technique there were some Absolute.
If “they” exist, their concern may increase, for Coles now has two works simultaneously published, and both are of persons who have been passionate affirmers of the Absolute over the encroachment of technique. He has done this with Dorothy Day and Simone Weil, both of which are contributions to the Radcliffe Biography Series.
In her introduction to the Series, Martina Horner, Radcliffe’s President, says that “biographies give us both a glimpse of ourselves and a reflection of the human spirit…. Reading about other people’s experiences encourages us to persist, to face hardship, and to feel less alone.” To “feel less alone” is, without doubt, an ultimate quest of all life, yet perhaps never before has loneliness been so widespread as it is today. Counselors, increasing in legion numbers, are supposed to deal with the problem, but are little more than moving shadows in the face of its advance.
It seems to be part of the charity of heaven to intrude itself into time to straighten out our messes when things get critical. Prophets and saints show up to offer instruction and provide examples of how mankind should set itself aright. In our own time surely there are no two persons who have seen more clearly the loss of community as the consequence of the deification of technique as have Dorothy Day and Simone Weil. Not that Coles writes about the two in these terms. Rather, he approaches them as great people — the greatest, even, that our time has produced.
Did not Coles and Jon Erikson refer to Dorothy Day, in their book published in 1973, as A Spectacle Unto the World? Coles had known her, and, like many others who had and were given to grappling with the question of existence, he recognized her as a person apart. Now Coles, on the basis of years of conversations and repeated tape-recorded interviews, offers a further evaluation of Day in the form of long extracts from his notes and conversations.
He questions her about those aspects of her life that seemed crucial in its development: her relationship with her common-law husband; her conversion; her association with church prelates (especially Cardinal Spellman); her social philosophy; and her life in a house of hospitality. The tone is relaxed (there are pauses while one or the other pours tea). To her statements he adds his analysis and insights, in which he is sometimes assisted by the reflections of his friend Anna Freud. There is, of course, an occasional invocation of the method and terms of psychiatry to make a point, but Coles is almost diffident in his use of professional references.
The value of the book lies in its character as a brief study of aspects of the life and person of Dorothy Day. And Coles, with his inquiring and enthusiastic intelligence, can always make a point. One chapter bears the title, “The Church Obeyed and Challenged,” and part of the opening sentence reads that “as a devoutly practicing Catholic, Dorothy Day paid intense homage to an institution some of whose practices and policies she strongly disapproved.” Coles recites the customary Western Civ. lecture fare of Church corruption, licentious popes, and the betrayal of its commission.
Dorothy disapproved of these failings as well as countless others (the hierarchy’s erstwhile failure to stand implacably against all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, for example). What she disapproved of was an institution that had given way to history’s necessities, one that floundered through time — one which had participated in the continuing crucifixion of Christ.
Still — and this is often overlooked by dissenting Catholics, liberal Protestants, and secular liberals — she was deeply in love with the Church and profoundly loyal to its doctrine, and the marvel of her life was the constancy of that love and loyalty. She was in love with the Church because it promised her that for which her spirit craved beyond every allurement of flesh or mind: community. The Church was, as she said, “the mystical body of Christ,” from which, finally, no person or thing who wished to share its life could be excluded. In Dorothy’s mind, only the devil himself could want that.
Simone Weil conforms to a standard biographical format much more than Dorothy Day and has a particular usefulness as a brief introduction to the person and thought of Simone Weil.
What has made Weil the continuing studied concern of a few whose intellectual reach goes beyond the usual subjects that arise out of the social process? She, like Dorothy Day, had a piercing longing for community, for God. Like Day she was acutely aware of the conditions of contemporary life that ruthlessly toss people about and cast them into roles so rigidly prescribed and enforced that little is left for the person except to advance the “I” at the expense of the “we.”
Coles writes eloquently about this in a chapter entitled “Her Moral Loneliness”: “She spells out what…’moral loneliness’ means — that one won’t be understood, that one will incur enemies all over, that those in positions of power — ‘servants of the existing order’ — will be critical and punitive.”
The substance of Simone Weil, however, is not as much about her thought and its certain apprehension of the loss of spirit in the world, with its enslaving consequences, as it is about two troubling questions regarding Weil’s life: Did she commit suicide? Why did she deny her Jewishness? The first question is simply answered; the second is not. Denying oneself food so that others might eat is certainly not suicide, as Coles points out.
Her disavowal of her Jewishness seems to have come from a feeling of distaste for Old Testament history, a record, as she saw it, of Israelite tribalism exalted by legends of the prowess of military commanders who slew countless thousands. She failed to see them as a people, most unprepossessing in the mainstream of history’s flow, whose struggle was, as God’s chosen, to keep their covenant commitment. The secularizing forces of the 19th century had seemingly severed her from her Jewish past.
In several episodes, which some would describe as neurasthenic (perhaps a better state for the transmission of truth than “feeling good” about oneself), she experienced the presence of Christ, the Jewish prophet whom she came to regard as the savior of the world, the source of that unity into which all would be brought together. In writing of these occasions Coles has the good sense and taste to forbear psychological analysis. He simply describes them.
In his concluding chapter, “Idolatry and the Intellectuals,” Coles makes a point about the tyranny that form and posture can exercise over intellectuals — among whom one might include a few academics. But he carries this to a presumption about Weil’s attitude toward the Catholic Church by suggesting that she did not become a Catholic because “there was something quite stubbornly Protestant in her wish to stand alone before God, to wait for grace on her very own.” This, says Coles, “puts her in the company of Kierkegaard rather than Pascal.”
That Simone Weil would be content to await grace “on her very own” seems beside the point. The point is found, rather, in Dorothy Day’s reflection: “Love is the baptism of desire. Anyone who loves God belongs to the soul of the Church.” Making a choice between Kierkegaard and Pascal did not matter. Simone Weil had already been baptized by her passion for community. Grace had already found her. That she was a Jew was a special anointment.
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