Writing in the New Yorker a couple years ago, Aleksandar Hemon offered a harrowing account of the loss of his nine-month-old daughter, Isabel, to a vicious form of cancer. Hemon describes the “unimaginable and incomprehensible” place of abandonment that he and his wife found themselves in, alienated from the rest of the world as if they were occupants of an aquarium – visible, yet “living and breathing in entirely different environments” than those around them. Compounding their pain was the “vacuous, hackneyed language,” and “that supreme platitude: God,” which others offered as ways of finding meaning. Hemon and his wife held to each other and rejected these efforts, while unable themselves to “construct a story that would help [them] comprehend what was happening.”
the despicable religious fallacy that suffering is ennobling
At first blush, the hard, almost stoic vision of God and redemptive suffering that Simone Weil offers would seem to be almost obscene in light of the suffering Hemon describes. After all, Hemon explicitly rejects as “despicable religious fallacy” the notion that “suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.”
My reading of Weil suggests that by rejecting God and all accounts that try and bring meaning to the suffering Hemon endures and bears witness to, Hemon clears out all the imaginary constructions that would fill the void, as Weil calls it. The religious expressions Hemon is offered (including those that come in secular garb), are what Weil calls the “imaginary divinity,” which has been “given to man so that he may strip himself of it like Christ did of his real divinity.” For Weil, Hemon’s rejection of consolation is precisely the act that creates the space for true faith. The atheism he expresses rids his heart of an idolotrous divinty that exists to meet his desires: the survival of his child, or the availability of meaning in the face of her suffering and death.
when Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none
For Weil, “to pray is like a death,” and perhaps the reverse is also true for her: death is like prayer. Hemon puts to death all consolation for his pain. He puts to death that part of his own Self that would seek cure. He doesn’t reject a specific religious account, he rejects all accounts, categorically. In this, Hemon is like the God that Job encounters in the whirlwind. When Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none. God, the One we look to as we seek meaning in the world, refuses to play the role. God refuses to be an idol. Job responds to God’s refusal with silence, much as Hemon and his wife respond to their friends’ claims that “words fail” by keeping secret the fact that words in fact do not fail, that Hemon’s suffering can be described in excruciating detail.
Christ, too, encounters God’s silence, which Weil describes as God’s absence. Yet unlike Job and Hemon, who keep the secret, Christ on the cross cries out, naming God’s absence, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ’s atheism is in an existential register – God has abandoned him to die – and yet Christ addresses this God as God, as if God could hear his cry. Christ prays to God, and for him, as for Weil, “to pray is like a death.”
redemptive suffering produces the absence of God
What, then, of Weil’s notion of redemptive suffering? Is this the blasphemous notion that Hemon is rejecting? For Weil, “Redemptive suffering … produces the absence of God, … [it] is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.” It would seem that Hemon has seen only an abundance of evil, what he calls “a dark universe of pain.” And yet in that pain, he finds himself closer to his wife than he has ever been to anyone, and he is consumed by “Isabel’s present, torturous but still beautiful life.”
Hemon could reject the idea that Isabel’s broken body could sustain a beautiful life. He could allow his sorrow to make him as blind as fear has made his chattering friends. Yet it is perhaps because he has rejected consolation and faced God’s absence that he is able to encounter the life that struggles before him.
Weil claims that “He who has not God within himself cannot feel his absence,” and Hemon seems to feel God’s absence. After Isabel dies, Hemon feels her absence. For Weil, “the presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforward it is his way of appearing.” For Hemon, “her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”
in that ventrical wilderness, he loves
Hemon’s rejection of comprehension leaves his heart stripped bare, and in that ventrical wilderness, he loves. He loves his wife, he loves his daughters, he loves those who fail in their efforts to comfort him. Hemon’s willingness to confront catastrophe is the same strength that allows him to affirm his three-year-old’s blossoming life.
It is not clear whether Hemon rejects every explanation because each fails in the face of reality, or if he rejects comprehension as such. To bear witness to suffering may entail rejecting adequate explanations, as they diminish the suffering. It is important, then to note the failures of our gods, but perhaps it is more important that our gods fail.