Navigating Anorexia with Simone Weil
“[The Light] will rip you up, and lay you open.” —Margaret Fell, 1656
This is the Light I know: one that rips and exposes. In order to fully recover, I needed to change my center. I needed to reread the Light.
I have found that this is not uncommon. Catherine Garrett interviewed a number of recovered and recovering anorexics, and many of her interviewees reported that their recovery was dependent upon the “spiritual discourses available to them.”
I knew I needed a new reading—new texts, new thoughts, new opportunities for Light—so I dug until I found one, and then I kept digging. I have never been more obsessed with anything.
In the midst of this, by chance, I found Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil at a bookstore in Singapore. I spent hours looking through the store’s philosophy section, knowing I would never find a similar selection in Jakarta, where I would be teaching for a year and a half longer. And, suddenly, there she was. I had read Waiting for God my senior year of college, had even written a paper on it, but I had never heard of Gravity and Grace. I opened it, read one line, and nearly fainted. I had found the book I was looking for.
I carried Gravity and Grace with me everywhere, all over Jakarta. I read it and reread it. I wrote down my searing thoughts onto scraps of paper. I wrote to Simone—we were on a first name basis—and spoke aloud to her in my room. I felt connected to her. Her writing both challenged and fed my pre-recovery paradigm: I recovered because of her and also, I have realized, in spite of her.
“She’s always one step ahead of me,” I wrote to myself, and she was. It was terrifying to read her confirmations of the conclusions I had made on my own. Of course, I never really come to anything on my own. Just as there is no text itself, according to Stanley Fish, there is probably no thought itself.
Nothing is easier than misunderstanding the Light. You only have a moment—once that moment passes, all you have is memory, which you put words to, fallible words that, in time, point to something else entirely.
When I found Simone, I was operating under the assumption that God had broken me, and that I was supposed to love “Him” for that. I wasn’t consciously adhering to any Christian teaching, nor had I read that in a book. I had received it another way. That is what I mean when I say I needed to reread the Light: I know I saw something, and that Light had dropped down, as it does, but I think I must have misunderstood it. Nothing is easier than misunderstanding the Light. You only have a moment—once that moment passes, all you have is memory, which you put words to, fallible words that, in time, point to something else entirely.
I did not believe that suffering makes us better, but I did suspect that my suffering was meant to, eventually, make me better. Simone took this reading, and in Gravity and Grace, she stripped it of all consolation:
If I thought that God sent me his suffering as an act of his will and for my good, I should think that I was something, and I should miss the chief use of suffering which is to teach me that I am nothing.
I was to remain unconsoled—to not only refrain from seeking consolation but to also put every effort into avoiding it. I loved this teaching. When this is done successfully, she writes, “Ineffable consolation then comes down.”
Over time, as I read, I came to see what I called “seeming contradictions.” I recorded them in a Word document on my computer, and I referred to them thusly because I respected her and trusted the Light she saw: that is, I knew she was my spiritual and intellectual superior. I began my questions and accusations with a preface:
I say seeming contradictions because I haven’t written about this in depth yet, and because I trust that the roots of her thought are deeper than I can fathom, that the signified she saw is as bright and chaotic and Real as any other signified, and that I’m only having trouble finding it.
It wasn’t her thoughts and ideas that I took issue with, not exactly. It was her lack of self-love, the banality and familiarity of it. Everyone and everything was to be loved by God—except her. I reveled in her unspoken permission to continue to believe the same, and I ignored the contradiction in her at first because I was not yet interested in questioning it in myself. I thought I could recover anyway, but I couldn’t.
Simone Weil was young and brilliant, the finest mind I have ever read. But ultimately, her asceticism, her denial of all comfort and consolation and pleasure, was unhelpful to me as I pursued recovery from anorexia. I needed something entirely different: permission to satisfy my hunger; to seek pleasure and consolation; and to love myself as a messy, embodied being. I needed to reconnect, and some of these ideas she offered me, ideas that I loved, were isolating me further, maintaining the distance between my mind and my body, my mind and everything else.
I am fairly certain that it wasn’t just her thought that drew me to her. It was her story, her relationship with hunger that I know I have no right to read too much into, and especially, her early death. I was also dying, too young. I remember waking up violently one night, with chest pain that was worse than usual, and writing to myself: “I wonder if [Simone] knew. At first it was frightening because it seemed so sudden, her death. But I wonder if she knew. I wonder if you know.” I thought of her nearly every time I thought I was dying.
I still credit her with my survival, even though I stopped reading. I think the most important thing Simone taught me was how to labor in the void—or how to keep laboring. Though I was clumsily reconstructed at the time, I was also still deconstructing: “Trauma of the Real everywhere I turn.” My worldview was unraveling, the Light that sparked my recovery dimming. Because I experienced the start of my recovery from anorexia as divine intervention, the rest of it was necessarily spiritual. Letting go of the reading that led to my salvation seemed impossible, so I tried to negotiate meaning, to find a way to make sense of it within the context of my ever-changing paradigm.
As I obsessed over Gravity and Grace, and as I recovered from anorexia on my own in Jakarta, I learned how to function without a center, without emotional or intellectual consolation. It was the first time that I did not feel a need for a secure base. I did not need anything at all. I was floating in an endless, terrifying void, alone, but I never gave into it. I labored on. Simone taught me how to survive when none of my other tools were working and none of my centers held. I let go, and I saw that the void itself could hold me together. Or, “ineffable consolation” came down.