No one who loves life would wish to imitate her [Simone Weil’s] dedication to martyrdom . . . yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.
So Susan Sontag on the terrible witness of Simone Weil’s life. We can remember the passionate support of workers, the desperate drive to parachute into wartime France to aid the resistance, the refusal to ingest any more food that that available to the French worker, the migraines, the fasting, the mystic recitation of the Lord’s Prayer – and the harrowing confession: when I contemplate the crucifixion I risk the sin of envy. Weil lived beyond normal boundaries, denying the logic of moderation or common sense. Sontag asserts that we judge such a life with a sense of mystery not by the balance sheet of costs and benefits.
I found Sontag’s comments as I was attempting to understand the powerful impact that Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder had on me. The character who gives the novel its title is an eleven year-old Irish girl who, in the generation immediately following the Great Hunger, appears miraculously to need no nourishment. In her tiny village and throughout the country, even to some resettled in the USA, she is a testimony to a greater truth, the intersection of the divine and the human, and as such a rebuke to the skepticism of the day.
We encounter Anna O’Donnell through the watchful eyes of Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who served on the battlefield in Crimea. She has been hired by a parish committee to test the validity of the claims made for Anna – that she lives only by spiritual sustenance. Mrs. Wright is certain that she will take little time in establishing a fraud. She has a local nun as a fellow observer, and she is determined to keep them both to the highest of watchful, empirical standards: careful record keeping of pulse, respiration, bodily condition and bodily eliminations. The full force of her mentor’s admonitions echo in her mind: nursing as a science directed towards the care of the patient, and the welfare of the patient being paramount.
Against this, Lib finds the straining credulity of Anna’s family, the local doctor and priest, and the many who trek by the house where she lies almost bed-ridden, angelic in her frail beauty. Lib is a foreign, English presence whose sole intent seems to be to disprove the wonder among them. Yet oddly and challengingly, Anna succeeds in offering Lib a joyful acceptance of her singular fate. The child’s constant repetition (thirty-three times a day) of prayers, her cheerful acceptance of her deteriorating physical state, her guileless assertion that she lives only on “manna from Heaven,” confounds Lib and turns what had been cynicism into love, a critical love that sees beyond deception: she wishes to save the child from herself.
Lib, in the novelist’s eyes, finds that, “denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing,” even as she ferrets out the truth of Anna’s “miraculous” four-month survival without food. In her adherence to otherworldly norms, Anna has taken Lib beyond “the secure possession of the truth” and has her facing a spiritual world where life is lived on a precipice constantly threatening to give way to eternity.
I will say little about Lib’s struggle to free Anna from her self-condemnation and of the novel’s resolution; rather I want to fix on the experience of unfolding that Donoghue so artfully and truly renders. Lib confronts a vision of the world alien to her sensibilities. She rejects that world, but her understanding of its features evolves through her daily ministrations to a child. Anna deals in absolutes, and her powers of self-restraint, self-sacrifice, immoderate devotion, and profound guilt raise her to an almost heroic, certainly transforming, level.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” “Thou fool! This night thy soul is required of thee.” “If your hand is your undoing, cut it off . . .”
These versions of the “Vale of Tears” that certainly drove my Catholic upbringing found an echo in this tale of piety, guilt, sin, and loss. The eternal balance sheet where Indulgences took away the flames of purgatorial cleansing, and the dead called out to us as Dives to Lazarus to help ease the pain: this is Anna’s world and that of her family and village. In no small measure it was the world I knew, perhaps, as I was a child of Anna’s age, hearing the sermon on Hell in the Ignatian retreat cycle – so worryingly reported in Joyce’s Portrait. Emma Donoghue captures just the sense of terror and hope, expectation both of judgment and release that was the air of the confessional in self-accusation. The mystery persists despite the common sense dismantling.
Simone Weil’s difficulty with food is well known. She writes somewhere, if I recall rightly, that all sin is a form of consumption. There seems to be an intuitive link between fasting and saintliness, a denial of the flesh in pursuit of spirit, a refusal to be constrained by physical needs, despite Jesus’s assurance that it is not what we take in by mouth, but what comes out of our mouths that taints us. Anna lying in bed, murmuring her prayer, her body distorted by starvation, yet eyes fixed on the Bread of Heaven . . . The Wonder, I think, will resonate, more as a tremor from the past, an ache like hunger that gnaws, than an apprehension: the child’s world at night with eternity only a self-accusation away.