Famous adventure of art: Robert Rauschenberg knocks on Bill de Kooning’s apartment door and presents him with an idea, to erase one of his masterpieces. He had been experimenting with erasing his own drawings, but realized that it would never work as art that way. De Kooning said he understood but didn’t like the idea. But if he was going to give something away to erasure, he said, he wanted it to be something he cared about, something of his own that he liked. The project went through: it took Rauschenberg four months to scour away the charcoal, oil paints, and pencil scratches on the drawing de Kooning gave him. He titled it “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” — “traces of ink and crayon on paper.”
No surprise that after working on this post for an hour or so, the computer reboots and erases most of what I’ve written. What I had drafted was an attempt at describing Simone Weil’s notion of grace in light of this strange encounter. I’m left with the sinking feeling that, like Rauschenberg, all I can do is erase the spiritual masterwork she presents to me, erasing her and myself. After the loss, I’m left wondering, “Isn’t this a signal that sharing insight is not as simple as scratching out all its colors and re-presenting it as your own? Aren’t you making the key mistake Weil warns against: using your imagination to side-step the real ordeal in the void?” Consider me guilty. Again and again I return to this point, conceding to God that all of this writing is superfluous in comparison to the ordeal the likes of which Simone Weil orders up. What good is it to explain it, to order it up myself, to try and say something about it? To do so, it requires words that, free in themselves, carry certain divisive connotations that no precaution of mine will get my readers past. So I force myself to believe that if I confess, they will confess with me: that we use the words without knowing what they refer to. This doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re meaning when we say things. It’s just that we’re also saying things whose meaning is more than we know:
To be willing to go as far as possible is to pray to be impelled, but without knowing whither. —Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Simone Weil’s conception of grace is perfect. It conceives of a humanity that is free to choose to live within God’s ambit or not. To choose to live outside of it is to live in the realm of opinions and imagination, of power and will-power. To choose to live within God is to live in the realm of grace, where something very specific happens to me: I accept the void. This puts an end to the religious hope of saving my soul: “I” am precisely the thing who must be thrown off, uprooted. Grace makes this possible, and God is the only thing that can fill this hole in me that I choose to accept. It means that my efforts of intention come to a sudden halt, and that, insofar as I was a conceptual or conscious thing, I’m dead. This saturates us with our proper human humility and shows us our cross. “Withdrawing from our own soul,” we become the pure sensory apparatus of God — like the tip of a blindman’s walking-stick.
These days, we are not easily assuaged by such a story — which, if we paid close attention, proves to be the most perfectly anguished-and-glorious story of no-consolation possible. Personally, I’m attracted to it: don’t all of my writings ultimately point toward this point of self-voidance? I don’t have the faith, really, to assert that God fills the void thus created; but nevertheless I’ve run my voice dry articulating all the spinnings-round that this évidemment du soi (or kenosis) orders up; and I’ve admitted along the way my unsureity regarding it. Perhaps it was God — you? — filling it up all along. Despairing over the consequences of “arguments” (the dead-ends of inspiration) are what have brought me this far intellectually; but in reading Weil, I’m reminded of the fact that there is no getting anywhere. There is no “progress” when it comes to self-voidance, since this can only obscure the paths of grace. God is infinitely far away: to come a step closer is to find oneself one step further away.
A faith stripped of all assurances might establish itself in such a vortex; but what can I attest to? I think many of us writing today feel the heat to rely on what someone else has said. Anxiety forces us away from speaking in our own name — especially on topics such as self-voidance! (Perhaps “God” is the general reference for what fills the void in us without being an object, fulfillment, or purpose, but simply a drive, an impelling…) On my own blog, you can find countless ‘studies’ where I read and re-express what I find to be at issue in a certain author’s work, trusting in their name and their body of work to “back” for my own words. Meanwhile, I freely co-opt and extend their vocabulary, doing what I can to tend to their thought. In this post, free extension is interrupted and I’m summoned to self-confession. I confess that in all my studies, I comes as close to my subject as Rauschenberg comes to de Kooning. Everything has been rubbed out, and what you read are the traces of my eraser. Behind that, God who in your void is further away…
When I’ve spoken on my own behalf, here and elsewhere, — and this is really something I am telling to myself! — one has got to remember that I speak Being, I do not speak on my own behalf alone. Dare I say I speak in God’s name, if only to indicate to you that, in this passage, I have one hope: to recognize how infinitely distant I am from God, how far away my being and my work is from God’s work. Grace is in the fact that, somehow, my work and God’s Being coincide. But to no use: there’s no evidence in our experience of this coincidence anymore. To proclaim such a coincidence is delusion, megalomania, fanaticism. The era of raptures are over: the God’s have withdrawn, along with the reasons for the world. We’re suspended over the nothing that we/God are. And yet, we assert an expression of Being that knows its vacuum and grace. The revolution of the spirit, once having traveled inward, is now erupting in the streets until each voice is heard in all its fumbling. This indicates that the traveling-inward never ceases, or that the surprise of existence always fills us, inevitably.
And this is what we can try to affirm today, including this: turning-inward amounts to opening-up. Jean-Luc Nancy writes, in a moment of great concision, that a “sinner” is something closed in upon itself, a self not open. Divine is the self at its limit, where its suspension-over-nothing is divined. –But once again, we’ve stepped into a de Kooning’s house and asked for the artist’s artwork. We’ve erased to reveal solely a reference to something beyond, whether we’re talking about Nancy, Weil, or God. We are trying to come close to what is real: to follow Krishnamurti beyond thinking, to follow Adi Da beyond the self-contraction, to follow Weil beyond the imagination and toward grace. How we are going to get there is precisely what withdraws from the consciousness of a self voided in it.
This line packs me in the stomach. I look around my room — the drink containers, the lights that are on, the open books. Someone’s sweater lying there. Feeling in my socks.
Below are scraps of thought that correspond to Simone Weil’s conception of grace as I have borrowed it, not after knocking on the door to her room, but after knocking on the door to God’s. Just as I say this, and during my saying of it, I feel the pain and stupidity in this expression: it leads you to believe so many things that I don’t, and can’t, believe. Likewise, the door, and I hope this is obvious, exists nowhere in thought, belief, text, or practice. It’s tradition is either manifest in me as my cross to bear, or it is manifest nowhere. The painting God, or Simone, hands back to us is, come to find out, something of “our own” creation — not in the sense that we as “I” made it, but rather, we as “we” all came to it, together, and it came to us all all at once, even when it comes to just us as “I” in the form of an exchange with some partner “you,” some companion in “art.” But this stealing, this bringing across, does not have to be violent. The erasure can be as soft as a simple correspondence. Patience can come; and open to the interruption of God.
We get nowhere along the paths of grace, since, by definition, grace only draws us away from the specified paths. In this sense, grace individualizes to the very degree it empties. Faith amounts to the belief that, despite all distances, some kind of correspondence will be kept between what is emptied (me) and what comes to fill it (God). I pass from the register of individuated beings into the register of All-Being without losing anything of the individual status of my lone being: abandoned but opened to infinity. By grace, me in my lone being comes to express the All-Being which is in each being and thing, thus expressing knowing Being.
Grace first opens the space in me to choose between what is fake and what is real. Life outside of God is fake: the life of the imagination, opinions, and actions. Life inside of God is real: the life of grace. What does this require? The surrender of everything to nothing, to the point that we are only doing what we cannot stop ourselves from doing: expressing Being. In another register, this means communication with the whole of Being: ecstasy. Continual rupture of the self-enclosure. Breath, touch, movement of something different. To the limit: divine cohabitation of bodies and their vocabularies.
To concede to grace is to accept the void within us. To concede to this void within us is to concede to God, who is the signal of the most different/distant. God is everything that is lost to us, everything that will remain “far away.” Which means, God is everything. God measures the proximity between us and our being, between us and all other beings. God is that measure in me. With you, I cannot share it. I can only choose to recognize that, in handing it to you, I lend it to be erased. This actually starts from the minute I am conscious, and surely from the minute I go to write. The immediacy of this kenosis is what drives you to try and choose your best artwork to have erased. You know that, even erased, the trace shares your name. Without that and the back-story, it would truly be nothing, but not a distinct nothing like a name is. A name as unconventional as God, Nancy, Weil…
To pray is to come into contact with the most distant by detaching oneself, allowing oneself to identify with the lowliest, and so to identify quite literally with nothing. It is to become a vacuum, non-self-created, and to “wait” indefinitely for grace to arise in the heart, the will to act that is then not my will, but God’s. This is where the Being of beings gets expressed in expressing the distance between them, but expressing it as One; one whole-part of Being.
God’s will is not known or realized, quite to the contrary. We think of it wrong if we think of it as having an intention, or a direction, or even a purpose. God’s will, quite simply, is to will perfectly, to be a perfect will. This will is real: not imaginary, not an opinion, not, in the end, “willed.” This perfect will is the will that acts from necessity: “inactive action.” Less a trust in the fortuity of chance (although perhaps this is close), than a trust in God’s freedom from necessity. To be free myself means making necessary my trust in this freedom from necessity. For God’s will does nothing preordained, it heads only in the direction of sharing.
God, in effect, remains absent, most distant. So does God’s will. But then again, aren’t there traces of it? How can we learn to perceive these only spiritual rewards, which we can only expect to the extent that we rely on the surprise of the event in God? Our only hope is to love this distant God to the point of acknowledging God’s inexistence. On the limit, God’s will only comes into existence to the extent that I match my inexistence with his. This double vortex or inexistence makes Weil exclaim:
The abandonment at the supreme moment of the crucifixion, what an abyss of love on both sides!
This kind of effort cannot be summoned from within oneself. Christ’s singularity itself registers the fact that I cannot “match my inexistence” with God’s: only Christ can adequately measure the distance between God and creature. Which also means that only Christ did and could have stared in to this horror. Only Christ was motionless. The Cross is the limit-image of a desire-without-object, impelled-not-knowing-whither, withdrawn and trusting only in the infinitely distant. Weil’s grace is a kind of vigilant receptivity to the sharing of this desire: it is to be exposed to the fullness of the surrounding universe, a fullness whose coming is gauged only in proportion to ones acceptance of this void — including the degree to which one detaches from the products of the imagination, opinion, and the will. Being grace, it comes only where a void has been accepted within you, where a vacuum has been received — a vacuum that grace has created within you. Turning my attention on what cannot be conceived, I disappear altogether.
This vacuum that you are is what makes you human (or divine); but I believe it is also what we have in common with every being and thing. The void-heart withdrawn in each thing is the mark in its present of its present impermanence, which displays the thousandfold traces of permanence as appearances. Grace means surmounting this materiality by nothing. Grace activates the void that drives the will to life, or if you prefer, expresses Being.
This kind of love, along with the kind of life the void-I corresponds to, in moving toward humility — our natural condition faced with the nudity of others –, thinks in connection with the living and the dead the conditions on which this nudity of existence might be found. And it finds no adequate ground. It finds itself in “substantial emptiness”: the finitude of Being. Whose finitude is exaggerated in that the “how” of God’s infinite has long irrevocably withdrawn (the cry on the cross is an apt analogy). One finds this “no adequate ground” on the body, to be the body. Hoc est enim corpus meum: all of a sudden, I’ve given over my painting to you, my body whose canvas I never bought, whose lines I never once dictated.
If there is one, I’m not sure what the purpose is for ingesting all this, for letting it course through your veins. I assure you, there are not my indications. Today, they’ve seethed from a certain disgust with myself — a certain boredom, during which I’d asked for God to do something with me. As this post closes, I know that nothing has been done in this sense: there’s been no proof of my being-put-to-use. Art looks further away than ever. But perhaps we have, at least, addressed this void at the heart of the world, which you can call God, or death-in-things, or the omnipresence of the Other-in-the-Same, whatever. Perhaps we have drawn it closer to ourselves, and you, and also knowing that this means drawing into the ambit of something still more distant. We are climbing to the highest mountain top, where we make confessions and pledge ourselves beyond our waking, reasonable mind, in the stratosphere where human language articulates the truth of all beings as its own-unique-own — where everything then collapses in one sense. We needn’t be concerned with where we land.