On Simone Weil’s Venice Saved, punishment and redemption

venicesavedSimone Weil left an unfinished tragedy, called Venice Saved.  She began to write it in 1940 and continued with up until her death; it clearly mattered greatly to her, and it has just been beautifully translated and published, along with her notes and commentary.[1]

The plot is simple enough.  It is set in 1618; Renaud, the Spanish ambassador to Venice, has persuaded some Provencal troops to destroy the city on the eve of its spring festival, and betray it to the Habsburgs; his motive is that the Venetian government is hated, cruel, and opposed to peace in Europe.  The troops are led by Pierre; summoned by the Ten, he entrusts the command to his closest friend Jaffier.  Jaffier seems – indeed we have to believe genuinely was – convinced that this was the right thing to do, but some apprehension of the reality and beauty of the city stopped him in his tracks.  He betrays the plot, on the terms that the leaders of the conspiracy be spared.  They are not, of course, and he is racked with guilt, alternately begging for death and hoping to live.  In the end, a small skirmish breaks out with some remaining soldiers who were part of the plot.  He starts to go to join them, hesitantly, and we imagine he will die with them.  The drama ends with the daughter of the Secretary of the Council of Ten, Violetta, singing an innocent hymn to Venice.

The editors make no claim for the literary quality of this peculiar piece.  But it retains a fascination, as it inadequately wrestles with some of Weil’s preoccupations, and most especially, of rootedness, society, sacrifice and providence.

To start with rootedness, one of the most effective and chilling moments in the play is Pierre’s expectation for Venice after the betrayal (74):

But, as of tomorrow, their city, their liberty and their power will seem to them to be more unreal than a dream. Arms make a dream stronger than reality; this is the stupor that brings about surrender. As of tomorrow, they must believe that they have always been subjects of Spain, that they have never been free. The sky, the sun, the sea and the stone monuments will no longer be real in their eyes. As for the children, they will be born without roots.

Jaffier will take this up later (87):

Empty eyes will look around in vain

for palaces, houses or churches.

Their songs will never again be heard.

They will have no voice for their lament.

This sea for them will be always mute.

Day after day and for all their life

they will hear nothing, only orders.

In contrast with Violetta’s innocent refusal to believe that Venetians can ever not be integrally connected to their city, Pierre and Jaffier plot a deracination that is truly terrifying.  ‘As for the children, they will be born without roots….’

The work which lies closest to Weil’s concerns in the tragedy is her long essay L’Enracinement, written in 1943 shortly before her death.  It was translated as The Need for Roots, and the title already betrays the work into a sort of conservative vision, which it frequently, if inconsistently, subverts.[2]  The act of putting down roots, which is perhaps closer to the original meaning, reflects Weil’s urgent hope that the French could find a new moral, Christian foundation for society.  It is far more transformative as a vision than this might suggest, however, for Weil was no conformist on any level.  Take as just one example her comment on patriotism (111):

The State is a cold concern which cannot inspire love, but itself kills, suppresses everything that might be loved; so one is forced to love it, because there is nothing else. That is the moral torment to which all of us today are exposed.

Instead Weil urges a compassionate love for country (169):

such a love can keep its eyes open on injustices, cruelties, mistakes, falsehoods, crimes and scandals contained in the country’s past, its present and in its ambitions in general, quite openly and fearlessly, and without being thereby diminished; the love being only rendered thereby more painful. …  Thus compassion keeps both eyes open on both the good and the bad and finds in each sufficient reasons for loving.

Hardly a Gaullist sentiment.

Another place we see this clearly is in her account of punishment.  This comes in the first part of the book on the ‘needs of the soul,’ whose titles (order, responsibility, hierarchism, private property) read at first sight like a checklist of the traditional order, but each is in turn subverted, transformed.  Punishment is indispensable, because it alone, by putting someone back inside the circle of law, might have the chance to ‘weld him back again’ to society.

‘The need of punishment is not satisfied where, as is generally the case, the penal code is merely a method of exercising pressure through fear,’

Weil writes; and again

‘Punishment must be an honour. It must not only wipe out the stigma of the crime, but must be regarded as a supplementary form of education, compelling a higher devotion to the public good’ (19-21).

Weil’s theodicy is fundamentally one of sacrifice, God’s sacrifice and self-sacrifice; ‘the destruction of her self is a decreation which allows her to restore the unity of the divine.’[3]  As Weil’s perception of the demands made by her religion deepened, the vision becomes ever more tragic.[4]  There is no compensation for virtue; everything must be experienced at the extreme – Oedipus Rex not Oedipus at Colonus, King Lear not The Tempest.  And that is reflected in her view of tragedy and therefore of the tragedy she tried to write, Venice Saved.

Where Weil’s God steps in, in the miraculous or providential, happens because of the logic of this self-sacrificial necessity.  ‘All real desire for pure good, after a certain degree of intensity has been reached, causes the good in question to descend.’[5] Weil refuses the deus ex machina of a miracle; all that matters is one’s own intensity.

So one can unify the notions of putting down roots in a way so as to transform society towards a greater equality, and one in which the sacrifice of self can lead to the providential appearance of the good.  Weil’s vision may be tragic but it is not therefore hopeless; its demands are, however, absolute, in terms of the way society must become different, the intensity of attention that is required and the self-abnegation which is demanded to achieve such intensity.

How does Venice Saved manage to encapsulate these ideas?  Weil’s ambition for the play, and its working out, do not match, and there are two points where things go wrong, I think, but both are telling.

First, Jaffier’s change of heart.  Weil tells us what she wants to happen (53):

Act Two. Make it clear that Jaffier’s change of heart is supernatural.

Jaffier. It is supernatural to stop time.

It is then that eternity enters into time.

To believe in the reality of the external world and to love it: one and the same thing.

Ultimately, the organ of belief is supernatural love, even with respect to things below.

As soon as Jaffier realizes that Venice exists … .

But she cannot write it.  Although Jaffier’s conversation with Violetta about the beauty of Venice is supposedly pivotal he continues to reiterate his pitilessness; is this his ascent to intensity? The closest we come to a dramatic peripeteia is when Renaud bothers him with a logistical detail and he does not reply – almost as if – right there, when attention is demanded, Jaffier sees and finally, fully loves.

Second, Jaffier in Act Three in his affliction is inconsistent and confused.  Weil’s determination to make him a perfect hero is undercut by the horror of what he intended, the compromises he made (he tries to save just twenty men – what about the rest?)  His life is spared, and he at times rejects this, but at other times embraces it; and at the end, he keeps stopping before joining the insurrection in which he will surely die, and is effectively forced into it by the Venetians.  This is not to say that Jaffier is a coward, but something has come unstuck in Weil’s conception; was she perhaps so determined to write affliction that she has forgotten why he is afflicted?  Maybe Bataille saw something of this desperate confusion when he wrote that ‘Indubitably, there was in her, beyond useful works, a dominant attraction toward evil and the disturbance of the order of things that is affliction [malheur]’; Weil seems to need Pierre and Jaffier to have a perfect friendship in a terrible cause, and for Jaffier to betray, and be betrayed, over and over.[6]

Yet this weakness in the play reveals something about crime and punishment.  Jaffier’s affliction is total – no-one speaks to him in the last act.  He becomes, in Agamben’s term, a homo sacer.  His last words show that he finally sees a way out of his shame; he holds on to the emotion towards the beauty of the city which led him to the act which saved Venice, and condemned his friend.  As a result, he will be the one who is cast beyond society, without roots.

Death is going to come for me. For now, the shame has passed.

To eyes that will soon go dark, how lovely is the city!

I must leave the land of the living, never to return.

There will be no dawn where I shall go, nor any city.

If at the end we are supposed to believe that Jaffier is positively transformed, that he ‘accepts the void,’ it is a grim place he enters.[7]  As Alexander Irwin puts it, only by sinking below the human can one finally rise above it, perhaps another point of awkward connection with Bataille.  And maybe we have to see that the play’s weaknesses reflect a deeper truth.

Redemption is messy.  Crime and punishment may be necessarily linked in a society which seeks to be grounded, rooted, and therefore able to grow, but it is inescapably costly to make the punishment truly fit the crime.  Weil intended dramatic catharsis to be devastating; her play runs into the barriers of language and the impossible scandal of the terrorist who comes closest to salvation; it ends in a sentimental hymn to a city, which, while beautiful, has not changed or addressed its enracinement.

So maybe Weil was a bad playwright; that does not diminish the seriousness of her intent.  And even if one cannot follow Weil’s underlying logic or accept her solutions, her demand to pay attention to the paradoxes of safety and to the arc of redemption, and her refusal to accept that punishment should be reduced to the creation of fear, is resonant.  And never more so than when lives have been tragically lost defending the belief that ‘we can help people who have done terrible things to see themselves by seeing them, really seeing them.’[8]


[1] S. Panizza, P. Wilson (eds.) Simone Weil Venice Saved, Bloomsbury 2019.

[2] S. Weil, The Need for Roots, translated by A. Wills, preface by T. S. Eliot, London 1952.

[3] Panizza, Wilson, Venice Saved,  p. 36.

[4] ‘Weil’s Christian vision may be called tragic, then, because, rather than the idea of compensation for virtue, the concept of the human being’s interior victory in outer defeat lies at its center. This is a sacrificial notion.  Only in a tragic world, a world in which suffering and evil blindly reign, is the human being able to respond to the perfect self-emptying love of God with a perfect love of his own. For Weil, the supreme instance of this love constitutes a participation in the cross of Christ.’  Katherine T.Brueck, The Redemption of Tragedy : The Literary Vision of Simone Weil, New York 1995, p. 67.

[5] Weil, The Need for Roots, p. 257.

[6] G. Bataille, ‘La victorie militaire et la banqueroute de la morale qui maudit,’ a review of S. Weil, L’enracinement, (published 1949), in Oeuvres Complètes  xi (Paris, 1988) p. 532-49.  See A. Irwin, Saints of the Impossible: Bataille, Weil and the Politics of the Sacred, Minneapolis 2002.

[7] See Weil’s note: ‘Jaffier. Passion. One of the meanings of passion is perhaps that all the pain, the shame and the death that you do not want to inflict on others will fall on you, without you having wished for it. As if, mathematically, affliction had to compensate for distant crimes, so that the soul might stay under the power of evil (but in a different sense); reciprocally, virtue consists in keeping to oneself the evil that is suffered, in not freeing oneself from it by expelling it, by deeds or by the imagination. (Accepting the void.)’ (51).

[8] From the desperately moving essay ‘Redemption Arc,’ http://crookedtimber.org/2019/11/30/redemption-arc/, written in the aftermath of the London Bridge tragedy, 28 November 2019.


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