Notes on Estrangement:
Decreation and Ekstasis

Simone Weil talks of “decreation” as a kind of divine renunciation. Decreation, she says, is not the same as destruction. The latter subtracts away to nothingness; the former lets “something created pass into the uncreated.”

It is Weil’s way of explaining God’s apparent indifference to us. “It is God who in his love withdraws from us so that we can love him”, she writes. Renunciation, then, is removing ourselves from the world as God did. It is the “[i]mitation of God’s renunciation in creation.” If “God renounces being everything”, then we too “should renounce being something. That is our only good.”

Weil’s position reads to me like a kind of narcissism — not the pop-pathological variety, but that original kind: a transformative self-love; that of Ovid’s Narcissus, who undoes himself like nature in winter, only to be reborn as a symbol of spring. “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves”, Weil continues.

Though this sense of decreation grounds Weil’s sense of a “Catholic communion”, I read in her writings a kind of perverted Stoicism, the inversion of a twentieth-century Spinozism, but I also hear the echo of her conversations with the likes of Joë Bousquet, who accepted his wound, renounced the world and made a new one. It makes for a complex worldview. On the one hand, her writing is shot through with a kind of Catholic guilt, a kind of affirmation of human suffering; but on the other, it recognises this suffering only to renounce it, or at least to renounce it as a “sad passion” that may define our beginning but must be rejected if we are to reach the end. It is in this way that we can “only possess what we renounce; what we do not renounce escapes from us.”

What attracts me to this kind of philosophy, which I have discovered in so many places of late through a persistent serendipity, is perhaps its bloody-minded refusal to self-pity and instead step forward into fear and unknowing. It is to face up to the crippling misery of the modern world that prefigures one kind of death and to instead ask for another. If we find ourselves in a depressive position, where engaging with the world as it is seems pointless and insufficient, then we should do what we can, and live in some way, that makes demands on that world to change. As Weil writes:

The extreme difficulty which I often experience in carrying out the slightest action is a favour granted to me. For thus, by ordinary actions and without attracting attention, I can cut some of the roots of the tree. However indifferent we may be to the opinion of others, extraordinary actions contain a stimulus which cannot be separated from them. This stimulus is quite absent from ordinary actions. To find extraordinary difficulty in doing an ordinary action is a favour which calls for gratitude. We must not ask for the removal of such a difficulty: we must beg for grace to make good use of it.

In general we must not wish for the disappearance of any of our troubles, but grace to transform them.

Here again, the echo of Bousquet: “My wound existed before me; I was born to embody it.” She continues:

For men of courage physical sufferings (and privations) are often a test of endurance and of strength of soul. But there is a better use to be made of them. For me then, may they not be that. May they rather be a testimony, lived and felt, of human misery. May I endure them in a completely passive manner. Whatever happens, how could I ever think an affliction too great, since the wound of an affliction and the abasement to which those whom it strikes are condemned opens to them the knowledge of human misery, knowledge which is the door of all wisdom?

I think about Antigone, who did what was, in the eyes of her king, so deeply wrong because she could not bear to renounce her kin. But this refusal seems to be born of a sense that she would not wish her suffering on another, and so she makes a stand, renouncing instead a higher power, her king, to preserve what feels sacred in her suffering and beyond the injustice of this world. Her family has been cut down, she has been uprooted, unborn, but she carries something core with her and challenges the world as it exists around her. She has been uprooted by forces beyond her control; all that is left is for her to uproot herself. As Weil writes: “It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day.” Antigone is crucified on the cross she makes herself.

My Dad came up to visit a couple of times recently. It’s hard to watch him age. His second visit coincided with an old school friend coming to stay with my flatmate and I for a few days.

The three of us were really close once. We still are, in lots of ways. They weren’t just my friends but family-friends. We’d go on holiday together and hang out at school every day. There’s a comfort that comes from that kind of deep-seated familiarity. No matter how many years have gone by in silence, there is always still love there.

It feels so strange. I’m quite bad at staying in touch with people who aren’t in my immediate vicinity. These few days of reconnection are not down to any effort made on my part but a closeness more actively preserved by others that I feel I have remained near to unexpectedly. Some relationships just endure regardless. I see it in my Dad’s eyes. He knew us all as kids, and has not spend time with us all together in almost twenty years. We go for lunch together at the seaside as adults. I think he really enjoyed spending the day with us all. It was like twenty years hadn’t passed but I couldn’t stop thinking about how old we are now.

So much has changed recently. Life is almost unrecognisable. I feel like I am currently rebuilding my world anew. The world we share now is so markedly different to the one we grew up in. But still old faces remain; a love remains that will never falter.

I try to think about all that has changed, about how I have so often described myself as estranged from former lives, from childhood, from family. More recently, some of those connections have been rebuilt, tentatively, or have rather continued into a space that I thought, until recently, was barren. It is in my sense of renouncing that they endure regardless. The distance between us feels vast, but still an undeniable connection. I still feel on the outside of everything, but I am surprised every day by those who reach a hand out into this feeling of abyss.

It feels like life has started over. I live in a new city with a relatively new group of friends, and though I find myself spending a lot of my time with people I’d hardly say I knew well a few months ago — and in many cases, with people I categorically did not know at all — there are these strange hangovers of continuity that make time feel twisted. There is an acceptance from others that has been fostered over decades. I feel that same acceptance from some that has been fostered in just a few months.

In September, I am due to put the finishing touches on my next book. The feedback so far has been predictable for the first draft of something. The book does not quite fit together as it may have done in my mind, and with it having now been read by another, the response has been that the book either needs a bit less or a bit more. Some paths must either be curtailed or followed.

I was not sure how I re-enter the text at first. In talking to friends about it, I felt oddly like the thing had been written and was therefore done with. Though I knew there would be more work to do in submitting the manuscript, to offload it from my own private space of reflection left me with a feeling that I had cauterised the project in my mind. I was ready to move onto the next thing, despite the knowledge that the last thing was not yet completed.

This sense of cauterisation feels like a kind of renouncement. Life has changed remarkably since I first sent off the manuscript. But the breakdown I suffered in the aftermath, I am coming to realise, was a sort of misstep. A book about narcissism, about the decreation of the self, was superseded by a period of depression, a sorry fixation on the destruction of the self. Transformation gave way to nothingness; the process affirmed was renounced after being written about, but before it had been actualised for myself.

There is a fine line between destruction and decreation. I know too many who have written about the latter only to stumble into the former. Many of those I write about in the new book meet the same fate, despite themselves. I find the line and our stumbling over it described most eloquently by Anne Carson, in her essay on “decreation” in her collection of the same name. She writes on Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil. In Sappho she finds the narcissism of Narcissus, describing herself in a fragment of poetry that places her traumatically in accordance with nature:

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.

Which is it? How close death and greenery seem to be. Ego-death is held precariously at a distance from real death, but the distance also seems so slight. She teeters on the end of “ekstasis, literally ‘standing outside oneself,’ a condition regarded by the Greeks as typical of mad persons, geniuses and loves, and ascribed to poets by Aristotle.” But what tethers one death to the other is a peculiar force in Carson’s assessment: it is love. Rather than clarifying the relationship between the two deaths, love itself is called into question. As Carson writes of the poet of Lesbos:

We see her senses empty themselves, we see her Being thrown outside its own centre where it stands observing her as if she were grass or dead. At which point a speculation occurs to me: granted this is a poem all about love, do we need to limit ourselves to a reading of it that is merely or conventionally erotic? […] Perhaps Sappho’s poem wants to teach us something about the metaphysics or even the theology of love. Perhaps she is posing not the usual lovesong complaint, Why don’t you love me? but a deeper spiritual question, What is it that love dares the self to do?

Carson believes Sappho’s answer to be one of decreating the self: “Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty.”

I have often thought that this way of loving was a malformation of emotional attachment. I have found that, in my own personal relationships, I have a tendency to give my all. I offer myself up to another person absolutely, placing my life in theirs. When love ends, it is not so much that I am heartbroken by another’s absence, but the absence of myself. I forget myself, I feel detached from my own inner resources, I fall back on a ground that is hard and barren. It feels like a death. The decreation of the self through love gives way to self-destruction when love evaporates.

I try to love differently, or not at all. I enter new relationships tentatively, holding myself back, but find that connections are missed or unsubstantiated. I linger in the background, holding onto some part of my self, turning to writing and my own thoughts like a life raft in turbulent waters, remaining at the surface, gliding over the superficial, never sinking in, only describing the view below that I float above.

This is fine too, of course. Best not to offer yourself up to someone so immediately in the euphoria, the ecstasy, the ekstasis of new affections. (This is, at least, the intent, even if affections can sometimes proceed otherwise.) Best to preserve something, to keep something in reserve. But beyond the trials of romance, how to engage with the world at large in such a way? It seems less sensible, less liberating, to hold something back in one’s love of the world. The joy of living is found in leaving oneself behind as the world washes over you. For the women considered by Carson, this is the only way to experience the grace of God. Marguerite Porete, for instance, “understands the essence of her human self to be in her free will and she decides that free will has been placed in her by God in order that she may give it back.” Love, religious ecstasy, is driven no less by the will’s desire “to depart from its own will and render itself back to God with nothing left over.”

For the surrealists writing at the same time as Weil, who are less concerned with God than other unknowable forces, particularly the psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious, will departs from will in much the same way. It is a kind of nihilism, through which, as Porete writes, the Soul “sees her nothingness by means of the abundance of divine understanding, which makes her nothing and places her in nothingness.” But this nothingness is not a place of despair. Carson writes that Porete “recognizes poverty as an amazing and inexpressible kind of repletion”; an “absolute emptiness which is also absolute fullness”, spoken “in erotic language”. To be all and nothing in gravity and grace.

Carson notes how this decentring and decreating is found not so much in a consenting relationship between two lovers but the consent given and discarded in a love triangle, the scorching of a lover’s jealousy, like the singed edges of old love letters burned when love is renounced at the height of an intensity betrayed.

For the jealous lover must balance two contradictory realities within her heart: on the one hand, that of herself at the centre of the universe and in command of her own will, offering love to her beloved; on the other, that of herself off the centre of the universe and in despite of her own will, watching her beloved love someone else. Naked collision of these two realities brings the lover to a sort of breakdown … whose effect is to expose her very Being to its own scrutiny and to dislodge it from the centre of itself. It would be a very high test of dialectical endurance to be able to, not just recognise, but consent to this breakdown.

I thought my own breakdown was unreasonable, I denied it as a silly affectation, a mistake, a symptom of a love given too freely and then discarded, triggering a cascade of traumatic reflections, a sense of abandonment felt after having been brought into this world, and the abandonment that is echoed when others, by their own free will or otherwise, have made their own exits.

I tell friends how I feel, how unreasonable I know I am being, fighting a war against feelings I do not want. I know I shouldn’t feel this way, I say, but I feel it all regardless. I become mad in the renouncement of something I cannot shake off. I find love left abandoned, like a corpse, an effigy of myself lain before me, distinct and disconnected if still somehow mine. I want to bury it. But friends affirm my feelings regardless. They say it is all so understandable. I feel I cannot dig a grave deep enough, but then realise I have misunderstood the task at hand. What is necessary is not a discarding of a gift unduly given, but its reintegration into the self, the decreation of something outside myself than must then be consumed and placed back within. The best remedy for a broken heart, they say, is to open your heart again. The wound must be reintegrated, transformed into a door that opens out again onto another world.

I retain a deep affection for my ex-girlfriend, who I spent ten years with. I think about how I have sought to publicly rebuild my life, document and affirm a life lived without her, narrating a new mode of existence. At times, this feels cruel. I hope she does not read it. But also, I remain in her debt and hope that no document of my continued existence is experienced as a kind of disavowal of our separation. On the contrary, I want to affirm how our separation was hard but it was tender. To think of it fills me with sadness, but not jealousy. That phrase always comes to mind — the celebrity euphemism of a divorce undertaken under the rubric of late-capitalist wellness: a “conscious uncoupling”. But that is what it was. It was tender, it was gentle. It was not the destruction of a life lived together but its willful decreation; the separation of one life into two that will always, nonetheless, retain a certain oneness. It was a process of getting out of each other’s way. Could this be described as a kind of “dialectical endurance”? It was certainly endured, but I feel all the better for it. It was felt so absolutely, but with so much space given to the processing of our feelings for each other, the processing of a love that did not go away but nonetheless could not continue. If only all renouncement was undertaken so gracefully.

Carson turns, finally, to Simone Weil. “‘To undo the creature in us’ is one of the ways she describes [her] aim.” It is necessary that one moves oneself out of the way to feel the grace of God’s love (or, indeed, love in general). In Weil, as with the others, we find a series of affectations that go far beyond those exchanges between individuals. “The erotic triangle Simone Weil constructs is one involving God, herself and the whole of creation”. Weil’s romantic analogy is at once tender but self-destructive. She writes:

I must withdraw so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not the maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed lovers and ought to go away so that they can really be together.

But what a thing to endure. I almost hear echoes of an eco-fascism, a sense that humanity is a third wheel caught between God and nature. But like Spinoza, she affirms their unity. It is a mistake to understand this will to decreation as a kind of self-destruction. To remove ourselves from such a union is not to die but to step aside. As Carson writes of Porete, “the people are not the problem here. Withness is the problem.” So Weil writes of a kind of disconnection necessary to exist alongside deus sive natura: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.”

Concluding her essay, Carson writes of the “inconsequentiality” of these three women, who writes themselves through the decentring of the “I”:

To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.

But contradiction is where worlds are created and decreated, simultaneously. “Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything”, Weil writers. “Nothing and something are two sides of one one coin”, Carson adds. Our estrangement from ourselves, from others, from the world, is precisely a making strange: to encounter something where there should be nothing; nothing where there should be something. Always, as Gertrude Stein writes, “there is no there there.” Decreation is not the transformation of something into nothing, but something and nothing existing simultaneously. We wonder what exists in between; for Carson, it is the writer and their writing: “to leave us in wonder is just what such a writer feels compelled to do.” This compulsion, she continues, is to be “moved to create a sort of dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the world and the teller disappears into the telling.” To write personally is to decreate one’s person; to render the personal productively impersonal.

I feel haunted by a line from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: “A whole centre and a border make hanging a way of dressing.” The meanings between words are decreated but something about this phrase has been etched on my soul like a future epitaph.

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