Sara Pheasant

At the Front Line of the Punch Line: Or, Simone Weil goes to War


On trauma and the refusal of laughter: a performance in which Simone Weil reenacts shooting herself in the foot by sticking it in the fire; or, on laughing and not laughing, the point of the punchline, and Weil’s radical remove during the Spanish Civil War.

During the summer of 1936, a young French woman leaves her position teaching high school philosophy to join forces with an anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War. Simone Weil, radical philosopher, Christian mystic, schoolteacher, fieldworker and many other things aside, is known for her uncompromising politics and inventive theology. Notably, she coined the term decreation to describe the act of removing the self from the world – a practice that she embodied with deadly resolve.

Simone Weil’s social consciousness emerged at an early age, alongside her tendency for absolutist idealism and extreme action. At the age of ten, she famously declares herself a Bolshevik and refuses sugar in solidarity with those under rations during World War I. She later attends École normale supérieure for philosophy and quickly becomes known for her unyielding intellect and blunt refusal of social niceties. After graduating, she attempts to abandon her bourgeois upbringing by taking work in a factory; however, weakened by poor health and ongoing practices of self-denial, the work proves too demanding for her clumsy demeanor and delicate constitution. During the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, we find Weil back teaching intro philosophy to unappreciative students. Despite her professed pacifism, she decides that it's morally imperative for her to take up arms in the struggle. In April of 1936 she leaves her post, boards a train to the Spanish countryside and enlists in the anarchist militia forces led by Buenaventura Durruti.

She says of her decision to enlist,

In July 1936, I was in Paris. I don’t like war; but I found the position of those outside the war far more horrifying than war itself. When I understood that, as much as I tried to believe otherwise, I couldn’t ethically refuse to participate in the war – that’s to say, I couldn’t wish every day, every hour, victory for some and defeat for others while doing nothing myself, I told myself that I must put Paris behind me and I caught a train to Barcelona with the intention of enlisting. That was at the beginning of April, 1936.1

And so, in characteristic style, Weil decides to adopt the afflictions of others and throws herself head-first into foreign experience. However, from failed factory worker to failed fighter, she consistently fails to get her body into the game and ends up playing the clown. Most biographies of Weil note, her frail health and maladroit movements offer more danger than assistance to her troupe. Putting on the costume of an anarchist soldier, she never, for a moment, breaks character; but her performance fall flat. Her military adventure is finally truncated when she accidentally stumbles over an open cooking fire and sticks her foot in a pot of oil. Ultimately, the joke is on her.

Humor is often seen as a means of relieving trauma, of laughing off one’s pain. But when are we laughing at or with another? There are different kinds of laughter provoked by different means. Freud analyses laughter like a businessman, claiming humor is the most cost-efficient means for the “psychic economy” to release repressed energies. The joke does 'work': the labor of circumventing the superego’s established norms to let repressed libidinal desires, for a moment, run free. For Bergson laughter is the means of disrupting the sediment of social norms. Humor is the incongruous encounter of witnessing what we know to be human act like something else. When we see someone playing the fool we laugh to point out their unbecoming behavior and retune their actions in a more socially harmonious key. Kant sees laughter as the effect of relieving a sustained contradiction – where humor is what emerges when “a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.”2 Something like the effect of the sublime – simultaneously a painful and pleasurable release in the dizzying experience when two contradictory thoughts collide. Laugh off the pain, or laugh until it hurts – humor and trauma are twin effects of the violence of contradictory experience that release in the pleasure of the punchline.

There’s something of the high school wallflower attempting to become the punk or the prom queen in Weil’s failed performances; and maybe her failures raise heckles of past high school traumas and locker room jokes… During college Weil even tries out for the rugby team, with predictably pathetic consequences. Her exploits could be the subject of the newest Seth Rogan flick. The ultimate square with no sense of humor, Weil’s physical self continually stood in the way of her abstract ideals with tragically ironic consequences. Trying as hard as she can to embody the experiences of others, her sights are so focused on her ideal vision of the world that she forgets her own movements in the process, and her performances are always a bad fit. Ultimately uncomfortable in her skin, she makes us all feel awkward.

So maybe we have to laugh at Weil to relieve our own traumas, to make ourselves feel more at home in the world or to share the common experience of our embarrassing humanity. But there is something nervous in our joking at her expense. No matter how hard we try to laugh her off, she remains that big joke whose absurdity we cannot quite resolve. Maybe Weil reveals too much of herself in a way that women are not supposed to, exposing not the soft corporality we are conditioned to see within the female body but rather the messy anxieties of human experience and its irresolutely contradictions. We could certainly ask why the male comedian or artist is applauded for faking his own death, for throwing himself headfirst into the fire; why we remember Chaplin’s bodily antics as astute social critique while Weil’s are derided for foolish physical ineptitude. But maybe we are familiar with the Dad-Humor Phenomenon3 and already know the comic-world to be one of phallic explosions. Asking why humor is not easily accessed by female-bodied individuals may be less interesting than asking why humor was not accessible to this female body in particular – or, more to the point, how Simone’s refusal of humor was the particularly radical means by which she subverted our gender expectations. If Weil had laughed at herself, we might not have to laugh at her.

Weil’s physical performance stands out in history as uniquely uncomfortable – she is a rather singular contradiction. Weil presents something like female hysteria inverted, leaking theology and politics rather than fluids and failing the bodily performances assumed to be inherent in her socialized subjecthood. She finds her closest kin in the Christian tradition of female ascetics, from Saint Perpetua through Syncletica, Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. These women who abnegate their subjectivity for Christ’s sake typically do so body-first, breaking themselves down through horrendous illness or physical attack. Weil followed their example, suffering debilitating headaches, physical frailty and self-imposed starvation.4 However, Weil’s mysticism is slightly more abstract and removed from material experience than the saints whose example she follows, and she stands on the fringes of even this highly esoteric tradition to which she lays closest claim.

So Weil stands in history as something of an unwieldy paradox, unrepentantly androgynous, too intellectual for her own good and never quite here nor there. She was, hilariously, dead-serious, and sarcasm was a major sin. Renouncing the immediate gratification of the punchline, Weil seeks a more eternal catharsis and denies us this pleasure of movement in turn. She resists charm of performance, refuses to capitalize on the excesses of our psychic economies accrued in jokes at others’ expense… Weil threw herself at the idea of affliction with physical abandon while resisting her own embodiment at every turn. She poses the question of feminine mystic in the language of philosophical logic, revealing our gender constructions as a contradiction in terms. And so we laugh to pin her to a position within our known world, regulate her intellectual hysterics, and to resolve the incongruities she lays painfully bare.

Yet when we laugh her off as a hysterical joke, we miss the potential of her words to reshape our experience of the world and deny the anxieties underlying our laugher. Weil’s militantly outsider status, written with unabashed earnestness on her body, was her political objective and her religious practice. Weil’s most radical action was refusing the pleasure of the punchline. Wearing her awkwardness as a red badge of solidarity. Weil would rather suspend herself in the agony of unresolved contradiction than release our wound-up energies into frivolous expenditures. She lived a life of trying to be what she was not in an unbroken commitment to her vision of a world that could be something that it was not – not-capitalist, not-colonialist, not-fascist, not-oppressive, not-unjust. To inhabit these not-worlds was not a negation but a calling of newness into the world, inhabiting an unseen in-between not codified by over-determined modes of identity. Weil reminds us that the violence of any really radical revolution begins in the self; and accept the self, and to laugh at it, was, for her, unforgivable conceit to the status quo. Living out a slapstick routine, she rode the wave of its tension until it’s breaking point and never conceded to the power of the last laugh.

However, by refusing to yield her Teflon-coated idealism to the immediate gratification of comic relief, Weil seems oblivious to the irony of her own actions. Destroying herself out of compassion for others, she never really lets anyone else in. Certain kinds of jokes, made in good faith, allow us to get into the experience of others, and offer a necessary a steam valve to release the pressure of post-traumatic stress. Weil fails her own objectives, again and again, straining herself towards them with rigid objectivity. Weil points us to the edge of the cliff by throwing herself over it – but maybe with a little comedic effect we can toe the line she draws in the sand. So here’s the contradiction at hand: what are we missing when we laugh Weil off as an untimely joke? And how can we recuperate the power of Weil’s political idealism without destroying ourselves in her? If we give Weil the benefit of our doubts and laugh with – rather than at – her absurdities, even if she couldn’t do so herself, we might find a more pleasurable means of inhabiting our own daily absurdities. What follows is a performance that asks where we laugh at Weil and where we take her at her word; and how we might release her spring-loaded psychic energy into the material world with a little good-natured teasing.

Scene I:

Upon arriving in Spain, Simone Weil remembers a joke told by several soldiers:

Two anarchists… had taken two priests. They killed one on the spot, in front of the other, with a shot of a revolver, then they told the other that he was free to go. When he had gone twenty paces, they shot him.

Weil doesn’t get it. She says:

The comrade who told me that story was shocked that I didn’t laugh.

Simone Weil decides she must experience “laughter.” She leaves for the front of the punchline, joins Durruti’s troupe and trains very hard to get the jokes. She reads ancient Chinese military philosophy and the tactics manual. She privately practices advanced maneuvers:

Maneuver I: Simone Weil tries to be a Wit

Simone Weil arrives at Pina. She stops in the city square to practice her routine among a small crowd of Spanish fieldworkers.

— How many anarchists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

She pauses for comic effect.

— Smash the lightbulb with a hammer, shadows bring social war!

Groans from the audience.

— How many of Durruti’s syndicalists? Any guesses? … A horizontal federation of trade unions' worth!

Dead silence.

— Well, how about the CNT? They smash the lightbulb with a hammer and sickle – everyone gets a shard!

The audience shuffles their things. Several get up and leave.

— Okay, what about this one: how many factory-owning fascists?

She pauses again. Too long this time.

— Who cares, screw them all!

Someone shoots a spitball – it lands on her glasses. The audience erupts. Simone leaves the stage dejected.

Maneuver II: Simone Weil does a Mime Act

Simone has powdered her face white, though she is usually pale enough in the first place one can’t quite tell the difference. She decides to be the revolutionary mime. She stands on the sides of a worker meeting and gestures to those passing by.

Two old, weathered men in blue walk by. She points at them with two fingers, motioning furiously between the two, and raises her eyebrows.

They stop, confused.

She continues to point. She stops, traces out the shape of a pitchfork in the air and then mimes shoveling the ground with vigor. Then stops, and points at the two men together again. Raises her eyebrows.

Hey listen lady, what are you implying here?

Sighing, she draws symbols in the air. A crescent moon and an odd rectangular shape. Then seeing the red patch on the man’s chest, she points at it triumphantly and points to her own chest, towards her heart. The man steps back with alarm.

Seeing their confusion, she tries again. She stands up very straight and pretends to hold a rifle over her shoulder. She marches back and forth like a wound-up tin soldier, saluting them. She weaves between them, oblivious as they start to walk slowly away…

Maneuver III: Simone Weil does Stand-up

A third try. Simone faces the audience in front of a single microphone. Taps the microphone. She tells a story from the war.

I remember that smell of civil war, of blood and terror… I breathed it!

The stories of suffering I heard... I was made to assist in the execution of a priest; during the last minutes of waiting, I was asked if I was simply going to watch or be shot myself trying to intervene. I still do not know what I would have done had the execution not been foiled by chance...5

Dead silence. The humor is too dark even for this crowd.

Maneuver IV: Simone Weil does Slapstick (the Weber Grill Routine)

Simone tries again. Now the stage is lit by four or five small fires in mini Weber grills, low to the floor. She zig-zags across the stage in Charlie Chaplin goose-steps. She stumbles, stutters, stops and turns around.

– Twenty paces, right, left!

She marches twenty paces again. Stops and turns around. The three men have returned to the stage, surrounding her on the sides.

– Twenty paces!

Turning and walking again, she stumbles and drops her gun. The rifle misfires, triggering the laugh track. Hilarity again. Simone jumps three feet in the air and starts marching, stepping directly into the fire.

— Aiie!

One of the soldiers rushes over, pulls a sausage out of his pocket, sticks it on the tip of his knife, roasts it above the small flame smoldering on Weil’s foot.

Finally, a resounding laugh track breaks out. All jump up, smile, bow, smile again. Simone realizes the joke is on her.

Scene II:

Simone Weil is forced to leave the war, a failed comedienne. She recovers in the countryside and travels to Assisi, where she encounters the Saint’s shrine. She gives up humor, rests and returns to philosophy. One day she reads a joke by Kant and likes it.

Simone stands and tells Kant’s joke:

An Englishman at an Indian's table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement.

Well, what's so amazing in that? asked the Englishman.

Oh, but I'm not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in!6

No one laughs. Crickets. Simone cracks a mystical smile and tells a joke of her own:

What do you call the existence of opposite virtues in the souls of saints?7


If I am walking on the side of a mountain I can see first a lake, then, after a few steps, a forest. I have to choose either the lake or the forest. If I want to see both lake and forest at once, I have to climb higher. Only the mountain does not exist. It is made of air. One cannot go up: it is necessary to be drawn.8

The joke explained:

Contradiction is the point of the pyramid.9

Revolutionary laughter is a traumatic act – a violent turning-of-the-tables on one’s other that releases into the world the energy of sustained contradiction. The power of the punchline can incite a riot; and seeing the traumatic effects of humor Weil left the war deeply suspicious of mass action. Proclaiming “revolution is the opium of the masses,”10 she turns to religion instead and undergoes her first mystical experience while visiting the home of St. Francis of Assisi during her recovery. She turns towards a more mystical sense of humor, finding peace in the absurdity of faith – the absolute joke. Characteristic of Christian dialectic, the absent presence of her desired punchline is wound up, held taught indefinitely and directed solely towards God. This tension is the state of Grace – the point of the pyramid – and perhaps the experience of its sublimation feels something like the sublime. For Weil, contradiction suspended in action is the condition of existing in the world, and the tension dissolves only with our very subjectivities when we encounter the absolute.

One of Weil’s last absurd schemes, proposed to General De Gaulle while France was under German siege, was the deployment of a corps of revolutionary parachuting nurses, dropped directly into the front lines by airplane. This plan was characteristic in its idealism-bordering-on-delusion, and a desire to help so desperate that it eclipses the material conditions of the situation itself. Unsurprisingly, DeGaulle rejected the parachute plan with a good laugh.

This scheme would certainly have been a comic scene – revolutionary nurses, with white bloomers in red berets floating down towards the French countryside… But there is a surreal sort of beauty and an admirable impulse suspended in this floating absurdity. It is the absurdity of faith, the suspension of disbelief necessary for any meaningful connection in the world, the experience of compassion for ourselves and others in the face of our own inescapable awkwardness and unavoidable failures. For those of us who seek pleasure and friendship in laughter, who get off on the pathos of comedy, who fall asleep to Girls or who quote Louie CK on the regular… essentially for all of us who enjoy and desire to live within the world, what can we do with Weil’s sort of humor? Encountering Weil with the compassion she claims to carry for all others, perhaps we can laugh with her wing-nut ideals, release some of the trauma of her extreme affliction, and allow a little of her brilliantly wound-up tension escape into this already-absurd world.

… Bombs away!

1 Trans. From Simone Weil’s Écrits historiques et politiques (Paris : Éditions Gallimard, 1960).

2 Kant, Immanuel, and J. H. Bernard. Kant's Critique of Judgement. London: Macmillan, 1931.

3 By which I mean, the stereotype of the joking Dad on the sidelines of reproductive labor, within which Category: Mom manages the logistics of basic life (domestic chores as much as social coordination, play date pick-ups, and etc.) to little more thanks than our complaints of her compulsive organizing and neurotic micromanagement. I will never become my mother – who has not heard this refrain? This stereotype may be even more entrenched in the baby-boomer generation, post-women-entering-the-workforce: when women are allowed (read: expected) to have both the baby and the man and the job, and care for all of them too.

4 We could speak at length here about the connection between food and humor, and the connection between Weil’s anorexia and her comic starvation begs to be made. However, it seems to me that discussion of Weil’s anorexia is generally overwrought, and an easy target for us to reduce our analysis to name-calling (i.e. the anorexic philosopher) or an easy way of explaining her away. In lieu of a tired discussion, I’d rather offer a crude joke: what happens when Weil accepts communion and finds it not the body of Christ but rather a wafer-thin mint.

5 Weil, Écrits historiques et politiques.

6 Kant, Critique of Judgement.

7 Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. New York: Putnam, 1952.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Weil, Simone, and Siân Miles. Simone Weil, an Anthology. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986. Print.

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