The Clarity of Fanny Howe's “Doubt”

by Kimberly Lamm


Through the insights her recent essay entitled “Doubt” makes possible, I want to explore Fanny Howe’s engagement with the writing of Simone Weil. Weil’s work is rare and compelling for its resistance to philosophical categories, its yoking of spirituality and political commitment, and its calling for a sacrificial suffering that eludes easy understandings of victimization. Weil is consistently evoked in Howe’s work as a figure of political and religious and intellectual commitment, a figure who pursued those commitments through writing, but renounced the literary and the poetic. A prolific writer with an incredibly wide emotional, intellectual, and stylistic range, Howe has not renounced the poetic, but strips its lines of narcissistic dazzle and packs them with words implosive with contradictions. The stylistic skill and intellectual complexity of Howe’s work aspires toward the silence of Weil’s renunciatory aesthetic, the emptiness full of presence Weil encountered reading the Gospels in Greek: “A silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation” (“Spiritual Autobiography,” 18).

With physical, spiritual, and political will, Weil demonstrated her claims for the significance of “decreation”: the creative renunciation of the self.  “There is absolutely no other free act which it is given to us to accomplish—only the destruction of The Self.” (“The Self”79) A prolific French philosopher and thoroughly self-sacrificing political activist who died of self-inflicted starvation and tuberculosis during World War II (she refused to eat because so many in Nazi occupied France were dying of hunger),Weil is more than a demanding thinker and an inspirational figure for Howe. A recent prose meditation entitled “Doubt” makes clear that Howe reads Weil as a writer. Howe writes, “...Weil could be called a poet, if Wittgenstein could...because of the longing for a transformative insight dominating her word choices”(2).

For Howe, Weil is a thinker and a figure whose longing for spiritual thought was relentless and gentle, never satiated.  Weil thought and lived through writing, and her political commitment found expression through the physical act of writing and her scrupulous attention to words.  For Howe, Weil’s body of work possesses a clarity and spiritual commitment so unique, that her “abstractions sting” (1996, 447), her prose lines are “surgery on modern thought” (2000, 3), and her austere style so perceptually fundamental it suggests “the intermediary of thing to word to the void” (1996, 447). Weil’s work came as close to the ground of materiality and the immediacy of experience as one could without relinquishing language.  In Gravity and Grace, Weil describes the act of writing in a way that connects the body, the soul, and the social world. “In the operation of writing, the hand which holds the pen, and the body and soul which are attached to it, with all their social environment, are things of infinitesimal importance for those who love the truth” (32). [1]  

Weil’s influence on Howe cannot be denied; it is continual, always transforming. Therefore, this essay doesn’t only reveal Weil’s influence; it attempts to trace Howe’s efforts at enacting the rigor, complexity, and simplicity of Weil’s thought, and the thoroughness with which she brought that thought to the work of her life.  In a recent essay entitled  “Doubt” Howe cites Weil’s desire “to be only an intermediary between the blank page and the poem” and then states that this is a desire “for a whole-heartedness that eliminates personality” (2000, 2). The work I will analyze in this essay—“Doubt,” “Weil Over Void,” Forged, One Crossed Out, Saving History, and Indivisible—renders the movement of Howe’s thought toward the silencing of self that Weil desired and doggedly pursued.  “Weil Over Void” is an elegant rendering of how thoroughly Weil wrote herself into silence. Howe writes,

She had carried thought as far as it could go. There was no way I could address her thought, in speech, therefore, because I would always be trailing my subject.

There is such a thing as experience that precedes speech...I would keep banging that wall of silence—a reality as solid as a stone. (1996, 448) 

In Weil’s distinct and almost counter-intuitive philosophy, finding silence means an encounter with doubt. Not a doubt we might expect—skepticism—but a doubt that is “the physical double of belief” and “allows a single gesture to have a heart” (2000, 2). Howe’s work searches for the space of silence—the space where doubt gives rise to belief, the doubt which makes belief possible—Weil wanted to become. “The human face in repose and in silence is the face I see,” Howe writes, “when what I have written approximates the unspeakable” (1996, 448). This statement articulates the distinctive aspects of Howe’s work. She doesn’t sharpen or polish her language into a textual mirror that will reflect herself; she polishes words and sentences until their depths and surfaces gleam with the image of another’s gaze and the actuality of another’s suffering.



Writing of Virginia Woolf, whom she describes as “a maestro of lyric resistance,” and the times in which she lived—dominated by secularism and Freudian thought—Howe states that “[t]he hideous vocabulary of mental science crushed her dazzling star thoughts into powder and brought her latent despair into the open air” (2000, 3).  Alluding to the fear, exhaustion, and bravery that summoned Woolf to the end of her life, Howe writes: “Anyone who tries, as she did, out of a systematic training in secularism, to forge an expression of belief is fighting against the odds” ( 2000, 3).

The contemporary poet not only inspired by religious ideas and belief, but seeking to express religious and ethical commitment within and through poetry also fights against the odds and faces unique challenges. To secular eyes and sensibilities, poetry and religion shape contradictory desires. Religion orders and instructs; poetry wrestles words away from order and instruction. Yet, both religion and poetry, at their best, make us suffer through their particular forms of illuminated puzzlement, their fearless confrontations with all the evacuated silence and noise that so explicitly negates them. Howe’s work articulates its religious longing and belief within, and perhaps because of, the negating noise of the world: “Determined by day by need/ multiple bodies parceled into files/ computers chiming cheerfully without appetite” (1999, 13), a line which could serve as a tonal and thematic enactment of Weil’s assertion that “[t]he subject of art is sensible and contingent beauty discerned through a network of chance and evil” (“Beauty,” 377).

Howe’s work is unique in contemporary poetry for its exploration of religious faith, ethics, politics, and suffering.  [2] Howe’s words wrestle within the intersection of these themes—the way they unpredictably test and strengthen each other—with a detached, often harsh, tender and resigned voice that describes and expresses the brutality of an ontology suffused with a belief in God. In her novel Saving History, Howe writes, with a simultaneously brave and weary candor:

God announces itself as affliction, as a pain that is gruesome. God doesn’t eat, but wounds. You have to know this in order to live. (12)

Howe consistently pursues literature’s capacity to render God’s affliction with a tough, imaginative, harsh, and vivid imagery. Henrietta, the main character in Howe’s novel Indivisible, describes her physical experience after leaving confession. In these lines, Howe displays her propensity for a brutal visual clarity as well as her talent for re-imagining the body in a way that is so disturbing and beautiful, it approaches something like the holy.

Then he blessed me. Walking out, I felt I was dragging my skeleton like a pack of branches. After all, a skeleton doesn’t clack inside the skin, but is more like wood torn from a tree wrapped in cloth. (9)

Like so many of her contemporaries, Howe’s work seeks to poetically unsettle and even strip away the self’s fictions of coherence. At the end of her poem “Close Up,” Howe’s lines portrays a fragmented, ephemeral, and written image of the self:

A human face is pressed on glass; mirrors like armor
Break shapes into targets.

The woman’s face on the other side of this pane—
Paper or fate?
Written in light, in either case. (1992 5)

And yet, Howe takes the contemporary imperative to describe and stylistically enact a postmodern dissolution of the self a step further. She sees the self not only constructed by cultural fictions, but as ontologically bruised and fractured, and permanently so. Therefore, the grave uncertainty Howe faces and wrestles with in her work is all the more frightening because it is not recoverable; it is the suffering of being that does not cease. On the opening page of Forged, Howe writes, “Sold tickets to this trip my self/ a fiction as fixed as the crucifixion/ or tracks hammered into banked quarters” (1999, 3). These lines suggest a resigned awareness of a fate tied to suffering, and a suffering mirrored in the urban landscape. Howe develops the consequences of this imagery on the last page of this collection:

Grind and forge
for minimal spark and speed

Time is so intimate

it is finished
and you go on burning to a cinder
a forgery in figure only
signature cut to the wheels.  (23)

The effort and resistance involved in forging a self and subjectivity within and against time are reinforced by the harsh precision and intricate swiftness Howe’s of language.

“Doubt” is a statement of Howe’s poetics enacts, explores, but does not synthesize the contradictions of an ethically inspired spirituality and language’s materiality, worldliness, and inevitable compromises. As I stated earlier, the doubt Howe explores is not skepticism; it is an experience of uncertainty at the heart of belief—an uncertainty that inspires a restless and continual pursuit of the contradictions at the heart of language and ontology. In an essay entitled “Contradiction,” Weil states, “Contradiction experienced to the very depths of being tears us heart and soul: it is the cross” (239). Howe’s exploration of language’s contradictions, carefully sharpened by her skill at rendering the spiritual thought possible within literature, begins to approximate the experience of ontological suffering Weil articulates and enacted in her spiritual and physical life. The difficulty and possibility of approximating this state seems to continually incite Howe’s tremendous prolific and increasingly complex literary pursuits.

Weil is crucial to Howe’s poetics of commitment, her dogged resistance to letting her work repeat the force that Weil so eloquently and clearly analyzes in her essay “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.” In that well-known essay, written at the onset of World War II, Weil defines force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (163). Howe’s work seeks not only to represent those who are objectified and disregarded with subjectivity and specificity, but draws upon the imaginative act of writing as a political and empathetic means of connecting to those who are rendered things in the collective imagination. Howe often highlights her presence as a writer and a consciousness in the midst of reflecting upon her own resistances to, identifications with, and detachments from the brute forces that inflict cruelty and suffering. In Saving History, Howe writes: “I identify with the women standing back and watching the crucifixion drama, because I know how easy it is to become a participant in cruelty” (12).

Writing about her portrayal of an abusive husband who as a child suffered and witnessed physical torture Howe asks:

I don’t know this man but I suffer for him. How? I live out his drama, mentally, trying to imagine the way it felt to be him. I hope that in this imaginative action, some of his pain will revert to me. If I don’t do this, who else will? (1993, 13)

The characters in Howe’s work sin and suffer, sometimes of free-will, sometimes against their volition; mostly they sin and suffer in a bewildering entanglement of free-will and compulsion and hope. Weil states that in “the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed” the hope that “good and evil will not be done to him” is “all that is sacred in every human being” (“Human Personality,” 51).  In a poetry collection entitled One Crossed Out, Howe writes of a young homeless woman’s hatred of and submission to the hope which emerges amidst a scene of danger and despair:

Under emotional conditions she can’t ever run to catch anything.
Later in the rear seat of the car the man who wore dark glasses at night remarked her breathing was hard.
A walkbridge across the river led to a health bookstore where she hoped they were going.
She hated hope when she knew she couldn’t kill it.     (1997, 49)



I wanted to focus on “Doubt” because of its intellectual clarity—the swift and steady movement of its articulations and associations—can lead to a new understanding of the ways Howe’s poetics expand and deepen within the rich and austere contradictions of Weil’s thought. “Doubt” helps me understand that Howe’s prolific literary production is an expression of a struggling belief forced through and transformed within the materiality of language. Writing of the secular culture of the intellect Weil lived within, Howe states, “You have to make yourself believe” (2000, 3). The essay speaks to the depth and complexity of Howe’s pursuit of doubt, and its twin of belief, so central to Weil’s thought and so pertinent to Howe’s poetry of belief as it emerges and continues to expand within secular contexts and landscapes. “Doubt” reveals Howe exploring the possibilities for writing to expand, test, and strengthen belief without relinquishing an attentiveness to the grim materiality of the world and the people saturated within its misery.  In Forged, Howe writes, “Wet shoes drain the ache from human faces/ as wood leaks ashes” (1999, 12). While it is an important text in and of itself, the compelling and stubborn oddities of Howe’s work find their conceptual inspiration and articulation in “Doubt.” How else to understand the contradictions in the following line from Forged: “Is a rose already pink inside its idiot dirt” (20)?  In this line, the words reflect the stubborn harshness of a hope inspired by doubt, a hope that has not been relinquished. Howe writes in “Doubt”: “Hope resists extermination as a roach does” (2000, 1).

The words in Forged emerge from the tense, transformative, and precarious place between doubt and belief. The poems scour across an English landscape dense with the colors and textures of cynicism and hope: “Rolling hills slashed by dull buildings/ severed this path to the mystic heart of red” (10). Throughout this small, coarse, and eloquent but implosive collection, Howe continually places demands for hope and desires for meaning within an urban landscape thoroughly stained by capitalism, conformity, and despair.  In the following lines, Howe’s rhythm and cadence match and reinforce the monotonous and stacked transfixions of quotidian submission, and the last line opens like the memory of a prayer.

All of us seem to be transfixed
stacked as we are facing east
week after week a little like
one of the ones who were invited to life.  (1999, 13)

In “Doubt” Howe links Weil to Virginia Woolf and Edith Stein, two women like Weil who experienced an impassioned relation to language and understood that relation within the spiritual, intellectual, and political contexts of their lives. [3]   Though the forms of their beliefs and commitments were unique, each one “sought salvation in words” (2000, 1). In the essay “The Nature of Language,” Martin Heidegger describes what it might mean to have an impassioned relation to language:

To undergo an experience with language, then, means to let ourselves be properly concerned by the claim of language by entering into and submitting to it. If it is true that man finds the proper abode for his existence in language—whether he is aware of it or not—then an experience we undergo with language will touch the innermost nexus of our existence. (57)

Heidegger goes on to explain that this experience does not involve clarity or full expression, but the inability to “find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses and encourages us” (59). For the women Howe writes of in “Doubt,” the years 1941-1944 presented experiences they did not have the language to describe or control. Their lives were stretched across the brutal edge of history: Woolf’s suicide in the midst of the Germany’s bombing campaign of England (1941); Stein’s death at Auschwitz (August 1942); Weil’s death from starvation and tuberculosis in an English hospital (1944). Language did not save these women, yet their scrutiny of and attention to language has political and ethical reverberations now. The different but equally important ways these women forged their experiences of language against and within the claims of politics and history reveal what might be at stake when attending to language carefully and ethically. In “The Power of Words,” an essay she wrote in response to the Spanish Civil War, Weil states:

To clarify thought, to discredit the intrinsically meaningless words, and to define the use of words by precise analysis—to do this, strange though it may appear, might be a way of saving lives. (222)

In “Doubt” Howe develops this ethical link between language and lives with a forthright and weary candor:

While we would all like to know if the individual person is a phenomenon spiritually or culturally conceived and why everyone doesn’t kill everyone else, including themselves, since they can—poets act out the problems with their words. (1)

Individual words are the site of ethical choices. Howe begins the essay “Doubt” discussing word choices, their connotations and consequences: “Why not say \‘heart-sick’ instead of \ ‘despairing’” (1). Further into the essay, Howe explores and questions the possibilities for expression within an individual poetic line. She asks, “Is there, perhaps, a quality of each person—hidden like a laugh inside a sob—that loves even more than it loves to live? If there is, can it be expressed in the form of a lyric line?” (1). Questions like these suggest that Howe questions—doubts—the ethical pertinence of literature at the completion of every line and every text.

At the beginning of his essay “The Image of Proust,” Walter Benjamin writes, “It has rightly been said that all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one—that they are, in other words, special cases” (201). Howe is prolific and successful in prose and poetry, and her recent work such as “Doubt” dissolves each genre into the other. “Doubt” is a lyrical essay composed of aphoristic statements that are not intended to be lines of poetry, but nonetheless possess a poetic rhythm and cadence inflected by the movement of thought carried as far as it can go at any moment. The form of “Doubt” is a manifestation of Howe’s desire to think poetically and to call attention not to forms and genres, but to the movement of spiritual and poetic inquiry, what Howe describes as Weil’s “longing for transformative insight dominating her word choices” (2).

Weil is known for the honed and austere clarity of her prose, but “Doubt” calls attention to the poetic aspects of Weil’s thought, life, and writing. Weil wanted to be a poet, and wrote a prose poem entitled “Prelude,” but was wary of poetry’s seductive dazzle, as is Howe. In “Weil Over Void” Howe describes contemporary work as “Babble, excited showing-off, the prettiness of reports coming in from a poetry which is the equivalence of an I.Q. test” (448).  “Thinking,” Heidegger writes, “cuts furrows into the soul of being” (70). Howe’s work asserts that poetry can be an instrument of thinking that will find, explore, express, and perhaps inspire and inflict beliefs that have transformed from and emerged within doubt.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Image of Proust.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 201-215.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Nature of Language.” On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1971. 57-108.

Howe, Fanny. “Doubt.” Seneca Review 30 (1999): 1-3.

_____. Forged. Sausalito, CA.: Post-Apollo Press, 1999.

_____.The End. Los Angeles: Littoral Books, 1992.

_____.One Crossed Out. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1997.

_____.Saving History. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1993.

_____. “Weil Over Void.” in Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. Eds. Joe Donahue, Edward Foster, and Leonard Schwartz. Jersey City: NJ: Talisman House, 1996. 446-449.

Meltzer, Francoise. “The Hands of Simone Weil.” Critical Inquiry 27 (Summer 2001): 611-628.

Vickery, Ann. “Finding Grace: Modernity and the Ineffable in the Poetry of Rae Armantrout and Fanny Howe.” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses. 37 (1998): 143-163.

Weil, Simone. “Contradiction.” Simone Weil: An Anthology. Ed. Sian Miles. New York: Grove Press, 1986. 239-243.

_____. Gravity and Grace. Trans. Emma Craufurd. New York: G.P. Putnams: 1952.

_____. “Human Personality.” Simone Weil: An Anthology. 50-78.

_____. “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.” Simone Weil: An Anthology. 163-175.

_____. “Power of Words.” Simone Weil: An Anthology. 219-234.

_____. “The Self.” Simone Weil: An Anthology. 79-84.

_____. “Spiritual Autobiography.”  Simone Weil Reader. Ed. George A. Panichas. Wakefield, RI, and London: Moyer Bell, 1999. 10-26.


[1] For a compelling reading of Weil’s theorizations of work, the image of hands in her writing, and Marxism, see Francoise Meltzer, “The Hands of Simone Weil.” Critical Inquiry 27 (Summer 2001): 611-628.

[2] In her ground-breaking essay entitled “Finding Grace: Modernity and the Ineffable in the Poetry of Rae Armantrout and Fanny Howe,” Ann Vickery links the work of Simone Weil to Fanny Howe and Rae Armantrout. The ideas I am trying to pursue here intersect with Vickery’s analysis of a linguistic pressure and commitment. Vickery writes, “What links the poetry of Armantrout and Howe, then, is the degree of attention to be found, or more specifically, its consistency and rigor”(145).

[3] Edith Stein was a Catholic convert from Judaism and became a Carmelite nun. She attended the University of Gottingen and studied phenomenology with Edmund Husserl. In 1916, she received her doctorate in Philosophy. In 1934, she attended a Carmelite convent in Cologne; there she finished her study Endliches und ewiges Sein (Fine and Eternal Being).  In “Doubt,” Howe states that Stein “successfully worked to transform an existential vocabulary into a theological one....” (1). 


Bio: Kimberly Lamm is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington. She currently teaches English at Pratt Institute and Women’s Studies at Long Island University.


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