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Simone Weil by Francine du Plessix Gray

When the brilliant, tragic Simone Weil died in 1943, she was only 34, but her ideas still inspire. Martin Andic ponders a new biography by Francine du Plessix Gray.

Francine du Plessix Gray’s last biographical study, At Home with the Marquis de Sade, was highly praised, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her new book on Simone Weil presents a very different and more difficult writer, and a much greater one. Weil was a real philosophical thinker, whose concerns included issues of justice, labour, science and religion, and she deserves more serious attention than de Sade. In her case, mere psychological explanations will not be enough; one must unfold and assess the meaning, implications, presuppositions, coherence, rationality and truth of her ideas. Fortunately, Gray gets these mostly right, and the psychology is not too much in the way, but it does occasionally intrude.

Simone Weil was born in Paris in 1909, and raised in an intensely intellectual and cultured upper middle-class secularised Jewish family. Her father was a physician and her mother an energetic and forceful woman who, not having been allowed to attend medical school herself, devoted herself to the education of her children. Not much supervision was necessary, or indeed possible, in the case of Simone’s brother André, who showed unmistakable genius from the start and became one of the most outstanding mathematicians of the century. Simone did her best to compete with him, but eventually turned to politics and philosophy, and then to religion, where, as she later wrote, genius consists in the fullest and purest attention, lit by love of goodness. (Fullness of attention is intensity and wholeheartedness, while purity of attention is selflessness and receptivity. Both together are the consent to transformation that she calls spirit and truth, love and desire.) From her earliest years, Simone demanded absolute consistency – both of herself and others – between practice and belief, and her family called her ‘Antigone’ because of her recklessness of everything but that which is right: a virtue that often required support and rescue by her parents. Her friends and classmates, and her colleagues and students in the schools where she taught philosophy, seldom met her without being presented with a petition for them to sign or a leaflet to read or a call to join a demonstration. When she saw injustice, she could not rest until she had begun to do something to correct it.

At first, her activism aligned her with radical left-wing politics and trade unionism. She was particularly involved with ‘anarcho-syndicalism’, a perspective from which she developed a sustained and incisive critique of Marxism, Communism and the Soviet state. She remained concerned with working people and their education, willingly organising and teaching classes for them over and above her regular academic duties, even when it required her to take long train rides twice a week. For her part, she wanted to share and know the conditions of the working classes in order to help them to better their lives. Thus, in 1935, she laboured for eight months in factories, keeping a journal of her experiences: she later wrote that this labour broke her and taught her the weakness and suffering of human beings, the limits of human will and action, the greatness of Christianity as “a religion of slaves…and I among them.” She learned the need for energy from a transcendent source, and the real meaning of freedom as a dependence on divine love, acquired in humility and obedience and consent to necessity, to what must be and what must be done.

In August 1932, Weil had gone to Germany and discerned the weakness and blindness of the workers’ parties in dealing with Hitler. In 1936 she joined the republican militia in Spain despite her pacifist scruples, but was forced home by a noncombative wound and disillusionment about the brutality of war. She persisted in her pacifism right up to the German seizure of Prague in 1939, and after the fall of Paris the following year she spent the next two years in Vichy and Marseilles hoping for passage via New York to London, where she intended to join the Gaullists in the rescue of France. As she waited, she wrote her marvellous essays on attention, reading, personality and the sacred, affliction and the love of God, factory work and the dignity of labour, and on the anticipations of Christ in Greek tragedy and philosophy, religion and science. She filled her notebooks with incandescent pages on religious and moral psychology and metaphysics as ‘a science of the supernatural’, or gnosis, involving a ‘mechanics’ of the soul and grace (supernatural in transcending our egoistic materialistic nature and fulfilling our deeper one), and on its foundations in Plato and John of the Cross, Lao Tzu and the Bhagavad Gita. Once in New York, she spent four months trying to get to London to be sent to France as a saboteur or a frontline nurse. She took advantage of this time in interviewing priests to determine whether her views about the transcendental unity of religions prevented her baptism as a Catholic.

At last she arrived in London, only to be denied a war mission because she was weak, untrained, awkward and Jewish. Instead, she was set up in an office to summarise and evaluate proposals for the political reorganisation of France after the hoped-for victory. She continued to write her journals and essays and her book, The Need for Roots, in growing demoralisation, disappointment and despair at not being able to take part in the liberation of her country and share in the sacrifice of her countrymen. She fell ill with tuberculosis and, weakened by her refusal to eat (for she could not, she said, when her people in France were starving), she died in August 1943, aged 34. Her English doctor said that it was suicide ‘while the balance of her mind was disturbed’, but to her, perhaps, it was simply abandonment to divine providence – letting God’s will be done – in an act of ‘decreative’ humility and submission, solidarity and truth.

Gray tells this story well and in good detail. Her account closely follows the still unsurpassed study by Weil’s friend Simone Pétrement, La Vie de Simone Weil (Paris: Fayard, 1973), a shorter version of which has appeared in translation by Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Pantheon, 1976). However, Gray has added many particulars from recent publications in France, including the journal Cahiers Simone Weil. She closes her book with a short chapter surveying the critical responses to Weil by such readers as T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Czeslow Milosz, Susan Sontag, Albert Camus and Pope Paul VI. She discusses Weil’s fundamental concepts of creation as abandonment and decreation as responsive surrender; love in the consent to necessity; implicit forms of the love of God (the love of neighbor and beauty and sacraments that is implicitly God’s love), affliction, attention and the metaphors of looking and eating. This discussion could be more sharply focussed and detailed, but there are magnificent quotations to help the reader see the brilliance and originality of Weil’s writing.

The one fault of this book, in my view, is that Gray’s comments on Weil’s psychology often seem off-target and may distract readers from the hard work of critical attention that her thought deserves. For example, Gray emphasises Weil’s ‘anorexia’ on the authority of her friend Louis Bercher, a physician who knew her in Paris, Marseilles and New York; Gray links this to Weil’s hyperactivity and theatricality, to self-domination, self-abnegation, even selfloathing and masochism, and to obsessing about food and hunger. Weil’s father Bernard Weil, who was also a physician, always denied that his daughter was anorexic; but Gray dismisses this as hagiography, and points out that Weil’s mother Selma was highly controlling, and fastidious about food and hygiene, as the mothers of anorexics often are. She admits, however, that Simone had physical digestive problems from the age of six months when Selma continued breastfeeding her all through her own recovery from appendicitis. When Selma tried to wean her at eleven months, Simone could or would not eat from a spoon and had to be fed mush from bottles; with such a start, she grew up weak and small. All her life she ate slowly as if chewing hurt her, and she neglected to eat when absorbed in study or politics, though she smoked cigarettes avidly.

An alternative interpretation would emphasise the fact that Simone Weil understood that hunger is the general condition of ordinary people, and she did not want to be spared from knowing it. She wanted to be a just person working for a just society, for which she was willing to forgo personal comforts, and (as Diogenes Allen has said) to neglect her body in order not to neglect her mind and her soul. Following a moral discipline and a spiritual way, in ethical and religious seriousness, wanting oneself and one’s life to be as good as possible, need not be treated as pathological self-hatred. Moreover, a passionate belief in personal integrity and a strong commitment to practical consistency in presenting an ideal can only be called hyperactivity and theatricality if we are prepared to explain why we do not believe in the ideal or the presenter.

As for obsessing over food, whatever psychological causes disposed Weil to think of hunger and desire as pure contact with the good desired, and a model of divine love that is fed by looking without trying to possess in any other way (as great mystics have said), she did have reasons to think it.

A second and more sensitive example of intrusive psychology is Gray’s insistence that Weil had “extremely tortured emotions about Judaism,” an “almost hysterical” repugnance for it. Gray speaks of her “ranting” against it and worse still her “Jewish self-loathing,” and even says that “She might have speeded her death through her loathing for her Jewish body, and her failure to acknowledge the deeply Jewish beauty of her mind.” As Gray concedes, however, Weil was not raised as a Jew and did not consider herself to be one nor did she want to be one; until age ten, she did not know that her parents had Jewish origins, because like her they did not define themselves by these. She had, she says, “mostly learned to read by reading Racine and Pascal” and acquired her ideals of truth and poverty, justice, piety and purity from the Christian culture around her; if she had been born into a religious tradition, it was Catholic, French and Greek. She knew little of Judaism, and what little she did know of the Old Testament she learned later in life, when she praised Job and some of the Psalms, the Song, Isaiah and Daniel; she disliked the historical books because of the massacres that these books say were demanded by God; Gray calls Weil’s reading of the Old Testament skewed and distorted, but passages like Deuteronomy 7 and 1 Samuel 15 are troubling (and so is 2 Kings 2.23-24). We may feel that she should have spoken out against the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but for two decades she had been speaking out against the oppression of every oppressed group: workers and the unemployed and prostitutes, France’s colonial subjects in North and Central Africa and Indochina, and migrant labourers in France like the 30,000 Indochinese drafted in 1939-1940 to work there in munitions factories. Thus to say that she hated her Jewishness is to say too much, since she did not identify herself as a Jew at all; and to insist that she was wrong and should have finally ‘confronted her ethnicity’ is after all to rely on a racial criterion, as Hitler is blamed for doing. In any case, if Weil felt any self-loathing, it was for her separation from God in pride and wilfulness (see John 12.25); and if she was tormented, it was in compassion for all human beings exposed to affliction: she had to act because they suffered it, not because it tortured her.

A third example of what might be considered gratuitous psychology are Gray’s remarks about “Weil’s repudiation of femaleness”, her “dread of sexuality” and “her sense that she was plain and somehow incomplete and could not be loved as a woman, her deep unease about issues of gender” all of which Gray relates to Weil’s mother’s regretting her own aborted career as a physician and encouraging “a boyish forthrightness” in her daughter as well as in her son. There may be something in this, but it seems worth saying that Weil grew up to love and thirst after righteousness and truth, and to demand to be treated as an equal as she would treat others as equals, in human unity and freedom. To her this meant ignoring gender differences; not dressing to draw sexual attention or flirting with men, but relating to them as comrades in the struggle for justice. Gray allows that Weil was not prudish about the sexuality of others, that she took care of women friends in their sometimes bizarre sexual affairs, admired children and unwed mothers and was concerned about sex workers. She also mentions that Weil joined the first women’s rugby team in France, to be muddied and bruised with the rest. Gray repeatedly says “what a beautiful girl she could have been” and that “those who saw through to her beauty wondered why she had chosen to make herself so ugly”, as if Weil could only have been beautiful as an actress or a model is, and was not already deeply beautiful in her mind and heart. This was a missed opportunity to enter into the living experience of her subject and show things from her point of view, uncommon in her time but less so today.

Because Gray’s book raises these important and difficult issues, it is a good introduction to the life and thought of one of the most remarkable and unforgettable human beings of our time, who has made it possible to take religion seriously in the twenty-first century, as was said about Kierkegaard in the twentieth. Simone Weil is actually very like him and, in her attention to the spiritual meaning of work in industrial society, and in many other ways too, we might well consider her ‘a Kierkegaard on wheels.’

© Martin Andic 2002

Martin Andic used to teach Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, but recently left his job to spend more time writing.

Simone Weil, by Francine du Plessix Gray, Viking Penguin, New York 2001, 0-670-89998-4, $19.95.

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