Utopian Pessimist Essay - Critical Essays

David McLellan

Utopian Pessimist

Simone Weil died in 1943 in a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, England; she was only thirty-four years old. Several months earlier she had been diagnosed as tubercular, but the primary cause of her death was that she simply refused to eat. Another way to describe her death is to say that she was exhausted by the effort of living. More than most people do, she tried to make her beliefs and her values and her actions consistent; she tried genuinely to live what she thought and wrote. This determination compelled her, a teacher of philosophy who had compiled an outstanding record at France’s elite educational institutions, to work at intervals at various forms of manual labor, including a year of factory work. Humble, arrogant, brilliant, pig-headed, she was a tangle of contradictions.

At first glance David McLellan might seem an unlikely candidate to write a biography of Simone Weil, who is best known as a religious thinker. McLellan has written and edited many books, almost all of which have to do with Karl Marx and/or Marxism. He draws on that background to emphasize the extent to which Weil was a political thinker and a social activist, but he does not try to portray her as a Marxist beneath the skin. Rather, McLellan shows how for Weil, religious, philosophical, and political issues were inextricably intertwined, always grounded in social reality: “Weil was the very opposite of any abstract, ethereal thinker.”

At a time when much of Central and Eastern Europe is in flux, disillusioned with communism yet unsure where to look for a new direction, Weil’s thought is more relevant than ever. McLellan’s exposition is clear, sympathetic, but not uncritical. The text is supplemented by notes, a bibliography, name and subject indexes, and a useful chronology. Weil’s extraordinary essay “On Human Personality,” written during the last year of her life, is included in an appendix.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXVII, September 28, 1990, p.555.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 15, 1990, p.3.

National Review. XLII, June 25, 1990, p.49.

The New Republic. CCII, June 18, 1990, p.40.

New Statesman and Society. III, February 2, 1990, p.34.

The Observer. February 4, 1990, p.61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, December 15, 1989, p.51.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 13, 1990, p.747.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXVI, Summer, 1990, p.93.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, April 8, 1990, p.6.