Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588
Weil’s assertion that submission and toil may become redemptive is similar to the moral of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of forced labor found in his book Odin den Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963). Circumstances and setting differ, but both authors have placed the universal into the work scene. Nevertheless, “Factory Journal” would be better compared to Blaise Pascal’s masterpiece Pensees (1670; English translation, 1688); indeed, there are similarities in the unpolished notebook styles. To compare the jottings of the inexperienced Weil with those of the mathematical genius and mystic, however, is hardly reasonable. Nevertheless, Simone Weil has much in common with Pascal, as her later writings make clear. Like the earlier Frenchman, she sought the highest in a solitary quest. She also would wait upon the “fire divine,” which Pascal struggled to put into words in his account of a consuming mystical moment.
Simone Weil did not write great or epic literature, and the ideas expressed in her notebooks and essays are often paradoxical, contradictory, and unfinished. Consequently, critics have attempted to analyze her rather than her writings. Alfred Kazin’s interest, for example, was in the manner and direction of her life. Because some suspected the odor of sanctity around her life, there have been few neutral reactions to her. She has been measured by the highest expectations, primarily because she set herself forth as a chosen one. Albert Camus observed that she was the only great spirit of his times, while Kenneth Rexroth saw her life as “unholy folly.” Simone Weil had defined herself as a product of three traditions, Greek, French, and Catholic, and Catholic writers, especially those attracted toward a darker, or Manichaean, view of life, have seen her as a jewel. Czeslaw Milosz saw her as a “rare gift to the contemporary world,” but even those attracted to her have been troubled by a perceived arrogance (Graham Greene) or self-indulgence (T. S. Eliot). Hans Meyerhoff wrote about her denunciation of the influence of Israel on religious purity, finding it anti-Semitic; yet Elizabeth Jennings observed that Weil’s Jewishness was the most important thing in her life. Some critics have been troubled by Weil’s emphasis on suffering, and they have asked whether her own sense of affliction was indulgent or insincere. These are precisely the type of questions asked about anyone who has come close to the special province of the saintly.
Once critics point to the Frenchwoman’s lack of consistency and her hyperbolized logic, the central issue becomes her motivation and audacity. If she was a neurotic, death-seeking zealot, as some claim, her notebooks would be only interesting and “Factory Journal” would serve as a rather remarkable glance into the depersonalized milieu of the factory. If, one the other hand, her quest for spiritual meaning and social restructuring was authentic and marked by unusual sincerity, she must be seen in the light of a writer who could alter the mindset of her readers.
Critics have had difficulty labeling this woman, this heretic and Christian and Jew; she has been called both “left wing” and “right wing,” both radical and conservative. Nevertheless, Simone Weil had the ability to attract and speak directly to readers, both the common and the scholarly. The reason for this is found in the simplicity of her language and the profundity of her subjects. She wrote on great issues, speaking to those who travel, intellectually at least, on similar paths. That readers react so strongly to her is an indication of her power.
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