No one knows exactly how to categorize Simone Weil. Her writings can be sorted into various pigeonholes—philosophy, religion, political theory, classical studies—but in practice all these categories overlap. Albert Camus said simply that she had a “madness for truth.” She was a brilliant thinker who left notebooks full of wide-ranging reflections, some dazzling in their insight, some wild, downright absurd, yet at the same time she distrusted unmoored thought; she spent a year working in factories to experience at firsthand the grind of industrial labor. Passionately opposed to injustice, always on the side of the oppressed, she nevertheless expressed revulsion for her Jewish heritage—denied it even—at a time and place when to be Jewish was to be, by definition, a victim. Combative, fiercely unconventional, she nevertheless remained closely dependent on her parents almost until her death. Although she thought of herself as a Christian, and came close to entering the Roman Catholic Church, she never did so. Many of her beliefs were clearly heretical: She found the God of the Old Testament abhorrent, much preferring the writings of Plato and the Hindu scriptures (which, near the end of her life, she learned to read in Sanskrit); she denied the exclusivity of the Christian revelation, yet her personal faith was highly Christocentric. When she died in 1943, at the age of thirty-four, she had not published a single book, nor even submitted one to a publisher, but she left behind a substantial body of work—much more than one would have imagined, given the shortness of her life.
The circumstances in which Weil’s writings were eventually published have shaped—to some extent distorted—perception of her thought. La Pesanteur et Ia grace (1947; Gravity and Grace, 1952) is composed of extracts from her notebooks, assembled by her friend Gustave Thibon. Attente de Dieu (1950; Waiting for God, 1951) consists of letters and articles assembled by her friend Joseph-Marie Perrin; both of these works emphasize Weil’s religious concerns. L’Enracinement (1949; The Need for Roots, 1952), a sociopolitical study written within a few months of her death, is exceptional in having been composed by Weil as a book. Many other works have followed: notebooks, letters, essays and articles, lectures, even an unfinished play. Only gradually has anything like a complete chronological picture of her work emerged.
Many books have been published on Weil. Some of these, such as Peter Winch’s excellent study Simone Weil: “The Just Balance” (1989), are strictly concerned with Weil’s writings, but—because, to such a remarkable degree, she lived what she thought and wrote—most books on Weil are at least partly biographical. Prior to the appearance of Gabriella Fiori’s Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography, only one full-length biography of Weil was available in English: Simone Weil: A Life (1976), by Simone Petrement, first published in French in 1973. Petrement and Weil became friends when they were students at the lycee, and they maintained their friendship until Weil’s death. In preparing her biography, Petrement had the cooperation of Weil’s family and full access to Weil’s papers, many of which she helped prepare for publication. In some respects, Petrement’s account will never be superseded, for no future biographer will be able to match her firsthand knowledge. Still, Weil’s life has more than enough interest to justify multiple readings.
She was born in Paris, a month premature, on February 3, 1909, the second of two children of Bernard and Selma Reinharz Weil. Bernard, a physician, came from a family that had long ago settled in Alsace. His parents were observant Jews; his mother was particularly strict in matters of religious practice. Bernard, in contrast, was an atheist. Selma, generally described as the more forceful of the two, was born in Russia to a highly cultured Jewish family of Galician origin; her parents were not...
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