Utopian Pessimist

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

David McLellan’s excellent study of Simone Weil swells to nearly tidal proportions the wave of contemporary writings about this remarkable woman. In 1987, Robert Coles and Gabriella Fiori both published major interpretations of Weil’s life. The year 1988 witnessed Janet Settle’s Simone Weil: Waiting on Truth and Bernard Saint-Sernin’s work on her theory of political action. British philosopher Peter Winch’s Simone Weil: “The Just Balance” arrived in 1989, as did Mary Dietz’s study of Weil’s social and political thought. In the same year Lawrence Blum and Victor Seidler published A Truer Liberty: Simone Weil and Marxism. Also in 1989 an English translation of Fiori’s 1981 intellectual biography became available. This same brief period has seen the publication of more translations of Weil’s writings—notably Formative Writing, 1929-1941 (1987; edited and translated by Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness). Van Ness points out that the translation process is still incomplete.

Why this outpouring? Most know part of the answer. At first the odd shape of the biographical story is what draws one. A brilliant Parisian Jewish girl comes of age during the early years of the Depression. From her postings as a philosophy instructor in various lycee, she ventures out to make contact with factory workers, peasants, the unemployed. An anarchosyndicalist, she gains a reputation as an agitator and revolutionary—“the red virgin.” On a journalistic trip to Berlin in 1932 she receives a suitcase of Leon Trotsky’s papers and smuggles them into France. Later Trotsky uses her parents’ apartment to hold discussions on the founding of a Fourth International. Soon, however, Weil breaks with both syndicalists and Communists, disillusioned by party bureaucracies and the direction of socialism in the Soviet Union. In 1934, she writes Oppression et liberte’ (1953; Oppression and Liberty, 1958), a prescient critique of Marxism suggestive of both Reinhold Niebuhr and C. Wright Mills.

Though physically maladroit and frail, she does factory work for a year in order to experience at first hand the sufferings of the laboring classes. Her diary from this period is later described by Hannah Arendt as “the only book in the huge literature on the labour question which deals with the problem without prejudice and sentimentality.” One month after the Spanish Civil War begins, Weil joins an international commando group operating alongside anarchist militia units. She is removed from action after her clumsiness results in serious burns to her left leg. In the spring of 1937, while touring the art treasures of Italy, she undergoes a profound turning of spirit toward Catholic Christianity. An Easter pilgrimage to the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes in northwest France brings her—in the midst of one of her terrible headaches—a moment of transcending lucidity when “the thought of the passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.”

From this point, Weil develops rapidly into a mystical theologian and philosopher. While never submitting to baptism—“nothing gives me more pain than the idea of separating myself from the immense and unfortunate multitude of believers”—she centers her life on the Cross and the sacraments. Her tempestuous debates with Catholic intellectuals are now undertaken from the viewpoint of an insider. At the same time, she continues to write on politics (renouncing pacifism), Greek literature, the nature of mathematical knowledge, Platonism, and the humanization of the industrial workplace. Her Jewish identity requires her to leave Paris for Vichy-ruled Marseilles in 1940. In 1942 she and her parents move first to Morocco and then to New York, but by December she is in London working in the Free French effort. During the four months of her engagement “she produced what amounts to about eight hundred pages of printed material,” including the renowned L’Enracinement (1949; The Needfor Roots, 1952). Her various schemes for suicidal missions with the Resistance in occupied France are rejected. The extraordinary physical abuse to which she had subjected herself for a decade now begins to weaken her irremediably. In sympathy with those who are starving in France, she refuses to eat enough to combat tuberculosis. The coroner rules her death in August of 1943 a suicide. For fifteen years her grave bore no inscription and was considered by local inhabitants to be that of a pauper. T. S. Eliot ultimately paid for a simple engraved headstone.

Yet biographical fascination is not what finally sustains interest in Weil. Indeed, one is as often repulsed as attracted by accounts of her life and personality. No hagiographer, McLellan allows the reader abundant glimpses of Weil’s arrogance, hyper-intellectualism, social awkwardness, and tiresomely dogged manner. Her indifference to niceties of dress and grooming became legendary. Her self-righteousness led to her being described as “the categorical imperative in skirts.” Gustave Thibon observed that “the way she mounted guard around her void still paid witness to a terrible preoccupation with herself” Fernand Vidal found in her “something crude, rigid, and intransigent.” Trotsky jeered at her for...

(The entire section is 2171 words.)