Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Simone Weil: The Political Was Far Too Personal

Expand Messages
  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo Dissatisfied with the theorizing of the leftist intellectual circles she inhabited, Weil
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 8, 2001
    • 0 Attachment
      News for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo

      "Dissatisfied with the theorizing of the leftist
      intellectual circles she inhabited, Weil went to work in a
      factory for a year in 1935, a grueling experience that she
      felt changed her profoundly. Although still politically
      active, she grew increasingly disillusioned with the
      prospect of revolution (she was never actually a Communist,
      preferring the more anarchistic revolutionary syndicalism)
      and turned her energies toward anticolonialism and a
      peculiar form of pacifism (she did not want France to
      intervene in the Spanish Civil War but went to fight with
      the antifascist forces herself)."

      August 5, 2001

      The New York Times

      'Simone Weil': The Political Was Far Too Personal

      By LAURA MILLER

      WHEN, in 1943, the French philosopher, activist and mystic
      Simone Weil died in an English sanitarium at the age of 34,
      officials believed that she had killed herself; her friends
      disagreed. No one could argue, though, that Weil's longtime
      practice of self-starvation hadn't, at the very least,
      contributed to her early death. She had said that she
      refused to eat more than the rations allotted to the French
      soldiers and citizens who remained in her native land, and
      the story of this sacrifice became an important component of
      the mystique that clung to Weil's writings as they were
      eventually translated into English. In the 1960's, perhaps
      the peak of her popularity among Western intellectuals, she
      represented the loftiest pinnacle of commitment to the
      struggle on behalf of the oppressed. If she was obviously
      not quite sane, Susan Sontag argued in 1963, there are times
      when ''sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie'' and the
      spectacle of a life ''we regard from a distance with a
      mixture of revulsion, pity and reverence'' becomes
      paradoxically ''truth-giving, sanity-producing,
      health-creating and life-enhancing.''

      Ours is not such a time. Francine du Plessix Gray's ''Simone
      Weil,'' one of the Penguin Lives series of short
      biographies, betrays its author's understandable
      exasperation with her subject on a handful of occasions but
      never more frankly than when she writes: ''There are many
      times one wants to shake Simone by the shoulders and say,
      'Come off it, you spoiled brat -- get off your high horse!'
      At moments the pigheadedness of her search for purity is so
      infuriating that one is tempted to sympathize with a very
      severe critic, the poet Kenneth Rexroth.'' Rexroth
      considered Weil's essay ''The Need for Roots'' to be
      ''egregious nonsense'' and thought she needed a dose of
      ''vulgar but holy frivolity'' from the sort of parish priest
      who would tell her to put some meat on her bones and find a
      husband. Gray values Weil's work more highly, but still sees
      it as touched by mental illness, specifically anorexia.
      That's a far cry from the judgment of Weil's old friend
      Simone Petrement, who in the first major biography of the
      writer, published in 1973, expressed her conviction that
      Weil was a saint.

      The woman who inspired this perplexing array of responses
      was born into a prosperous and loving -- if also demanding
      and possessive -- family of secular Parisian Jews. Both
      Simone and her older brother, Andre, were prodigies; their
      childhood games consisted of memorizing long scenes from
      Racine, conversing in ancient Greek and solving problems in
      differential calculus. Simone was a protegee of the
      philosopher Alain and attended the elite Ecole Normale,
      graduating to become a professor of philosophy. During her
      subsequent teaching stints in a series of French towns, she
      frequently found herself at odds with school administrators
      because of her involvement in labor protests, her shocking
      habit of publicly socializing with workers and the
      unemployed and her brusque manners when dealing with
      authority figures.

      Dissatisfied with the theorizing of the leftist intellectual
      circles she inhabited, Weil went to work in a factory for a
      year in 1935, a grueling experience that she felt changed
      her profoundly. Although still politically active, she grew
      increasingly disillusioned with the prospect of revolution
      (she was never actually a Communist, preferring the more
      anarchistic revolutionary syndicalism) and turned her
      energies toward anticolonialism and a peculiar form of
      pacifism (she did not want France to intervene in the
      Spanish Civil War but went to fight with the antifascist
      forces herself). During this time, she experienced several
      revelatory episodes -- one while watching a Portuguese
      religious procession, one in a chapel in Assisi and another
      while contemplating the George Herbert poem ''Love'' -- that
      drew her deeper into the Christian faith and a tormented
      relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.

      Although Weil initially favored appeasement, she became an
      avid supporter of the war effort and sought out Resistance
      work. She accompanied her parents in their flight from the
      Nazis, first to Marseille and finally to the United States.
      Eager to get back to France, she finally secured a desk job
      with the Free French and passage to London, where her
      suicidal efforts to be sent behind enemy lines and to lead a
      team of combat nurses (a plan Gray kindly characterizes as
      ''zany'') met with no success. Finally, emaciated,
      overworked, enraged and grief-stricken at being sidelined
      from the action, she succumbed to tuberculosis.

      Throughout these travails, she wrote for leftist journals
      and for herself (extracts from her notebooks were published
      in the volume ''Gravity and Grace'') in a style of ferocious
      and soulful refinement. Her judgment ranged from shrewd (she
      was among the first in the leftist intelligentsia to
      denounce the Soviet Union) to naive (she believed that
      France could triumph over its enemies only after it proved
      its moral superiority by releasing its colonies). Although
      she cared passionately about justice and human dignity, no
      sensible person would want to live in a society of her
      design, in which, say, a writer could be tried and punished
      for making an unflattering erroneous statement about the
      ancient Greeks (whom she adored).

      The counterpoint to Weil's rarefied, often epigrammatic
      prose was her life, in which a spirit of perversity
      prevailed. In addition to her eating disorder (Gray points
      out that Weil ''fit the profile of the average anorexic
      woman, as she is described in contemporary literature, to a
      T''), she had an ''almost pathological receptiveness to the
      sufferings of others'' and a ''strong tendency to cultivate
      her own.'' She was ''terrified of any sexual contact'' and
      dressed in ''the clothes of a ragtag soldier or a poor
      monk.'' Weakened by poor nutrition, plagued by migraines
      (which were no doubt exacerbated by her fasting) and
      handicapped with abnormally small, feeble hands, she
      naturally decided that strenuous manual labor was the only
      means to grasp social and spiritual truth. Her relentless
      determination to do men's work led to a chain of Buster
      Keaton-like misadventures -- overturning a farmer's plow,
      sending her fellow soldiers diving for cover during rifle
      practice in Spain and ultimately being sent home when, while
      nearsightedly wandering around the campsite, she stepped
      into a pot of boiling oil.

      During World War II, as Weil's mania for affliction
      intensified, she would insist on sleeping on the floor
      despite the availability of beds, and while visiting a
      farmer friend demanded to be lodged in a decrepit hovel
      miles away. The friend later observed that Weil could be
      blind to the difficulties she imposed on others in her quest
      to ''fulfill her extraordinarily self-centered vocation for
      self-effacement.'' Hers was the bossiness of the masochist
      intent on stage-managing the erasure of her own will (and in
      fact, passages in Weil's writings bear a striking
      resemblance to parts of ''Story of O''). That she -- a
      French Jew with Marxist leanings during World War II -- was
      utterly thwarted in her attempts to be persecuted seems the
      ultimate failure. Weil, who had been raised without
      religion, conceived a violent dislike of Judaism that she
      attributed to the injustice and cruelty of the Old Testament
      God and the exclusivity inherent in the notion of a chosen
      people. Gray finds this prejudice particularly vexing and
      takes a stern view of the notorious, ambiguous letter Weil
      wrote to the Vichy minister of education regarding a decree
      that prohibited Jews from teaching in government schools.
      While Petrement sees the letter as an ironic destruction of
      the very idea of a Jewish race, Gray sees it as an isolating
      act of self-loathing.

      You can hardly blame Gray for her occasional irritation with
      her brilliant, maddening subject. She ends this absorbing
      biography with quotations about Weil's legacy from admirers
      (and some detractors) -- as if unable to quite formulate a
      verdict of her own. From near canonization to psychiatric
      diagnosis is quite a fall in reputation, but perhaps those
      in a position to be reproached by Weil's example are not the
      ones to judge. A better testimony to Weil's character may be
      that she rarely alienated the workers whose hardships she
      ardently sought to share, despite her ineptitude and her
      outlandish ideas -- ''She had a right to my table,'' said
      one fisherman who endured her aid. They perceived in her an
      earnest, if admittedly ridiculous, yearning for something
      noble. They were kind to her; she brought out the best in
      them. The novelist Georges Bataille, who knew and liked
      Weil, probably put it best when he described her as ''a Don
      Quixote,'' but in Weil's case the enemies tilted at were
      real enough. Only her lance was imaginary.

      Laura Miller is an editor at Salon.com

      --
      Dan Clore
      mailto:clore@...

      Lord We├┐rdgliffe:
      http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/9879/
      Necronomicon Page:
      http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/9879/necpage.htm
      News for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.