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The Life and Death of Simone Weil

Simone Weil: A Life

by Simone Pétrement, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
Pantheon, 577 pp., $15.00

On September 3, 1943, the following headline appeared in a local English newspaper, The Kent Messenger: DEATH FROM STARVATION: FRENCH PROFESSOR’S CURIOUS SACRIFICE. The reference was to the death of Simone Weil, then attached to the Free French forces, on August 24, in an Ashford nursing home. The verdict of the Coroner’s Court was “that the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.” As her friend and biographer is able to show, the truth is more complicated than that; indeed, everything connected with Simone Weil, her life of study and teaching and political agitation, her beliefs in religion, philosophy, and politics, her mysticism, and the claim made, not unreasonably, by many for her sanctity, is enormously complicated and often hard to put together in a consistent way. In death as in life her personality is enigmatic. We are not ignorant of what she thought: the abundance of her writings and of her reported sayings and actions provides rich material for study; but at the end we are left with many questions difficult to answer.

Simone Pétrement has in her fine biography given us a great amount of information, much of it new, some of it the precious testimony of friends and witnesses (among these the biographer).1 With the study by the late Richard Rees2 and with the happy republishing of the Notebooks,3 and, we must hope, of such other important works as The Need for Roots, Gravity and Grace, and (perhaps the most revealing clue to her spiritual character) Waiting for God, and now Madame Pétrement’s testimony, we have in English perhaps enough material on which to found a judgment of her thought. There can be no question of a definitive judgment. She is too great (though the claim for greatness would be part of a disputable judgment) for this, and perhaps the inner conflicts of her thought and character cannot be systematically presented; and no matter how well one may know France and the French there remains something hard to come to terms with about the side of her which is so much that of a pupil of Alain at the Lycée Henri IV and a product of the Ecole Normale.

Simone Weil was born in 1909, the daughter of nonreligious Jewish parents. (She never sympathized with Judaism, didn’t much care for Jews, was ignorant of Jewish practice and belief, and entered a synagogue—an Ethiopian synagogue in New York—only once in her life. Here, I shall argue later, is the real obstacle to her conversion to Christianity.) She was, with her brother (a young Pascal in his mathematical talent), intellectually precocious, and was early encouraged by her mother to prefer intellectual tasks to playing with dolls. From her childhood she showed sympathy with the poor. When she was eleven years old she was missed in the house; she had gone to a meeting of the unemployed. She had, as it were, a talent for affliction from an early age; for most of her life she was racked by atrocious headaches, but she never ceased to seek out external causes of suffering. It wasn’t that she wanted to suffer but that the tasks she set herself in the world and the obligations she imposed upon herself were causes of bodily affliction and spiritual desolation.

Perhaps the most curious thing about her youth is that people were inclined to say that she was “a saint.” Sometimes this was said by pious people—an old nurse is noted as having said this when Simone was eight—but not always. This went on all her life. She wasn’t in the least a “good” little girl. She was imperious, self-willed, extravagant, ruffled the susceptibilities of others and hurt their feelings by assuming they were made of the same hard metal as herself. She didn’t in her childhood, adolescence, or early womanhood raise for herself, at least not with any seriousness, religious as distinct from philosophical questions about God; and she didn’t pray.

She was one of Alain’s most brilliant pupils at Henri IV. We are given an account of one of her essays for him. The subject is “The Fairy Tale of the Six Swans in Grimm.” The story is that the sister of six brothers turned into swans must make six nightshirts out of anemones and in this six-year task she must never break silence. Simone’s comment is: “To act is never difficult; we always act too much and scatter ourselves ceaselessly in disorderly deeds. To make six shirts from anemones and to keep silent: this is our only way of acquiring power…. The sole strength and sole virtue is to cease from acting.” It seems she is arguing that it was the sister’s silence, not the making of the shirts, that saved her brothers. This essay and others are remarkable pieces of writing for a girl of sixteen. Some of the ideas and ways of treating them are no doubt breathed into her by her teacher, but there seems to be a vein of originality. Her diploma dissertation was on “Science and Perception in Descartes.” It is highly original if slightly perverse—it looks as though the actual Cartesian text didn’t trouble her too much—but it seems not to have pleased her director, the great Brunschvicg, who gave it the lowest possible passing mark.

By the time she went as professor to the lycée at Le Puy, her first post after her agrégation, the external features of her character, of what had been made out of her temperamental endowment, are evident and don’t change much for the rest of her life. First, there is the will to live in poverty. At Le Puy she had the salary of a full professor but decided to use only the money she would have got had she been an inferior teacher without the agrégation. This is a pattern throughout her life. For a year, during 1934 and 1935, she did hard factory work, often to the point of utter exhaustion. In the last months of her life she tried to live on what she would have eaten had she lived under the German occupation—this was the (somewhat inadequate) ground for the coroner’s verdict.

Next, there is a physical fastidiousness that made her shrink from bodily contacts even with close relatives. Sometimes she impulsively kissed her friends and this for them was always memorable. She was fiercely virginal, yet fond of men’s company; this made for amusing mistakes on the part of men, who thought they could advance from bon camarade to something else. But she was no prude, admired the memoirs of the Cardinal de Retz, and the man too, though he was scarcely remarkable for the virtue of chastity. When a German girl asked her if she had a “friend” she was amused and not at all offended.

She wasn’t self-consciously Bohemian in her way of life, but she looked Bohemian and shabby, often untidy; but she was like this always because she was totally devoted to whatever it was in social life that preoccupied her at a given time, the condition of the unemployed, the Spanish Civil War, the work in a factory; and underneath the passionate commitment, often a commitment without hope, for she was too shrewd to suppose that the goals men in politics set themselves are ever reached, there was the growing awareness that she was fearfully and unutterably connected with that which is beyond the world: that she had the vocation of a mystic.

Her full conviction that this was her vocation didn’t perhaps come until 1938, when, as she told Father Perrin, the Dominican priest who became her friend, Christ came and took possession of her. She wrote: “in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” She was greatly astonished by this happening. “I had never read the mystics,” she wrote, “…God in his mercy had prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it should be evident to me that I had not invented this absolutely unexpected contact.”

One of the many moving photographs in the Pétrement biography is of a poem by George Herbert (“Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back / Guiltie of dust and sin”) copied out by Simone Weil. It is neat, clear, without affectation, not at all emancipated from the bad handwriting models of the nineteenth century; there is no hint of the great models of European handwriting, Carolingian minuscule or the Italian chancery hand; but it is moving in and through its limitations. There is the absence of aestheticism: it is plain that in copying out the text she is concerned only with the poem, anxious that it be easily read, that nothing come between the reader and Christ’s invitation to the sinner (“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat. / So I did sit and eat”) to the heavenly banquet. It is the hand of a conscientious French school-mistress, a patient teacher, concerned not with herself but with what she has to communicate, without vanity but with a just confidence in herself as the custodian of a message committed to her.

She was a fine teacher, rigorous but kind, intensely concerned with the best possible standards in literature and philosophy, above all free of the aridity of the pedant. Her pupils protected her when she needed it from the attention of the school authorities. She was much loved by the children. She taught moral and political philosophy not so much through the classical texts (though Plato was always there; Aristotle she detested and never did justice to) as through works of literature (the Antigone of Sophocles, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov), for she believed that to go deeply into problems involved living with concrete examples; in this she is indeed Platonic, or rather Socratic, though she wouldn’t, I think, have been happy with this distinction. She was superbly educated in the French fashion and was in complete command of the body of Greek and Latin literature, of the entire canon of French literature, was well read in ancient philosophy and in European philosophy from Descartes to Kant, knew English and German literature well. This command of inner riches gives what she writes, and no doubt gave what she said, an extraordinary force and authority, even when her words are exaggerated or false.

It is harder to divest oneself of inner riches than of outward possessions; the rich man can sell all he has and give it to the poor. Those who find inner riches an obstruction to the growth of the spirit have the harder task of divesting the soul of all that makes it interesting and fetching to their fellows, of going away from the warm, rough world into other regions, into fire or ice or darkness. That she set herself this task from time to time is certain; and yet there is an obstinate fidelity to her vocation as teacher, both in practice—she was always teaching even when she had ceased to be a professional teacher, and she loved to teach workmen and neglected children—and in meditation; one of the most beautiful of her writings is a piece she wrote for the Catholic students at Montpellier: “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”

  1. 1

    The translation is on the whole excellent, straightforward, and unaffected, like the subject of the book. There are some avoidable Gallicisms—”the Pentecostal holidays,” “pooled their cultivations,” provisoirement becomes “provisorily.” The worst thing about the text is that it reads as though no one had corrected the proofs. We have “Shumann” for “Schumann” and a host of other absurdities.

  2. 2

    Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait (Southern Illinois University Press, 1966).

  3. 3

    London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976.

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