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…

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