For Tocqueville, politics was the religion of the nineteenth century; religion, that is, of the left (revolutionary socialism); of the center (anticlerical republicanism); and of the right, which in France meant Catholicism. One of the most striking aspects of the long religious wars between 1789 and World War II was that those who believed in salvation through political works did not much believe in salvation through religious faith (or vice versa). One contemporary definition of modern saintliness can be found in the defiant position of those who have passionately and unreasonably yearned to combine these goals.
That is what Simone Weil tried to do. T.S. Eliot wrote of her “genius” that it was “akin to that of the saints,” as it surely was since her persistent wish—her obsession, in fact—was to take on the sins of the world in a highly personal drama of political and spiritual martyrdom. Joan of Arc died in 1431 to create a divinely ordained French nation; Simone Weil died a mystic’s death in 1943 wanting to help France find both the means to transcend its national failings and a renewed purpose. Few have worked more coherently, more learnedly, and more determinedly to achieve that goal. None is now likely to succeed more than she did. She was the last French saint.
Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909. Her father, born in Alsace, was a doctor; her mother, born in Russia, was rich and highly cultivated. Both parents were nonpracticing Jews, and were identified with a type of upper-middle-class Jewish Frenchness that largely came to an end in the late 1930s and 1940s. As Francine du Plessix Gray describes them in her impressive short biography of Weil, they were very patriotic (her father served in the French army during the entire four years of the First World War), dedicated to the principles of 1789, and completely devoted to traditional conceptions of high French culture. What they thought about the Dreyfus case, we do not know.
Weil’s relation to her family was at once warm and ambiguous. It was to preserve them from persecution that she agreed to leave France with them in May 1942 for the United States. Had she many lives to lead, she explained in May 1943 when she left them behind in New York to join the Free French in London, she would have dedicated one of these to them. Her relationship with her older brother André, a gifted mathematician—and a very difficult person—who ended his career at Princeton, was likewise very close. (She always believed that science and faith overlapped.) And yet, in earlier years, she had bitterly envied his superior gifts: at the age of fourteen, oppressed by the inferiority of her talent to his, she thought of taking her life. Her last work, on the need for roots, L’Enracinement, which deals with many aspects of education in schools, in the workshop, through shared collective property, and so on, has little to say about education through family life.
Her attitude toward her Jewish origins was even more complex and troubling. Militantly in favor of universal ideals (she was a dedicated opponent of French colonialism), fanatically hostile to all particularisms—religious, national, or racial—she was, as she explained in a defiant and insulting letter to Xavier Vallat, Vichy’s first commissioner for Jewish affairs, “foreign to Hebraic culture” and wholly committed to an ethical tradition that was “Christian, French, and Hellenic.” Indeed, she said, she did not know what the term “Jew” might mean, which was the standard response of Frenchified pro-republican Jews to anti-Semitic slurs. To the scandal of the Catholic priests who became her friends, she despised the Old Testament as much as she treasured the new one. She believed that Hebrew scribes had stolen the idea of Genesis from ancient Egypt. When confronted in Morocco by the Jewish rituals of her fellow refugees in 1942, she mocked them. Job was not really Jewish, she thought; and Christ, had he been incarnated in India, would not have been crucified but enthroned.
That Judaism also had universal-ist moral imperatives—of which she showed herself an unwitting but spectacular example—she never considered even for a moment, just as she never grasped that her theological views on a hidden God had many medieval Jewish antecedents. That the state of Israel today might be seen as a tragic denial of that universalist past would never have occurred to her since she thought that Jews had been and always would be incorrigibly particularist. She would surely have seen contemporary Israel as the confirmation of her worst suspicions. In 1938, during a debate on Jewish emigration to Palestine, she bitterly criticized the Zionist position. Why create a new nationalism, she asked? It was, she said, important not to create a nation which “in fifty years, might become a menace for the Middle East and for the world.”1
Her views on Judaism as religion will seem curious to some, offensive to others. Her silence regarding the deportation of Jews, thousands of them children, from France in July and August 1942 must seem inexcusable to virtually everyone. Simone Weil had left France by then, but it is inconceivable that she did not know of the horrendous acts ordered by the Vichy vice-premier Pierre Laval: many French cardinals and bishops, who had shortly before praised Vichy’s Révolution nationale, both privately and publicly expressed their unease about these atrocities and—in some cases—their indignation. From London, where she was living from November 1942, the Free French Radio had also described the deportations in some detail. And yet, in the hundreds of pages that she wrote at the time, Weil hardly mentioned any of them, except to argue once more that the solution to “the Jewish problem” in France was the complete assimilation of French Jews.
Had Weil stayed on in France, would she have voluntarily chosen to join these victims? Had she lived on to 1945, would her change of heart on this score have been as complete as the one in which she belatedly shifted her position from unconditional pacifism to unconditional hostility to Hitler in March 1939? Or was her silence the perverse effect of her own code of self-denial? Since she cared nothing about her own sufferings, did she instinctively feel that she should not waste much time on those who were Jewish like herself and suffering for that reason? To her dying day, despite her Christian beliefs and close relations with Catholic priests, Weil obstinately refused to be baptized as a Catholic because, she said, she had no reason to believe that God wanted her in His Church. One wonders if her feelings about her Jewishness had something to do with that conclusion.
Her years in the class of the philosopher Alain (Émile Chartier, 1868– 1951) at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV were the formative experience of her youth and they explain much about her views on religion and moral obligation. It was there that she learned to write limpid, classical, aphoristic, Pascalian French prose; and there also that she read, Gray writes, “Plato and Balzac, Kant and Homer, Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius,” and, for that matter, the entire canon of Western philosophical thought. A gruff and lamed war veteran, Alain was a militant anticlerical with mystical leanings who “despised credulity but admired faith”; he inculcated in her a passion for truth and the irreducibility of man’s right to freedom. Then in 1928 she entered the École Normale, opened the year before to women. She had the highest ranking of that year’s applicants. In the same class were Robert Brasillach (who was shot as a traitor in 1945 and whose trial has been recently and ably described by Alice Kaplan2), Raymond Aron, and Sartre. She soon became a political activist and once wrote a letter, which she never mailed, asking to join the Communist Party. It was in these years also that she successfully shouted down Trotsky (who had borrowed her parents’ apartment for a secret conclave), and just as brusquely snubbed Simone de Beauvoir, who was eager to become her friend.
Her appearance was strange, and her clothes often black and mannish. The photographs of her taken at that time show her to have been strangely charismatic even in her youth. Indeed, she could also be strikingly—and conventionally—beautiful when she set her mind to it, as she did at least once in her life, when she put on rouge and lipstick to charm a foreman who gave her a job as an unskilled worker at Renault. But ordinarily, as Francine Gray rightly emphasizes, her manner was rough and aggressive: “Je ne suis pas quelqu’un avec qui il soit bon d’unir son sort. Les êtres humains l’ont toujours plus ou moins ressenti.” (I’m not someone whose fate others would want to share. People have always more or less sensed this.) She lost no opportunity to annoy and even humiliate those she thought deserved to be put down: when a school official agreed to donate twenty francs for the unemployed on condition of anonymity, she posted a sign on the École Normale’s bulletin board: “Follow the example of your Director of Studies, become an anonymous donor to the unemployment benefit fund.” A vengeful philosopher and director of studies whom she had never bothered to consult about her dissertation gave her the lowest passing grade.
Then followed three provincial years as a teacher in lycées at Le Puy, Auxerre, and Roanne. In the words of the writer Gustave Thibon, whom she later befriended and who was close to the Vichy regime, she was a “prodigious teacher, who knew how to find everyone’s level in order to teach any number of subjects.” Baffled inspectors from the education ministries commented on her odd techniques, and on her brilliant handling of subjects which, however, were most definitely not “inscrits au programme.”
The world’s best secondary school education had been her bourgeois birthright and her second encounter with the deeper currents of Frenchness was in her involvement with “associative socialism,” a noble tradition which in France had found its modern ideological expression in the thought of Proudhon (as against Marx’s) and its political expression in trade unionism and “anarcho-syndicalism” (as against a Stalinized Communist Party). This is not to say that she gave up on high culture. On Saturdays and Sundays, at Le Puy, she would get up at 4 AM to prepare her classes on Latin and French literature for the workers’ school which some syndicalist friends of hers had set up. A local conservative newspaper railed at “Mme Weill [sic] red virgin of the Tribe of Levi, bearer of the Muscovite gospels.” At a celebratory banquet, a miner asked her to dance, which she did, but very stiffly. He was surprised to see that this young bourgeois professor did not know even the simplest steps of the simplest dances.
In the spring of 1934, Weil went one step further and decided to become a worker herself. In a factory managed by a polytechnicien whom she knew and who was himself eager to bring together manual and intellectual experience, Weil secured a backbreaking and dangerous job in a metal processing plant: “Imagine me,” she wrote to a friend,
standing before a huge furnace that spits out huge flames and blasts of hot air which blow straight into my face…. I stand squarely in front of [the furnace] to place scores of huge copper bobbins…destined for tram and subway engines…. I must never let the pain of the burning air on my face and arms (I still bear its scars) lead me to a false motion. I lower the lid of the furnace. I wait a few minutes; I lift it again and with a hook I withdraw the red-hot bobbins…. And then the entire process starts again.
She lived the life of the poor, took no money from her parents, ate very little, lived in an unpleasant room, and gradually realized that her fellow slum-dwelling workers, far from being, as Marx had explained, the vanguard of a universalist proletariat, were in actual fact broken creatures who lived from day to day because they had no hope. Modern factory workers, she concluded, were constantly humiliated, first by the nature of their work—whose purpose was never explained to them—and second by the unceasing demands of their profit-driven superiors. The average factory worker labored—in words she quoted from Aeschylus—against his will and “under the constraint of driving necessity.” Work, which ought to be the way through which human beings learned to know the world, degraded them instead.
As she worked with milling machines and metal presses, desperate to fulfill the day’s quota, she came to sense the suffering of the working poor, their “malheur,” or affliction, their loss of hope, their sense that life made no sense right now and could never be made to have any sense at all. This unsettled her profoundly: from their “expérience du malheur,” she wrote, “I received forever the mark of slavery, just like the mark which Romans branded on the forehead of their most despised bondsmen.”
Years later, she was still surprised when anyone spoke to her without brutality: when it happens, she wrote, “I can’t help but feel that there must be some mistake, and that this mistake will in all likelihood soon be dispelled.” Hannah Arendt described Weil’s La Condition ouvrière as the “only book in the huge literature on the theme of factory work which deals with the problem without prejudice and sentimentality.” In the Middle Ages she might have been seen as the patron saint of lepers, and in our own times, of third-world migrants. In the 1930s, she wanted to be the patron saint of proletarians.
Does Simone Weil matter principally for the example she set? Does her life matter more to us than her ideas? In her excellent short book (published in a series that includes lives of Buddha, Elvis, and Robert E. Lee), Francine Gray, like most of Weil’s biographers, starts from that assumption, and it may indeed well be the case that Weil’s times and writings are best described by tracing the events of her life. (Gray gives a particularly strong account of her experiences as a factory worker.) But this strategy necessarily plays down what must in the end be a major theme, namely the connections that link the major phases of her thought: syndicalism in 1931–1934; Catholic mysticism in 1935–1942; and, in 1942–1943, reflections on mankind’s need for roots. Are there constant themes among these? Or should we read her different commitments as a string of failures? Did Weil find Christ because Marx had failed? There is no clear answer to the question, but it is suggestive that in 1932, during a four-month stay in Hamburg (she spoke German and English fluently), and three years before the beginning of her conversion, Weil was already struck by the sad passivity of German workers, whom she saw lacking any sense of direction in their lives.
Then, in 1935, in Portugal (where she had gone with her parents to recover from both her factory work and the violent migraines which had afflicted her from childhood), Weil suddenly understood Christianity as “pre-eminently the religion of slaves.” Not far from Porto, she was deeply moved by hymns “of heart-rending sadness” that she heard some destitute fishing women singing; slaves could only be Christians, she thought, “myself among them.” The Christian virtues of humility that had disgusted Nietzsche illumined the last years of her life. Weil never joined the Church, which she thought too Roman and Hebraic, too totalitarian and exclusive. But from 1935 onward, her life increasingly turned on the presence of Christ, a presence which she felt physically at Solesmes in 1938, while reading George Herbert’s poem “Love” (“the most beautiful poem in the world”), which a young Englishman had shown her there:
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
“At a moment of intense physical pain,” she later wrote, “while I was making the effort to love…I felt, while completely unprepared for it (I had never read the mystics), a presence more personal, more certain, and more real than that of a human being; it was inaccessible both to sense and to imagination, and it resembled the love that irradiates a loving being’s most tender smile.”
In her self-constructed version of the theological (and Pascalian) theme of the hidden God, Weil came to feel (as had some medieval Jewish theologians) that God had withdrawn from his creation because only love—and not force, however well-intentioned—could serve both His and man’s true purpose. Why God had created such an imperfect world did not interest her very much: what held her attention instead was man’s place as an exile within the world as it was. She thought that clues to the spiritual possibilities that were within us could be found in daily experience, a theme which set her views radically apart from Pascal’s. Plato’s Symposium, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Giotto’s frescoes at Assisi, random acts of kindness in the Renault car works, and even the friendly feelings and the simple, inexpensive food that she found in a Florentine trattoria were all leads that might move us forward toward recapturing the precious love in the world, provided that we did not force our beliefs. It was through compassion, she wrote, that man could understand the love of Christ which, if shared, made even compassion irrelevant.
Many of her aphorisms will appear devastatingly true even to those who do not much like her prose: “L’homme voudrait être égoïste et ne le peut pas“; “L’amour de Dieu est pur quand la joie et la souffrance inspirent une égale gratitude.” (“Man would like to be selfish and can’t”; “The love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire in us equal gratitude.”) “Religion as a source of consolation,” she wrote, “is an obstacle to true faith.”
These were striking theological observations. (Pope Paul VI thought her to be a model of modern spirituality.) But while formulating their themes, Weil did not abandon her previous political interests: she welcomed the sit-down strikes of 1936, visited old friends at the Renault factory they had taken over, and for a few weeks joined an anarchist militia band in Catalonia. Typically incompetent, she stepped into a cauldron of bubbling cooking oil and was sent back home. All the women in the group were shortly thereafter wiped out by their Nationalist enemies.
Weil was in Paris when the French army collapsed in late May and early June of 1940. She left the capital reluctantly, hoping to take part in last-ditch resistance. She also opposed the armistice from the first, and observed that she was one of very few people she knew who did so. In the unoccupied southern zone, she became for some months a rural laborer, sleeping on the ground, eating sparsely, and taking on tasks that were much too hard for someone of her size. Reluctantly she agreed to accompany her parents to New York, and she stayed with them in their new apartment at 549 Riverside Drive between 123rd and 124th Streets. She did not like New York (except for Harlem) and did not get along well with her fellow exiles, some of whom suspected her of Pétainiste sympathies.
In November 1942, Weil returned to Europe, to London on what she thought would be a short stay. There she wrote hundreds of pages, ever more self-assured and paradoxical, all of them in her neat handwriting and without corrections. She made some good friends: “Maurice Schumann,” she wrote of one of De Gaulle’s top advisers, “est le plus chic copain qu’on puisse rêver.” She urged her Free French friends to unite all Resistance groups in a Conseil Suprême de la Révolte, an idea which may have contributed to De Gaulle’s creation of an underground Conseil National de la Résistance, which Jean Moulin would convene in occupied France in May 1943, shortly before his arrest by Klaus Barbie and his death by torture. De Gaulle came across Weil’s plan for the creation of a corps of front-line nurses, who would rush forward with combatants and be prepared to heal them in situ as they fell. “Mais elle est folle,” he exclaimed upon reading it. It is too bad that Weil and De Gaulle never met, the Last French Saint and the Last Great Frenchman, both of them for some months working and living a few blocks from each other; and in London, of all places.
In 1942 and 1943, however, her kamikaze nurse project was no longer her principal concern. After her experience with the syndicalist and Catholic traditions of the French left and right in 1934–1942, she now stumbled onto the centrist and republican tenden-cies that derive from 1789 and to this day give the French Socialist Party whatever tattered ideological dignity it still has. Here, in what Robert Coles has rightly described as “a radiant moment in her writing,” her pedagogic point was that France, restored to liberty, should be made more equal and fraternal: “Le génie de la France ne réside que dans ce qui est pur.” (The genius of France is to be found only in what is pure.) Rootlessness, she felt, was the curse of modern life, and France, shattered as it had been by German occupation, was ideally situated to reconsider its identity and goals. In this rejuvenated nation (from which she wanted to exclude De Gaulle, whom she suspected of harboring quasi-fascist authoritarian tendencies), active and informed citizens would learn to respect one another, their common future, and their common past; for to lose one’s past was for individuals and collectivities “la grande tragédie humaine.” Developing a sense of belonging in various communitarian ways was, she wrote, especially critical. Christ had come to save man, not nations; and nations in their degenerative form often were like Plato’s Great Beast; but man could not live without community.
Weil’s ideas, taken one by one, are not particularly original, even if they form an interesting oeuvre when taken, as she resolutely took them, as connected with one another. Indeed, her thoughts could at times sound intolerant: as Michael Ignatieff has rightly pointed out, she did not have much use for constitutionally established rights; and she detested political parties even more than did De Gaulle. The devil, she wrote, “had he been put in charge of public life—could never have imagined a more ingenious practice.” Journalists for her were not witnesses but propagandists. And yet, all this notwithstanding, her commitment to ordinarily unsurprising or even wrong ideas forces us to think more deeply about the day-to-day issues that mattered to her so intensely.
In the 1960s, Staughton Lynd, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, saw Weil as a precursor of the New Left (in an essay entitled “The First New Left, and the Third”). She was, he wrote, one of those exemplars (“Don’t just do something, stand there!”) which he thought his peers badly needed. There is much truth to this: her original sensibility still comes across strongly. But she matters as someone whose life and thought disturb more than they inspire. The realist in all of us will be disconcerted by her insights on the place of force in all human relations and on the ensuing humiliation that the use of force imposes both on those who use it and on those who are subjected to it. She will, for obvious reasons, disturb those with worldly interests in power, fame, sex, or money; but she will also disturb those who have retreated from the mundane world because, for her, the path to salvation and detachment necessarily proceeded through universalist compassion and sincere camaraderie.
She disturbs non-Christians by the intelligence and authority with which she asserts the reality of the Christian word just as she disturbs Christians by her unmediated and self-destructive attempts to imitate a sacrificial Christ. She disconcerts liberals who want to use the state to improve society by arranging for the better production and distribution of material goods; and she disturbs those who hope to change the world for the better, since in the end, she voluntarily chose to give it up. Her various strengths upset us, then, just as her weaknesses paradoxically comfort us: it is in no small part the failings of this saintly and distant person—impossibly austere, fiercely intelligent, and ruthlessly self-disciplined—which bring her closer to us.
Weil understood in the early summer of 1943 that she would not realize her hopes of being parachuted into occupied France (she was physically too inept and she looked too Jewish). She likewise understood that her plans for a front-line nursing corps would never come to pass. She may also have decided that she had said all that she had to say. Despairingly, she wrote to her parents that she had found in herself a deposit of pure gold which she needed to give away, “but no one was there to receive it.”
Gradually, she gave up on life. She ate less and less. On August 24, 1943, after suffering a heart attack, she died in her sleep and was buried in the Catholic section of an English country cemetery. Her friend Maurice Schumann, whose voice was by now known to the millions of “occupied” Frenchmen and women who avidly listened to his Free French broadcasts “Des Français parlent aux Français,” read the prayers. He too was a Jewish convert to Catholicism. (De Gaulle, when Schumann had informed him of his decision to convert, had imperturbably replied, “Really; and to what religion?”) Another French friend placed a tricolor bouquet on her grave. A Catholic priest had also been asked to come, but he missed the train and her friends did without him.* *
July 19, 2001
Simone Pétrement, La Vie de Simone Weil (Paris: Fayard, 1973), Vol. 2, p. 211. ↩
Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (University of Chicago Press, 2000). Reviewed by John Weightman in The New York Review, October 19, 2000. ↩
I am grateful for the thoughts—and often, the words as well—of Anne, Ethel, and Margaret Higonnet; Arthur Goldhammer; Matthew Iglesias; Robert Kieley; Matthew Maguire; Jackie Newmeyer; Robert Tobin; and Roberto Unger. ↩