The Last French Saint

Simone Weil

Francine du Plessix Gray
Lipper/Viking, 246 pp., $19.95

Simone Weil
Simone Weil; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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