In response to:

An Endless Seeing from the January 13, 2022 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful to The New York Review for publishing Jacqueline Rose’s smart and sympathetic essay on Simone Weil [“An Endless Seeing,” January 13]. As I read it, I could not help but think that had Rose been a reader for a manuscript I wrote on Weil, it would have greatly benefited from her comments.

It happens the manuscript soon became the book that, in principle, Rose reviewed in her essay. Given the many insights she offered on Weil, Rose was, understandably, left with little space to say much about the book. But I would like to address three comments she did make.

First, she finds it a “strange omission” that justice is not one of the book’s five themes. It would, I agree, be strange to write a book on Weil without taking up her thoughts on justice. This is the reason why I do discuss Weil’s take on justice at considerable length. Though not one of the five themes, “justice” is invoked more than two dozen times in the book. The chapter on roots, to cite one example, focuses on Weil’s distinction between rights and needs—a distinction that goes to the heart of her conception of justice.

Second, Rose writes that she

lost count of the epithets that circulate freely in relation to Weil in Zaretsky’s book, even though he is at pains to temper and on occasion even retract them: “morbidity,” “fetishizing,” “insufferable,” “inhuman,” “exasperating,” “the ravings of a lunatic,” or “cursed by the inability to stop thinking.”

Let me explain the contexts for these epithets. With the first two, I am paraphrasing the political theorist Mary Dietz’s assessment of Weil’s thought. In the case of “inhuman,” I am referring not to Weil, but to the “Nurses Plan.”

As for “ravings of a lunatic,” I suggested this is one possible response to the plan, but I also made clear that it is not my response. Concerning the epithets “insufferable” and “exasperating,” I plead guilty. Weil was often both, not just to antagonists, but to friends. And when it comes to being cursed by an inability to stop thinking, I wish more of us were so afflicted.

Finally, there is Rose’s parenthetical remark that immediately follows this list: “How many of these would pass with reference to any male thinker?” Well, James Boswell was admittedly not much of a thinker, but he was male and many of these epithets did pass in reference to him in an earlier book of mine, Boswell’s Enlightenment. (As far as I recall, no reviewer—including Andrew O’Hagan in the pages of this journal [June 4, 2015]—wondered how many of those epithets would pass in reference to a non-Scot.)

Robert Zaretsky
Honors College
College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
University of Houston
Houston, Texas