Simone Weil

Simone Weil was one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth, or indeed of any other century. I have great sympathy for her, but sympathy is not necessarily congeniality. It would be easier to write of her if I liked what she had to say, which I strongly do not.

For an alert non-Bolshevik radical of the years of the Second World War, the two most decisive insights, at least for those who read only English, were Paul Mattick’s “The War Is Permanent,” published in Living Marxism in 1939, and Simone Weil’s “The Coming World War,” published in the International Review in 1938, but written in 1934. Nobody who read them then is ever likely to forget them. Mattick’s theme is obvious from the title and is a commonplace today. Simone Weil pointed out that modern technology had made social violence a supranational thing, so that, whoever “won,” modern warfare resolved itself in actual practice into the lethal conflict of the man at the desk with the man at the bench. The workers get killed in shop or foxhole, the college graduates get commissions or join the OWI. Unhappily, she was herself to undergo a transvaluation of values and join the Gaullist OWI.

One of Simone Weil’s books, The Need for Roots, was a collection of egregious nonsense surpassed only by the deranged fantasies of the chauvinist Péguy; it was written for De Gaulle — a program for the moral rehabilitation of France when our side had won. It attempted to enlist on our side the same dark irrational spirits who seemed then to be fighting so successfully for the other side. Today it is a weird, embarrassing relic of a too immediate past. Luckily, as it turned out, they lost and we won without much effective intervention from the spirits on either side. Realities of the kind called harsh rule France today rather than any vestige of Simone Weil’s odd ideals.

Simone Weil was born in Paris in 1909 to well-to-do parents of Jewish ancestry but no religion. After a brilliant academic career in philosophy she became a secondary-school teacher. In 1934 she left teaching for a year to work in the Renault plant, “to experience the life of the workers.” In 1936 she went to Spain, and fought, or rather did not fight, in the Republican Army. Between her return from Spain late in the same year and the outbreak of the Second World War she broke down in health, abandoned her revolutionary ideas — which were never Marxist in any orthodox sense, but rather Communist-Anarchist of the type we associate with Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman — and began a sort of tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church — like a starving wild animal. In 1940 she settled in Marseilles with her family, who were arranging to escape to America. In 1941 she met Fr. Perrin, a Dominican, who introduced her to Gustave Thibon, a wealthy farmer and a leading Catholic intellectual. On his farm she tried, not very successfully, to work as a “land girl.” In the summer of 1942 she came to New York, and left for England in the fall with a commission to serve in the Gaullist organization in England. In the spring of 1943 she entered a hospital, and in August she died in Ashford Sanatorium in Kent. Superficially this career sounds much like that of many idealistic and rather giddy upper-class college girls of those days. Probably many such girls who are successful lady executives today did live with the same burning intensity as Simone Weil; probably a good many others came to an equally sad end. But she, like Marie Bashkirtsev, who was her nineteenth-century double, and the perfect exemplar of the type in those days, left a record quite as classic and fully as poignant.

In recent years Putnam has published several collections of her journals and correspondence: Waiting for God, Letter to a Priest, Gravity and Grace and The Need for Roots. As they have come out I have read them all again, and with them her new, unabridged notebooks.

I have the greatest respect, indeed veneration, for any tortured soul seeking peace and illumination. But in 1934 she wrote this: “War in our day is distinguished by the subordination of the combatants to the instruments of combat, and the armaments, the true heroes of modern warfare, as well as the men dedicated to their service, are directed by those who do not fight. Since this directing apparatus has no other way of fighting than sending its own soldiers, under compulsion, to their deaths — the war of one State against another resolves itself into a war of the State and the military apparatus against its own army. War in the last analysis appears as a struggle led by all the State apparatuses and general staffs against all men old enough and able to bear arms.” And later in the same article: “Revolutionary war is the grave of revolution.”

When war actually came she was writing things like this: “In civil society, penal death, if death is used as a punishment, ought to be something beautiful. Religious ceremonies would be necessary for it to be made so. And there ought to be something to make it be felt that the man who is being punished, on receiving death, accomplishes something great; contributes, as far as he is able in the situation in which he has placed himself, to the orderly state of the community. Let him remain in his cell until such time as he himself accepts to die?”

What would Thomas Aquinas have made of this? Or any Sicilian peasant or Irish teamster? Very much, I fear, the same as you or I. This girl killed herself seeking salvation, a salvation she identified with Catholicism. The passage above, and there are hundreds of remarks like it in the notebooks, is far from Catholicism, in fact from any religion. It has a horrible similarity to one theory of the Moscow trials, but it is a sick kind of agonized frivolity. And there are other things: a captious, misinformed playing with Hinduism and comparative mythology, worse than the confabulations of Robert Graves; a toying with modern mathematics of infinitudes and incommensurabilities — a kind of post Cantor-Dedekind Neo-Pythagoreanism.

In her last years Simone Weil seems to have sought enlightenment by a systematic cultivation of maximum hypertension. Her thought proceeded by no other way than paradox. This is not new. There is a good deal of it in Pascal, that least Catholic of Catholic thinkers, and of course in Kierkegaard. In Chesterton it sinks to the level of a vulgar journalistic trick. Paul Tillich has created, beyond the “theology of crisis” of Barth, Niebuhr and the Neo-Lutherans, a “theology of tension” — perhaps the most viable expression of that ancient science for a modern man. But there is the tension of life and the tension of death. Simone Weil was a dying girl. Hers was a spastic, moribund, intellectual and spiritual agony. We can sympathize with it, be moved to tears by it, much as we are by the last awful lunacies of Antonin Artaud, but we imitate it, allow it to infect us, at our peril. This is a Kierkegaard who refuses to leap. Angst for angst’s sake. Anguish is not enough. When it is made an end in itself it takes on a holy, or unholy, folly.

It is one thing, like John Woolman, to refuse sugar because it was made by slave labor; it is another thing to refuse to eat more than the starvation rations of occupied Paris when one is dying in an English sanatorium. (What sort of doctor permitted this?) It is touching, even tragic, but it is the farcical tragedy of Lear, equally distant from the tragedy of Prometheus on his rock or Christ on his cross.

What was wrong with Simone Weil? Our grandparents used to say of learned girls who broke down, “She studied too hard. She read too many books.” And today we laugh at them. I think Simone Weil had both over- and under-equipped herself for the crisis which overwhelmed her — along, we forget, immersed in her tragedy, with all the rest of us. She was almost the perfectly typical passionate, revolutionary, intellectual woman — a frailer, even more highly strung Rosa Luxemburg.

Rosa was saved from personal, inner disaster during the great betrayals of the First World War by several, all rather tough-minded, characteristics. She had a tenacious orthodoxy: she was perfectly confident of the sufficiency of Marxism as an answer, though she was more humane about it than Lenin. She had a warm, purely human love of people — physically, their smell and touch and comradeship. And a kind of Jewish indomitable guts, that ultimate unkillability which comes only from grandparents in yamulke and horsehair wig. Simone Weil had none of this. She made up her own revolution out of her vitals, like a spider or silkworm. She could introject all the ill of the world into her own heart, but she could not project herself in sympathy to others. Her letters read like the more distraught signals of John of the Cross in the dark night. It is inconceivable that she could ever have written as Rosa Luxemburg did from prison to Sophia Kautsky. People to Simone Weil were mere actors in her own spiritual melodrama. I doubt if she was ever aware of the smell of her own armpits. She may have called her fantasy “the need for roots,” but yamulkes, rosaries or plain chewing-tobacco atheism, none had ever existed in her past. She was born a déracinée and she insisted on remaining one. She was constitutionally disengaged — the Renault plant, the Spanish Republican and the Free French armies to the contrary notwithstanding. Faced with the ordinary but definite engagement of becoming a baptized Catholic, she panicked.

Religion has been called the gap between the technology and the environment. When her intellectual and psychological environment blew up in her face, Simone Weil discovered that she had no technology whatever, and the gap was absolute. She never permitted herself access to anyone who could help her. If I were planning to enter the Catholic Church the last person I would ever approach would be the kind of priest who could make head or tail of her Letter to a Priest.

Fr. Perrin and M. Thibon may have been wise men in their generation, but they both fell into the trap of her dialectic of agony. They took her seriously — in the wrong way. They lacked the vulgar but holy frivolity of common sense of the unsophisticated parish priest who would have told her, “Come, come, my child, what you need is to get baptized, obey the Ten Commandments, go to Mass on Sundays, make your Easter duties, forget about religion, put some meat on your bones, and get a husband.” Simone Weil knew the type, and she avoided them as a criminal avoids the police, and probably secretly disdained them as much.

Only such advice could have saved her. Only the realization of the truth — so hard to come by for the religious adventurer — that no one is “called” to be any holier than he absolutely has to be, could have given her real illumination. To anything like this she was defiantly impervious. She went to John of the Cross when she should have gone to plain Fr. Dupont, or Fr. Monahan, or Fr. Aliotto. Even Huysmans, with all his posturing, had sense enough to make St. Severin, that humble slum church, his home parish. Simone Weil assaulted the Garden of Gethsemane, and as is so often the case, was broken on the gate.

At least she speaks, again and again, of her absolutely sure sense of the suddenly descending, all-suffusing presence of God. So we know that somewhere, somehow, in all her agony, she did find some center of peace, a peace which, unless we happen to believe in God, we may find hard to explain.



This essay originally appeared in The Nation (12 January 1957) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961) and World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1987. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

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