Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Book Reviews

Principled to a Fault

And the violent originality Simone Weil.

Becca Rothfeld

Simone Weil’s pass during the time she worked for the Resistance, Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo; background: facsimile page from The Notebooks of Simone Weil.

One of contemporary analytic philosophy’s most persistent pathologies is its mania for “domestication”—that is, for the translation of Continental effusions into a cooler, cleaner vocabulary. Sometimes, domestication is merely a matter of untangling the terminological knots that make thinkers like Heidegger and Hegel so daunting to Anglophone audiences. Often, however, the practice involves the taming of ideas themselves, as if they were so many unruly animals. The domesticator offers up such morsels as a secularized Kierkegaard, or a Pascal who is more of a protoexistentialist than a Jansenist. What is lost in verve, domesticators claim, is gained in newfound plausibility, at least when the relevant arbiters are the atheistic liberals who preside over present-day academia.

On the face of it, Simone Weil is a remarkably poor candidate for domestication. Implausible and impractical to a fault, arguably more of a mystic than a philosopher, Weil is unlikely to appeal to sober rationalists, even in her most neutered guises. Her life and her work alike were rent by sharp contradictions. She was ethnically Jewish yet frequently anti-Semitic. She was a fervent pacifist for much of her life, but she worked alongside anarchist forces to fight fascists on the ground in Spain. (Admittedly, her efforts were ineffectual: She tripped into a pot of hot cooking oil and singed her leg before she saw any combat.) Although she trained as a philosopher at the famed École Normale Supérieure, she eschewed the measured tones of a scholar, opting instead for the oracular prose of a visionary or poet. She was bourgeois by birth, yet her desperation to display solidarity with the working classes drove her to the factories and the fields.

Unsurprisingly, given her resistance to the familiar classifications, Weil opposed political parties and institutional groupings of all kinds, refusing to join the Roman Catholic Church even after a series of rapturous conversion experiences. She never belonged to a readily legible political camp. A lifelong advocate of workers’ rights, a vigorous critic of colonialism, and a member of the French Resistance, she nonetheless came to dislike Marx, and the political views she embraced in her final writings have a decidedly right-wing flavor. By the time of her death, she was a proponent of patriotism, albeit not of the jingoistic variety, and a staunch defender of virtues such as honor, which she regarded as “a vital need of the human soul.” Finally, and most importantly, she was wracked by the intensity of her religious convictions. Her radical Christianity permeates almost all of her most celebrated writings, many of which have the ecstatic tang of prayers.

It is hard to see how a figure so marvelously intemperate could ever be bridled to the satisfaction of the Anglo-American mainstream. Still, the intellectual historian Robert Zaretsky has made an impressive attempt to win over skeptics in his new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas. Somewhere between biography and philosophical overview, Zaretsky’s study sorts Weil’s views into five central categories. Each of the corresponding chapters integrates discussion of her personal eccentricities with analyses, rehabilitations, and critiques of her thought. The results are lucid and informative, but the restraint inherent to the medium, in this case the sensible academic monograph, threatens to undermine the extremity of Weil’s fiercely singular and ferociously subversive message.

The child of assimilated Jews, Simone Weil was born in Paris in 1909. Her family was upper middle class, but despite her comfortable station in life, she was sensitive to the plight of the proletariat from a remarkably early age. Zaretsky reports that when Weil was ten, she “slipped out of her family’s apartment to join striking workers who, chanting The Internationale, were marching along the Boulevard Saint Michel below.” Later, when an elementary school classmate “denounced her as a communist,” she replied, “Pas du tout! I am a Bolshevik.” 

Weil worried that she could never measure up to her brother, André, a math prodigy who would go on to make important contributions in the fields of number theory and algebraic geometry at Princeton, but in fact she was a precocious student in her own right. In 1928, she was the only woman to gain admission to the École Normale Supérieure, where her peers mocked her uncompromising moralism and her gender in one fell swoop by calling her the “Categorical Imperative in skirts.” After her graduation, she taught at several high schools and continued her work as an activist. Much to her stodgy supervisors’ chagrin, she refused to give her students grades, regularly joined workers’ protests, and offered free classes for locals in the evenings.

Weil was frail, ungainly, and subject to debilitating migraines, but she nonetheless insisted on performing physical feats to which she was ill suited, claiming that it brought her into closer spiritual contact with the poor. At various points in her youth, she attempted, usually unsuccessfully, to labor alongside farmers and fisherman. In 1934, she took the dramatic step of quitting her teaching job to work in an automobile factory, and in 1936 she traveled to Spain to join the fight against fascism. After the outbreak of World War II and the occupation of France, she took part in the Resistance, first in Marseille and then, in exile, in England.

Throughout, Weil was subject to mystical revelations. The first occurred when she glimpsed a procession honoring a saint in Portugal in 1935, the next when she visited an Italian chapel in 1937 and, as she recalls in one of the extraordinary letters collected in the posthumously published collection Waiting for God, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” The last and most important of these divine disturbances irrupted in 1938 at the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, in northwestern France. At the time, Weil was “suffering from splitting headaches…each sound hurt me like a blow.” Yet she found that she could dispel her agonies by fixing her attention on the Gregorian chant that accompanied the abbey’s Easter liturgies. “By an extreme effort of concentration,” she marvels, “I was able to rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a corner, and to find a pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words.” Although Zaretsky glosses over Weil’s paroxysms, it was at Solesmes that she first fully grasped the possibility of “divine love in the midst of affliction.” The experience was transporting: “The Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all,” she wrote.

For the next five years, Weil worked feverishly but published little. Indeed, only a handful of her articles appeared in print during her lifetime: Her three best-known books—Gravity and Grace, Waiting for God, and The Need for Roots—were published by friends and admirers after her strange death, which was perhaps a suicide and perhaps an attempt at self-immolation. While working for the Free French movement in England in 1943, she contracted tuberculosis. Her doctors urged her to eat, but she refused to accept more food than her compatriots back in occupied France were permitted on their punishing rations. In the end, she succumbed to cardiac failure, the result of both illness and starvation. She never lived to see the generations of readers who would become enthralled by the numinous vehemence of her writing.

Weil inspires hagiography, and not entirely without reason. Her prose is as piercing as the peal of a bell. Even when I imagine her at her most ridiculous, for instance, toppling into a pot of oil on the battlefield, it is hard to shake the sense that she was not wholly of this world: One of her teachers called her “the Martian,” a term of baffled endearment, and a college friend described her as “a person who lived on another planet.” The almost irresistibly tempting word for a person so adamant and adamantine is saint.

But of course, Weil was also maddening, and to his credit, Zaretsky does not paper over her obstinacy, her presumptuousness, and her occasional condescension. In his epilogue, he writes that reading Weil is “a revelation and reproach”: We can never meet “the expectations she had of herself and others. But, to be honest, I have also felt at times the irritation and impatience that many who met her also felt.” She was principled to a fault, but she was also monumentally out of touch.

“Learn Greek, it’s an easy language,” she is alleged to have told a young medical student she befriended at the Swiss sanitarium where she sought treatment for her migraines. In Spain, Zaretsky writes, she “requested to be sent behind enemy lines in order to recruit women to fight against Franco’s forces. The preposterousness of her plan and inadequacy of her command of Spanish were seen as serious handicaps by everyone but herself.” Later, during World War II, she proposed that “nurses should parachute down onto the battlefield along with soldiers dying in their fight against Hitler. The point was in part for them to treat wounded soldiers, but primarily to make a spectacle of their sacrifice.” Needless to say, this plan, defended by Weil with frenzied enthusiasm, was never enacted.

She was, as Zaretsky puts it, “irremediably maladroit” at all of the worldly tasks she set herself. When she visited a mine and asked to use the drill, she could “barely control the machine as it skipped across the coal face,” and had to be rescued by a nearby miner. “Another day,” Zaretsky continues, “she persuaded a farmer to let her try his plow. She immediately overturned it, so upsetting the farmer that he refused Weil’s peace offering of a cigarette.” These exercises in what I like to think of as “class tourism” were not just comical; they also represented moral failures of the sort that Weil, at her best, was incisive enough to condemn. At one point, she spent a month on a farm with a couple, the Bellevilles, who, Zaretsky writes,

were rightly annoyed by Weil’s insistence on how unhappy and unrewarding her life was. When their guest told them that she wanted to “live the life of the poor, share their burdens, and know their troubles,” the couple felt that Weil not only failed to recognize who they were, but also patronized them. Ultimately, the Bellevilles asked the friend who had introduced them to Weil to ask her to stop her visits.

Zaretsky concludes that Weil’s “own suffering, as well as her suffering for others, risks making her insufferable.”

The Subversive Simone Weil is never indulgent of Weil’s foibles, but it is never uncharitable to her thinking. Over the course of five chapters, Zaretsky presents Weil’s ideas fairly, probing their weaknesses and admiring their strengths. He examines, in turn, “affliction,” Weil’s word for suffering so acute that it dehumanizes and disfigures; “attention,” the mental and spiritual movement that allows us to “divest ourselves of our own selves” so that we can focus on what is outside of us; “resistance,” a term Weil herself rarely used but that nonetheless represents one of her core thematic preoccupations; “rootedness,” the sense of belonging that Weil understood just political communities to instantiate; and, all too briefly, “goodness,” which she conceives as a matter of coming into unmediated contact with God and his creations.

Zaretsky is admirably unpretentious and, for the most part, perspicuous. He is especially adept at proffering illuminating comparisons, detailing Weil’s affinity with thinkers as unexpected as George Orwell, Edmund Burke, and Johann Gottfried Herder. For those put off by her more outlandish pronouncements, Zaretsky points to updated, commonsensical alternatives expounded by Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, and Charles Taylor. Weil may be subversive, but The Subversive Simone Weil is balanced and accessible.

The problem with a balanced and accessible introduction to Weil, however, is that Weil herself was neither balanced nor accessible. She was extreme and opaque, and above all, she was devout. It is true, as Zaretsky writes, that she never “quite completed” her “embrace of Roman Catholicism,” but her trepidations derived from reservations about the institution of the church, not doubts about the central tenets of Christianity—and certainly not doubts about the existence and nature of God.

Zaretsky does not exactly pretend that Weil was not religious, at least in her personal life, but he nonetheless sets out to quietly expunge the more Christian components of her thought. His book contains almost no discussion of Gravity and Grace and Waiting for God, her two most overtly religious texts and arguably her two most important. Instead, The Subversive Simone Weil centers on Weil’s early political writings, which date to a period when she evinced a now fashionable leftism unmarred by her later extravagances. She emerges mostly domesticated.

Of course, this is not to say that domestication has no uses. Many half-crazy and half-brilliant philosophers have been the beneficiaries of judicious resuscitations. Still, would-be domesticators would do well to distinguish between their own reconstructions, contrived to satisfy to the wants of the moment, and their best efforts to work out what the thinkers at issue actually meant or believed. Weil can be secularized—her insights can be reworked so as to come apart from her theological commitments—but she herself would almost certainly reject such an intervention.

Domestication can also come at an intellectual cost: Although it renders older positions more plausible, at least by the standards of contemporary academe, it can also render them less distinctive and thereby less interesting. In Weil’s case, the cost is especially steep. A godless Weil is, frankly, not an especially novel thinker. Some of her proposals were so impractical as to be ludicrous, for instance, her indignant suggestion that journalists who publish misleading articles be sentenced to “prison or hard labour.” Some of her ideas were insightful but underdeveloped, such as her brief defense of the notion that a society’s precepts must be justifiable to its members, a view later expounded at greater length and with much greater sophistication by John Rawls.

But Weil is more daring than Zaretsky makes her out to be. Consider his comparison of the list of needs Weil compiles in The Need for Roots with Nussbaum’s famous inventory of central human capacities. He writes that there are “remarkable resemblances” between the two, neglecting to mention that Nussbaum is interested in what we need in order to flourish as human beings, whereas Weil is interested what we need in order to achieve spiritual perfection. Many of the more exotic items on Weil’s list, among them “truth” and “honor,” can be understood only in light of her ardent Christianity. We hunger for truth, by her lights, because we each harbor “a desire for good which is unique, unchanging and identical with itself for every man, from the cradle to the grave.” How are we to make sense of Weil’s list without making sense of this desire? And how are we to make sense of this desire if not by appeal to Weil’s Christian Platonism?

Indeed, much of Weil’s thought is difficult to understand without reference to her religious orientation, and as a result, several sections of The Subversive Simone Weil are confusing or outright misguided. In the chapter devoted to attention, Zaretsky stresses that Weil wants us to attend to other people so as to treat them with compassion. But attention is a good for Weil not solely or even chiefly for conventional moral reasons, but because it is worshipful—because we best revere God’s reality by taking pains to see it clearly. “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” she writes in Gravity and Grace, and in one of her most famous treatments of the subject, the eminently unsecular “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” she maintains that “prayer consists of attention.”

Because Zaretsky overlooks the connection between attention and worship, he also disregards the vital link between attention and “decreation,” a concept he banishes to the final chapter, on goodness. In his view, what Weil means by “decreation” is that “God shows his love to his creation by withdrawing from it.” But Weil is equally if not more interested in our obligation to withdraw. “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves,” she writes in Gravity and Grace. In other words, we display our love for God’s world by converging with it, so that it is the only thing left. In the end, “perfect joy excludes even the feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object no corner is left for saying ‘I.’” Successful decreation is the fruit of attention, which at its best involves such lacerating concern for its object that its subject is annihilated: “Attention alone, that attention which is so full the ‘I’ disappears, is required of me.” Only by attending to the point of self-destruction can we achieve communion with God.

Attention, then, is dangerous. It is not merely a matter of learning to perceive others sympathetically, but also and primarily a matter of self-abnegation. What makes Weil’s writing truly subversive, besides the sheer ravishments of its audacious beauty, is that she exhorts us to imperil ourselves. Time and time again, she tells us that we must learn to desire our own disappearance: “May I disappear in order that those things that I see may become perfect in their beauty from the very fact that they are no longer things that I see,” she pleads.

Zaretsky all but excises the troubling yet beguiling note of self-denial that sounds so often in both Weil’s writing and her life. In the chapter on affliction, he concedes that there is “an element of morbidity lurking in [Weil’s] description of affliction, one that can lead, as [the political theorist and Weil scholar] Mary Dietz notes, to the risk of fetishizing it.” He goes on to lament that Weil has difficulty sympathizing with those in power. But he never pauses to reflect on the origins or religious implications of Weil’s attraction to suffering. She makes it quite clear, however, that she regards wretchedness as spiritually purifying on Christian grounds. In Waiting for God, for instance, she writes, “We know that joy is the sweetness of contact with the love of God, that affliction is the wound of this same contact when it is painful, and that only the contact matters, not the manner of it.” She adds, “the death agony is the supreme dark night which is necessary even for the perfect if they are to attain absolute purity, and for that reason it is better that it should be bitter.”

Do I believe this? In the throes of certain gashing passions, I do, and I want the world to devour me. But my approbation or disapprobation is hardly the point: The point is the violent originality of the idea, and the striking personality that produced it, and the bright chime of the language. Zaretsky is concerned with evaluating Weil’s arguments as successful or unsuccessful, as if the propositions she defends are like hands that can be extracted from the gloves of their expression. No doubt there is something to be gained from treating Weil’s writings like the standard analytic fare—but there is no denying that in this instance the glove is much of what lends the hand its interest and its elegance. As T.S. Eliot wrote in his introduction to The Need for Roots, “Our first experience of Simone Weil should not be expressible in terms of approval or dissent. I cannot conceive of anybody’s agreeing with all of her views, or of not disagreeing violently with some of them. But agreement and rejection are secondary: What matters is to make contact with a great soul.” To lose a sense of Weil’s style is to lose a sense of the most subversive thing of all, namely, her sensibility as it shudders toward surrender.