Simone Weil: A Life On Fire

By Tony Kendrew

simoneweil

No one is going to raise their eyebrows if this is the first time you’ve heard of Simone Weil. Her heyday was fifty years ago, a generation after her death, a time of radical politics and spiritual naivety. What is fascinating is the persistence of her reputation in these more complicated times.

Back then Simone’s left-leaning politics made her views welcome at café tables where people still believed in revolutionary political solutions to social problems. And it was a time when people like you and me were still conventional enough, or innocent or ignorant enough, to turn to their own birth religions for answers to the eternal existential questions of who and why. The Beatles would not meet the Maharishi until 1967. The years since then have witnessed the real religious revolution.

In the 1930s and 40s only a few rare souls made the pilgrimage to Aurobindo, Yogananda and Ramana. The unity in the diversity of religious experience and expression was not self-evident. It would be decades before the floodgates opened to the east - to Neem Karoli Baba, Muktananda, Rajneesh, Nisargadatta and Papaji, among many – and the recognition in the west of the universal nature of religious revelation became commonplace.

That particular blend of political activism and religious conservatism suited the highly analytic mind of Simone Weil. She was more comfortable broadening her understanding of the interconnectedness of religious traditions through reading about them, and learning their languages, than searching out and experiencing their source. Her insights about the church were reached from intellectual arguments based on her precocious reading of Greek, Latin, Babylonian and Sanskrit classics, in the original. She had not read the mystics, so the personal revelation of Christ that came in her late thirties was a shock both to her and her friends and must have contributed to her conviction that she had the authority to argue directly with representatives of Christ’s church. In this she was guilty, along with thousands of other apostates who had been excommunicated or slaughtered in the name of Christ in the previous nineteen centuries. Except that she was never a member of the church; her parents were Jewish.

Her intellectual curiosity and reputation for charity gave her access to Catholic scholar-priests of the day, with whom she had meetings and carried on lengthy correspondence. These letters display some of her most striking writing, often bold and argumentative, though what is hard to understand now, and places Simone Weil in her time like nothing else, is that she found it necessary to persuade the Catholic church to come round to her point of view. She loved Krishna and the Gita, and recognized its religious significance, so we sense her frustration with a church that would never allow her to embrace both Krishna and Christ. She courted the church, but finally turned it down. Why did she not simply walk away? What feeling of lack, or respect for the establishment, or need for inclusion, kept pushing her up against the church, engaging with it? She wasn’t born into it. Perhaps she saw it as the only institution which could, by embracing her vision of Christ’s love, properly serve the disadvantaged she felt so passionately about.

We are reminded of T.S. Eliot, who also felt obliged to embrace the church, in his case Anglicanism, though his approach completely lacked Simone’s fervor. Eliot met Simone (I’m inclined to call T.S. by his last name and Weil by her first) and wrote that she “displayed an almost superhuman humility and what appears to be an almost outrageous arrogance.” It is as if the time was not ripe for people, however brilliant, to abandon the traditions of their upbringing and the blinders of their thinking, and break free. Or is that kind of intellectual brilliance the cause of their imprisonment? 

I have little admiration for self-abnegation and adopted poverty – two lifestyle choices at which Simone Weil excelled. We know of the benefits of fasting and of shedding the material, but she went far beyond both and had a serious eating disorder. In this she is joined by a number of female mystics, including Saint Teresa of Avila. Simone would often refuse to eat more than the disadvantaged people that she read about and seemed resigned to her death at the age of 34 from causes directly related to starving herself. Whether she ate anything in the last days remains unclear, but how she reached that point is a matter for psychologists, who will also take into account the fact that she hated to be touched, and was plagued with suicidal thoughts and persistent headaches.

Simone’s self-denial found itself into her writing and philosophy, and many Catholic intellectuals, especially those of liberation theology, have been influenced by her thought. Pope Paul VI, whose reign coincided with the peak of her popularity, specifically mentioned her as an influence. One of her pivotal ideas was decreation, the renunciation of the gift of free will in acceptance of everything that is. Today we might say she was caught in a misunderstanding, that free will isn’t something that is ours to renounce in the first place.

Simone Weil was a deeply complex personality and this is a brief and selective introduction, offering a few glimpses into a life of wide-ranging scholarship, particularly in political and religious philosophy, and ceaseless movement. In addition to her political activity and large output of writing, she taught in schools, worked in the Renault car plant and fought in the Spanish Civil War - a life of enormous achievement despite, or because of, her obsession with the fear of idleness. Even to call her a personality is a stretch, as many who met her described her as a saint, a woman who came across to the friends she was dedicated to as devoid of ego - this despite her reputation for stubbornness and Eliot’s “outrageous arrogance”.

The question that persists after getting to know Simone Weil through her biographies and writings is: Why did she make such an impact on people during her life, and why does her reputation continue to inspire biographies and PhD theses to this day? Thousands of articles have been written about her since her premature death, there is a university department in the United States devoted to her life and work, and – by far the most interesting and significant fact – the love that she showed to ordinary people she came in contact with and her devotion to the underprivileged had a huge impact on everyone who met her. She was often described as enthusiastic and cheerful, and her capacity for attention was total. People loved her.

Followers of the nondual perspective at the beginning of the twenty-first century read in Simone’s writing a philosopher married to dualism and blind to the possibility of religious freedom, yet recognize in it the self-denying saintliness that made people fall in love with her. Was this short-sightedness to be expected and unquestioned in the first half of the last century, its independence from spiritual revelation taken for granted?

The love people felt for her was complex. Countless officials of the church and state and social services and political parties and trade unions had another way of expressing it: Why can’t she just go away? This reaction to her presence started when she was barely out of diapers. Simone gnawed at their conscience. Listening to the rants of this skinny upstart it is hard to blame them. And she did rant, often complaining exclusively about what she considered her rights – in the case of her pestering of the Free French government in London in the war years, her right virtually to commit suicide by being parachuted into occupied France for missions for the French Resistance. Here she was apparently blind to her woeful incompetence with a rifle, which would have put her fellow combatants at risk, and to the fact, obvious to anyone who saw her, that she was the embodiment of classical Jewish good looks.

It is clear that her desire for martyrdom (or at least for death) blinded her to practicalities. She worked far too hard and slept little. We long to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, or stare into her eyes and shout, “Simone! Get a life!” – though suspecting all the while that it might be she that had a life, not us. Easier to time travel her to our own era, where we could place her in the care of someone almost as brilliant (never equally brilliant) who has come to terms with the universality of the Christian message but has no need for the church to join her on her ecumenical bandwagon. We would take Simone by the hand and introduce her to the hundreds of people who have embraced Christ in their daily lives, but are not tormented by their inability to receive the host.

The simple truth of presence is so much a part of the world in which many of us are lucky enough to move today, and it may be that Simone’s obsession with her own standards of intellectual truth closed her ears and heart to its simplicity. The persistent impression is that her ideals, the concepts, got in the way of the facts. There is no sign that she was attracted to living teachers who might have pointed this out to her, preferring to broaden her understanding of religious traditions through reading. What would she have made of Gurdjieff, who was also in Paris on and off in the twenties and thirties of the last century? Or was she just on fire from the inequalities she witnessed and read about, and mere facts were not going to stand in the way of her compassion? Is that why we care about her, why we, who have learned from the misconceptions of previous generations, who are celebrating an era when freedom of thought and belief are at unprecedented levels and the church’s power to dictate has faded, still keep the memory of Simone Weil alive?

There is a temptation to turn her story into a gender issue, and it may be that women find her a more sympathetic character than men do. Women can certainly relate to Simone’s frustration with the obstinacy of a male-dominated church and political system, to say nothing of their capacity for empathy. They would want to sit her down and hold her hand (if she allowed it) rather than grab her by the shoulders. They know the compulsion to address suffering when they see it, and can bring understanding and compassion.

Or is her tragedy more a function of the power of the intellect, of which she was a formidable example? Is tragedy always found in the places brilliance can take us, especially brilliance with no grounding in the practical and the obvious? It would be convenient to be able to say that her opinionated idealism was because she was overly bookish, but that was not the case. She went out of her way to experience life at its most raw. It is more that she was disabled by a bookish intellect too quick for the body’s sensitivity, and lacked the common sense to connect the two.
Despite the warmth of her interactions with individuals, the impression we get from Simone’s philosophy is of a profound pessimism. It is not only a sign of the times she lived in that we read so much of evil and oppression and affliction. Someone who has managed the marriage of intellect and feeling would not be so committed to a vision of the world as projector of good and evil, or say that what is real is what is hard and rough, or see as evidence for our sacredness that we believe that good and not evil will be projected.

But our wish to look back and extend a helping hand says more about us then Simone Weil. It’s no wonder she kept people at arm’s length; she spent her whole life on fire. The words of one of her many biographers, Richard Rees, points to the reason we still care deeply about her: As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.

Selected books by and about Simone Weil

Writings:

The Simone Weil Reader edited by George A. Panichas (David McKay Company, 1977)
Waiting for God (Harper, 2009)
Simone Weil, Late Philosophical Writings (University of Notre Dame, 2015)

Biographies:

Simone Weil by Francine du Plessix Gray (Viking Penguin, 2011)
Simone Weil, A Life by Simone Pétrement (Random House, 1976)

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