Simone Weil: Thinking Poetically

by Joan Dargan
214 pages,
ISBN: 0791442241

Simone Weil And The Intellect Of Grace

by Henry Leroy Finch
295 pages,
ISBN: 0826411908

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The Workers’ Mystic
by Douglas Fetherling

Books about the life and thought of Simone Weil, the French philosopher and woman of action, continue to tumble from presses as they have for the past decade or more. These are signs that this intellectual maverick, so at odds with her time that she was little read in her own day, is edging closer and closer to the mainstream . The two latest works are Simone Weil: Thinking Poetically by Joan Dargan (SUNY Press, 214 pages, US $17.95 paper, ISBN: 0791442241) and Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace by Henry Leroy Finch (McClelland & Stewart, 295 pages, $38.99 cloth, ISBN: 0826411908). The first is a study of Weil’s aphoristic prose style and how central it was to her thinking; the second, a general overview of her evolving thought, seeks to get at the why of her growing posthumous reputation. Weil was born in Paris in 1909, which makes her part of the same generation as Albert Camus (an early champion), Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and André Malraux. Being an early achiever, this puts her squarely into student life in the 1920s, when she came under the spell of Emile-August Chartier, the neo-Platonist philosopher known simply as Alain. She was the daughter of non-observant Jews but found herself drawn slowly to a radical Christianity during the Depression, when she also began to reject the academy for a life of engagement with real problems. Only Jesus and Charlie Chaplin, she wrote in a typical moment, have understood the working class. By 1932, she was demonstrating with the unemployed, and by 1933 (the year she met Trotsky), she was marching with a new miners’ union. Engaged by Alain’s type of neo-Plantonist individualism, she was at once a progressive socialist and a quietist, preaching non-involvement. This led her for a while to split the difference by embracing anarcho-syndicalism, the movement advocating worker control of factories. Unlike Marx or John D. Rockefeller, she was concerned not with who owned the means of production but with the effects of modern industrialism—the cult of business for its own sake—on the individual’s life and the environment. This last fact has made her seem particularly up-to-date to today’s readers. What distinguishes Weil from so many of her contemporaries is that she was prepared to put her views to the test and live out her ideas, not by seeking the hero’s glory or the martyr’s self-satisfaction, but by immersing herself in the shared drudgery of the workplace. In 1934, she took the first of a series of jobs in Parisian factories, operating pneumatic presses and milling machinery. She saw no contradiction in alternating such dog labour with the teaching of philosophy. In 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, she joined an anarchist contingent of the international Loyalist forces. She drafted a plan for the improvement of medical care for the wounded but was herself invalided out after an accident in a field kitchen—ironic, as she was an anorexic all her life, and a kind of anorexic by principle as well. While recuperating, Weil moved farther towards Christianity and finally embraced the church while becoming, predictably, a radical outcast among remotely mainstream Christian communities: a mystic and Christian pantheist, if there is such a thing. She made the pious nervous. When the Nazis captured Paris, Weil was heard to say that it was a great day for the oppressed colonists of French Indo-China. But, of course, she was eager to join in the struggle against Hitler. Her family by this time had removed to Marseilles, where she became involved in a literary magazine, Cahiers du sud. Inspired by a reading of the Bhagavad-Gita, she studied Sanskrit and wondered what to do. Refused a teaching post because of her Jewish background, she took to agricultural field work. In 1942, she left for America after being stuck for a short time in Casablanca—yes, just like the characters in the movie. She then recrossed to London, where she hoped to join the French resistance, only to end up in a British detention camp. Finally she got work as a Free French propagandist and policy analyst in London, but her career was brought up short when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. One of Weil’s German students, Heinz Abosch, has written that she “never stopped giving expression to a feeling of alienation and isolation. She rebelled against all existing relations—against the State, against society, against her personal existence as a member of her class. She rebelled against existing definitions—as a woman, as an intellectual, as a Jew and as a Frenchwoman. Ultimately, she rejected life completely and chose death” by refusing treatment—and indeed, refusing nourishment. She died in the summer of 1943 when she was only thirty-four and is buried in Kent in England. Her cult and the countervailing anti-cult continue to grow. From time to time, there is talk of her being set loose on the long road to official sainthood, but most people believe such a goal is unlikely to be achieved during the life of the present God. Other excellent books on Weil, though currently out of print, are Robert Coles’ Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987) and David McClelland’s Utopian: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil (1990). Numerous collections of her own writings are available, of which the most accessible is Gravity and Grace (University of Nebraska Press).

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