If the spiritual history of the twentieth century is ever written, the life and death of one woman will be found to be paradigmatic in it.
I first learned of Simone Weil when I was a student at Concord Academy. But not there. It was through Robert Coles and his wife, Jane. Coles, a child psychiatrist and author, had met my parents in the South some years previously, when he was studying the effects of school desegregation on black and white children. By 1964, when I first came to Concord Academy, Bob and Jane Coles had moved back to the Boston area from Atlanta, where they had been living. They moved to Concord, not far from my school. I used to bicycle down to see them.
One afternoon when I was there Bob and Jane and another friend of theirs started talking about Simone Weil. I asked who she was, and Bob and his friend turned to face me, full of eagerness to answer my question. I remember the eagerness -- the enthusiasm, even the awe, with which they told me of who Simone Weil was, what she did, why she was so important to them.
Simone Weil -- “one of the most difficult intellectual figures of this difficult century to figure out” 1 -- Bob later wrote. For me it began a new stage of learning. I began buying Simone Weil’s books, reading and re-reading them. Over the next few years I read so much, reading the same things over and over again, that I felt I had memorized her: the Selected Essays, Gravity and Grace, Waiting for God, Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, First and Last Notebooks, The Need for Roots. She set me on the road of learning how to think, and I believe her writings were my first real teacher.
John Lukacs also wrote an appreciation of Simone Weil, in which he said that one of the great principles she incarnated was that of resistance. This was not only a political resistance, but also an intellectual one -- to the fads, accepted ideas and idols of the modern world. He wrote:“... her recognition of the limits of a cold and abstract rationalism includes not a single word suggesting a tendency to seek refuge in the recognition of irrationality, of the subconscious -- a tendency so typical of... twentieth-century thinkers. To the contrary: Simone Weil’s attention is directed to the workings of the conscious mind. She is thinking about thinking. 2
Born on February 3, 1909, Simone Weil was French, of Jewish parentage. Her family was not religious. She excelled in her studies, rose to the top of the rigorous Ecole Normale Superieure, and became a school teacher, then a worker -- in automobile factories, or a common farm laborer.
She did not define life in the manner of most people. “I would rather die than live without truth,” she had vowed, in her early youth. 3 It was a kind of consecration of thinking. Her personal life remained unimportant, in a sense -- she denied herself the pleasantries of diversions and romance, the pains of marriage and motherhood. “A kind of genius akin to the saints,” T.S. Eliot said of her, in his Preface to The Need for Roots, which was published, like all of her writings, after her death. Not the least of it was this religious vow adhered to without the protection of a religious order. The world has need of genius, of clear thinking, as a plague-stricken town has need of doctors -- she remarked somewhere.
It was an apt image for the call she felt -- the resistance, as John Lukacs wrote. And indeed, to read her is to gain resistance, a fortification of the immune system, where ideas are concerned. For nowadays ideas act on us as a kind of poison. We need ideas to become properly rooted in the world, but the soil of our soul and moral forces is so exhausted that the luxuriant growth of ideas in the modern world is more of a hindrance to the light than a means of letting in the light. We are all cognitively over-fertilized.
Meaningfully, Simone Weil all her life was racked by migraines. At the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes she heard Gregorian chants. The experience lifted her beyond her hunger, her migraines, the paltry flesh. She became a Christian -- a convert -- almost. She never could quite take that step. The heritage of Rome -- and that of the Old Testament -- held her back. She believed Christianity to have been corrupted by these two sources. The Old Testament remained for her a “tissue of horrors”; as she could never accept the ancient Hebrews, she could never accept her own Jewish heritage. “Life was difficult for Weil because she systematically refused to accept who she was,” commented a book reviewer. 4 It was, possibly, a form of resistance to everything determined -- even to the matters of inheritance.
As for Rome -- she compared it to the Third Reich -- it was the “Great Beast.” The sense of justice and proportion she so admired in the Greeks was sometimes lacking in her own opinions. T.S. Eliot remarked that it was often said of Weil that she never gave way in an argument: “... all her thought was so intensely lived, that the abandonment of any opinion required modifications in her own being.”
Simone Weil might not have liked that. Once she remarked something to the effect: “What in this world is most opposed to purity? The pursuit of intensity.” No wonder she was drawn to the Cathars, the ‘Pure Ones,’ and the civilization of Languedoc they inspired. It was the true renaissance, she thought: “The essence of the Languedocian inspiration is identical with that of the Greek inspiration...Liberty was loved. Obedience was loved no less. The unity of these two contraries is the Pythagorean harmony in society. But harmony is only possible between things that are pure.” 5
The Weil family managed to emigrate to America after the outbreak of the Second World War. Simone fretted for a time in New York, although she liked visiting the black churches in Harlem. She had a plan to parachute a brigade of nurses to the Front, herself being the first volunteer. She could not win over the French government to this suicidal mission. But she thought that such an example of selfless mercy would help win the cause of the Allies. It would be an act of moral imagination to counter the blood-and-soil imagination of the Nazis.
There is also a challenge to the West in her plan. If the West were not capable of such a noble imagination of self-sacrifice, did it deserve to triumph? She was ever one to see beyond sloganeering, and “Progress, Freedom, and Democracy” were nothing but slogans. Robert Coles quotes her: “The ‘moral revival’ which certain people wish to impose would be much worse than the condition it is meant to cure. If our present suffering ever leads to a revival, this will not be brought about through slogans but in silence and moral loneliness, through pain, misery, and terror, and in the profoundest depths of each man’s spirit.” 6
Finally returned to London, she worked feverishly at the Free French headquarters and wrote her book, The Need for Roots, embodying a vision for the world after the Allied victory. She was, says Eliot particularly of this work, “more truly a lover of order and hierarchy than most of those who call themselves Conservative, and more truly a lover of the people than most of those who call themselves Socialist.”
Indeed she was feverish, because she had contracted tuberculosis. The prognosis might have been good had she not refused to eat more food than was allowed by wartime rationing to her compatriots in France. She died at thirty-four, in 1943, in a santorium in Kent. 7
Simone Weil felt that in the Church, considered as an institution, “the mysteries inevitably degenerate into beliefs.” 8 Her quest for the true sources of inspiration for civilization led her to the Greek Mysteries, which she believed to be the real inspiration of the New Testament. These Mysteries had to do with the understanding of the nature of force:“... Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed... This retribution, which has a geometrical rigor, which operates automatically to penalize the abuse of force, was the main subject of Greek thought. It is the soul of the epic... In Oriental countries which are steeped in Buddhism, it is perhaps this Greek idea which has lived on under the name of Kharma. The Occident, however, has lost it, and no longer even has a word to express it in any of its languages: conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life are, in the West, restricted to a servile function in the vocabulary of technics.” 9
No one in this age has written more forcefully than Simone Weil of such things as obedience, obligation, necessity, and attention. All of these impinge, in some way, upon the idea of the impersonal, which for her was the domain of the sacred and the truthful. “So far from its being his person, what is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him... Truth and beauty dwell on this level of the impersonal and anonymous.” (From “Human Personality,” in the Selected Essays.) “He who is perfectly obedient sets an infinite price upon the faculty of free choice in all men.” (Waiting for God) From the same work: “To empty outselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the centre of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centres and that the true centre is outside the world, this is to consent to the rule of mechanical necessity in matter and of free choice at the centre of each soul.”
But she was, finally, a kind of pre-Damascus Christian. She could not make it to the Resurrection: “... if the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s Resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me.” 10
This is a terrible mistake, even a blasphemy, later echoed in her devastating prayer -- “Oh God, grant that I may become nothing.” No movement, sensation, or thought. It was as if Christ had never spoken the I am, so that all other human beings might speak it, the I am that is with us always, even to the end of the age. It is this I am that is the bridge from the impersonal to the personal. It was as if Simone Weil relinquished her own claim to the personal in this terrible cry for willed non-being.
Still, I think that she must be reckoned as a genius of the age, for “Real genius is nothing other than the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought.” And that humility, that humus, brings us back to the ground, the soil, in which thinking must be rooted if it is to bear fruit.
* * *
I remember once bringing up the subject of Simone Weil with an older married friend of mine. She did not have a high opinion of a woman who, however remarkable, willfully refused to involve herself in the commonality of humanity in the sense of matrimony and the possibility of children. The truth, my friend thought, did not lie in the path of asceticism. The ‘aloneness’ of Simone Weil struck seemed to her pathetic or tragic.
I had a strange experience with bearing upon Simone Weil when I was living in Florence, Italy. After a brief consummated affair with a charming Frenchman, I went to live in Florence, where I noted with some consternation that my menstrual periods had ceased. That is, they were most irregular and curtailed and at one point ceased altogether. I was afraid I might be pregnant, and this anxiety cast a shadow over almost my whole time in Italy.
At the Pensione Bardellini where I was staying, there were several English guests. On one occasion I went out to dinner with Miss Rosalie Thurston and Mr. Cleasby, English compatriots, both older than myself. At one point in the conversation I got to talking of how Simone Weil’s writings had influenced me. Miss Thurston said,”Oh, yes, some years ago I met her son -- the son of Simone Weil, in England.” I said that was quite impossible; Simone Weil never married and there is no indication, either in biographies of her or in her own writings, that she even had a physical relationship of any kind with a man.
Miss Thurston remained quite positive. “Oh, I am quite certain of it. He was just a boy, I remember it quite well, someone told me who he was.” I asked if the child might have been the son of Simone Weil’s brother, a mathematician. But again Miss Thurston was not to be dissuaded from her conviction that the boy she had met was “the son of Simone Weil.”
This conversation had the most extraordinary effect upon me. It is remarkable that even in something we know is not true, which cannot be true, (and which yet does, remotely speaking, have the possibility of truth) there can be a burden lifted, an anxiety lightened, a worry diminished. Such was the result of this conversation for me. I simply no longer worried whether I was pregnant or not. It became just one of those things to deal with, which I could deal with. I walked out of the restaurant a “new woman,” so to speak. It was wonderful.
As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. I was not pregnant, as it turned out. In any case, I have no explanation for this curious incident. Simone Weil’s sister-in-law had a son, Alain, who would have been about ten years old in 1942. (I do not know whether this child was the son of her brother, or by the sister-in-law from a previous marriage.) Simone Weil also had a close friend, Simone Dietz, who wrote a biography of her friend. I do not know whether Simone Dietz had any children.
In discussing a somewhat similar incident in his own life, my husband remarked of it, “he [i.e., the deceased friend] was saying hello.” This comes as close to an explanation as I can find. I felt Simone Weil was saying hello to me. And it was a hello made in a sort of divinely-attained humor: it went against truth, and it went in favor of procreation. Evidently, she was attending to the further development of her soul, wherever she was! For it would be beyond the borders of mortal life that she would finally reconcile with mortal life.
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1 Robert Coles, “Simone Weil: The Mystery of Her Life,” Yale Review, Winter, 1984.
2 John Lukacs, “Resistance: Simone Weil,” Salmagundi, No. 85-86.
3 “There is something in this world that is more important than the pursuit of justice. It is the pursuit of truth.” John Lukacs.
4 Michael Ignatieff, “The Limits of Sainthood,” a review of several biographies of Simone Weil, The New Republic, June 18, 1990.
5 S. Weil, “The Romanesque Renaissance,” in Selected Essays, London, Oxford, 1962, p. 48, 51.
6 R. Coles, Simone Weil, A Modern Pilgrimage, Reading, Mass. Addison-Wesley Pubs,, 1987; facing p. 89.
7 And her death does resemble that of the Cathars: “death by starvation is said to have been practiced by the Cathars...It was probably a more common practice for people who had received the Cathar sacrament, the Consolamentum, on their deathbeds, to abstain from taking nourishment in order not to prolong life unduly. This... was called the Endura.” Arthur Guirdham, The Cathars and Reincarnation, C.W. Daniel Co., Essex, 1970. No page noted.
8 David McLellan, Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil, New York, Poseidon Press, 1990, p. 193.
9 S. Weil, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, Pendle Hill Pamphlet, no. 91, 1956, p. 14, 15.
10 David McLellan, op.cit., p. 192.
© 2002 Caryl JohnstonCaryl Johnston was born in 1947 in Birmingham, Alabama. She received her B.A. in philosophy from Birmingham-Southern College, and Master's degrees from Tufts University in Boston and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She currently makes her home in Birmingham and is employed as an Editorial Assistant at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. She is the author of several books, including Consecrated Venom and a number of book reviews, op-eds, and feature articles. You can view more of Caryl's work on her website at http://www.dpo.uab.edu/~logoform/