As she lay dying from tuberculosis and self-imposed starvation, Simone Weil continued to write. During those last months, she pointed to Shakespeare’s fools as models for the writer, declaring that only the dispossessed are truly free to speak the truth. Her writing is grounded in her own pursuit of a voluntary poverty, isolation, and exile that would free her to speak this fool’s truth. Many readers have pondered whether these impassioned, lucid, and critical essays are the work of a holy fool or just a plain fool. She has been seen as a saint, a madwoman, a failure, a genius. Yet even her detractors grant her a place as an important political and religious writer, although she published only a handful of essays during her lifetime.
For Weil, writing was resistance and the essay was a means of action. Her essays and journals read like a series of letters from the front, in which a creative, tough-minded, passionate, philosophically trained mind bears witness to the horrors of exploitation, unemployment, and war. Her productivity is astonishing—16 volumes in a posthumous collected edition edited by André A.Devaux and Florence de Lussy. For the most part this work is fragmentary, unfinished, unrevised—a series of sketches. Yet her style is often powerful when it reflects the sort of “nakedness” Weil admired—a resistance to ideology, ornament, and rationalizations.
Her work falls into two phases, separated by a period of transition in which disillusionment with human ability gives way to faith in a hidden God. Essays and journals of the first period, from 1931 to 1936, explore the problems of her era from a revolutionary-political vantage point, while the writings of 1938 to 1943 are permeated by the religious reflection engendered by her “waiting for God.” Both the political and religious writings are characterized by unconventional challenges to economic, social, and spiritual ideologies and institutions.
Believing that idolatry—a clinging to a particular dogma—is a chief danger of intellectual life, Weil adopts the stance of outsider, speaking with the voice of the loyal adversary and often employing paradox and dialectic. Her prose, particularly in the last decade, enacts her ideals of attention (attention) and waiting (attente) by remaining grounded in experience and resisting closure.
Weil’s plain and often aphoristic style reflects the influence of her teacher, the French philosopher Emile Auguste Chartier, better known by his pen name Alain. He trained his students to think critically by assigning them topoi, take-home essay examinations. These essays developed WeiPs preference for short, straightforward, precise prose forms and schooled her in an inductive method. For Weil, induction came to mean contact with real situations—visiting a mine before writing about miners, harvesting grapes before writing about agricultural workers. Weil’s early essays, published in Alain’s Libre Propos (Free propos [remarks]), clearly reflect his anarchistic and pacifistic influence. But Alain’s brilliant pupil soon began to demonstrate intellectual independence, embracing activism and criticizing democratic liberalism, Marxism, and totalitarianism with equal vigor.
As a teacher at a girls’ school, Weil practiced voluntary poverty and devoted her spare time to political activism, basing her work for the Tribune Républicaine on her experiences in the teacher’s union, among the unemployed, and with mine workers. This resulted in a growing critique of Marx’s lack of awareness of working conditions and of the impact of technology. In Simone Weil: An Introduction to Her Thought (1982), John
Hellman suggests that after the apprenticeship writing of these years, Weil found the traditional political essay too narrow in scope.
Weil’s insistence on writing anchored in experience gave power to her political thought despite her failure—or deliberate refusal—to systematize. For the next two decades Weil’s writing forms a sort of ongoing journal of a mind evolving in response to historical reality—strikes, war, the resistance movement, the rise of Hitler. As events unfold, the essays and journal entries provide an impassioned eyewitness account.
Writing in L’Express (1951), Camus called her “the only great spirit of our time.” A philosopher by training and a political activist by choice, she also became a major spiritual writer. Essays growing out of a 1932 visit to Germany demonstrate Weil’s willingness to report what she saw—even when it ran counter to leftist expectations. But Weil’s 1934 Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (pub. posthumously 1980; Reflections concerning the causes of liberty and social oppression) shows more clearly the strength of her moralist stance. Despite its oversimplifications, undeveloped sketches, and preaching tone, Camus praised this essay, comparing Weil to Marx.
The 1934–36 journals of Weil’s experiences of factory work and of the Spanish Civil War form a turning point, as romanticized views of worker solidarity and heroism give way to disillusionment, particularly as she witnesses disorder, incompetence, and brutality in Spain. These journals confirm her declaration in the 1934 Réflexions: “From human beings, no help can be expected.”
Yet the journals, letters, and essays of the late 1930s and early 1940s record an experience of help from another quarter. Simone Weil had not sought for God, but seeking truth, felt that God came to her. In Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987) Robert Coles suggests that Weil’s 1942. “Spiritual Autobiography,” is, like Augustine’s Confessions, “a performance for God.” While Weil shares Augustine’s apologetic bent and sense of being God-directed, the differences between the two are instructive. While Augustine weaves a highly ornamented, architectural, epic narrative, Weil’s spiritual autobiography is stripped down, focused, and couched in the form of a letter to a friend.
While Augustine narrates a journey from opposition and exile to acceptance and homecoming, Weil’s apologia is the story of one who loves God but remains in exile.
Seeking to embody “a truly incarnated Christianity,” she rejects membership in a Church whose anathema sit aligns it with totalitarian forces threatening to engulf her world. In Weil’s narrative, a procession of fishermen’s wives in Portugal shows the young woman who has “received forever the mark of the slave” as a factory worker the nature of Christianity as “preeminently the religion of slaves.” Her later experiences at Assisi and Solesmes, along with George Herbert’s “Love” and the paternoster, re-create a pattern common to mystic spiritual autobiography—a sense of an overpowering reality at once hidden, intimate, and beautiful, ordering the cosmos, and reordering the self. Like Augustine, Weils pursuit of truth results in rejecting ideologies and embracing God.
“Christ,” she says in the “Autobiography,” “likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
As her faith dawned, Weil studied Greek poetry and Gregorian music, writing about Antigone for a plant newspaper and finding in The Iliad a metaphor for a world obsessed with power. With the collapse of France in 1940, she wrote for the Resistance, contributing to Les Cahiers du Sud (Notebooks from the south) and scribbling schemes for parachuting nurses to the front. The daughter of agnostic, assimilated Jews, Weil
vehemently denied her Jewishness and refused to confront the plight of the Jews, focusing instead on workers and on colonial oppression. Yet in Simone Weil: An Introduction (1994) Heinz Abosch suggests that her mature writing reflects elements of her Jewish heritage in her insistence on connecting thought and action, her mysticism, her prophetic social stance, and her focus on God’s unity and hiddenness.
L’Enracinement (1949; The Need for Roots), written as she was dying in England in 1943, embodies Weil’s characteristic merging of political, moral, and theological reflections on the problems of her time. Drafted as a plan for France’s future, it is a series of essays linked by the metaphor of rootedness as she examines the “needs of the soul” and calls for a social order grounded in a “spiritual core” of physical labor. In The Need for Roots the polarities of Weil’s thought are evident as she veers between the moralist’s authoritarian need for order and the individual’s anarchistic thirst for freedom, wrestling to speak a Fool’s holy and unvarnished truth.
LINDA MILLS WOOLSEY
See also Autobiographical Essay; Religious Essay
Born 3 February 1909 in Paris. Studied at the Lycée Fénelon, 1920–24, and Lycée Victor Duruy, Paris, 1924–25, baccalauréat, 1925; Lycée Henri IV (where she was taught by Alain), Paris, 1925–28; École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1928–31, agrégation in philosophy, 1931. Suffered from violent headaches, from 1930. Taught philosophy in various schools in Le Puy, Auxerre, Roanne, Bourges, and Saint-Quentin, 1931–38;
factory worker for Renault, Alsthom, and Carnaud, 1934–35. Volunteer with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936. Converted from Judaism to Christianity, 1938. Lived with her parents in Paris, Vichy, and Marseilles, 1939–42. Contributor, Les Cahiers du Sud, 1940. Fled from Nazi occupation to the United States, then England, 1942; worked for the Ministry of the Interior in De Gaulle’s Free French movement, 1943. Died (of tuberculosis and self-neglect) in Ashford, Kent, 24 August 1943.
Essays and Related Prose
La Pesanteur et la grâce (Gustave Thibon’s selection from the Marseilles Notebooks),
1947; as Gravity and Grace, translated by Arthur Wills, 1952, and Emma Craufurd, 1952
L’Enradnement: Prélude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l’être humain, 1949; as
The Need for Roots, translated by Arthur Wills, 1952
Attente de Dieu (letters and articles), 1950; as Waiting for God, translated by Emma Craufurd, 1951
La Connaissance surnaturelle (notebooks), 1950; translated by Richard Rees in First and Last Notebooks, 1970
Cahiers, 3 vols., 1951–56; enlarged edition, 1970; as The Notebooks of Simone Weil, translated by Arthur Wills, 2 vols., 1956
Intuitions préchrétiennes (writings on Greek philosophy), 1951; as Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, translated by Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler, 1957
La Condition ouvrière (factory journal and articles), 1951; part translated by Richard Rees, in Seventy Letters, 1965
Lettre à un religieux, 1951; as Letter to a Priest, translated by Arthur Wills, 1954
La Source grecque, 1953; part translated by Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler, in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, 1957, and by Richard Rees in On Science, Necessity and the Love of God, 1968
Oppression et liberté, edited by Albert Camus, 1955; as Oppression and Liberty, translated by Arthur Wills and John Petrie, 1958
The Iliad; or, The Poem of Force (pamphlet), translated by Mary McCarthy, 1956
Écrits de Londres et dernières lettres, 1957; part translated by Richard Rees, in Selected Essays, 1962
Leçons de philosophie, 1959; as Lectures on Philosophy, translated by Hugh Price, 1978 Écrits historiques et politiques (short articles), 1960
Pensées sans ordre concernant l’amour de Dieu (articles), 1962; part translated by Richard Rees, in Seventy Letters, 1965
Selected Essays, 1934–43, translated by Richard Rees, 1962
Seventy Letters, translated by Richard Rees, 1965
Sur la science (letters and articles), 1966; part translated by Richard Rees, in On Science, Necessity and the Love of God, 1968
On Science, Necessity and the Love of God, translated by Richard Rees, 1968
First and Last Notebooks, translated by Richard Rees, 1970
The Simone Weil Reader, edited by George A.Panichas, 1977
Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale, 1980
An Anthology, edited by Siân Miles, 1986
Formative Writings, 1929–41, edited and translated by Dorothy T. McFarland and Wilhemina van Ness, 1987
Other writings: philosophical and mystical works.
Collected works edition: OEuvres complètes (Pléiade Edition), general editors André A.Devaux and Florence de Lussy, 5 vols., 1988–94 (in progress; 16 vols. projected).
Little, Janet Patricia, Simone Weil: A Bibliography, London: Grant and Cutler, 1973; supplement, 1979
Abosch, Heinz, Simone Weil: An Introduction, New York: Pennbridge, 1994
Allen, Diogenes, Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Simone Weil, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 1983
Cabaud, Jacques, Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love, New York: Channel Press, 1964
Coles, Robert, Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage, Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley, 1987
Hardwick, Elizabeth, “Simone Weil,” in Bartleby in Manhattan, and Other Essays, New York: Random House, 1983
Hellman, John, Simone Weil: An Introduction to Her Thought, Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984
Lichtheim, George, “Simone Weil,” in his Collected Essays, New York: Viking, 1973
McFarland, Dorothy T., Simone Weil, New York: Ungar, 1983
Milosz Czestaw “The Importance of Simone Weil,” in his Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977
Murdoch, Iris, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’,” in Revisions: Changing Perspectives in Moral Philosophy, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Aiasdair Maclntyre, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983
Petrement, Simone, Simone Weil: A Life, New York: Schocken, 1988 (original French edition, 1973)
Rees, Richard, Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1966
Sontag, Susan, “Simone Weil,” in her Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, New York: Anchor, 1990 (original edition, 1966)
Springstead, Eric, Affliction and the Love of God: The Spirituality of Simone Weil, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 1986
White, George Abbott, editor, Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981
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