To the Editor:
An essayist addressing himself to the life, opinions, and character of Simone Weil is obliged to confront her anti-Semitism full tilt, as Edward Grossman has done in his review of Simone Pétrement’s biography [Books in Review, June]. But his judgment is touched by spots of the same disease; perhaps it is impossible to handle such virulence at close range without coming away vaguely infected, if only by the struggle to find just outlets for one’s justified repugnance.
An unjust outlet, it seems to me, is to speak of Simone Weil as a stale Jewish female “type.” If she is such a type, who are her predecessors, where are her successors? One cannot speak fairly of types without the illuminations of a larger context. Mr. Grossman writes, “The type that Simone Weil appears to have embodied . . . is the intellectual-middle-class-virgin of Jewish extraction.” He elaborates slightly: “Some of the souls who resemble her” keep diaries of a certain kind. They also have a certain kind of nose, flat shoes, migraines, and they hate being made of flesh. But where does this epithet—“intellectual-middle-class-virgin-of-Jewish-extraction”—lead, how does it enlighten, to what other Jewish virgins, celebrated or private, might it allude? Simone Weil is a political and, some think, a religious figure. What other middle-class virgin women of Jewish origins have been of her political or religious or philosophical stripe? And in what way is virginity relevant to any thinker’s political expression? Mr. Grossman lays no ground for his coarse-grained epithet. As an epithet, without the support of life, literature, or history, it emerges only as a gratuitous slur. Anti-Semites too deal in unsupported Jewish “types.” . . . There are more sophisticated, sharper, and tougher ways to strike at Simone Weil’s intellectual and moral irresponsibilities than to upbraid her for spinsterism. In doing that, Mr. Grossman means to trivialize Weil, but surely her already sturdy reputation as a “saint” is too threatening to the Jewish people, whom she hated. to be trivialized. Trivialization does not meet the strength of the threat. The assault on “the nose,” shoes, “hairdo out of the cartoons,” Jewishness, and sexual status common to “her type” leaves the saint intact and diminishes only her critic. Sneering will never substitute for argument.
A second and much more deeply unjust outlet for Mr. Grossman’s justified repugnance for Simone Weil is to wish that Hitler had caught her. What a lesson (Mr. Grossman would have us understand) for an anti-Semitic apostate! “Simone Weil,” he writes, “was denied the logical, just climax to her life and work—to be dropped into France in 1943, there to be arrested, tagged with the yellow star, interned with other Jews, shipped East.” That would teach the self-denier who is a Jew! But the use of Hitler as an instrument to punish bad Jews, even a Jew like Simone Weil who was as clear an enemy of the Jewish people as Hitler himself, ought to be contrary both to logic and to conscience. It is true that her views abetted Hitler. And it is true that had she perished in the death camps it would have made a nice intellectual irony. But it is an irony that no Jew, not even an intellectual (non-virgin?) essayist, ought to perceive as the “just climax” to the life of another Jew. No Jew, not even a bad Jew, not even an execrable Jew, not even an anti-Semitic intellectual-middle-class-virgin Jew, deserved Hitler. I am not sure whether, had Simone Weil died in Auschwitz, we would have counted her death as kiddush ha-shem; I suspect we would have wanted to, for the sake of a more spiritual kind of irony; but one thing has got to be certain: there can be no Jewish use for Hitler. Hitler’s work must not be made into a Jewish opportunity to deal posthumously with Jewish miscreants. In his desire to punish Simone Weil for, as he puts it, “the outrage she committed, not on her kin, but on herself,” Mr. Grossman should find a different kind of “logical, just climax.” She was a defamer; her falsehoods are owed repeated public contempt, and the stench of her so-called sainthood should be exposed. But to posit the murder of still another Jew by Hitler as “logical” and “just” is to abet Hitler, and in that abetment to imitate Simone Weil at her most offensive.
New Rochelle, New York
Edward Grossman writes:
Cynthia Ozick harps on two lonely phrases, giving the impression that I passed judgment. Not so. I don’t wish that Simone Weil had suffered the same fate as those whom she locked out of her heart, and I don’t think that she deserved it any more than they did—how could I possibly? Pity, not vengeance, was the burden of my review.
I did wish to suggest that such a fate might have come as the tremendous martyrdom that Simone Weil looked for. While we must consider it intolerable and ironic and poetically just, she might have accepted it as just indeed, something she deserved. The spirit of justice and the sense of irony are both worth exercising here. However, I am sorry that in that phrase “a just climax” I didn’t draw the distinction between them. I should have written, “poetically just.”
As for types, do they have to be “stale”? It is enough to look around to see how vivid many of them can be.