Simone Weil: A Life.
by Simone Pètrement.
Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. Pantheon. 577 pp. $15.00.
The nose, the hairdo out of the cartoons, the eyes swimming in myopia—but a rather nice mouth, round as a rosebud. The flat shoes, the dowdy cloak, the thickish fingers. Also, for most of her life, vomiting migraines. Simone Weil would have had reason to think it was bad luck that the head has a body, and in this she wouldn’t have been unusual for her type. But her vile flesh and hairshirt contained a most untypical steely will power, dubbed “Roman” by one of those who are grateful that they knew her.
The type that Simone Weil appears to have embodied, and that she did not completely transcend by her will and her gifts, is the intellectual-middle-class-virgin-of-Jewish-extraction. Some of the souls who resemble her may write in their diaries, or confess to their analysts, “I have to be like God, but like God crucified.” Not many make good on this desire as convincingly as she did, for she killed herself at age thirty-four by stopping to eat. Likewise, the writing that she managed to do in her short time sets her apart. Often it is so lucid, superb, tight with force, that a reader can forget that Simone Weil’s vocation was extinction.
We are stuck at a moment when suicide validates an intellectual’s seriousness and authority. This backward touch has helped to give the reputation of Simone Weil mythic proportions. Added to the common fact of suicide are the circumstances in her case that make it look like the only right end she could have had, the last station along the way of a life made up of exemplary acts and situations: the agrégée de philosophie who goes to work in a Renault factory, the awkward pacifist who goes to fight in Spain, the Jew possessed by Jesus Christ, the grapepicker in the Midi, the refugee, the suicide, the saint.
These episodes from Simone Weil’s life have been known to her readers in a vague, luminous fashion ever since her work started being posthumously collected and translated thirty years ago. It would have been a biographer’s job to demystify them, without depriving her career of its mysteriousness. The biographer would have to keep in mind, resentfully perhaps, George Orwell’s cold-porridge dictum about saints, that they should be judged guilty until they are proved innocent. The blurb on this biography tells why Simone Pétrement can’t do what is required: she was “one of Simone Weil’s closest friends. . . . Drawing on their close relationship and with access to Weil’s papers and the full cooperation of her family, Simone Pétrement has written a beautiful work.”
Had she been a writer, Pétrement might have written a beautiful work. As it is, her book is a glut of anecdotes and huge quotations from Simone Weil’s letters and essays. The tone she takes is certainly reverential. “Confronted by so pure a life,” Pétrement whispers in her preface, “one hesitates to speak out . . . who would not feel unworthy to touch such a life?” If authorized biographies are generally to be suspected (unless the biographer finishes not on speaking terms with the family or party), this one is vitiated twice, since Pétrement cherishes the memory of her friend and obviously thinks that to delve into certain matters would be to tarnish it.
Nevertheless, in so many pages there is bound to be a lot of raw material that will be valuable when Simone Weil finds her biographer. Pétrement may not realize how suggestive some of these stories are, beginning with her friend’s earliest years:
[The Weil family] once went to visit an old doctor who had invited them to his house. He made as if to kiss Simone’s hand, and she started to cry, shouting, “Water! Water!” She wanted to wash. The intimacy with the famous bacteriologist, Elie Metchnikov, a friend of the Weils, and their general contact with medical science, had developed among them an extreme fear of microbes. Mme. Weil did not want people to kiss the children. Before all the meals, their hands had to be rigorously cleaned; and if Andre had to open a door after having washed his hands, he would use his elbow. These family habits had given Simone certain strong feelings of repugnance. She did not like to be kissed, or to eat and touch certain things. Sometimes she did not want to touch something that had been handled by other people. She spoke of her “disgustingness.”
Later, at age thirty-one, as the Nazis are about to enter Paris:
I recall [Pétrement remembers] that during one of the meals she wondered out loud what would happen if a young German parachutist landed on the terrace of their apartment and asked her parents what they would do about it. Calmly and practically, her father answered that, if possible, he would hand him over to the police. Simone declared that she could not go on eating with someone who had such intentions. I thought at first that she was joking, but she seemed to be speaking quite seriously and in fact stopped eating. To get her to continue eating, her father finally promised that he would not hand over the young parachutist.
Pétrement achieves the opposite of what she intends. By inattention or dubious interpretations, she encourages the reader to think of Simone Weil as a morbid case. His reaction to these data is to wonder what in the child’s upbringing fed her predispositions. Pétrement, constrained by love, can’t begin to deal with this reductionistic question. She merely contradicts herself. André, Simone’s prize-winning brother, made her feel “very stupid,” “disgusting,” and “sometimes the two children would fight.” In the same paragraph: “She had great admiration and a warm feeling of friendship for her brother.”
Nor does Pétrement appeal to the logic of the paradoxical that might actually come closest to explaining Simone Weil. For her, she was pure and “saintly” from childhood—no matter, for example, that she made that other Simone, de Beauvoir, feel small, because she, Weil, wept at the news of a famine in China. The reader is tempted to find Simone Weil guilty of the crime of saintly characters—egotism. And with that, to psychoanalyze her, neutralize the clairvoyant by making a diagnosis.
Simone Weil’s writings show that she had moments of such clearheaded shrewdness that, under the circumstances, she was really a seer. Visiting Berlin in 1932, she wrote home, “I’m in the process of falling in love with the German people”—by which she meant the workers, with their lending libraries and hikes. But also: “The Nazi ideology is astonishingly contagious, notably in the Communist party.” This affinity is a platitude now, but for a twenty-three-year-old Parisian from the fashionably pink upper middle class to have seen it then was remarkable. Furthermore, Weil did not accept the Trotskyite line about Stalin, that he was a freakish mistake. Stalinism, she wrote in little magazines, and had the bravery to stand up and say in French trade-union halls, was a natural fruit of the Revolution.
In some of her best essays, Simone Weil argues that if one were to look at the facts, he would be pessimistic about politics and revolution. She wants to be empirical about this, not rhetorical, yet her pained empathy with the workers shines through. Their oppression, she writes, is not caused by this or that class owning the machines, but follows, rather, from the organization of factories that is the same, probably must be the same, whoever the owners and managers are. It is Weil’s sociology that perhaps can be most profitably read today. It has a tinge of that despair that she elaborated in her literary and historical writings, and succumbed to in her notebooks. In short, she feared that the strong are fated to abuse and murder the weak forever, and justice only comes accidentally, when “destiny” turns the tables. Strong and weak are equally pitiable, revolt is absurd.
Weil glorified the Greeks for gazing on these truths unflinchingly, without hypocrisy or delusions of exception. In her celebrated reading of the Iliad, she found that the poet’s emotion “is spent upon the only true cause of bitterness: the subordination of the human soul to might, which is, be it finally said, to matter.” That this wisdom, in whose absence there can be no moderation, humility, culture, or virtue, had been largely lost to Europe, to be replaced by the ersatz of science and humanism, was a constant theme with Weil. Her essays on antiquity always have explicit contemporary relevance.
One of Simone Weil’s admirers, T.S. Eliot, noted that she “did not show the mind of the historian.” Her genius was in her “great soul,” and that is what a reader must be patient enough to try and make contact with. Eliot requested that she not be understood too quickly, that we approach her with one prejudice only—that she is unclassifiable. But she does fit roughly into a French tradition of moralistes, like her teacher Alain, like Camus. Such writers are very unreliable critics and historians, perhaps because of lack of knowledge, more likely because of a temperamental excess.
Compare Weil’s treatment of the Iliad with the explication of the Odyssey and Isaac’s near-sacrifice at the hands of Abraham by that other refugee, Erich Auerbach (in Mimesis). Here is the difference between a text used to make a moral point, and texts illuminated side-by-side; between criticism that means to compare cultures invidiously, and criticism of divergent cultures that moves above explicit moral judgment. The will predominates in the first species of writing. Eliot detects this strain in Weil, “in her adulation of Greece, . . . as in her disparagement of Rome and Israel.” This made him uncomfortable, for “in denying the divine mission of Israel she is also rejecting the foundation of the Christian Church.”
Pétrement, in a footnote, recalls that Simone Weil said, “Personally, I am an anti-Semite.” This was “as a joke,” Pétrement explains. But Simone Weil was not a joker. In the opinion of Richard Rees, the English translator of most of her work and someone extremely sympathetic to her ideas and person, “she meant everything she said and wrote, literally.” Like other anti-Semitic intellectuals of her time, Jewish and Gentile, she mediated an anxiety that was probably visceral through a kind of universal criticism of Jewish influence. In the essays that appeared while she was alive, these anti-Semitic passages come as perorations, more than a little jarring in their tone but still recognizably in the steady voice of the moraliste; while in the private notebooks, published after her death, we see the writer out of control, trembling whenever she thinks of the Jews.
Greek wisdom, she declares in her great essay on the Iliad, has been taken from us because the twin Roman and Hebrew world views supplanted it. The opposition between Jerusalem and Rome is only apparent, actually strictly meaningless, like the one between Moscow and Berlin. “The Romans and Hebrews both believed themselves exempt from the common misery of man, the Romans by being chosen by destiny to be the rulers of the world, the Hebrews by the favor of their God.” Since the Church was Romanized, the Gospels—“the last and most marvelous expression of Greek genius”—have been slighted, and the Old Testament has been accorded conspicuous honor. “The Hebrews have been admired, read, imitated in actions and words, cited every time there was a need to justify a crime, throughout twenty centuries of Christianity.”
She repeats herself in “The Great Beast.” Because of a “twofold historical accident,” the Romans and Hebrews succeeded in “contamiinating,” “negating,” Christianity and Hellenism. First, “unfortunately,” Rome adopted Christianity. “It was a second misfortune that Christianity’s place of origin bequeathed to it a heritage of texts which often express a cruelty, a will to domination, an inhuman contempt for conquered or potentially conquered enemies, and a respect for force.”
Stranded in London in 1943, Simone Weil confided to her diary:
Israel. All from Abraham on inclusively (except for a few prophets) is filthy and monstrous, as if on purpose. As if to point out with absolute clarity: Note well! here is evill A people chosen for blindness, chosen to be the executioners of Christ.
The curse of Israel weighs heavily on Christianity. The atrocities, the Inquisition, the liquidation of heretics and infidels, this was Israel. Capitalism was (and to a certain degree still is) Israel. Totalitarianism, especially among the worst enemies of Israel, is Israel.
. . . The Hebrews, having rejected the Egyptian revelation, got the God they deserved—a carnal and collective God who never spoke to anyone’s soul, up to the time of exile. (Unless, in the Psalms. . . ?) Among all the characters in the Old Testament accounts, Daniel’s is the only pure one (apart from Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, and Job).
The parentheses are touching; they reveal that Weil knew she was wrong, dead wrong, wickedly wrong. Toward the end, her notebooks are more often marked with fugitive references to “the truth which bursts forth in matchless accents of joy in the beautiful and pure parts of the Old Testament,” only to be followed by terrible curses: “The Jews have been responsible for the uprooting of the whole terrestrial globe . . . the Jews are the poison of uprooting personified.” This suggests that she might have been passing into the greatest crisis of her life, more fearful for her than her extended flirtation with the idea of baptism. Pétrement doesn’t seem to be aware of this possibility, nor of the glaring Jewish Problem that her friend had all her brief life, thrown into highlight with the occupation of France.
While still in Marseilles with her parents, Weil wrote to Xavier Val let, “Commissioner for Jewish Affairs,” in connection with the Vichy regulation forbidding Jews to teach. Monsieur Vallat could regard her as a Jew if he wished. As for herself, “I do not consider myself a Jew. . . . [I] have been nourished since my early childhood only on the Hellenic, Christian, and French traditions.” The cost of this pretense must have been high; it might have been fatal for her. It is hard to imagine that no one ever warned her, but Pétrement’s biography contains no examples of either Jew or Gentile confronting her angrily, lovingly, with the truth. On the contrary, when Simone Weil begged the Free French in London to parachute her into occupied territory on a Resistance mission, Pétrement implies that no one had the heart to tell her that (if she survived the jump) her looks would cause her to be picked up immediately.
Simone Weil 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. It is possible that in her great pain and ecstasy she had an inkling of this. Pétrement remembers that for someone who seemed less and less of this world, Weil read the newspapers avidly and “knew a lot about the events of the war and everything that was going on.” It is not impossible that she heard of the suicide, three months before hers, also in London, of Shmuel (Artur) Zygelboym, a Bundist escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, a member of the Polish government-in-exile, close to the Free French, who left a note: “By my death I wish to make my final protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people.”
If one goes by Pétrement’s book, Simone Weil, who found her being in acts of charity toward French workers and menials, peasants and Communists, Vietnamese, Arabs, and blacks, never had a good word or did a kind thing for a Jew in her adult life, which coincided exactly with the epoch of Hitler’s ascendancy over Europe. Could the inhabitants of Jericho, slaughtered by Joshua three thousand years ago, have been realer to her than people with her family name who were being crucified at the moment she wrote? Conceivably, the answer is yes, they were more real, right to the end. If so, her Christ will forgive her for the outrage she committed, not on her kin, but on herself.