Simone Weil was difficult for those who knew her in life and no less difficult for those who encounter her now, through the writings that survived her death at the age of 34 in 1943. Robert Zaretsky’s new intellectual biography, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (2021), evokes several difficulties in its epilogue. Weil’s character was “extreme.” Her ideas were largely impractical (“at worst inhuman”). He calls her attitude “merciless.” And yet, “I cannot resist returning time and again to this remarkable individual,” Zaretsky writes. She led an “exemplary” life. “For many of her readers,” he suggests, “Weil’s life has all the trappings of secular sainthood.”
Some do take a strong stance on Weil (saint, insane). Many more find themselves in what Zaretsky calls an “untenable position.” T.S. Eliot alludes to Weil’s “great soul” several times in his preface to the English translation of The Need for Roots. Eliot echoes Albert Camus, who collected and published much of Weil’s work after her death, and once called her “the only great spirit of our time.” “I suspect that Simone Weil could be at times insupportable,” Eliot adds. Richard Rees describes her intemperance and extremity in a paragraph that concludes, “She was something altogether exceptional.” “She is sometimes unbalanced and scarcely accurate,” writes Iris Murdoch, in a review first published in 1956. Weil sets a standard, but her ideas are impractical. Weil is a saint, but many couldn’t stand her. Merciless, visionary, self-destructive, wild. The more one reads of Weil, the more difficult she becomes.
Zaretsky does not attempt to resolve these difficulties. Instead, his book organizes Weil’s life and thought into five “core concepts,” shored up by comparisons to figures like George Orwell, Edmund Burke and Olympe de Gouges, and designed to make a claim for the “essential goods” she offers in a world afflicted with “microbiological and ideological plagues,” “attention deficit disorder,” MAGA and a “resurgence of authoritarianism and ethnonationalism.” If asked, Zaretsky might suggest that ambivalence is an apt response to a person who embodied contradictions. “An anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War”—among those who write of Weil, the listing of her paradoxes is now, he says, a “ritual.” Still, he cites Murdoch’s famous declaration: “To read her is to be reminded of a standard.” Zaretsky tries to show “why this remains even more the case today.”
Perhaps the difficulties are unresolvable. And yet, sometimes I wonder if we commentators don’t create contradictions, rather than simply describing them. For example: difficulties are created if we understand Murdoch to mean, as many do, that Weil reminds us of a standard because her life was exemplary. The claim that Weil’s life and thought are aspirational commits us to a certain conversation. That conversation is marked by a series of intractable problems. The following is an attempt to shift the discussion altogether. It’s an attempt to redescribe, if you like, an impasse as a clearing.
Born in Paris into a well-off, secular Jewish family, and raised alongside her brother André, a mathematical prodigy, Weil studied at the Lycée Henri IV under the supervision of philosopher Émile Auguste Chartier (Alain), and then at the École normale supérieure. After school she taught philosophy in the small town of Le Puy. Alongside her duties at the lycée, Weil participated in local labor initiatives. She commuted to St. Etienne to lecture miners at the Workers’ College. In 1934, she took nine months of leave (“for private study”) to work as an unskilled factory laborer. Weil spent several months at the Spanish Front in Buenaventura Durruti’s anarchist column. She had a mystical experience in Portugal. The Weils fled occupied Paris for Marseille, where Simone delivered underground Resistance journals. The Weils fled Marseille for New York. Simone insisted on returning to Europe. She landed in London in 1942, where she worked for the Free French. There she wrote, in a fantastic rush, The Need for Roots: a treatise on human needs. One of the factors of her early death was self-willed starvation, refusing to eat more than those in occupied France.
It’s not clear if Weil’s exemplary life is motivating or merely entertaining. Most of us will not devote ourselves to the liberation of the working classes. Few will lead nonviolent resistance movements. Todd May’s A Decent Life, which Zaretsky cites with approval, encourages us to forgo models of moral sainthood and aim instead to be basically good people most of the time (“Try not to contribute to the dying of the environment”). This conclusion is both reasonable and, considering that most of us struggle to be merely decent, doubly bleak. Those who feel as if they were watching moral philosophy lower the nets for the general public may insist, like Linda Zagzebski (not Zaretsky), on the bracing effect of exemplarity, or our admiration for the exceptionally good. Surely we still need heroes, you say. But, others respond, have you changed your life? Or do you simply enjoy the stories? If exemplary narratives read like fiction—our common recourse for dealing with the improbable—then the quasi-fictive distance separating moral exemplars from readers could allow for moral complacency. The tone of moral complacency is, like many accounts of Weil’s life, often avuncular. We have a special fondness for difference when it’s no longer real enough to scare or judge us. The Red Virgin, the Virgin Martyr, the Categorical Imperative in Skirts—a kind of cuteness. Look how dedicated she was. So stubborn. Ours, alas, is a world of compromise, where lines must be drawn. The concern is that exemplary lives chiefly entertain and sometimes exonerate but rarely make us better people.
Zagzebski insists that admiring someone like Mother Teresa encourages imitation. And yet, as Zagzebski herself notes, moral psychology is complicated. Admiration can quickly devolve from envy to spite and a rejection of the admirable. Those we admire can make us feel self-conscious. Weil’s friend and first biographer, Simone Pétrement, notes, “Who would not be ashamed of oneself in Simone’s presence, seeing the life she led?” Zaretsky confesses the “tactics, ruses, and excuses” he employs to avoid panhandlers on the side of a Houston highway. Sophie-Grace Chappell locates wonder at the heart of admiration. Wonder, she notes, coincides with vulnerability. We could be duped by our saints; others can call us naive. We desire heroes as well as the details that confirm what we should have suspected all along. This could explain the quantity of biographies written about people like Weil, biography here figured as the science of reducing the ability of a life to astonish. Cynicism is generally more at home in us than admiration, although they seem to rest on opposite ends of the same ladder, and the disposition of a given reader will decide which end is up.
One thesis is that our admiration for someone like Weil is a function not only of how easily we can metabolize her worldview without changing our habits but also of her distance from us in time and space. Up close, as Susan Wolf observed, moral saints are largely “unattractive” people. We dislike them not simply because they make us self-conscious but also because they don’t value, or seem not to value, what we care about. In the wholehearted service of morality, they renounce what makes our lives meaningful and pleasurable, like music, friendship and good food. Wolf, Zagzebski and Zaretsky all refer to Orwell’s famous suspicion of saints: that those who aspire to sainthood “never felt much temptation to be human beings.” Setting aside, then, the concern that imitation is basically incompatible with ethics, as well as the question of how the utterly singular can also be aspirational, one wonders, in sum, if there isn’t something unexemplary about moral exemplars. Perhaps the majority of Zaretsky’s readers will not articulate this difficulty. I suspect, however, that they will feel it, cast in the shadow of the claim that a life which ended in self-annihilation is also “a guide for our own.”
It’s not clear what exemplarity means or if reading of the morally excellent makes us better people. That’s one problem. Another is that many simply deny that Weil lived an exemplary life. Self-hating anti-Semitism is pointed to. Some take issue with her overbearing demeanor or question her morbid fascination with affliction (“The suffering all over the world obsesses and overwhelms me to the point of annihilating my faculties”). One is tempted to call that hairshirt a fetish. Her statements are occasionally outrageous. She wants to serve on a fisherman’s boat. The fisherman observes that Weil is rich and does not need to labor. “I wish that my parents had been poor,” Weil responds. She worked for farmers who were “annoyed,” and justifiably so, says Zaretsky, “by Weil’s insistence on how unhappy and unrewarding their life was.”
The defense: Weil entrusted her notebooks to Gustave Thibon, a Catholic farmer and supporter of Petain and proto-far-right-nationalist Charles Maurras, and it was Thibon who selected, introduced and published some of her most popular lines. Scholarship on Weil continues to argue over Thibon’s curatorial touch. One could understand Weil’s work among the fieldhands and factory workers as a form of bourgeois dumpster-diving, sure. The problem with this association is that, for Weil, organizing workers was a lifelong commitment on which she frequently acted alone and at great personal risk. She had little time for Marxists who “never lived the lives of those they ostensibly defended,” those who “prattle in abstractions and pretend to speak for the people without knowing anything about them.” Whatever was crass about Weil coincided with an intolerance for hypocrisy. And the very fact that one insists on Weil’s inconsistencies suggests that we find something exemplary about her life. Weil was trying to be better—better than us, better than most. Her life was very nearly consonant with her thought. The flaws are easy to hear.
Note that the terms and boundaries of this conversation have already been fixed. Questions about the status of moral saints and the moral psychology of admiration are difficult and unlikely to be resolved soon. Caricatures, meanwhile, threaten to substitute for serious engagement with Weil’s surprising thought. Discussions turning on the question of whether she was good make it hard to hear Weil’s own voice.
Weil would meet the suggestion of exemplarity with an icy stare. In an essay titled “Human Personality,” she insists that whatever in an individual is worth something is completely impersonal. Do a math problem incorrectly, Weil says, and it will bear the stamp of your personality. Do it correctly and its solution is unsigned. Truth and beauty dwell on the level of the anonymous. That our attention is raised rarely if ever to an impersonal level, and instead fastens onto talents, appearance and egos (ours and others’), is, for Weil, as inevitable as gravitational force.
To read Weil attentively is to witness the attempt to resist that force—the elemental, mind-sucking allure of the personal. As Zaretsky observes, in her private notebooks, Weil rarely wrote of herself or others. One telling exception is in The Need for Roots: “People talk about punishing Hitler,” Weil notes. “But he cannot be punished.” What Hitler wanted was what he achieved: “to play a part in History.” She attempts to direct attention away from a fascist personality and toward the “intellectual and spiritual atmosphere” that associates dominant egos with greatness in the first place. “The only punishment capable of punishing Hitler … is such a total transformation of the meaning of greatness that he should thereby be excluded from it.” The difficulty of adopting that position, of resisting the pull of personalities, is illustrated by Zaretsky himself, who cites Trump in an epigraph to Chapter Four.
Some write as if Weil was by nature excluded from the world of egos or untempted by it. For evidence of her inhumanity, they might point to a passage like this one, in which she glosses daydreaming as “the root of evil”:
It is the sole consolation, the unique resource of the afflicted … It has only one disadvantage, which is that it is unreal. To renounce it for the love of truth is really to abandon all one’s possessions in a mad excess of love and to follow him who is the personification of Truth.
Or here, where Weil discusses friendship:
What should be severely forbidden is to dream of its sentimental joys. This is corruption. Moreover, it is as stupid as to dream about music or painting. … At the age of twenty-five, it is high time to have done with adolescence once and for all…
But Weil does not write of the evils of daydreaming because she does not daydream. These passages are, in fact, rare glimpses of Weil’s personality—exhortations to self-discipline that prove Weil had a self she wished to discipline. “Do not allow yourself to be imprisoned by any affection,” she writes in an essay Thibon titled “Love.” “The only way into truth is through one’s own annihilation.” Weil was aware of the problem of summoning the self for its own destruction. It’s a perversity that explains both the undercurrent of self-loathing in mystical writing, in general, as well as Weil’s particular interest in passive suffering. The weight of the personal was not to be overcome by personal force. One must consent to the force of the world, and wait. “Every blow of fate, every pain, whether small or great, say to oneself: ‘I am being worked on.’” One shouldn’t avoid love, Weil concludes, in a letter to a former pupil. But neither should one look for it. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.”
The practically minded will note here that impersonality is, until death, impossible. Recall that egoism admits of degrees. To justify the publication of her private journals, Thibon reproduced a letter from Weil in the introduction to Gravity and Grace. In it, Weil writes:
You tell me that in my notebooks you have found, besides things which you yourself had thought, others you had not thought but for which you were waiting; so now they belong to you.
She hopes that some of these thoughts will be “transmuted” within Thibon and emerge in his work. “What is within me is either valueless, or else it exists outside me in a perfect form,” she adds. “Nothing concerning me can have any kind of importance.” It is difficult to imagine a theorist adopting this attitude today, under conditions of austerity and its coincident culture of self-promotion. It was also extraordinary for her time. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir describes seeking out an occasion to speak with Weil. Weil wants to feed the world. Beauvoir says that the goal is not for people to be happy, but to find “a meaning for their existence.” “It is easy to see that you have never gone hungry,” Weil responds.
Weil understands our fascination with persons to be a sign of cultural mediocrity. She calls the realm of egos “the middle region.” Native to the middle region are a set of “middle values,” like democracy and rights. To illustrate the problem with rights, Weil asks her reader to imagine an intellectual bargaining with the devil for the soul of a worker. The intellectual suggests that the soul is worth at least twice the devil’s price. Or try to imagine a child dragged into sexual slavery appealing to her rights as a citizen of France. It is unthinkable. The child’s unthought, barely articulate appeal will be to something much greater. “Rights,” for Weil, smack of commerce, “are always asserted in a tone of contention,” provoke contention, depend on force for their legitimacy and, worst of all, draw attention away from acts of injustice. Weil thinks that in all people equally is a childlike expectation that good and not harm will be done to us. Attending to the soft cry of the violation of that expectation requires solitude, silence and detachment from collectivities. Weil found that the conditions and institutions of her time were inhospitable to those requirements. The “middle air” rang instead with a “shrill nagging of claims and counter-claims,” facilitated partly by the “cocaine” of “interwar radio and tabloids,” which press people, in lieu of thinking, “to take sides: for or against.” “What man needs is silence and warmth,” she says, referring to the horrors worked on the bodies and minds of the working classes. “What he is given is an icy pandemonium.”
At this point, as before, many of Weil’s readers will be asking how any of this is practical (Charles de Gaulle called her “folle”). We live where we live, a region of middling values, and get by as best we can. Weil agrees that those who use the language of rights have fine intentions, although they think they can procure the good “at bargain prices.” She wasn’t proposing the abolishment of democracies. She thought that the people of her time had lost a sense of inspiration. “History,” she writes, “is a tissue of base and cruel acts in the midst of which a few drops of purity sparkle at long intervals.” “A tedious gloom would ensue were there not scattered here and there some moments of illumination—fleeting and sublime moments when men possess a soul.” “There are occasions when an almost infinitesimal force,” like yeast, “can be decisive.” What was needed, Weil thought, was an ideal: someone to recall that the limits of the actual aren’t suggested by the merely sensible.
Zeno of Elea (fifth century BCE) offered to Greek mathematicians a series of paradoxes. At the heart of one of his most notorious was the idea that space is infinitely divisible. Distance can be divided into infinitesimally small bits. Zeno’s paradox was intractable: logically sound but practically impossible. It was only with the concept of the limit that the mathematical world finally resolved it. They saw, suddenly, that an infinite series can also have a destination. An infinitely arcing line can be on its way to something. We can know that destination while knowing too that the series will never reach it.
Everywhere expressed in the life and thought of Weil is a desire to shorten the distance between the middle region and an unattainable ideal. Attention, she writes, ought to be “continually concentrated on the distance there is between what we are and what we love.” Note that “what we are” is not forgotten. It is, however, contextualized, made meaningful with reference to something lovely and real but unreachable. Weil thought that precious few were attending to that vanishing point. We have, as a result, motion without movement, claims and counterclaims, random sounds, fuming. Only the idea of perfection could arrange the world’s egos and their activities into a series of approximations. Weil insisted on what we love. Or rather, Weil reminds us of a standard not because she embodied it, but because she pointed to it. Calling Weil an exemplar, or, conversely, objecting to her on pragmatic grounds—insisting that perfection is impossible and compromise inevitable—is to settle back into her difficulties and to close one’s ears to her entirely. It’s to refuse to look to where she’s pointing.
Her work has a gestural quality. It’s not wrong to discuss the pink furniture in your room, Weil writes, so long as you remember that your window is red. “It is better to say, ‘I am suffering,’ than, ‘This landscape is ugly.’” Meister Eckhart once noted that a piece of coal burns your hand because your hand lacks a fire nature. This is, of course, an impractical observation. We quickly return to the pink furniture of our everyday concerns. We fall back to rights and personality like leaves from a tree, which is why it’s ironic but tempting to write a biography of Weil, and why it’s ironic but inevitable that, in the single-minded pursuit of impersonality, Weil became one of contemporary European history’s most distinctive personalities. An inspired writer can, from time to time, nevertheless redirect attention from herself and toward the light, our extraterrestrial food. The practical effect of that gesture will be, for some, what Seamus Heaney calls “the redressing effect of poetry”: “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential.” A small shift. A pause. What would it mean “to love as an emerald is green?” What would it look like to try?
Would it look, to use Todd May’s terms, morally decent? Morally graceful? Weil was stubborn and gauche. Of all the facts I know of her—the number of her grave plot, the size of her hands—my favorite is that she often traveled with improbably-sized packages. She was also myopic. “Through her glasses,” the poet Jean Tortel said, “she looked at you … with an intensity and, also, a kind of inquisitive greediness that I have never experienced with others.” Tortel called her gaze “nearly insupportable.” Readers will encounter those eyes magnified on the cover of Zaretsky’s book, which reproduces a now-ubiquitous mugshot of Weil likely taken when she was arrested for Resistance activities. Thick glasses, steel rims, complete indifference. A portrait of devastating confidence in the moral superiority of her position. No doubt they judged the person behind the camera, eight decades ago, with the same terrible equity with which they judge the reader in our spectacular present. One wonders what Weil would do now. Point out her imperfections while she points to a standard. I suspect, however, that what’s most difficult about Simone Weil isn’t anything personal.