Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021)
Simone Weil is considered today among the foremost twentieth-century French intellectuals, on par with such luminous contemporaries as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. And yet she was not widely known when she died at age 34 in 1943. Although she wrote profusely, only small portions of her writings were published during her lifetime. Much of her written work was left in private notebooks and published posthumously. It was only after the Second World War, as Weil’s writings increasingly came to light, that a comprehensive picture of her thinking emerged—comprehensive without necessarily being coherent. In The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, Robert Zaretsky attempts to provide this coherence.
Indeed, Weil was a confounding thinker whose body of thought and the life she lived seem awash in contradictions. As Zaretsky notes at the outset, Weil was:
an anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery, a teacher who dismissed the importance of solving a problem, [and] the most willful of individuals who advocated the extinction of the self.
Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston and one of the Anglophone-world’s most fluent writers on French intellectual and cultural history, aims not so much to dispel these contradictions as to distill Weil’s intellectual legacy, contradictions and all, into five core ideas encapsulating the body of political, social, and theological thought she left behind. These five ideas are: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness—each the object of a separate chapter.
Unsurprisingly, the five Weilian ideas chosen by Zaretsky are far more intricate and multi-faceted than the single words suggest, and they are inter-related in what he terms “blurred borders.” Moreover, the five ideas are presented in approximate chronology: the first three chapters on affliction, attention, and resistance concern mostly Weil in the 1930s; while the last two on rootedness and goodness primarily cover her wartime years from 1940 to 1943—her most productive literary period.
Each chapter can be read as a standalone essay, and Zaretsky would likely discourage us from searching too eagerly for threads that unite the five into an overarching narrative. But there is one connecting thread which provides context for the apparent contradictions in Weil’s life and thought: collectively, the five ideas tell the story of Weil’s transformation from an exceptionally empathetic yet otherwise conventional 1930s non-communist, left-wing intellectual—Jewish and secular—to someone who in her final years found commonality with conservative political and social thought, embraced Catholicism and Christianity, and was profoundly influenced by religious mysticism. Although not intended as a biography in the conventional sense, The Subversive Simone Weil begins with a short but helpful overview of Weil’s abbreviated life before plunging into her five ideas.
The life of Simone Weil
Weil was born in 1909 and brought up in a progressive, militantly secular bourgeois Jewish family in Paris. Her older brother André became one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished mathematicians. She graduated in 1931 from France’s renowned École Normale Supérieure, the same school that had accorded diplomas to Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron a few years earlier. After ENS, she took three secondary teaching positions in provincial France, then also managed to find her way to local factories, where she taught workers in evening classes and with limited success did some of the hard factory work herself.
In 1936, Weil joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and was briefly involved in combat operations before she inadvertently stepped into a vat of boiling cooking oil, severely injuring her foot. After she returned to France to allow her injury to heal, she had three seemingly genuine mystical religious experiences that set in motion what Zaretsky characterizes as rehearsals for her “slow and never quite completed embrace of Roman Catholicism.” When Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Weil and her parents caught the last train out of Paris for Marseille, where they stayed for almost two years before leaving for New York. While in Marseille, Weil was deeply influenced by Joseph-Marie Perrin, a nearly blind Dominican priest. She came close to a formal conversion to Catholicism, but stopped short.
Weil left her parents in New York for London, where she joined Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, with ambitions that never materialized to return to France to battle the Nazis directly. While in London, her primary responsibility towards the Free French was to work on reports detailing a vision for a liberated and republican France. Physically frail most of her life, Weil suffered from migraines, and may have been on a hunger strike when she died of complications from tuberculosis in 1943, in a sanatorium south-east of London.
Malheur was Weil’s French term for “affliction.” This is the first of the five ideas that Zaretsky distills from Weil’s life and thought, in which we see Weil at her most political. Her idea of affliction appears to have arisen principally from her experiences working in factories early in her professional career. Yet, affliction for Weil was the condition not just of factory workers, but of nearly all human beings in modern, industrial society—the “unavoidable consequence of a world governed by forces largely beyond our comprehension, not to mention our control.” Affliction was “ground zero of human misery,” entailing psychological degradation as much as physical suffering.
The early Weil was attracted politically to anarcho-syndicalism, a movement that urged direct action by workers as the means to achieve power in depression-riddled 1930s France, with direct democracy of worker co-operatives as its end. In these years, Weil was an “isolated voice on the left who denounced communism with the same vehemence as she did fascism,” Zaretsky writes, comparing her to George Orwell and Albert Camus. With what Zaretsky describes as “stunning prescience,” she foresaw the foreboding consequences of totalitarianism emerging both in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.
Attention, sometimes considered Weil’s central ethical concept, involves how we see the world and others in it. But it is an elusive concept, “supremely difficult to grasp.” Attention was attente in French: waiting, which requires the canceling of our desires. Attention takes place in what Zaretsky terms the world’s salle d’attente, its waiting room, where we “forget our own itinerary and open ourselves to the itineraries of others.” Zaretsky sees the idea of attention at work in Weil’s approach to teaching secondary school students, where her emphasis was on identifying problems rather than finding solutions. She seemed to be telling her students that it’s the going there, not getting there, that counts. Although not discussed by Zaretsky, there are echoes of Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship in Weil’s notion of attention.
Zaretsky refrains from terming the Spanish Civil War a turning point for Weil, but it seems to have been just that. Her brief experience in the war, combined with a growing realization of the existential threat which the Nazis and their fascist allies posed to European civilization, prompted her to revise her earlier commitment to pacifism. This is one consequence of resistance—the third idea covered by Zaretsky—which aligned Weil with the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, who taught their followers to resist recklessness, panic and passion. For Weil, resistance was an affirmation that the “truly free individual is one who takes the world as it is and aligns with it as best they can,” as Zaretsky puts it. Weil’s Spanish Civil War experience also gave rise to a growing conviction that “politics alone could not fully grasp the human condition.”
Attention takes place in what Zaretsky terms the world’s salle d’attente, its waiting room, where we “forget our own itinerary and open ourselves to the itineraries of others.”
Rootedness—the fourth idea—arises out of Weil’s visceral sense of having been torn from her native France. Déracinement, uprooting, was the founding sentiment for The Need for Roots, her final work, in which she emphasized how the persistence of a people is tied to the persistence of its culture—a community’s “deeply engrained way of life, which bends but is not broken as it carries across generations.” Rootedness takes place in a “finite and flawed community” and became for Weil the “basis for a moral and intellectual life.” A community’s ties to the past “must be protected for the very same reason that a tree’s roots in the earth must be protected: once those roots are torn up, death follows.”
There is no evidence that Weil read either the Irish Whig Edmund Burke or the German Romantic Johann Herder, leading conservatives of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nonetheless, Zaretsky finds considerable resonance between Weil’s sense of rootedness and Burke’s searing critique of the French Revolution, as well as Herder’s rejection of the universalism of the Enlightenment in favor of preserving local and linguistic communities. Closer to her own time, Weil’s views on community aligned surprisingly with those of Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, two leading early twentieth-century French conservatives whose works turned on the need for roots. Zaretsky also finds commonalities between Weil and today’s communitarians, who reject the individualism of John Rawls.
But Weil also applied her views on rootedness to French colonialism, putting her at odds with her wartime boss in London, Charles de Gaulle, who was intent upon preserving the French Empire. She perceived no meaningful difference between what the Nazis had done to her country—invaded and conquered—and what the French were doing in their overseas colonies. Weil was appalled by the notion of a mission civilisatrice, a civilizing mission underlying France’s exertion of power overseas. It was essential for Weil that the war against Germany “not obscure the brute fact of French colonization of other peoples.” Although Weil developed her idea of rootedness in the context of forced deportations brought about by Nazi conquests, she recognized that rootlessness can occur without ever moving or being moved. Drawing upon her idea of affliction, Weil linked this form of uprooting to capitalism and what the nineteenth-century English commentator Thomas Carlyle termed capitalism’s “cash nexus.”
Her ability to plumb the human condition “runs so deep that it risks losing those of us who remain near the surface of things.”
Zaretsky’s final chapter on Goodness addresses what he terms Weil’s “brilliant and often bruising dialogue with Christianity”: the extension of her three mystical experiences in the late 1930s. The battle was bruising, Zaretsky indicates, because as a one-time secular Jew her desire to surrender wholly to the Church’s faith ran up against her indignation at much of its history and dogma. “Appalled by a religion with universal claims that does not allow for the salvation of all humankind,” Weil “refused to separate herself from the fate of unbelievers. Anathema sit, the Church’s sentence of banishment against heretics filled Weil with horror.” Yet, in her final years, Catholicism became the “substance and scaffolding of her worldview,” Zaretsky writes.
Still, Zaretsky’s emphasis is less on Weil’s theological views than on how she found her intellectual bridge to Christianity through the ancient Greeks, especially the thought of Plato. Ancient Greek poetry, art, philosophy and science all manifested the Greek search for divine perfection, or what Plato termed “the Good.” For Weil, faith appears to have been the pursuit of Plato’s Good by other means. The Irish philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who helped introduce Weil to a generation of British readers in the 1950s and 1960s, explained that Weil’s tilt toward Christianity amounted to dropping one “o” from the Good.
Simone Weil was a daunting figure, intimidating perhaps even to Zaretsky, who avers that her ability to plumb the human condition “runs so deep that it risks losing those of us who remain near the surface of things.” Zaretsky, however, takes his readers well below the surface of her body of thought in his eloquent work, producing a comprehensible structure for understanding an enigmatic thinker. His work should hold the interest of readers already familiar with Weil and those encountering her for the first time.
Photo Credits: Simone Weil in 1921. Anonymous, Uncopyrighted, via Wikimedia Commons.