January-February 1989By Robert Coles
Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School. Among his many books are Simone Weil and the five-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis. His latest book is Harvard Diary, a collection of his columns from the New Oxford Review.
Formative Writings, 1929-1941. By Simone Weil. Edited by Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness. University of Massachusetts Press. 289 pages. $30.
When Simone Weil died in 1943, she was only 34 years old. She was living in London, and the Second World War was raging all over the world. She had come to England to join the ranks of General de Gaulles Free French; to do so she had crossed the dangerous waters of the Atlantic her parents left behind in New York City, to which all three had come as Jewish exiles from Petains France. Weils father was a successful Parisian doctor, her mother a person of culture and refinement with a strong interest in music. An older brother, Andre, is still alive one of the great mathematicians of our time, and an emeritus professor at Princetons Institute for Advanced Study.
Were Simone Weil never to have written a word more after 1943, but lived to the present time, then died, say, in 1989, at the age of 80, she would be memorialized in country after country the subject of long, admiring obituaries, followed, no doubt, by essays of reconsideration. There are, even now, societies devoted to her, and journals devoted to a continuing and mostly appreciative criticism of her work. Books with her name as author are in print the world over: she is declared again and again an important, a seminal 20th-century figure to some a cultural hero of sorts. Flannery OConnor discussed her with great admiration in letters to friends. Camus, it is said, paid his respects to her mother upon notification that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and before then had written of her with enthusiasm. T.S. Eliot offered a strong, erudite, affecting introduction to The Need for Roots, published under her name well after her death. She has become for many a moral beacon her aspirations, reservations, doubts, worries, and enthusiasms examined ever so closely, her conclusions embraced with no small amount of fervor.
Yet, when Simone Weil died she was by no means the person whose life and thought now inform the moral and spiritual assumptions of so many of us. She died in a tuberculosis sanatorium, where the doctors had declared her a suicide because of her refusal to eat the amount of food they wanted her to eat, so that her body would at least have a chance of fighting successfully a major bacterial infection. She had been living in obscurity in England. She published no books, and only a few articles, in her lifetime. She had been a school teacher in France; she loved working with children. She had also been a political activist on the left anxious to help the poor and working-class people of France get a better deal out of a capitalist system that fought even their minimal needs tooth and nail. She went to Spain on behalf of the Loyalists, but got hurt in an accident and had to come home. She worked for a time in one factory, then another, in the hope that by sharing the life of ordinary workers she would get, to know their struggles and figure out what might be done on their behalf, were any owners inclined to stop and think about those whose labor enriched them.
By 1938 she was also preoccupied with religious matters. She was especially drawn to the Catholic Church of the poor to the faith of hard-struggling men and women, a faith she both respected and marveled at (as has been the case with certain intellectuals), and envied as well. She held on to her political and economic egalitarianism, and her social views fitted in with her religious sensibility. She also became increasingly frail. She was plagued by severe migraine headaches. Her appetite was hardly hearty. When the Nazis approached Paris, her family fled. During the initial Vichy years, she lived with her parents in Marseilles. For a while she worked as a farm hand, evidence of her persistent desire to share the fate of those who worked hardest and got the least pay. Soon enough, with her parents, she was on the way to America, three exiles lucky enough to find safety in New York City.
In Manhattan she was the same restless, intensely reflective Simone Weil, now more fervently drawn to Christian meditation and prayer than ever before. She also searched eagerly for a way to give of herself to others. She went to Harlem; she thought of going to Alabama, to work in some way on behalf of sharecroppers. She went to church, prayed long and earnestly, and, as she had been doing all during her 20s, wrote in her journal. But such a life was not then for her. She wanted to fight Hitler and all he stood for. She dreamed of getting back to France, of joining the resistance. Eventually, she secured her way back to Europe and found a job as a functionary in London for the exiled French government. But she was not satisfied with such a position; she yearned for a fighting role. Might she be parachuted behind the Nazi lines? Those asked such a question were incredulous: she was obviously in failing health. When tuberculosis claimed her, she had little strength to resist. She had been keeping herself on a ration no more substantial than that of the French who lived under the Nazis. Her doctors tried force-feeding her, and regarded her as anorectic, as thoroughly disturbed and deeply depressed. Her death did not surprise them.
Now, she lives with us through her writings, all the posthumous books that have given us so much to consider. There is, too, a substantial critical literature, and her friend Simone Pétrements long and helpful biography. Moreover, a number of editors have assembled some of her shorter writings in such a way as to reveal a direction of her thought the scientific or religious or political or philosophical side of her, or the writing she did in New York, or before that, in Paris. This book belongs to that last tradition a collection of Weils writings penned between 1929, when she was only 20 years old, and 1941, when she was 32. The editors are two first-rate Weil scholars, one of whom, Dorothy Tuck McFarland, published a study of Weil in 1983. The editors provide a helpful introduction which offers a brief biographical sketch of the writer whose essays follow, each with instructive prefatory remarks. The editors make clear that they are more interested, for this volume, in the political and philosophical Weil than in the religiously inspired Weil; indeed, they venture to claim on what evidence, they do not say that the political activist and the philosopher/teacher, one side of Weil, never caught up in the public mind with the religious Weil, or were satisfactorily integrated into the public perception of either her person or her thought. Some of us, who first met Weil as a brilliant political theorist and an extraordinarily brave and penetrating social and cultural observer, will no doubt take issue with such a comment. In any event, this is a collection of essays that will prompt, yet again, a recognition of Weils distinctive genius.
At the age many of us were callow college students, scarcely certain of what to major in, Weil was writing Science and Perception in Descartes, an effort to affirm with a boost from her reading of that philosopher the importance of the observations ordinary men and women make as they go through life. She disliked the idea (maybe, the reality) of a science understood only by an elite few, and tried hard to connect the abstract, erudite comprehensions of philosophers and physicists to the capacities she believed the rest of us have to fathom the world. Often, of course, she is the layman not exactly a stand-in for many of us; but her intention tells us a lot about her values and hopes: a belief in the capacities of her fellow human beings that contrasts with the opinion all too many intellectuals have of them, the ordinary working people of the world.
We are offered other important, poignant essays the journalist Weils views of Hitlers rise, the working-woman Weils Factory Journal, a testimony of sorts to one souls willingness to lay itself bare under great duress. How many others in any of the worlds various intelligentsias have done as she did sweated out assembly-line work in order to learn from such a life, in order to test ideas and theories with a concrete, everyday laboring experience? In that journal she is, as always, the self-critic as well as the observer of others. She was always trying to evaluate the worlds rights and wrongs, and to change through actions the latter into the former. Her struggle with the notion of pacifism throughout the 1930s given Hitlers increasing challenge to everything she held dear is also part of this books record: an honest soul, at once practical and idealistic, trying to figure out what ought to be done and what might have to be done under the extraordinary conditions that her beloved France (and the entire civilized world) had to face in 1939 and 1940.
So it is that we once again, through this book, meet Simone Weil, try to understand her complex, at times hard-to-fathom way of seeing things. She could be austere, even forbidding; at other moments she becomes decent and kind and compassionate ready, it seems, to touch us mightily with her goodness of heart and soul. Above all, she took the biggest possible risks; she was thoroughly ready to stake everything she had in search for what matters truly. By the end of her relatively short time here it had become apparent to her that Jesus and His life had been the incarnation of what she had been seeking. The writings called by this books editors formative were a prelude to a souls discovery of its Maker and so, inevitably, this book will be put aside by many for others, such as The Need for Roots, or Waiting for God: a soul now not in formation, but formed, a person now become, as Dorothy Day put it, a fool for Christ.