Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography
By Gabriella Fiori
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Pages: 502 pages
Review Author: Celia Wolf-Devine
Gabriella Fiori’s biography of Simone Weil has now been translated into English from the Italian. Fiori says she undertook the book in order to “rediscover” Weil, who died in 1943 at age 34. Fiori’s method is not analytical, but rather an attempt to take Weil’s writings and to “listen to them, to grasp them in an intuitive synthesis.” The text is a mosaic of quotes both from Weil’s writings and from the testimony of people who knew her personally. Although the order is roughly chronological, Fiori often subordinates chronological order to thematic order.
Fiori is to be praised for collecting a remarkable amount of material on Weil. The descriptions of Weil by others are particularly valuable in giving us a more concrete image of what she was like as a person and how she affected those around her. Such testimonies provide a counterweight to what could otherwise be a relentlessly abstract account of her ideas; they enable the reader to touch bottom and visualize what it was like to encounter her in the flesh.
But Fiori’s method of presenting her subject will be especially confusing to those with no previous knowledge of Weil, and does not give the reader any sort of overview of her thought or tie it together into a coherent whole. The style is impressionistic, jumping back and forth between different places and periods of time with no transitions, passing back and forth between reality, dreams, and imaginative constructions in an unsettling way, and bringing in characters talking about Weil out of the blue so one has to thumb back through the book trying to figure out who they are.
The personality of the author is both invisible and omnipresent. She tries to take on Weil’s personality and see the world as she did, but her method of arranging a mosaic of quotes from Weil’s writings without giving sources for many of them, and often mixing quotations from works written at different times in her life, occasionally gives one the feeling that she is trying to arrange them in order to make them say what she wants them to say.
Fiori’s approach does successfully convey something of the passionate intensity with which Weil threw herself into everything she did. Weil identified totally with the most oppressed and sought to share their pain and understand the dehumanization they endured, by herself working long hours in a factory and refusing to use any of her parents’ wealth to provide for her own comforts (all this in spite of very frail health and almost constant agonizing headaches).
Although a Marxist for a long time, she looked at what was happening in Russia without blinders, and toed an independent line which often put her in conflict with Communists. A French citizen, she went to Spain and got involved in the Civil War, even getting herself into a combat division. She received an accidental injury which forced her to return home. Gradually she moved in a pacifist direction, and toward the end of her life she threw herself more and more into a spiritual quest which led her to Christ, although not to baptism or membership in the Church (for very complicated reasons). Her asceticism always bordered on a death wish, and she became increasingly anorexic and died, arguably of self-starvation.
Although Fiori is sometimes a bit protective of Weil’s ideas, and tends to dismiss criticisms of her thought as misunderstandings, she does not conceal Weil’s personal weaknesses. Weil’s pattern of self-destructiveness is so clearly portrayed that it is sometimes almost physically painful to read about.
Weil insisted on her often excessive, self-imposed austerities to the extent of inconveniencing and upsetting those around her. A friend lamented, “the room we had prepared for her seemed too nice, and she crucified us until we found her a crumbling hovel.” An elderly lady remarked in the same vein, “She did not want to try the dessert, she did not show that she liked anything. And I was doing my best so that the guests would be comfortable. I find that she lacked ‘savoir vivre.”‘
Weil’s moral zeal was sometimes extreme. She went on a hunger strike until her parents agreed that if they should find a German soldier they would not turn him in to the police. And a friend of hers in school recounts, “I erred in a presentation on Proudhon. I used a text by Bougle…author of brilliant but superficial essays on French economists. At the end of the presentation…Simone abused me. Later she told my comrades that for her ‘I was dead.”‘ Weil refused to look at or speak to her for two or three years even though she continued to come to the Weils’ house to play music with Simone’s mother.
One of the attractive things about Weil was her attitude toward the education of the working class. She opposed education programs that reinforced the ascendancy of intellectuals over workers, and never had a manipulative or condescending attitude toward them. But she was deeply opposed to those who tried to instill in workers a disdain for culture “tendentiously defined as bourgeois.” Workers should instead take possession of the heritage of human culture, and “for this purpose, it is necessary first of all to give the workers the power of handling language and in particular written language.” She did much educational work among workers and won the hearts of many of them. All too often, however, they found her thought too abstract, her zeal excessive, and her total rejection of all they expected of women just too much to take.
This biography provides a wealth of material about Weil’s spiritual struggles. Fiori appears generally sympathetic to her Christianity, and thus provides as much information as she can about it. The Weil who emerges from Fiori’s account is a mixture of saintliness, a very Manichean attitude toward the body, and an ardor for truth and moral purity. Weil paid no attention to her own needs; she poured herself out in works of charity. But her asceticism bordered on a contempt for the body which fails to see it as good, as created by God. She drove herself relentlessly, without adequately nourishing and caring for her frail and sickly body. Doubtless her attitude was conditioned by many things, such as her mother’s obsessive anxieties about dirt and germs, and her own unhappiness with being a woman (she idolized her older brother, signed letters to her parents during her adolescence as “ton fits [son] respectueux,” and felt that her being a woman stood in the way of her political and intellectual aspirations).
Her personal love for Christ and His cross was inspiring, and her writings on prayer contain gems of insight which take the breath away. Yet her sureness about the purity of her own motives in refusing to seek baptism is a bit disconcerting. Can any of us be so sure we are not motivated by pride? Once as a child she wept at a play about someone who could not experience any happiness so long as there was one lost dog in the universe, and her identification with suffering was carried to the extreme of not allowing herself to accept comfort or happiness in life. Is this sanctity or a sort of hunger strike against God until the universe is arranged as she feels it should be?
Her life and character fly in the face of a great deal that we accept without thinking, and force us to examine our values. She rejected all of the social conventions that soften the harshness of our conflicts and with which we try to please others and contribute to their comfort. She was direct, tactless, aggressive, creative, spontaneous, and totally indifferent to her person and dress. As a student, she would “arrive at school in a large cape or khaki overcoat, her bare feet in sandals even in the depths of winter, her hands and legs purple with cold, her hair a black cloud.” She “did not understand moderation, because she could not conceive of any sort of compromise.”
A summary verdict? Weil’s example provides inspiration to those tempted to compromise their moral principles too readily, but her insistence on an impossible ideal of purity may harm those who are prone to neurotic perfectionism.
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