The Troubling Passion of Simone Weil

How we judge this prodigal daughter 

In 1942, most Jews would have been thankful to have made it out of France alive. But not 33-year-old Simone Weil. Arriving with her affluent family in New York City the same month that Anne Frank went into hiding in Amsterdam, Weil found living on the Upper West Side excruciating. She felt torn from her roots and ashamed of her act of desertion.

Weil had agreed to abandon her political activity in Marseilles—writing for and distributing a clandestine anti-Nazi publication—only because she thought going to America would bring her closer to London, center of the Free French Resistance. While living comfortably with her parents at 549 Riverside Drive, she plotted her return to France to fight the Nazis by leading a front-line nursing corps. But Simone Weil didn’t do it to help the Jews or the other victims of Nazism, or even the Allied cause. Defying class, ethnic or familial ties, Weil believed that the only viable collectivity was the nation. Her allegiance was to France and France alone.

Simone Weil was one of the most formidable French thinkers and writers of the 1930s and 1940s, yet she remains under-appreciated compared to peers like Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Weil lived a frenzied, peripatetic life: teaching, traveling, and writing profuse letters and journals. She insisted on putting thought into action and criticized those intellectuals too timid to do the same. Simultaneously selfless and self-obsessed, Weil’s writings reveal a brilliant mind grappling with questions of human justice and the decline of spirituality in modern life. Weil’s quest for a universal truth brought her to Christianity, classical literature, trade unionism, factory work and anti-fascism, but, ironically, caused her to reject Jews and Judaism. She found solace in the salvation of Jesus, and looked to Christianity as the source of religious truth. Weil resisted Hitler as a Christian, not a Jew, and died a martyr’s death—of tuberculosis and self-imposed starvation—in protest. One of the most complicated figures of the past century, Weil expressed the disgust, the moral outrage, the patent absurdity of being born a Jewish woman in fascist Europe.

More than five decades after the war, interest in Weil is rising. This past November, Columbia University’s Maison Francaise gathered historians, philosophers, filmmakers, poets and performers to call attention to this controversial woman. The three-day conference, “Simone Weil: The Madness for Truth,” was the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Sylvere Lotringer and Chris Kraus and was an academic and artistic exploration of her life as a political activist and philosopher. Her literacy legacy is also getting a boost as her disparate writings—journals, letters, mystical aphorisms and philosophical studies—are being published as the 14-volume Simone Weil’s Ouvres Completes in France (Editions Gallimard, Paris).

Though lucid and logical, Weil’s thinking was rarely systematic: It was the product of her passions. Living through those passions, dying young, publishing little, her philosophies unrefined, she is rich material for the myth-making of academics and activists alike. They are trying to understand: Who can claim her, who must disown her, and for what? Simone Weil’s turn away from her heritage is upsetting to some Jews— some academics have written about her as an anti-Semite—but her willingness to accept self-denial or even death as forms of protest gives us a fuller picture of the various forms of resistance during the Nazi era. Some feminists, including conference organizer Chris Kraus, claim that her story offers a useful feminization of the mythological artist-hero, but others wonder how a woman whose self-denial contributed to her own death can be a model. Human rights activists can’t help but adore what Kraus calls Weil’s “completely unsentimental empathy”; on the other hand, we have to wonder why her outrage never targeted Hitler’s murder of her own people.

Born in 1909 into an affluent assimilated French Jewish family, Simone Weil was an intellectual prodigy. Plagued by headaches from age 12, Weil was frequently exhausted throughout her life. (She would later associate her experience of the “passion of Christ” with the alleviation of this affliction.) She also suffered from terrible insecurity, born in part of intense competitiveness with her only sibling, Andre, her elder by three years.

“At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural facilities,” Weil wrote in a letter when she was older. “The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.”

Perhaps coming to terms with her perceived inferior status, Weil decided that anyone could attain “the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention on its attainment.” She became, in the words of Lotringer, Professor of French at Columbia, a “one woman counterculture.”

Weil entered the Ecole Normale Superieure, a premier university, at age 19, finishing first in her entrance exams. (Simone de Beauvoir was second.) After completing her thesis, “Science and Perception in Descartes,” two years later in 1931 Weil graduated and began her career as a teacher, developing a reputation for uncompromising politics and controversial teaching methods.

While at her first job as a philosophy teacher in a girls school in a small town southwest of Lyons, Weil became involved with local trade unions. For leading a demonstration for unemployed workers, she was dubbed by the local conservative newspaper “The Red Virgin of the Tribe of Levi, bearer of the Muscovite gospels.” She was let go after her students did poorly on their examinations. At another school, Weil continued protesting and began distributing most of her earnings to the needy. Taking frequent leaves for health or activist reasons, Weil never stayed in one place for too long.

Weil’s physical involvement in her activism, however, was not an artistic endeavor—it was very real and sometimes dangerous. She pushed her body to bridge the chasms that separated her from the common people. One summer she worked on a farm to learn more about the spiritual life of the French folk. In 1934, she worked for nearly a year in several French factories to better understand the misery of the worker. Appalled by the conditions, she quit from exhaustion, and her parents took her on a vacation to Portugal to recover. Healthy again, she journeyed to Spain to join the Anarchists in the Civil War.

Today, at a time when political activism looks more like letter-writing than physical confrontation, Weil’s willingness to put herself, literally, in the line of fire is compelling. At a special evening performance during last fall’s conference, presenters interpreted how Weil used her body to speak to power. Performance artist Sheree Rose appeared onstage in a mask and white vinyl nurse’s outfit. After cutting her breast with a scalpel, she lit a pair of yahrzeit candles and intoned the Sh’ma prayer— an apparent commentary on the healing power of Weil’s own masochism.

Weil finally made it to London from New York in late 1942, where she wrote reports for the Free French. The bulk of these became “The Need for Roots,” Weil’s most complete text. Writing as France was suffering under German occupation, she described her utopian vision of a post-War France that would capitalize on the positive aspects of French patriotism that had arisen under occupation.

Pushing her desire to put her body where her mouth was, she wrote to Charles de Gaulle requesting permission to parachute behind enemy lines and set up her “Plan for an Organization of Front-Line Nurses.” He refused. Despondent at being stuck in England, Weil insisted on eating no more than Hitler’s rations for her French compatriots. But Weil had contracted tuberculosis, and with her meager diet her condition worsened. Her refusal to eat and otherwise cooperate with doctors contributed to her death at age 34 in a sanitarium, in August 1943. She died, neither Jewish nor Christian, a martyr of her own creed.

Weil was desperate, personally panicked, by the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, and she looked for hope in the intimate salvations of Jesus. In her writings, she divided civilizations into those ruled by gravity and those by grace, those ruled by force and those by spirit. Judaism and the Roman Empire were among the former, historical antecedents of fascist culture; Christianity and the Greeks, on the other hand, to her were sources of transcendence. Weil found Christianity, with its dramatic language of martyrdom and sainthood, amenable for the development of women as cultural heroes, especially in the France of Joan of Arc.

Drawn from her personal experiences in the classroom, in factories and on the war front, Weil’s thinking became increasingly mystical. In 1937 Weil made a pilgrimage to Assisi. In a chapel where St. Francis used to pray, “something stronger than I compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees,” Weil later wrote. But she never converted. Weil found even the Catholic Church to be “too Jewish,” or too reliant on dogmatic rituals that, in her mind, prevented a true connection to God. She was in constant correspondence with priests, agonizing over her irreconcilable differences with the Church.

The woman who had written that she’d rather die than live outside the “transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access” came to find her transcendence among the masses. “As I worked in the factory, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul,” Weil wrote to a priest while in Marseilles, detailing her spiritual autobiography. For her, affliction was the route to the divine: Pain, hunger, and suffering opened a door to the essential nature of humanity, and thus to God. On her deathbed at a sanitarium in England, Weil received the sacerdotal blessing from a priest, but refused ultimately to be baptized.

Dying an outsider to the Church, Weil considered herself infused with a Christian spirit. But many of Weil’s most provocative ideas depended on selective, even biased, readings of history. She indulged in an idealized view of the Greeks as the spiritual antecedents of her idealized Christianity, even claiming Socrates, Antigone, and Prometheus as Christian martyrs. Weil seems to have been blind to the political struggles in Greek tragedy. At the conference, Page du Bois, professor in the Literature Department of the University of California-San Diego, judged Weil’s conceptions of the Greeks to be inaccurate reflections of a simplistic good-versus-evil view of history. “I find Weil’s responses to be so different from my own: her Greeks are almost unrecognizable,” du Bois said. “Weil refuses to see the real face of the Greeks.”

This refusal to admit tarnish on those Weil idealized, however, may have been necessary for her to maintain her extreme empathy for the oppressed. When Germany entered Paris, she is said to have dryly remarked that it was a good day for Indochina.

“Weil had a completely unsentimental empathy with the dispossessed, because she located that dispossession in herself. It wasn’t pity,” commented Chris Kraus. Weil’s readers are drawn to her unsentimental honesty and her eloquent critiques of force, but Weil’s empathy clearly had its limits. While Simone Weil criticized Jews for crimes committed in the Old Testament, her contemporaries were dying in the camps.

Weil’s reading of Jewish history was equally suspect, Michael Stanislawski, said during a panel on “Simone Weil and Judaism.” Stanislawski, Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, did not hesitate to declare Weil a “virulent anti-Semite.” Her willful ignorance of Jewish history was “hardly a madness for truth,” he said, referencing the conference’s title. He lamented how easily she “accepted the stereotypical images of Jews handed to her” from Christian anti-Semitism. Like many Christians, Weil considered the New Testament an improvement over the Old. She wished to rid Christianity of its Jewish origins, especially her notion of its idolatrous worship of the Chosen People. Weil even proposed ways for Jews to assimilate through intermarriage and geographic dispersal, and encouraged her brother to baptize his daughter Sylvie when she was born in America in 1942.

One of the few instances where Weil wrote openly about her Jewish identity was in a letter to the Minister of Education in Vichy France. Denied a teaching position because of a 1940 “Statute on Jews,” Simone Weil fired off a sarcastic missive. “I want to know to whom this Statute applies, so that I may be enlightened as to my own standing,” Weil wrote. “I do not know the definition of the word, ‘Jew’; that subject was not included in my education.” She goes on to reject any racial, religious, or traditional ties to Judaism that would make her subject to the new Statute, concluding, “Mine is the Christian, French, and Greek tradition. The Hebraic tradition is alien to me, and no Statute can make it otherwise.”

A French Jewish refugee himself, Lotringer tolerates Weil’s anti-Judaism as a common response to “the Jewish question” among assimilated European Jews during the interwar period who regarded Christianity as a universal religion of compassion and love. Weil was born into a France still recovering from the turmoil of the Dreyfus case, which had exposed the deep roots of French anti-Semitism. Many believed that only those who fully renounced their ethnic identification could integrate into society at large. Weil’s parents were freethinkers, not rabid anti-Semites. Weil’s paternal grandparents kept a kosher home and she was named after her maternal grandfather, Adolph Reinherz, who collected Hebrew poetry. Weil, it seems, had to rewrite history to make room for herself.

The emotional force and fiery independence of Simone Weil’s life and writings have had a profound effect on many who come in contact with her, inspiring a fierce, almost cultish, attachment to this iron-willed Jewish woman and her mortal passion for universal justice. Simone Weil “has come to seem more and more a special exemplar of sanctity for our time—the Outsider as Saint in our age of alienation, our kind of saint,” cultural critic Leslie Fieoler wrote in explaining her enduring attraction. “I was tremendously moved the first time that I read Simone Weil,” Kraus, a writer and filmmaker, told LILITH. “Later, I learned more, and I empathized with her greatly. It is not just the brilliance of her work, but the effort of her life, that touches me.”

Weil’s alleged anorexia and what some call her suicide were hotly debated at the conference. Even her private eating habits and physical dimensions are intellectual currency. Throughout her life, she had often made a connection between hunger and political activity, the denial of bodily pleasures the surest means of empathy and solidarity with the oppressed. Weil’s defenders, from Anna Freud to Weil’s physician father Bernard, deny that she was anorexic, or even significantly malnourished, despite her self-rationing. On her deathbed, Weil refused feeding tubes, and effectively surrendered her body to TB.

At a time when the anorexic has become the poster girl for all that is wrong with American society, Weil’s relationship with food and her body becomes highly political and mythologically important. At a session “Hunger/Technology/Emotion,” one woman in the audience provided Weil’s height and body weight as proof that she was perfectly healthy at least six months before she died. Another audience member reminded the panel of Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist” as a similar instance of exhibiting the spectacle of starvation, where the body is read as text. “Her life is utterly inseparable from her work, and it’s difficult to accept the paradoxes that entails, in a woman,” Kraus said. In the myth of the artist as hero, men make their lives magnificent to create works of genius. For a woman to make her life exemplary is to invite accusations of abnormalcy or illness. Kraus, who grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in New Zealand, is passionate for Weil because she was neglected. “Why is it that female writers’ and thinkers’…texts are read not as texts, but as biographic keys towards understanding their maladjustment and disorders. Male philosophers are never read through their maladies.”

Lotringer sees Weil as a fount of wisdom. “I’m most interested in people who shout insanities,” Lotringer claimed. “They go closer to the heart of the issue, more than a balanced view.”

The conference attracted a group of people who adore Weil as a cultural hero. During a visit to Paris in 1959, conference participant Joanna Gunderson was introduced to Weil’s mother, Selma, who allowed Gunderson to read one of Weil’s journals in her elegant but bare apartment overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg. It had been stripped of its luxuries during the war. Inspired by Weil’s passion, years later Gunderson wrote a novel, She, with Weil as a main character. Above all, Gunderson insisted, “it’s important to remember how beautiful Simone was.”

This tribute seems to contradict Weil’s fervent anti-sensualism. Dedicated to chastity, she favored formless clothing. Her face, unpainted, was plain for her times though not unfamiliar in style today. She was moved by justice, not beauty. Drawn to asceticism, Weil viewed her own body as a tool for spiritual encounter with God. She was known sometimes to wear only a burlap sack.

“She was not a pretty girl,” Kraus noted before reading from the manuscript of her recent novel, Aliens & Anorexia, which also includes Weil as a character. “This conference will rehabilitate the image of the awkward ugly girl into one of true glamour!”

Daniel Belasco is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered Families (St. Martin’s Press).

One Simone On Other

by Simone De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

“[Simone Weil] was taking the same examinations at the Sorbonne as I. She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre clothes….A great famine had just begun to devastate China, and I was told that on hearing the news she had wept; these tears commanded my respect even more than her philosophical talents. I envied her for having a heart which could beat right across the world. One day I managed to approach her. I don’t remember how the conversation began; she declared in no uncertain terms that one thing alone mattered in today’s world: the Revolution that would feed all the people on earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find a meaning for their existence. She looked me up and down: ‘It’s easy to see that you’ve never gone hungry,’ she said. Our relationship stopped there.”