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  • She tamed her outsized passions and her unquenchable needs by whatever means possible and found a rationalization for her behavior in her otherwise useless and pointless book learning. Born of necessity, her flight from responsibility, from reality, becomes noble in the tortured minds of the very people she did her best to escape. A great and terribly sad irony.

    Posted by Otistic on Sun 19 Jun 2011

  • She is truly one of my political saints. I love her, the Red Virgin. One of my favorite quotes from Gravity and Grace is "There is no better time than the present, when we have lost everything."

    Posted by Burke on Sun 19 Jun 2011

  • It is very difficult to judge her.What she was searching in her life?What she want to achieved?Manual work is good some hour but for intelligent person constantly work in field or factory is troublesome and there is no grantee that you get peace of mind. In the last era of his life Tolstoy was also preacher of manual work but as his unrest mind he never completely devoted to one aim.I think Weil was restless whole life may be she was searching her other part and want to merge in it.Many Saints devoted their entire life to searching their other part and sacrificed their life.Great poetess of India MIRABAI want merge with Krishna sacrificed all her life in that futile search.

    Posted by Ramesh Raghuvanshi on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • But she didn't tame her outsized passion. A reasonable (and mystical Christian) could wonder how given her heart why would she chose suicide?

    It was her heart that gave out (literally and figuratively) at the young age of thirty-four.

    Some part of her faith seemed unable to surmount the contradictions.

    Posted by gsk on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • it is disputed that she died of self starvation, it isn't a definitively established fact. more like a projection and inference by her writings which still doesn't verify this. I remember reading that she was incapable of food intake in some way or other but not self starvation.

    Posted by Anonymous on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • Weil was an anorexic, and possibly bi-polar.

    Posted by Belinda Gomez on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • I used to love reading Simone Weil for her passions and her anti-materialism. This was long ago but I, unti reading this article, thought well of her.

    Right this minute she sounds to me like Bobby Fishersp? the chess genius who descended into madness. I don't "love her heart" if she rejected being Jewish during the Nazi era and if she was so confused as to where her real brilliance lay, which was as an intellectual not a factory worker. Agree with comment above, she was disturbed maybe bi-polar. Surely she was no saint, even if she had empathy with the impoverished.

    Posted by Wendy on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • Mr. Foges writes:

    " A youthful Marxist who abandoned the faith in favor of liberal pluralism. A lover of all things ancient Greek who equated the Roman Empire with Nazi Germany and Hitler with Caesa, she was a mass of contradictions. "

    What's contradictory here? Many youthful Marxists lose their faith -- and the step to liberal pluralism isn't a big one. Almost Hellenists hate Rome.

    Posted by Mark Shulgasser on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • The core difference between the intellectuals Weil knew, and the workers she met--and more generally between those who make words for a living, and those who make things--is that an intellectual can never be sure they have done anything. They can win approval. They can get a lot of people on their side. But they can be patently and completely wrong when their ideas intersect the real world. It is not possible for a serious person to speak of Marxism as if it had even the grain of the possibility of accomplishing any good on this Earth. Yet, they are still out there, arrogating to themselves the right to speak for the downtrodden of the world, as if they were parents and everyone else children. Van Jones was just doing it today. In reality, these intellectuals hold those they allegedly care about in contempt. Maybe what Weil failed to realize is that the workers were smarter than her, and knew that her revolutionary project would make their lives--already hard--much, much worse.

    In the end, she was a screw-up, wasn't she? She wrote a lot, but failed to forge a life. No one who is unable to figure out how to live should be listened to by anyone.

    Posted by Barry Cooper on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • "In the end, she was a screw-up, wasn't she? She wrote a lot, but failed to forge a life. No one who is unable to figure out how to live should be listened to by anyone."

    Who determines what constitutes "a life"? Of what does this compulsory form of life consist?

    Posted by JTFaraday on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Yes, Simone Weil would have been diagnosed bi-polar today. But she would, rightly, not have accepted such a diagnosis. Weil would have been perceptive enough to realise that bi-polarism is just a marketing term, created for marketing purposes, to turn a set of traits that are essentially human into a condition that requires expensive medication. The concept of bi-polarism was created by the pharmaceutical and medical industries to make tons of money from aspects of the human condition that should be embraced, not demonised and fled from. If there was a pharmaceutical industry in the days of melancholic geniuses like Beethoven or Van Gogh, they would have been diagnosed bi-polar and put on medication which would have caused them to produce work much less radical than what they managed to produce in their time. Anguish and passion come with pain but facilitate the creation of brilliant artistic work. The ideology of bi-polarism promotes the dulling of anguish and passion and pain and thus the dulling of creative genius. Barry Cooper claims Simone Weil "wrote a lot, but failed to forge a life". Not true. She forged an amazing life. But it was not a life of convention, conformity or superficial happiness.

    Posted by Waldo on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Many thanks to Waldo for this beautiful and incisive entry.

    Posted by Linda Connolly on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross were not "early medieval mystics"; they bloomed in the morning sun of the Spanish Renaissance.

    Posted by Eric S. on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Who helped more people: the worker who labored in his factory and raised a happy, productive family, or this woman who starved herself to death, having written a lot of words in the meantime?

    The proof is in the pudding: if what you think has value, then it is expressed in your life. If you kill yourself, then you have not learned to live, and if you have not reached that basic milestone, then you have been qualitatively exceeded by the very "drones" you hold in contempt.

    As far as who determines what constitutes a "life", I find it interesting that you feel anyone has the right to do that. It would seem implied that you feel you have a complementary right to comment for both of us, and that reaching that point is a question of logistics, and not debate.

    Self evidently, I am rendering my own opinion. That is still legal in many nations of the world, although of course some of those commenting here are likely working to end that right.

    In general, I don't like French thinkers, because they deal in unanchored abstractions, and seem to view thinking from the perspective of aesthetics, as a sort of extension of their hedonistic embrace of fine dining. Fine wine and Marxism: both exude a heady perfume for which some develop a taste. Me, I prefer things that work, like American-style Constitutional liberalism and free markets.

    And by the way, most weeks I earn most of my money by the sweat of my brow.

    I will add Simone Weil to the list of authors I see no point in reading.

    Posted by Barry Cooper on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Barry, the first four sentences of your very first entry show how profound your thinking can be; the last five of your last comment just how shallow. I advice you read Weil: seems to me there might be a significant relationship actually emerging here. Also, it's never a sign of a healthy intelligence to reject outright the writings of anyone you have not actually read.

    Posted by Sibabalwe on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Perhaps this is useful, concerning Weil's "suicide": she was in a sanitarium in England suffering from tuberculosis. As you may know, any disease of the lungs requires a robust diet. On principle, Weil refused to eat more than she understood her compatriots in the French resistance to be able to eat. How you will process this information, I do not know, but I hope you can see that this is far more complex than, say, jumping off a ledge. I'd recommend you start with Waiting for God. Any person so fascinating to Flannery O'Connor, for example, cannot be so cavalierly dismissed, I would think. See O'Connor's letters for the citation. They are indexed.

    Posted by Carol Ann Johnston on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Let me put it this way: the more one reads, the less well one reads. The better you read, the more important your choices. Me, I am a slow reader, because I tend to choose difficult books, and I take care to digest them thoroughly. This enables me to remember details from books I read twenty years ago. I feel, as well, that it better enables me to USE the material. Currently, I am crawling through an economic primer by Peter Bauer and William James' "Principles of Psychology."

    I have never read ANY author from whom I could not learn. I hate Communism, but have no doubt I could learn from Gramsci, and--who knows?--perhaps even Sartre, who I have never read on principle.

    I don't know if I should admire her for choosing to eat only as much as French Resistance fighters. Presumably, had they had access to her food, they would have eaten it, and had they had tuberculosis they would not have been fighting. Certainly, as romantic as her decision was, it was ridiculous. No French person was helped by her sacrifice.

    There is a critical difference between a pose and actual work. People that are trying to solve real problems don't worry how they look. People who are theatrical are usually not trying to solve real problems.

    I'll leave this debate (discussion?) with a quote from a book that I found very useful, Winston Churchill's "Painting as a Pastime". Not many of you will likely know this, but he was a gifted painter. He had many sides, and was involved in more things than most people realize, including the invention of the tank, the formation of BP, the liberation of Ireland, and the last cavalry charge of the British Empire. I admire him. He lived a long, productive, and largely happy life. And he wrote about it.

    "Think of all the wonderful tales that have been told, and well told, which you will never know. Think of all the searching inquiries into matters of great consequence which you will never pursue. Think of all the delighting or disturbing ideas that you will never share. Think of the mighty labors which have been accomplished for your service, but of which you will never reap the harvest. But from this melancholy there also comes a calm. The bitter sweets of a pious despair melt into an agreeable sense of compulsory resignation from which we turn with renewed zest to the lighter varieties of life.

    " 'What shall I do with all my books?' was the question; and the answer 'read them', sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances."

    He goes on, but I've always liked that quote. I have not even read "Decline and fall of the Roman Empire", which was a principle rhetorical influence on several generations of British writers.

    I used to have sympathy for Romantics--many of whom also died young of consumption--but have come to see them as indulging childish feelings which can actually be accessed by adults. That is the essence, in my view, of true religion.

    I change my mind often, and will likely glance through one of her books the next time I'm in the bookstore, along the lines Churchill suggested, and if it looks good, I will read it. But I already have several dozen good books on my shelves that I haven't touched.

    Posted by Barry Cooper on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • That reads as a very romantic attitude towards the book as a material object. Not a judgment on my part--I happen to love fine press printing so much that I learned to set type. But it seems that you are a bit inconsistent in your dismissal of what you see as romantic. I take it that you mean by this "sentimental." Having read a good deal of Simone Weil's work, I have to say that she is not sentimental in the way that seems to repulse you. She went to Spain to work in the resistance, but was so physically clumsy that she burned herself quite badly with a skillet of hot oil. This doesn't strike me as theater. If you know the poet Seamus Heaney, you might recall his poem "Digging" in which the speaker laments the fact that he is clumsy with tools and cannot farm potatoes and cut turf as did his father and grandfather. The poem ends with his resolution instead to "dig" with his pen. My understanding of Weil is that she could not accept this concession to intellect, because in spite of her brilliance and training, she came to the conclusion that physical action was far superior as a means to affect change than writing. This is what makes her writing compelling to me--or one of the things--that it is paradoxically against writing. She has a fierce intellect, but it is not enough for her. I would hesitate to call her theatrical, because that diminishes what I see as true commitment. I know it is stylish these days to see fierce adherance to personal principles as a form of delusion or mental illness--your judgment of the religious as childish--but I hate to see anyone dismiss a person of Weil's intensity and pure hard intellectual work so glibly. I don't have a horse in this race--I'm not a Weil scholar or religious zealot--I just hate to see dismissive thinking.

    Posted by Carol Ann Johnston on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • The comments concerning Weil's "worth" seem, as one poster put it, dismissive. What often fuels commentators is just as often left unstated. That is, "what are your premises?" (I have now completed my on-line life by referencing Ayn Rand *shudder*).

    Before I am so willing to pass judgment, I try to understand. In the end, did Weil's life make sense to her?

    Posted by peterkein on Wed 22 Jun 2011

  • From here:

    "Every time that I think of the crucifixion of Christ, I commit the sin of envy."

    "Evil being the root of mystery, pain is the root of knowledge."

    "In struggling against anguish one never produces serenity; the struggle against anguish only produces new forms of anguish."

    What I see in these quotes is someone lacking in the capacity for happiness, and useful self expression. It is a commonplace in some circles that pain is profound, and happiness superficial. Asked if he were happy, de Gaulle replied something on the order of: "do you take me for a fool?"

    If you look at the East, what they developed were what I term technologies for intrapersonal development. You need pain in your life, but the point of the pain is superseding the pain, taming it, mastering it, such that no matter what happens you can live happily.

    Plainly, she did not master that process; nor did she suggest useful "technologies" for the process. Those quotes are perhaps not representative of her best work, but most of them look to me "deepish", but not provocative of the sorts of thoughts and sentiments I try to cultivate.

    I did like this one, though: "Most works of art, like most wines, ought to be consumed in the district of their fabrication."

    The sort of work I like, tautologically, is the sort of work I do:

    Feel free to email me if you'd like to continue the discussion. It's on the second link.

    Posted by Barry Cooper on Wed 22 Jun 2011

  • My last post may or may not make it through, but I did want to comment that what you term the Spanish "resistance" was Stalinist through and through and at a very minimum as brutal as their opponents; and would categorically have committed the same atrocities with victory that attended every other successful Communist conquest. Thousands would have been shot, thousands more tortured (in the case, many were anyway during the way; what was at that time I believe the NKVD helped set them up), and tens of thousands rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

    Not a noble cause. More: physical clumsiness is normally tied to emotional clumsiness. Read Moshe Feldenkrais, again an actually useful author.

    Posted by Barry Cooper on Wed 22 Jun 2011

  • It's funny: I was on a construction job-site yesterday, sweating, thinking about this woman. People who do physical labor for a living have their pride, and they have a social ecology. They know they are not smart enough to run companies or be doctors or lawyers, but most of them take what they do seriously. It's an honest living, and it has its pluses of comraderie and tangible accomplishment.

    You add this woman to the mix, and she's wandering around, totally out of place, looking at them through bottle glasses like pygmies or some other object of anthropological interest. She pretends she can do the work, but manifestly she hasn't a practical bone in her body. She has no common sense. She can quote you Racine, but she can't take apart and reassemble a motor.

    Moreover, she is telling everyone who listen (precious few) how they ought to live their lives, how they ought to rebel, and take over the means of production. They look at her, and can easily enough imagine their whole worlds going to hell in a handbasket. No one who lacks common sense should be listened to on anything, and this woman couldn't find her ass with a map and a flashlight.

    For her part, she's moving through this world with the excitement of a child out on her own for the first time, savoring her "experience", and not understanding for a moment the effect she is having on people, who don't like at all the implicit condescension of her "lowering" herself to their level.

    It is astonishing how arrogant some intellectuals are, believing they can speak for people they don't understand in the slightest, and who are quite capable of taking care of themselves, in their own ways.

    Posted by Barry Cooper on Thu 23 Jun 2011

  • The original insight Weil had was lost. Judaism remains the Great Beast, and Christianity is its monstrous offspring. Strangely, great geniuses like Weil appear all the more vulnerable to the 'answers' of religion, and the imitation of 'saints' is illustrated in her death. For all his faults, the better thinker was always Sartre,

    Posted by David Gontar on Fri 24 Jun 2011

  • Barry, I'm sorry, there is a lot you are not undersatnding about Weil. When she worked alongside manual laborers the insights she gleaned were not about them as a social group defined by their lack of intelligence (which was the defining characteristic you found amongst your fellow construction workers, per your last post), but about humanity, or more broadly, the physical and analagous psychic and spiritual laws that govern the universe that all people, animals, and things share. A lot of her spiritual insights are grounded or at least expressed in analogies with physics, (thus the title "Gravity and Grace", was assigned to a selection of her notes, and her "Illiad or the Poem of Force" saw the violence portrayed in the Illiad as adhereing to the law of momentum) and it is an obvious move to see her deliberate involvement in the world of physical objects as the essential stabilizing leg of a triangulation exercise that sought to tether and rationalize our understanding of psychic and spiritual phenomena.

    She believed the spiritual realm (and also the intellectual) is infinitely more rule-guided than the sphere of physical relationships, but given that it is for the modern mind a field of caprice and irrationality, it needs to be re-established, reunderstood in its relationships to the world so that we might have some real earth under our feet as we attempt to understand it.

    By the way, Weil did not "condescend" to deal with workers. She did not view herself as intelligent. Her comparison point when it came to intellignece was her brother the brilliant mathematician, and she saw in her teenage years that there was a "transcendent world of truth" reserved to those with genius that she saw as closed off to herself. She writes that this sent her into despair until she came to understand that pure desire for truth (her most outstanding characteristic), even if unsupported by natural faculties, would not and could not fail to be met by truth itself, even if intellectual radiance never results because of the lack of natural faculties. This "relationship between grace and desire", understood as a rule while she was entirlely agnostic, was for her something far, far more important than what we praise when we stupidly worship intelligence. Physical work was for her a privileged contact point with reality, intellectual effort being another, which allowed one to, if properly disposed with attention, pierce through the veils of unreality and imagination that we surround ourselves with and meet pure reality, pure truth. And this is open to anyone, especially those most in touch with the constraints and pains of human existence. She was a purist for sure, but a condecending anthropologist trying to figure out stupid working people? Please.

    Also, about her not building a "life". I agree, she bit off a bit more than could be chewed up and and digested into a conventional human life. For her, life is defined by horizons of impossibility that we necessarily run smack into, the limits of our health, intelligence, sympathy, etc. She had a low ceiling when it came to coming face to face with her physical limitations, as was mentioned in the article above. She wrote though that we should be thankful for such limitations because they are indicitive of our essential limitedness and mediocrity, and it is ultimately not important whether we meet these limits at threshold A or B, what matters is our being defined by limitedness, and our response to it. She found, and intellectual AND manual work gave her vantage points on this, that if we put our whole selves into our tasks and our ingained spiritual aspirations that we will quickly come to the end of our natural powers of perseverence, and at that point we either fall or are upheld by grace. She lived with an intensity and integrity that actually raised the question of this point of contact with God; for how many is that the case? Her insights are hardly a blueprint for building a "life" in the normal sense of a series of compromises, but someone with a smidge of imagination might find in her inspiration to compromise with a little more integrity, or even to love and seek truth radically and trust (simply because there is no other serious option)that if we "seek first the kingdom of God (the kingdom of truth for those more Platonic)... that these (our various needs) will be supplied also".

    Her life is truly scary to behold but it is also a triumph, and I can't imagine anyone will be better off for neglecting to look into it.

    Posted by Bert Fitzgerald on Sun 26 Jun 2011

  • I'm not trying to rain on anybody's parade. If she ACTUALLY makes you more engaged with life--which I suppose amounts to your life being more interesting than would otherwise have been the case--then great.

    Personally, I don't belive in genius. Genius moments, yes. Genius people, categorically no. As I like to tell my kids, Einstein was both a moral and financial idiot. He failed to split his Nobel money with his ex-wife and son, despite having promised to do so; and he lost much of his money in the crash in the late 20's.

    My own thoughts are here:

    If you start from existentially necessary foundational principles, you can still get a lot more than that lot in France was able to come up with.

    Posted by Barry Cooper on Sun 26 Jun 2011

  • Those who project their own prejudices onto Weil do so at their peril. Contempt prior to investigation leads to a willful ignorance that sees reality as the opportunity to confirm comfortable ideologies (free market capitalism, atheism, idolatrous social Christianity, the absolute value of academia). I was fortunate to have been told to read Weil with patience by someone I admired and trusted, and I have never regretted that moment. Eric O. Springsted has a wonderful image that he uses when introducing her. We should not refrain from crossing a bridge that was initially built by hasilty and imperfectly throwing ropes and planks across. Over time, the bridge may be reinforced or built anew, but the first bridge is important. I am pained to know that she did not mature in her thought further. She clearly demonstrated the capacity to change deeply held beliefs when she revised her pacifism after Hitler's invasion of Prague. Nevertheless, she never stopped believing in the intoxicating power of force. I read her carefully, and can spend a lifetime thinking with her about the dignity of human labor and the cultivation of attention and conscience. She was asked to participate in the Free French government in London during World War II, and asked to help prepare a plan for a transition government. That plan is called "The Need for Roots." If at all curious, please read T. S. Eliot's introduction to her writings in that book. He is far more eloquent in begging your indulgence for her passionate personality than I am.

    Posted by Mauricio Najarro on Tue 28 Jun 2011

  • To give a comprehensive but reasonably concise account of Simone Weil's life and work must be immensely difficult, so it's not surprising that this article falls somewhat short of that goal. What I hope is that it piques someone's interest. I discovered her from something much shorter than this (a discussion of her death in a book about suicide), went on to read a full-fledged biography and a fair amount of Weil's writing, and am still fascinated, puzzled, and sometimes astounded by her. Thanks to Peter Foges and Lapham's Quarterly for the reminder.

    Posted by John Branch on Thu 30 Jun 2011

  • She was a very unique person and it saddens me that people find it necessary to pin labels on her. She should not be discredited for struggling with who she was in the world in which she found herself. She met the human condition with much grace.

    Posted by Laura Ogle on Sun 17 Jul 2011

  • Simone Weil literally crucified herself. She made herself go through the Passion of Christ. Like Christ, she now is beyond anybody's understanding. She was one of the few Marxists who actually had the guts to work at manual labour! It really is disturbing to know about such a woman. In some ways now, she is the saint of the outsider.

    Posted by Catherine Archer on Sun 25 Sep 2011


    You reach out
    from 1943
    and in the holy mirror
    our fingertips touch.

    Posted by steve w. on Thu 17 Nov 2011

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Peter Foges is a film and television producer. He worked for the BBC in London for fifteen years as a correspondent, anchor, producer, and director, before moving to the U.S. to serve as BBC-TV's Bureau Chief. He later became Director of News and Public Affairs Programming for WNET/Thirteen in New York City, where he has created, written, produced, or executive produced series and specials such as Good Night and Good Luck and Heretic, and co-wrote The Ten Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table, which was awarded the 1987 Oscar for Best Feature Length Documentary.
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