Weil, Simone (1909–1943)
Weil, Simone (1909–1943)
French Jewish intellectual, writer, teacher, political activist, and Christian mystic who was "the saint of outsiders." Name variations: (pseudonym) Émile Novis. Pronunciation: See-mon VALE. Born Simone Adolphine Weil on February 3, 1909, in Paris, France; died in Ashford, Kent, England, on August 24, 1943; daughter of Bernard Weil (a physician) and Salomea (Selma) Reinherz Weil; received baccalauréat degree, Lycée Duruy, Paris, 1925; studied philosophy, Lycée Henry IV, Paris, 1925–28; École Normale Supérieure, 1928–31 (passed agrégation, 1931); never married; no children.
Taught at girls' lycée in Le Puy (1931–32); taught in Auxerre (1932–33); taught in Roanne (1933–34); met Leon Trotsky (1933); worked in factories (1934–35); taught in Bourges (1935–36); was active in Spanish Civil War (1936); visited Italy and Assisi (1937); held teaching post in Saint-Quentin, a suburb of Paris (1937–38); took sick leave (1938); lived in Switzerland (spring 1939); returned to Paris (September 1939); family fled Paris (June 1940); stayed in Vichy (June–September 1940); settled in Marseille; fled to Morocco (May 14, 1942); sailed to New York (June 7, 1942); left for England (November 10, 1942); worked for Free French forces, London; hospitalized with tuberculosis (mid-April 1943).
Simone Weil carried two burdens throughout her life—by birth, not by choice, Simone was a female and a Jew. From an early age, she repudiated and minimized her gender and rejected her Jewishness. An idealist in an age of the horrors of two world wars, economic depression, genocide, and forced exile, she sympathized with the working classes and sought solace in Catholicism while deprecating the organized Church. An unsuccessful teacher, a vagabond, an outsider, she stressed the need for roots, for "rootedness," stability and regularity in one's life. Weil never achieved what she valued for others; her life is a life of a mind cultivated and nurtured at the expense of physical and material well-being.
Weil was born in 1909 in her parents' apartment in Paris, the second child of free-thinking bourgeois French Jews who had few ties to the established Jewish community in Paris. Her father's highly orthodox family came from Alsace, her mother was born in Russia. Intelligent and cultured, the Weils provided mental stimulation for their brilliant son André (born in 1906) and for Simone; books were plentiful, but no toys were allowed. During World War I (1914–18), Dr. Weil was called up for medical service. The close-knit family followed him to the various towns where he was stationed. Simone realized early on that her brother was exceptionally gifted (he became a mathematician), and she developed a keen sense of intellectual inferiority. However, she excelled in Latin and Greek, learned English from listening to André's tutor, and German from her parents' conversations. Weil's fragile health as a child and fear of contamination may have been responsible for her increasing aversion to physical contact with others. Moreover, she often could not bear to eat knowing that other children around the world were starving. One biographer remarked that she could not let her body enjoy or be enjoyed by others, thereby making herself "untouchable." Physical deprivation—lack of close, warm friendships and of simple comforts—characterized her entire life from childhood on.
It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then carry it every day.
From the age of ten, Weil's education prepared her to enter the world of the French intellectual elite. She attended the most prestigious preparatory schools in Paris where she scored at or near the top of her classes. Simone's mother encouraged her to reject "girlish charms" and cultivate forthrightness to the point of bluntness. Further, Weil adopted a modified style of men's clothing. Her scorn for bourgeois standards for feminine behavior offended many of her fellow students, as did her abrasive intellectualizing and patent moralizing. Simone envied her brother whom she regarded as brighter than she—and "he was he." As Thomas R. Niven points out: "It is as though for her, to be recognized as female was tantamount to being reduced, to being only female."
In June 1925, Weil passed the baccaulauréat and in October entered the top class of the Lycée Henry IV to prepare for entry into the highly selective École Normale Supérieure. She studied philosophy with the famous Alain who influenced her attitude towards religion, art, the working class, and government. Her interest in politics led to involvement with French workers, and trade union movements, and her attraction to Catholicism produced some of her most lyrical and profound writings. At the Sorbonne, Weil ranked at the top of her class (Simone de Beauvoir ranked second), and in 1928, Weil was the only woman admitted to the Normale that prepared students for an academic career. Her study of Descartes convinced her that work gave life meaning and value. She believed in action, in doing: ideas must be acted upon. At the Normale, she was called the "red virgin" because of her militant left-wing sympathies and her pacifism. She collected money to aid the unemployed and campaigned for disarmament. She never joined the French Communist Party, but she agreed with its goals of improving the lot of the worker. Weil confided to her friend and biographer Simone Pétrement , "What I can't put up with is that people compromise." While a student at the Lycée Henry IV, she had stated that she would choose a career "to do something for the good of humanity." In 1931, she passed her exams, qualifying her to teach in lycées and universities.
Weil was now forced to enter the adult world of work, a system, according to her, that dehumanized the worker, making them into a mere tool of production. Did she regard teaching as a form of servitude, a means of fulfilling her need to serve humanity? In her work "The Iliad, or a poem of the force" (1940–41), she laments the impersonal "force" that transforms man into a "thing," an empty shell, a corpse. This view may explain in part her lack of success as an educator; as a teacher, she was reduced to serving the students, their parents, and numerous school officials. Weil saw herself as a mere cog, a "thing," in the huge national education system. But Simone knew she was at least a "thinking thing." The 17th-century French Christian apologist (and mathematical genius) Blaise Pascal wrote: "Man is only a reed, the weakest found in nature; but he is a thinking reed." Simone Weil exemplified this notion. Assigned to a girls' lycée in the remote town of Le Puy, she taught philosophy, Greek, Latin, and art history with a marked indifference to preparing her students for their national exams. Instead, she devoted her energies to lecturing to miners at the Workers' College in the industrial town of Saint-Étienne, a three-hour train ride from Le Puy. She organized meetings to encourage unity among workers' unions, Socialist and Communist; only through uniting union leadership would workers achieve their revolutionary goals, she believed. And for revolution to succeed, the workers needed to acquire the power of understanding and using language, a power held by their leaders, by industrialists, and politicians. Weil had embraced Marx's notion that revolution would "restore the unity of intellectual and manual labor." In 1934, she wrote her "Reflections on the causes of liberty and of social oppression" (published posthumously) which included analyses of Marxism and political oppression, a theory of a free society, and a critical look at society and its failures. When she participated in a miners' demonstration and wrote articles for L'Effort, school officials suggested she transfer to another school.
In 1932, Weil had traveled to Berlin where she witnessed the growing fascist movement and met Leon Trotsky's son. After Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, she provided aid for German refugees, often sheltering them in her parents' home in Paris. Leon Trotsky himself visited her in December 1933. Having been reassigned, teaching at lycées in Auxerre and Roanne, Weil decided to take a leave of absence and work in a factory; her experiences are related in her "Reflections" where she criticizes modern industry "in which human labor has been debased to drudgery." Moreover, female workers, she noted, were victims of sexist attitudes, paid less than men, and served as objects of obscene remarks. Despite living and working with factory employees, she remained apart; as one biographer observed, Simone Weil placed herself with the workers, the Communists, and later the Catholics, but she was never one of them. Indeed, Simone was a loner, an outsider who lived a spartan life, eschewing physical comforts, often denying her body nourishment and her soul a tranquil existence. She struggled to improve the lot of humankind, to right the wrongs that afflicted them; Weil was near to becoming "a lonely moral scourge," Robert Coles observed, "whose magnificent capacity to dream of what ought to be was imprisoned by pessimism about what can be."
Weil abandoned factory work in August 1935 and traveled with her parents to the Iberian coasts. In a small Portuguese fishing village, she had the first "of three contacts with Christianity that have really counted," as she expressed it. She observed the celebration of a festival honoring the village's patron saint and listened to the women singing plaintive ancient hymns. Suddenly she was struck with "the conviction … that Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others." But Weil was not a slave, she was an intellectual bourgeois Jew and would never belong to Christianity any more than she belonged to the workers, a political party, or her fellow teachers.
During the academic year 1935–36, Weil taught at Bourges, but continued to work for unity among leftist labor unions and for factory reform, dedicating herself to rescuing manual labor from its "degradation." In June 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Simone joined up with a motley assemblage of non-Spanish anti-fascist volunteers at the front. After only a few days, she stepped into a pot of boiling oil and was returned to France by her protective parents who had followed her to Spain. Infection in her leg prevented her from teaching in 1936–37. Suffering from severe headaches and anemia, she went to Italy in the spring of 1937, where she observed fascism in action and experienced her second encounter with Christianity. She visited a chapel in the mountains near Assisi and heard the story of a woman in the 15th century who had disguised herself as a man to gain admittance to the chapel; her identity was discovered only 20 years later when she was beatified. Weil realized that she and this pious woman shared a common burden, that of being female. In the Chapel of Santa Maria degli Angele, as she wrote to her friend, the Dominican priest Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, five years later, "something stronger than I forced me for the first time in my life to get down on my knees."
Weil resumed teaching in October 1937, in a lycée in Saint-Quentin, near Paris, but debilitating
headaches compelled her to take a leave of absence. She never taught again. However, she was able to write—her true vocation—and she contributed numerous articles to journals. During Holy Week (the week before Easter) in 1938, Simone and her mother attended services in a Benedictine abbey near Les Mans to hear Gregorian chant. Here "Christ himself descended and possessed me," she wrote; it was a mystical experience that revealed to her "the possibility of loving the divine love through affliction," and which she kept secret for three years. Relieved of teaching duties, Weil eagerly studied Greek and Roman historiography, the Torah, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Bible. Christianity had a strong appeal to Simone Weil, but she felt it had been contaminated and distorted by Judaism and the ancient Romans. She sought to purge it of these contaminants, thus her study of ancient texts.
After a decade of excruciating headaches, Weil reluctantly consulted a brain surgeon, fearing she had a tumor. Her friend Pétrement claims she contemplated suicide at this time. Not yet 30 years old, she had had to abandon teaching and return to her parents' home. She cherished independence, of body and mind, but found herself dependent and ill. A biographer has suggested that her headaches, which began just when she completed her education, were possibly due to her rejection of having to enter the "adult world of work," a world of responsibility and commitment. Indeed, Weil may have suffered from realizing the "dream of what ought to be" could never be achieved. In a world threatened by dictators—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco—and where depression crushed the worker while concentration camps crushed human bodies and souls, Weil's dream must have been sorely battered "by pessimism about what can be."
When Simone contracted pleurisy in the spring 1939, her parents took her to Switzerland and the south of France. They returned to Paris, filled with apprehension, in September 1939. War had broken out again. Weil needed to be useful and involved in the war effort. She drew up a proposal to create a nurses' corps to tend the wounded and began taking first-aid classes. Six months later, the family had to flee Paris; on June 14, 1940, the Germans occupied Paris, which had been declared an open city to save it from being destroyed. Leaving behind all their possessions, the Weils arrived safely in Vichy where they stayed until mid-September. They had decided to remain in France, despite the risk of becoming victims of German anti-Semitic policies, rather than join André in England. Surprisingly, Weil felt no hatred for the German invaders, but her pacifism was severely tested when French resistance rapidly disintegrated and an armistice was signed. Simone and her family had been uprooted, as so many Jews had throughout history. The words rootlessness, uprootedness, and affliction appear frequently in her writings. She was aware of her own lack of ties, for she was neither Jew nor Christian, and her involvement in teaching and workers' causes had not bound her to any group.
"No aspect of the life of Simone Weil is more problematic—and sad—than her attitudes toward her Jewish background," according to Robert Coles. This is strikingly illustrated in a letter she wrote in August 1940 to the minister of education of the Vichy government (the French government in the unoccupied zone of France), requesting a teaching assignment. "What is a Jew?" she asked. "I do not know the definition of the word 'Jew.' … The subject was not included in my education…. I myself, who profess no religion and never have, have certainly inherited nothing from the Jewish religion…. The Hebraic tradition is alien to me." But anti-Jewish legislation placed severe restrictions on French Jews, and Simone was not allowed to teach. Coles is especially critical of her rejection of her heritage and concludes that "her Jewishness became a cross…. [The Jews] deserved better from her. It is sad that Simone Weil did not bring her intelligent, caring comprehension to her own people, her Lord's people."
The family moved on to Marseille and lived there until they left France in May 1942, following rumors that the Germans intended to occupy all of France. Weil began to study Babylonian and Sanskrit, wrote and revised poems and essays, began writing a play, and translated Greek works. She published articles in the journal Cahiers du Sud, using the name Émile Novis; this was in open violation of laws forbidding publication of works by Jews. Weil had also refused to comply with a June 1941 law requiring all Jews in the unoccupied zone to register and be identified: she preferred "to go to prison rather than to a ghetto." Obstinate and defiant, she engaged in illegal activities, collecting and distributing food, clothing, and ration coupons (even her parents' coupons) to Vietnamese soldiers and civilian workers interned by the Germans near Marseille, and she courted imprisonment by providing false identity cards for refugees, including Jews. She never joined the French resistance, but she was arrested for handing out anti-Vichy literature and was arraigned in court. When the judge threatened her with prison, she showed no fear and he "dismissed her as a lunatic."
Prevented from teaching, Weil tried to get work on a local farm. Physical labor, she believed, kept one in touch with reality. Through her friend Father Perrin, she was hired by Gustave Thibon. Thibon was closely associated with the French political extreme right wing and was a friend of Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of the Vichy government. But Simone must have believed in him for when she left France she entrusted him with her personal notebooks and some of her writings. She found farm work exhausting but, she wrote, "I regard physical work as a purification … on the order of suffering and humiliation … [with] instants of profound, nourishing joy." Moreover, "hard physical work was essential for an intellectual, lest the mind become all too taken with itself."
The threat of German takeover of the unoccupied zone and news of the deportation of Jews from Paris forced the Weils to leave France. Since they refused to go without Simone, she accompanied her parents to Morocco on May 14, 1942. After a short internment in a refugee camp in Casablanca, the family sailed for New York. During the four months she lived there, Weil did research on folklore at the New York Public Library and wrote two essays on the French heretical sect, the Cathars. In a long letter to Father Perrin, she reiterated her reasons for not joining the Catholic Church despite her personal commitment to Christianity. A collection of her letters to Perrin, Attente de Dieu, was published in 1950; it was then translated and published as Waiting for God in 1951.
Feeling she had deserted France, Weil decided to go to London and work in some capacity for the Free French organization there. She left New York on November 10, 1942. In London, she worked as a staff member, reviewing proposals for the regeneration of a liberated France. Her own vision of establishing a just society in a free France is contained in her L'Enracinement (The Need for Roots, 1943). Here Weil considers what every individual needs: beauty in the world, order ("a certain rhythm and regularity"), obedience, responsibility, and rootedness. And finally for the soul, "The need for truth is more sacred than any other need." Her utopian dreams reflected fear and uncertainty of the future in a time of terrible upheaval. Her concern and hopes for the working class are considered in one of her last essays, "Uprootedness in the Towns." Each worker would have a house and "a bit of garden," but they must also be allowed "a sense of how they and their particular work fitted into life's overall scheme—in other words, to restore their roots."
In mid-April 1943, Weil contracted tuberculosis. Her desire to be of service to a free France would never be realized. She died of heart failure, aggravated by self-imposed malnutrition, at Grosvenor Sanatorium in Ashford, Kent. Curiously, the young unbaptized Jewish-Christian mystic was buried in the Roman Catholic section of the local cemetery. Simone Weil, whom André Gide called "the saint of outsiders," died in exile, rootless, with no family, religion, or country to anchor her in this world.
Coles, Robert. Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
McLellan, David. Simone Weil: Utopian Pessimist. Baringstoke, England: Macmillan, 1989.
Nevin, Thomas R. Simone Weil: Portrait of a Self-exiled Jew. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1991.
Dunaway, John M. Simone Weil. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1984.
Fiori, Gabriella. Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Little, Pat. Simone Weil: Waiting on Truth. Oxford: Berg, 1988.
McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. Simone Weil. NY: F. Ungar, 1983.
Pétrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. Trans. by Raymond Rosenthal. NY: Schocken, 1988.
White, George Abbott, ed. Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
Winch, Peter. Simone Weil: "The Just Balance." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Simone Weil's papers are located in the Manuscript Division of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; microfilmed copies of the papers are available in the United States at the Historical Studies and Social Science Library of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah