Misfortune and Divine Love: Simone Weil’s Journey1
Voices: Narrator. First Speaker, Second Speaker, and Reader of Quotations from the Writings of: Simone Weil, T. S. Eliot, Gustave Thibon, Madame Thévenon, and a French Worker.
NARRATOR: When, shortly after the War, Simone Weil was first spoken of in Germany, in Francophone superlatives, the denizens of circles hoping for “spiritual renewal from the Christian spirit” hastened to repeat these superlatives; there were actually even a few people who were familiar with several of her works in the original language. But finally, in 1953, two whole books were published in German, by the firm of Kösel, in an excellent translation by Friedhelm Kemp. They were entitled Misfortune and Divine Love and Gravity and Grace.2
By 1953, one only rarely still heard talk of a “spiritual vacuum,” and such general demands as the one for “spiritual renewal” had ceded pride of place to the demands of the daily grind. Everybody had indeed “caught up on what was to be caught up on”; everything “unusual” had resumed its place in the system of cultural life. Moreover, legends about personalities obviously flourish only as long as their work remains scarcely accessible or their biography is shrouded in obscurity. One’s craving to see what cards they were holding sustains one’s interest and imagination.
One may presume that the legend of Simone Weil, that peculiar creature, a philosophy teacher and factory worker, a Jew and a pious Christian, the critic of the Catholic Church and the semi-heretic and potential saint—that the legend of this peculiar creature has been fading since her books began being translated into numerous languages and the dates of her biography began becoming widely known. And so the only question that remains to be asked is whether this fading is to Simone Weil’s detriment or whether her work will survive her legend.
I believe this question can be can answered in the affirmative. Of Simone Weil’s “written works” all too few were published in her lifetime; for the most part these consist of essays on topical questions that acquire significance only in the context of her actual oeuvre. After the war, in newly liberated France, a French lay theologian, Gustave Thibon, edited a few of the ten sheaves of papers that had been relinquished to his care; most of them have in the meantime been published by Plon, and a few others by Gallimard in Paris.
These ten volumes contain something that is difficult to define, namely propositions and theses regarding the so-called last things. Because everything regarding the “last things” is constituted in such a fashion that it cannot be relinquished to the mercies of either silence or confession, it will not be easy to do justice to Simone Weil’s theses; they live out of reason and disembogue in confession. To do justice to a confession or even to judge it as one judges scientific propositions and theses is impossible. One can, however, follow the itinerary of the journey that led to this confession and record and retrace the insights she acquired and errors she fell prey to along the way. Finally, one can contemplate the linguistic archive of her efforts—which owes its illuminating power to an extraordinary intellectual passion and is accordingly possessed of both style and form—as an aesthetic artifact, even though she herself would have had nothing to do with this; but after all, every utterance and every pronouncement falls to the share of our world and its categories.
Simone Weil was no “authoress.” She was not productive. She did not write in order to write and to create something that could stand on its own; rather, for her writing was—in addition to being an outlet for strong critical and pedagogical impulses—above all an exercise. An exercise that ranged between humility and rebelliousness and remained important to her as long as in her eyes the gap between “knowing” and “knowing with one’s entire soul” had not been bridged. She was a fanatic about precision, both in her thought and in her life, a precision that was brought to bear on matters of the smallest as well as of the largest dimensions, a precision that inevitably maneuvered her thought and life into extreme situations.
FIRST SPEAKER: Simone Weil was born in 1909 in Paris; she was the second child of well-to-do Jewish parents. It was to her older brother—who is now a professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago—that she owed her early preoccupation with literature and science, her precociously exceptional mastery of difficult systems of knowledge. After completing school, she studied philosophy with Alain, then enrolled at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and left it with an agrégation de philosophie—which is only superficially equivalent to our doctorate of philosophy, as it is a much more difficult academic goal to attain. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, she taught—with voluntary and involuntary interruptions—at various secondary schools. She participated in French political life at a very early age and fought in the ranks of the extreme left without ever belonging to any political organization. Her party was the party of the poor, weak, and downtrodden, and she joined this nameless party in her own fashion. She took a leave of absence from her teaching career, enlisted as a milling-machine operator working alongside foreign names at the Renault factory, lived with and among the workers and in the same conditions as the ones in which the majority of French workers of the period had to live. She was unable to bring her first experiment to a successful conclusion. A case of pleurisy forced her to quit her job.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out, she aligned herself with the Reds, went to the Catalonian front, and helped whenever she could. She only refused to use weapons personally. But once again she was obliged to give up; this time it was an accident, which forced her to move back to France. She had burned her feet with boiling oil.
In the summer of 1940, when the Germans were approaching Paris, she decided to accompany her parents to Marseilles, but then she left them to spend a few months in the country as a farmhand. The beginning of her acquaintance with the philosopher and lay theologian Gustave Thibon dates from this period. Her days spent working in the vineyards were followed by evenings in which she continued her study of Greek philosophy and literature and Indian philosophy and began to turn her attention to mysticism. A short [time] later we find her back in Marseilles. At the urging of the Dominican priest Joseph-Marie Perrin she gave lectures on Plato and the Pythagoreans in the crypt of the Dominican monastery. Finally her parents prevailed upon her to emigrate with them. They traveled together to the United States. But Simone Weil, who had called justice a “refugee from the victor’s camp” felt that she belonged in the unfortunate camp that was occupied France. She welcomed the Resistance, left hospitable America after only a few months, and went to Maurice Schumann in London to work for the French government in exile. Her request to be sent on a mission to France was refused. They feared that the worst would happen to someone of her racial affiliation in a country infested by the Gestapo. But for the sake of at least sharing in the material deprivation of the French, she waived her right to extra food rations as a gesture of solidarity with the refugees.
Years of hunger and overwork were wearing her out. She had to be checked into a sanatorium with acute tuberculosis and died shortly thereafter in Ashford, Kent on August 24, 1943, having not even reached the age of thirty-four.3 Nobody has given an account of her last days. She was probably alone there. Her few friends were in France.
WEIL: “Agony is the supreme dark night that even the perfect have need of in order to attain absolute purity, and therefore it is better if it is bitter.”4
NARRATOR: Anyone familiar with Weil’s biography must be inclined to think that she was—especially in the political and social conflict of pre-war and wartime Europe—a person with a strong need to share in the sufferings and struggles of others, and prepared to make any sacrifice. Seen in this light, her life would be a rare exemplum of humane benevolence, but as such an exemplum it would have remained invisible and inglorious like so many sacrificed lives.
The integrity of her life is destined to remain inviolable and to speak for itself. We intend to speak of her thought, of her intellectual legacy and the manifestations of her thought at the various and diverse stations of her journey, a journey that she felt she had been expressly called to undertake. Accordingly, although we shall not disregard the fact that her vocation was a “spiritual” one, we must initially focus our attention on her social and political thought. The mainspring of this part of her personality was very strong, as she herself belatedly acknowledged:
WEIL: “The contemplation of social matters is as effectually purifying as withdrawal from the world, and accordingly there has been nothing perverse about my longstanding involvement in politics…”5
FIRST SPEAKER: Simone Weil first drew public attention to herself when as a teacher in [Le] Puy she spoke up for the striking workers in that commune. During this episode she came into contact with a group whose mouthpiece was the extreme-left trade-union newspaper Révolution prolétarienne. But she attracted an even greater degree of attention from the workers themselves. They had no use for people like her; they suspected her of being one of those intellectuals whose sympathy with the proletariat arises from a misunderstanding, who succumb to a fascination with complete otherness out of a feeling of insecurity and emptiness. Preoccupied as they were with their own concrete problems, these workers were by no means appreciative when these kinds of intellectuals poked their noses in their affairs. They therefore may have initially found Simone Weil’s presence disagreeable; later they found it disturbing. They were disturbed by her superior knowledge of socialist theories, by her dazzling intellectual gifts and her ardent and pure interest in the situation in which French workers then found themselves, and by her ruthless advocacy of an improvement of their condition. Simone Weil’s position was not an easy one. She was very young and not very attractive, fairly unamiable, lacking in charm, uncompromising, and deadly serious. But she was also thoroughly truthful, tough, and single-minded, and she managed to prevail. She managed to get these men, from whom she provoked nothing but bemused head-shaking, to accept her as a friend. The effect she had on them is best characterized by a tragicomic remark made by one of these French workers, who when deeply shaken by the news of her death said:
WORKER: “She didn’t know how to live. She was too bookish and never ate anything.”6
SECOND SPEAKER: Simone Weil was a “highly strung” person—a person possessed of an unparalleled cerebral intensity on the one hand and a total ignorance of material exigencies on the other. She wanted to force the workers to think; she wanted to explain their situation to them. For she saw that the thoughtlessness of the employers was complemented by the thoughtlessness of the workers. She wanted to attack the evil at its root and was mistaken only inasmuch as she assumed that all human beings enjoyed the same intellectual possibilities as she did. She assumed this not out of arrogance but out of naivety and rarely noticed that she was being left on her own during the intellectual excursions that she was trying to get the others to participate in. Nevertheless, in her memoirs of Simone Weil in this period, Mme Thévonon, the wife of one of the leaders of the syndicalist movement, speaks of her character and her ideas so sympathetically that one may readily suppose that despite her awkwardness around other people Simone Weil did not fail to have a lasting effect on them.
MME. THÉVENON: “She was very simple, and although her level of culture was far superior to ours, we could carry on long conversations with her in a fraternal tone. She enjoyed herself when she was with us and often asked us to sing—but not the most orthodox songs. When we were with her, she sat in her hideous room, in which there was hardly any furniture, at the foot of her iron bed, and recited Greek verses that we didn’t understand but that we delighted in because we could sense her delight in them. Then sometimes she would give us an unforgettable smile, a look of acquiescence in comical situations; this side of her character rarely made an appearance on account of the earnestness with which she confronted everything…”6
SECOND SPEAKER: Because Simone Weil recoiled from every kind of conformism and every one of her thoughts breathed the air of liberty, she also conquered her surroundings. She did not fight for any sort of utopia but for the present day. She also did not believe in any sort of ideal program for answering the question of what was best for the workers but rather in a step-by-step solution to their problems. She stationed herself on the rock bottom of reality, or as she herself would have put it, in “misfortune,” in which she knew she was imprisoned along with everyone who suffered from it in any form in which it figured in the world. For her, thinking honestly meant taking givens as the starting-point of one’s thoughts.
FIRST SPEAKER: We know from her biography that she quit working as teacher for a while and took a job as a milling-machine operator at the Renault plant. At the time, she kept a Factory Diary from which we would like to read a few passages in order to show that before she formulated them, she was already undergoing the experiences that would enable and entitle her to do so. This diary is neither overwrought nor stylized; rather, it records what she encountered each day with great authenticity and immediacy. It is her encounter with the monotony and the moral and psychic void that was engendered in the workers by their work in the large factory. In the process of appraising it, we must also take into account the particular conditions of French factories in those years, but one can only derive a sense of the general situation from numerous particulars.
SECOND SPEAKER: At this time, Simone Weil worked a shift that lasted from 2:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. The times of day referred to must be understood in this context. So on a Thursday in 1935 she writes:
WEIL: “I go to the plant with an excessively heavy heart: each step costs me (morally; on the way back, it does physically). Am in a semi-distracted state in which I am a moving target for every sort of hard knock…From 2:30 to 3:35, 400 pieces. From 3:35 to 4:15, time lost to the fitter in the hat (he makes me fix my botches)—Large pieces—slow and very hard because of the new setup of the crank on the vise. I have recourse to the foreman. Discussion. Resume work. I puncture the end of my thumb (there it is—the hard knock)—Infirmary—Finished the 500 at 6:14. No more pieces for me. (I’m so tired that I’m relieved!) But they promise me some. Ultimately I don’t get any until 7:30 and only 500 (to round out the 1,000)…At 8:00, 245. I finish the 500 big ones, suffering a lot all the while, in 1-1/2 hrs…Off at 9:40. But earned 16.45 francs!!!...I go home tired.”7
SECOND SPEAKER: Three weeks later, again on a Thursday.
WEIL: “Drama at the factory today…They fired a female worker who had botched 400 pieces. A tuberculosis patient with a husband who’s out of work half the time and some kids (by another man, I think) being brought up by the father’s family. The attitude of the other female workers, a mixture of pity and a schoolgirlish ‘it serves her right.’ It seems she was a bad comrade and a bad worker. Comments. She had blamed the darkness (after 6:30, they turn off all the lights). ‘And I’ve definitely done all sorts of things without any light.’ ‘She shouldn’t have talked back to the foreman (she had refused to do the work); she should have gone to the assistant director and said: I made a mistake, but etc.’ ‘When you’ve got to earn a living, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.’ ‘When you’ve got a living to earn, you’ve got to be more conscientious (!).’”8
SECOND SPEAKER: From an undated entry:
WEIL: “Your total ignorance of what you’re working on is excessively demoralizing. You don’t get the feeling that a product is the result of the effort you’re putting in. You haven’t got any kind of a sense of the number of producers involved. You also haven’t got any notion of the relationship between your labor and your wages either. Activity seems to be arbitrarily imposed and arbitrarily remunerated. You get the impression that you’re a bit like one of those kids whose mothers keep them calm by giving them pearls to thread while promising them candy.”9
SECOND SPEAKER: On a Saturday:
WEIL: “Violent headaches, my mood distressed, better in the afternoon (but weep at B.’s…”10
SECOND SPEAKER: Monday:
WEIL: “Leclerc summons me[…]. Starts bawling me out because I’[ve finished] these pieces without speaking to him about them first. He asks for the number. I bring him my notebook! He takes a look at it and starts being nice, nice.”11
SECOND SPEAKER: Wednesday.
WEIL: “Earned 255 francs (I was worried I wouldn’t even get 200…) for 81 hours. Didn’t sleep a wink all night.”12
SECOND SPEAKER: From a pair of undated entries:
WEIL: “In all other forms of slavery, the slavery is contextual. Only here has it been transposed into the work itself. Effects of slavery on the soul.13
A factory-owner. I enjoy untold costly pleasures and my workers suffer from poverty. He can pity his workers quite sincerely and yet not form any kind of relationship with them.
For no relationship can form if thought is not generating it.”14
FIRST SPEAKER: Simone Weil tried to form relationships through thought in the works in which she explicitly preoccupies herself with the condition of the modern industrial worker, with the “rationalization” of the question of human rights, a preoccupation that is notably and definitively summarized in a “Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind”15 that constitutes her last will and testament.
We cannot discuss each and every one of her works; but we will try to discover the leitmotiv that dominates them all and to delineate her principal ideas. Poverty—poverty originating in misfortune—figures throughout these writings in various guises. Simone Weil discerns the most visible form of poverty in the social and political sector, because this form of poverty is an insuperable roadblock lying athwart humankind’s path to freedom. Hence it is first and foremost necessary to deal with this form of poverty, to aim for the establishment of an equitable social order, of a social equilibrium. It is for this reason that she addresses herself to workers and tries to enlighten them on the causes of their poverty, which she discerns in Taylorism—specifically, in Taylor’s system of the rationalization of labor, which, together with the Fordian system, which aims at the attainment of the highest level of productivity, is being more or less consistently implemented in modern factories. “What kind of scientifically based system is this?” she asks, and she replies:
SECOND SPEAKER: One calculates the amount of time in which a certain task can be completed and establishes this interval as a norm for workers. Via bonuses, surveillance, and ruthlessly prompt dismissal for failure to meet the targets set for them, workers are motivated to achieve the highest levels of productivity. Taylor was very proud of this system because it catered to the interests of both employers and workers; both derived external advantages from the system, and not insignificantly it made commodities cheaper for consumers. He thought that with it he had obliterated all social conflicts and generated social harmony. But as Simone Weil explained, this system embodied the most perfect form of slavery imaginable; it had led the workers into a state of complete isolation; in their competitive struggle against one another the solidarity of the workers was being destroyed. The division of labor ultimately led to human atomization in the factories and generated unparalleled monotony there. Ford said that workers do not find monotonous work unpleasant, and he was right to the extent that there is nothing people get used to more easily than monotony. But this habituation marked the beginning of the moral disintegration of humankind.
Accordingly, Simone Weil also vehemently opposed the application of psychological techniques—which incidentally were still in their infancy then—and was of the opinion that under the dictatorship of their calculations—calculations regarding, for example, incipient fatigue, decreasing concentration, etc.—enslavement was being brought to perfection. For no psychological technician could ever compute and precisely specify how long or short a specific worker (as opposed to an abstract worker generated by methodical computation) would find a specific interval. Only such a worker himself could say that.
FIRST SPEAKER: After dealing with these “internal” problems, in the essay La Condition Ouvrière she came to speak of a related and comprehensive problem: the exclusively nationalistic treatment of questions of production.
SECOND SPEAKER: She takes the phenomenon of the product as the starting point of her analysis. An example of a product is the automobile. An automobile can be various things; in our eyes, it is a useful means of transportation that we can no longer imagine doing without. But automobiles do not exist merely to be driven on the street sooner or later; they are also a permanent weapon in the battle between the automobile industries of France, Italy, Germany, etc. Even if one wanted to shorten the working hours in the factories of a given country in the interest of its workers, one couldn’t do so. One would run the risk of being squeezed out of the market by foreign automobile industries. A system of regulations could only succeed if it were implemented on an international basis and were predicated on a uniform curtailment of production. Simone Weil says that when the statisticians observe that production is being ramped up even further and for the umpteenth time, this by no means signifies progress—that to the contrary, it is a step backwards towards the most extreme and appalling form of slavery. This hectic competitive struggle finds its most graphic expression in arms production, which of course no country will restrict in the absence of international regulations.
FIRST SPEAKER: To be sure, Simone Weil’s demands, which in the 1930s still enjoyed a fair chance of being realized, seem merely illusory today, even though they have lost very little of their persuasiveness. She was actually writing during a period when she scarcely could have guessed how right she was already turning out to be, specifically in connection with Hitler:
If international praxis is increasingly being neglected, progress could come in a specifically national social context. But progress in this case would march hand in hand with an increasingly dictatorial system of government. In dictatorships the citizenry are hermetically sealed off from foreign products, from human contact, and from communication with people from other countries. Say hello to full employment, higher wages, and, concurrently, the upward and outward expansion of an enormous arms-manufacturing industry.
SECOND SPEAKER: But the “misfortune” of the worker remains unaffected by any of this. She calls this misfortune “mysterious” and believes that the workers’ misfortunate inability to speak articulately about their own misfortune is itself a part of the misfortune. For when they do speak about it, they employ the phraseology of people who are certainly not workers. The slogans of workers are for the most part borrowed [from] non-workers.
The factory with its atmosphere, which is inimitably evoked by Weil, with its rhythm, which causes a human being moving among machines in motion to feel as if he is no longer in control of his own body, imposes a state of servitude on that human being, on the worker. At the factory, the worker is not “his own man.” If its monotony is interrupted, the workers inwardly kick up a fuss. This is appropriate. But the reason it is appropriate is that any new task must be performed in conformity with certain instructions, just like the old task. Neither the old task nor the new one has any intrinsic connection to the worker. The only thing that ever changes is the instructions. If the worker makes ten parts, ten movements of his hand, in a minute, and so forth, it is certain that he will make another ten parts, ten hand-movements, and so forth, until he receives the next set of instructions. But his suffering is not confined to working hours; his commute to work and back home, his Sundays off, even his handful of idle minutes garnered during working hours thanks to, say, the malfunctioning of his machine, are “contingent.” He lives his life in continuous oscillation between monotony and contingency. The circle cannot be broken.
FIRST SPEAKER: Misfortune is a mystery, she repeatedly insists. And she makes a surprising turn to the following proposition: even if working hours and working conditions were improved (as in most respects they have been in many countries by now), misfortune wouldn’t disappear. In what sense would it survive?
SECOND SPEAKER: It would survive inasmuch as a worker has no future; for if he “works his way up to the top of the ladder” he will no longer be a worker. His existence is stuck in a paradox. A dentist who is starving to death (or any other starving person who has a profession) will still be a dentist no matter how rich he becomes. But a worker who manages to get control of a factory is no longer a worker, but rather the manager of a factory.
FIRST SPEAKER: Nothing about his lot can ever be changed, even if he calls himself “comrade” or whatever else.
SECOND SPEAKER: So there are many forms of freedom, lamentable and dignified forms of it, but only one form of slavery. Beyond the monotony, all that is left to the enslaved is the short-lived desire for change and for pleasure, and cheek by jowl with it stand the temptations: idleness, nausea, disgust. The oscillation between mealtimes and work and rest and work again, this “eating in order to be able to work and working in order to be able to eat,” this absence of a goal, of a finalité, is the hallmark of naked existence.
Accordingly, Simone Weil believes that revolt against social injustice is necessary; it is necessary to the curtailment of evil, to the establishment of an approximation of equilibrium. But she also believes that to promise the workers a successful revolt against their misfortune is to lie to them.
WEIL: “These lies lead to the abuse of workers’ greatest strengths. They promise them a paradise that is impossible. Marx said that religion was the opium of the people. No, revolution is the opium of the people. Revolutionary hopes are stimulating. All final systems are fundamentally mistaken.”
NARRATOR: To be able to understand Simone Weil’s next move, we must be familiar with her conception of the world beforehand. At the moment when she supposes she has found the solution, we are already setting foot on the proscenium of her religious creed. And for the sake of being able to follow her, we wish to make it clear in advance that she believed in God. Yet we intend to reserve for ourselves her peculiar form of Christian theism, her borderline heretical “Catholicism,” which refused to affiliate itself with the Church because the Church was not truly “catholic,” not “universal.” Hence she sees the inescapable misfortune of the worker, his essential misfortunateness, as a peculiar distinction. For a human being who enjoys no possibility of orienting his desire towards goals, towards things that could exist or will exist, can only orient his desire towards something that already exists.
WEIL: “This something is beauty. Everything beautiful is an object of desire, but its desirer has no desire for it to be different, to change anything about it; he desires it as it already is…what he desires is precisely…something he already possesses. As the people are compelled to orient their desire entirely towards what they already possess, beauty is made for them and they are made for beauty…The people need poetry as they need bread. Not the poetry immured in words. They need to have poetry as the substance of their everyday lives.
Such poetry can only have one source. That source is God. This poetry can never be anything but religion.”17
SECOND SPEAKER: By this Simone Weil means that the worker’s fundamental misfortune produces a vacuum between man and God. A human being whose view was not blocked by any desires, by any goal, would only need to raise his head and look upward to realize that nothing separates him from God. The difficulty would lie only in getting him to raise his head.
FIRST SPEAKER: But it would be wrong to infer from this that she wishes to justify social misfortune, to justify deficiencies of this kind. In an earlier passage, we said that she involved herself in revolts against social deficiencies, and she did indeed involve herself in one very materially when she supported the French metalworkers’ strike in  by greeting it with enthusiastic words. And yet in her eyes man’s essential misfortune is ineradicable, although she believes it may be possible to eradicate its concomitant, the accidental misfortune that robs him of the strength to raise his head. Later she formulates this principle as follows:
WEIL: “Misfortune must be eradicated from social life to the greatest possible extent, for misfortune serves grace alone and our society is not a society of the elect. There will always be sufficient misfortune for the elect.”18
SECOND SPEAKER: The fact that [she] was free [of] every trace of sentimentality, even in her unconditional championing of the downtrodden, and that she viewed both her struggle and her fellow-strugglers sub specie æternitatis, so to speak, was owing to something that at first blush cannot but be quite off-putting, namely her conception of the entire social and political sector as an appurtenance of “evil.”
WEIL: “The good does not enter into the social domain at all19…The social domain is irreducibly the prince of this world’s domain. In the social domain one’s only duty is to try to curtail evil.”20
SECOND SPEAKER: This because:
WEIL: “It is the social domain that imparts the color of absoluteness to relativism. The remedy for this is contained in the idea of relatedness. Relatedness takes a violent leap out of the social domain.”21
SECOND SPEAKER: But with this leap we have already arrived at a new station of her journey. Naturally, the stages of this journey overlap—although her religious thought finally crystallizes only in the last years of her life, and although the social and political problematic of the thirties remains the soil in which she took root and the material of the period [tended] toward dematerialization [---].22
Simone Weil and her journey to God are of a peculiar kind. She is a maverick. Accordingly, it has not even occurred to us to situate her in relation to the other French Christian intellectuals of her time, and it is probably also no accident that she never drops the names of Péguy, Bernanos, or Bloy; and it is a moot question whether she was unaware of them or disregarding them or deliberately setting herself apart from them. Her connection to twentieth-century literature and philosophy seems to be merely tenuous. She makes one mention of Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament, which probably impressed her because of its preoccupation with the Spanish Civil War. There are also one-time mentions of Proust, Valéry, and Joseph Conrad, all of whom she held in high regard. In truth her attention was absorbed by things of an entirely different nature, not including her interest in the social-scientific theories that delineated the social and political landscape. These other things were texts in the canons of ancient Greek literature, above all the Iliad; and ancient Greek philosophy, above all, Plato, and also Pythagoras. She translated and interpreted classical Greek texts, because she believed that they were essentially conveyors of “pre-Christian intuitions.” It is of course an open question whether the classical Greek conceptions of God and divine knowledge were actual anticipations of the Christian conceptions of them or have merely come to look like such anticipations in hindsight, since their absorption and assimilation [into] those conceptions. In her engagement with certain texts—those of classical Greece, the writings of the Christian mystics, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Shakespeare, and Racine—Simone Weil is prone to ardent love and veneration; whereas towards certain others she feels nothing but an implacable antipathy: for the most part, the Old Testament, Aristotle, and classical Roman literature simply disgust her; whatever she cannot love she must toss onto the rubbish heap. The only texts that matter to her are the ones that have been the recipients of “sacrifices,” or, to put it another way, those in which she is capable of seeing traces of such sacrificial offerings. Her criticism often comes across as presumptuous, and scarcely any reader will find it possible to share her view of everything; but a good many readers will come to share her view of most of the things that she found admirable—this because in a few of her essays she manages to convey the beauty of ancient texts in a new and fascinating way.
Such is the upshot of the emollient and insightful words that T.S. Eliot found to bestow on her and her work in recommending patience to readers immersing themselves in Weil for the first time:
ELIOT: “Certainly she could be unfair and intemperate; certainly she committed some astonishing aberrations and exaggerations. But those immoderate affirmations which tax the patience of the reader spring not from any flaw in her intellect but from excess of temperament…and as for her own mind, it was worthy of the soul which employed it. But the intellect, especially when bent upon such problems as those which harassed Simone Weil, can come to maturity only slowly; and we must not forget that Simone Weil died at the age of thirty-three. […S]he had a very great soul to grow up to…”23
NARRATIVE: On account of this, we will also avoid giving very close consideration to her opinions on this or that subject—not because these opinions do not deserve such attention, but rather because we wish to keep our eyes on her journey, which, although it did indeed bring her into constant contact with bodies of literature and philosophy, remained unique to her.
There is much talk nowadays of a “pilgrimage to the absolute.” Now in simple terms Simone Weil isn’t so much a pilgrim as an anti-pilgrim. Her journey is a via negativa, a journey away from God intended to increase the distance between herself and God. And this infinite distance [to] which she is brought by acceptance of the utmost extremity of “misfortune,” is intended to make it possible for her not to confront God as an individual, as a personality, whether from the perspective of a sceptic or from that of a believer, but rather to experience grace as an extinguished and naked existence. Thus in our hands her multifaceted and multilayered work becomes an attestation of pure mysticism, perhaps the only such attestation we have received since the Middle Ages. It is probably under this aspect, the aspect of an incomprehensible inspiration, that we should view her writings if we are to do them full justice.
FIRST SPEAKER: A system, for example, of a philosophical kind, is not contained in Simone Weil’s writings. Where they do evince the rudiments of a system, they are downright weak; they are strong in rapport—a word that is difficult to translate into German and that means entering into a relationship.24 The rapport occurs between her reason and the absent God, for in everything that we think, learn, and experience, God is nowhere to be found.
WEIL: “God cannot be present in the creation except in the form of absence.”25
“One must situate God at an infinite distance in order to conceive of him as innocent of evil: complementarily, evil reveals that God must be situated at an infinite distance.” 26
“Inasmuch as this world is completely devoid of God it is God himself.”27
“One must exist in a desert. For he whom one must love is absent.”28
“Nothing that exists is unconditionally deserving of love. One must therefore love that which does not exist.”29
FIRST SPEAKER: This mere handful of statements by Simone Weil fully conveys a sense of the version of degree zero from which she tenaciously refused to budge. But in her case refusing to budge did not entail idleness but rather thought and action, conscientiousness, discharging “one’s duties to one’s fellow-man with the utmost stringency” possible, plodding indefatigably onwards into the void for the sake of curtailing evil, and establishing conditions for contact with “spiritual reality.” For as she says:
WEIL: “A paralytic is incapable of perception.”30
SECOND SPEAKER: But she categorically and especially will have no truck with anything that deceptively distances us from this ground zero—with the search for consolation, hope, or the remediation of suffering, with any attempt to flush out the void via an exercise of the imagination.
WEIL: “The imagination is constantly striving to caulk all the cracks that grace could possibly seep through.”31
“In its effort to fill the void, the imagination is essentially duplicitous.”32
“The past and the future forestall the salutary effect of misfortune in affording a field-day to imaginative flights of fancy. This is why the renunciation of the past and the future is the most important of all acts of renunciation.”33ball to
SECOND SPEAKER: Next she draws into this terrifying logical nexus those central imaginative concepts of the Christian religion from which its adherents derive their chief consolation. She reasons as follows: divine mercy consists in the utter absence of God’s mercy from the earth. And a belief in immortality as a prolongation of life only prevents the believer from making the proper use of death. One must prohibit oneself from entertaining this belief for God’s sake, for it does not lie within our power to imagine the soul as a disembodied entity.
FIRST SPEAKER: But she thinks along these lines because there is one thing she is keen on avoiding at all costs—namely the creation of an imaginary God, a new “great beast”—the term is taken from Plato’s Republic—that would join forces with the other “great beasts.” She numbers among the great beasts everything that wields power and everything that ever has wielded it.
WEIL: “Rome: the atheistic, materialist great beast, which worships itself alone. Israel: the religious great beast. Neither of them is loveable. The great beast is always repulsive.”34
“To the extent that Marxism is true, it is contained in its entirety in Plato’s passage on the great beast, and its refutation is also contained therein.”35
“Service rendered to false gods…purifies evil in eliminating its horror. In the eyes of someone who renders such service, nothing seems evil but any lapse in this rendition. But service rendered to the true God allows the horror of evil to subsist and even intensifies the horror.”36
SECOND SPEAKER: The fact that Simone Weil’s most vehement strictures on all forms of totalitarianism are directly connected to her love of God is readily inferable from these passages. But we would like to single out another feature of them in order to clarify her attitude towards the Catholic Church. In a single breath and using the term great beast she dismisses not only the entire trajectory leading from Allah to Marxism and the Roman Empire to Hitler, but also the God of the Old Testament. But the divine mission of Israel is the basis of the New Testament, and consequently the basis of the Christian Church. Eliot is of the opinion that her rejection of Israel prevented her from becoming an officially confirmed Christian, that the difficulties that emerged from this rejection made it impossible for her to undergo conversion. This may indeed be the explanation; in any case, it is certain that she did not wish to convert. She set out her reasons in her letters to the Dominican monk Father Perrin, the warmest and most personal letters she ever wrote. Here for the first time is a person who understands her, who does not bemusedly shake his head at the very thought of her. Her brusqueness was transformed <…>.
WEIL: “Being continually ready to admit that another being [un autre] is something different [autre] from what one reads in him when he is present (or when one is thinking of him). Or rather to read in him that he is assuredly something different, perhaps something entirely different from what one reads there.
Every being is a silent cry to be read differently.” 37
SECOND SPEAKER: The letters to Perrin date from 1942, before she leaves Europe; this is a year before her death. In them she explains why she cannot join the Church.
WEIL: “Christianity must encompass all vocations without exception, because it is catholic. Hence the Church must also be so all-encompassing. But in my eyes Christianity is catholic de jure and not de facto. So many things are outside of it, so many things that I love and do not wish to abandon, so many things that God loves, for otherwise they would be devoid of existence. The entire immense expanse of past centuries, with the exception of the last twenty; all the countries inhabited by people of color; the entirety of secular life in white people’s countries; in the history of these countries, all the traditions accused of heresy, like the Manichean and Albigensian traditions; all the things that came out of the Renaissance, which have been too often debased, but never absolutely devoid of value.
As Christianity is catholic de jure and not de facto, I regard it as legitimate on my part to be a member of the Church de jure and not de facto…”38
SECOND SPEAKER: She speaks of the necessity of the Church as a collective protectress of dogma, but she believes that it is abusing its authority whenever it imposes its language as a norm on our reason and our love.
WEIL: “This abuse of power does not emanate from God. It comes from the natural tendency of all collectivities, without exception, to abuse their power.”39
SECOND SPEAKER: She continues along these lines in another passage:
WEIL: “In order for the Church’s current attitude to be efficacious and genuinely penetrative of social existence, the Church would have to admit that it has changed or wishes to change. Otherwise how could anyone who remembers the Inquisition take it seriously? You must pardon me for mentioning the Inquisition; owing to my friendly regard for you, which extends beyond you to your order, it pains me very much to call to mind this institution here. But the institution existed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, which was totalitarian, it was the Church which drafted the first blueprint of totalitarianism in Europe, in the thirteenth century, after the Albigensian Crusade. This tree has borne ample fruit....Moreover, it was via a judicious transposition of this practice that all the parties established by totalitarian regimes in our own time were founded. This is a historical moment that I have studied with particular attention.”40
FIRST SPEAKER: But after drawing attention to this criticism of the Church, of that portion of the Church belonging to the social and political sector, it would be unfair not to highlight her profound reverence for the Christian religion. In her eyes Christ is the model of righteousness because he was naked and dead. His healing of the sick, his resurrection of the dead, seems to her the most trivial part of his mission, its human part; she singles out as the supernatural part of his mission his unfulfilled longing for human consolations, his feeling of being forsaken by God. Through this feeling one can strive to equal God, not God Almighty, but God who died on the cross, for whom God is likewise absent.
SECOND SPEAKER: But [in] all her reflections, which she repeatedly and insistently elucidates to Perrin, she keeps returning to the question of what must be done “now.” In one passage she speaks of one of her contemporaries—Maritain—and takes up his call for a new type of holiness. To be sure, she points out, Maritain has contented himself with enumerating aspects of earlier versions of holiness that have fallen into temporary obsolescence.
WEIL: “The world needs saints endowed with genius as a city infested with the plague needs doctors.”41
SECOND SPEAKER: And she hopes that where need is in evidence, a sense of obligation will also emerge.
NARRATOR: Needless to say, the description of a complex body of work and of the numerous themes that it deals with—especially given that they are not dealt with in a systematic, coherent fashion; the description of a life that is ever-so-intimately bound up with this body of work, must confine its attention to a handful of highly significant and readily discernable features. But even if this description can be said to have succeeded in shining some light on the phenomenon that is Simone Weil, something else is still missing—that something being an elucidation in the fullest sense of the word.
Her first editor—Gustave Thibon, with whom she was also personally acquainted—has to some extent provided this elucidation in expressing the understandable fear that after publication her writings would be interpreted in the light of current political life, by which he may have principally meant the distorted versions of politics practiced by political parties.
THIBON: “No social group or worldview has the right to claim her. Her love of the people and hatred of all oppression do not suffice to ally her with any of the parties of the Left; nor do her negative stance towards progress and her reverence for tradition authorize her classification as a member of the Right. Every time she committed herself politically, she did so with the selfsame passion with which she engaged in every activity; but by no means did this amount to anything like the deification of an idea, a nation, or a class…”42
NARRATOR: This is all quite true, but for precision’s sake one must add that not even the Church can claim her as an ally. Wherever she found herself, she always remained standing at the threshold, rigorously consistent to the last.
To interpret Simone Weil’s work in the light of genuine current political reality, which includes all current realities, is nevertheless still necessary. She may yet contribute to the demolition of relations, to the recognition of the “Great Beast” in every form in which it manifests itself. Anybody who recognizes it will cease to serve it and instead do everything in his power to curtail the evil engendered by it. Championing the curtailment of evil will then become an authentic social duty. For Simone Weil this was a duty that had to be performed “in all circumstances” lest the love of one’s neighbor remain nothing but an empty phrase. Neighborly love is a universal love and loves every human being who needs help regardless of whether it knows his name. Thus Weil wished, for example, to go to Russia when the Germans had penetrated deep into that country, even though she regarded the Soviet State as an evil, as a modification of Marxism, of the “Great Beast.” When fulfilling this wish proved impossible, she still had enough time left to give proof of the sincerity of her neighborly love. The suffering inflicted on her by the persecution and annihilation of the Jews in Germany, the misery of the occupied French, destroyed her psychically; the work she undertook in the hope of alleviating the sufferings of others destroyed her physically.
Her faith in God, which sometimes seemed impossible [to her] in the light of the ever-increasing horror, was not destroyed. The relationship with the absolute into which she entered was sustainable for her. This relationship made it possible for her to believe that there was love in the “worst of all possible worlds,” because it repudiated the presence of God in that world.
There is nothing about this mystical entering-into-a-relationship-with-the-absolute that we can make our own in any way. It would be madness to maintain that we can participate in it, that we can exploit it for our own uses like a system of knowledge. Such being the case, this portion of Simone Weil’s journey is impracticable in the strictest sense. It was always only ever vouchsafed to a few and will only ever again be pursued by the few in sundry ways. It has always been pursued in sundry ways and always will be pursued in sundry ways.
But to the extent that we are receptive to it, the beauty that inheres in everything that is thought and lived in purity ultimately finds a refuge in us. Once illuminated by this beauty, we repeatedly catch glimpses of something concealed from us by the darkness—the indestructible visage of the human individual in a world that has been conspiring to bring about his destruction.
WEIL: “After my year of factory work, before my resumption of teaching, my parents had brought me to Portugal, and there I left them and went to live alone in a small village. My body and soul had both been ripped to pieces after a fashion. That contact with misfortune had murdered my youth. Until then I had not experienced any misfortune apart from my own, which seemed unimportant to me because it was my own, and which in any case was merely semi-misfortune in being of a biological rather than a social nature. I was well aware that there was a great deal of misfortune in the world; I was obsessed with it, but I had never observed it while being in sustained contact with it. During my time at the factory, lost as I then was in the anonymous mass in both everyone else’s eyes and my own, the misfortune of others seeped into my flesh and into my soul. Nothing separated me from it, for I had genuinely forgotten my past and I expected nothing from the future, as I found it difficult to imagine surviving that period of constant fatigue. What I suffered then has marked me…indelibly…There I received the mark of the glowing iron that the Romans burned into the foreheads of their most despised slaves. Ever since then, I have regarded myself as a slave.”43
1. First broadcast in the first half of 1955 on Bavarian Radio in Munich. The specific broadcast date is no longer known. [editors’ note (hereafter Ed.)]
2. Misfortune and Divine Love is my fairly literal translation of Das Unglück und die Gottesliebe, the title of Kemp’s translation of Attente de Dieu, a title more literally known in English translation as Waiting for God or Awaiting God. Gravity and Grace is the standard English title of Le Pesanteur et la grâce, which Kemp likewise literally rendered as Schwerkraft und Gnade. [translator’s note (hereafter Tr.)]
3. Having been born on February 3, 1909, Simone Weil was actually already 34 years old at the time of her death [Tr.]
4. Gravity and Grace, translated by Friedhelm Kemp (Munich: Kösel Verlag, 1952), p. 159, modified. [Ed.] Here, as elsewhere when I have access to the original French source (in this case, p 79 of the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi electronic edition of "La pesanteur et la grâce"), I have collated the German with that original to produce a composite translation, and when the editors have noted modifications, I have pointed out substantial divergences from the original that may correspond to them. As I do not have access to Kemp’s translations, I cannot be certain that such divergences in passages taken from these translations (such as the one cited in the present note) are the result of liberties taken by Bachmann rather than by Kemp. The only substantial divergence in this passage is the presence of zu erreichen (to attain), which introduces a sense of striving and movement not immediately entailed by pour la pureté on its own. [Tr.]
5. Simone Weil, Cahiers [Notebooks] II, (Plon: Paris, 1953), p. 260f., modified. [Ed.] As I do not have access to the Cahiers, I have translated this passage, along with the one from them cited later in the essay, exclusively from Bachmann’s German. [Tr.]
6. As the editors do not cite a source for these passages, I have translated them exclusively from the German. [Tr.]
7. “Journal d’Usine (Factory Diary) 1934-1935,” in La condition ouvrière. Gallimard, Paris: 1951. Paperback edition, p.119. [Ed.] Translated directly from p.79 of Université du Québec à Chicoutimi electronic edition of "La condition ouvrière," with approximations of Bachmann’s ellipses. [Tr.]
8. “Fragments” in La condition ouvrière, p. 130. [Ed.] Translated directly from ibid., p. 100. [Tr.]
9. Ibid., p. 153. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 101. [Tr.]
10. “Journal d’Usine,” p. 130. [Ed.] Translated directly from ibid., p. 86. [Tr.]
11. Ibid., p. 131. [Ed.] Translated directly from ibid., p. 87, with the exception of the bracketed sections, which correspond to alterations made by Bachmann but unnoted by the editors. [Tr.]
12. Ibid., p. 134. [Ed.] Translated directly from ibid., p. 88. [Tr.]
13. “Fragments,” p. 168. [Ed.] Translated directly from ibid., p. 111. [Tr.]
14. Gravity and Grace, p. 238. [Ed.] Translated directly from the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi electronic edition "La pesanteur et la grâce," p. 138. [Tr.]
15. Since published in a translation by Friedhelm Kemp entitled “Studie für eine Erklärung der Pflichten gegen das menschliche Wesen” in Simone Weil, Zeugnis für das Gute. Traktate—Briefe—Aufzeichnungen. Walter Verlag, Olten and Freiburg: 1976. [Eds.] Bachmann is presumably referring to Enracinement (1949), whose 1952 English translation by Arthur Willis is entitled The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind.
16. “Condition première d’un travail non servile” in: La condition ouvrière, p. 358, modified. [Ed.] I have translated from Bachmann’s German, as it differs so dramatically from the original passage (on p. 218 of the electronic edition) as to be more accurately regarded as a paraphrase than as a translation, and the explicit equation of revolution to opium comes from La pesanteur et la grâce. (See p. 178 of the electronic edition.) [Tr.]
17. Ibid., p. 265 f. [Ed.] La condition ourvrière, p. 219.
18. Gravity and Grace, p. 264. [Ed.] La pesanteur et la grâce, p. 157. [Tr.]
19. Ibid., p. 266, modified. [Ed.] Ibid, p. 159. Bachmann’s modification consists in the trimming of a sentence that in full may be translated, “The vegetative and the social are the two domains into which the good does not enter.” [Tr.]
20. Ibid., p. 266. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 159 [Tr.]
21. Ibid., p. 266. [Ed.] Ibid. [Tr.]
22. “Tended” is my guess at the identity of the clause’s missing second verb.
23. Misfortune and Divine Love, translated by Friedhelm Kemp, preface, p. 12. [Tr.] The passage puzzlingly corresponds to one in Eliot’s preface to a different book, The Need for Roots. I quote the original English source, as presented here.
24. The peculiar definition of rapport as entering into a relationship rather than as an already-established relationship is all Bachmann’s (“entering into a relationship” is my rendition of Bachmann’s “In-Beziehung-Setzen,” most literally translated as “placing-in-relation”), and it entails the unidiomatic “occurs” (for findet statt) in the following sentence.
25. Gravity and Grace, p. 200. [Ed.] La pesanteur et la grâce, p. 110. [Tr.]
26. Ibid. [Ed. and Tr.]
27. Ibid. [Ed. and Tr.]
28. Ibid. [Ed. and Tr.]
29. Ibid., p. 200. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 111. [Tr.]
30. Simone Weil, Cahiers [Notebooks] II, p. 272, modified. [Ed.] See n. 5. [Tr.]
31. Gravity and Grace, p. 78. [Ed.] La pesanteur et la grâce, p. 24. [Tr.]
32. Ibid., p. 79. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 25. [Tr.]
33. Ibid., p. 82. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 27 [Tr.]
34. Ibid., p. 268. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 161. [Tr.]
35. Ibid., p. 269. [Ed.] Ibid. [Tr.]
36. Ibid., p. 270. [Ed.] Ibid. [Tr.]
37. Ibid., p. 233. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 133-134. [Tr.]
38. Misfortune and Divine Love, p. 58 f. [Ed.] Attente de Dieu, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi electronic edition, p. 42.
39. Ibid., p. 65. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 46. [Tr.]
40. Ibid. p. 67 f. [Ed.] Ibid. pp. 47-48. [Tr.]
41. Ibid., p. 88. [Ed.] Ibid., p. 63. [Tr.]
42. The editors do not attribute this passage, but it is to be found in Gustave Thibon’s introduction to La pesanteur et la grâce. As the Chicoutimi electronic edition of the book does not include this introduction, I have translated from Bachmann’s (or, as it may be, Kemp’s) German. [Tr.]
43. Ibid. [i.e., Misfortune and Divine Love], p. 47. [Ed.] Attente de Dieu, p. 35. [Tr.]
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Werke, edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, and Clemens Münster (Munich: Piper, 1978), Vol. IV, pp. 128-155.