Do You Know Simone Weil?

| October 31, 2011 | 0 Comments

Simone Weil.

 If you read what follows, know that it arises from a sense of personal duty. To what desired end, beyond my need to share, I’m unclear. But if you read this and are persuaded to learn about the woman of whom I write, then my time will not have been spent without just cause.

Let me begin by quoting Albert Camus,

For my part, I would be satisfied if one could say that in my place, with the
humble means at my disposal, I served to make known and disseminate her
work whose full impact we have yet to measure.

And, T.S. Eliot,

A woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.
In the early spring of 1982 I was in England. I spent the Saturday before Palm Sunday with Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge at their cottage in Robertsbridge, a small village in East Sussex, about an hour’s train ride south from Charing Cross Station in London.

In a long conversation after lunch in the Muggeridge’s living room, Malcolm asked, “Do you know Simone Weil?” I was embarrassed to say I did not.

Malcolm Muggeridge then said, “George, know Simone Weil.”

Simone Weil was a genius, but ultimately we cannot fathom the workings of a mind like hers, any more than we can penetrate the intelligence of Kant or Pascal, Erasmus or Einstein.

In her biography of Simone Francine du Plessix Gray brilliantly tells Simone’s story. The book is small but beautifully written. Du Plessix Gray deals with her subject’s confounding complexities, with admiration and understanding.

Simone Weil was born into an upper class Jewish family in Paris – 3 February 1909. Her father, Barnard, was a doctor. Judaism, however, was barely a factor in the family’s life. As children, Simone and her brother, Andre, were unaware of their Jewish heritage. But when WWII came the German army neared Paris, the Weils understood their danger, practicing Jews or not, and fled south to Marseilles.

Andre, no less a genius than Simone, would become one of the great mathematical minds of the 20th Century. At the age of five Simone read newspapers to her family, even as Andre instructed her in Greek and Latin. By age seven Simone told her parents The Daily Worker had become her newspaper of choice.

At ten Simone disappeared from her family’s apartment in one of Paris’ upscale arrondissements. Her frantic mother would find her blocks away participating in a street demonstration by workers (she would identify with the working class her entire life).

It was the evil of Hitler and the Third Reich that liberated Simone of her pacifism. She would forever regret her failure to have understood before the coming of Hitler and the wickedness of man.

When WWII came and Simone’s family was gone from Paris the Vichy government barred Jews from employment. Simone was so outraged she wrote to the Marseilles authorities denouncing their actions and took to the streets in protest. She was twice arrested and each time her parents feared she would disappear. But her intellectual gifts were so powerful that even the gendarmerie was hopeless to counter her arguments and in frustration released her.

Simone was in many ways a curiosity, a contradiction, certainly – but a sublime contradiction.

She was a Jew who rejected the Old Testament (she found its violence appalling) and was at odds with Jewish history. She became a Christian devoted to Jesus but felt unworthy of accepting the Catholic Church’s baptism or communion. (She refused baptism believing it would separate her from her Jewish brothers and sisters; which was odd, given her rejection of her Jewish lineage, but nonetheless it underscored her need to identify with her people.)

Along the way she frustrated more than a few of the priests and nuns she encountered, but the more enlightened knew they were in the presence of a genius and deferred to her intelligence and mystical ways; knowing, while she would not convert, she believed in the same Jesus as they. In the profound complexity of her mind, Simone was not given to accepting what others routinely accepted as the canons of faith and discipleship.

In it important to note, Simone Weil’s “theology” did not fit traditional definitions of Orthodox Christianity, but her faithfulness to the life and teachings of Jesus would shame the most literal Christian believer.

Du Plessix Gray tells of one of the seminal moments in Simone’s nascent spiritual life. She was on vacation with her family in a little village in Portugal. One morning early she watched fishermen in religious pilgrimage with their families make their way to small fishing boats, to prepare for a day at sea. As they walked they said The Lord’s Prayer. Simone was deeply moved, and from that moment on for the rest of her life she began each day by reciting the same prayer.

Simone’s identification with the poor and working class was so total she would not sleep on a bed but chose to sleep on the floor. Neither family nor friends understood this oddity and pleaded with her to change her sleeping habits, but unavailing. She was not into comfort, even something as basic as sleeping on a bed. She was driven to experience life’s hardships, as others experienced them.

In her life in France Simone had many jobs, and all of those jobs, from working for Renault to picking potatoes as a farmhand, involved hard, physical labor (teaching the one exception). She was often at odds with management, as she had witnessed too many acts of workers’ mistreatment. Her work brought little pay but she shared what little she had with those in need. (While living in Paris she would dine with her parents, but only if she had money to pay for her dinner.)

So complete was her identity with the poor and downtrodden that she volunteered as a combatant in one of the 20th Century’s greatest ideological divides, the Spanish Civil War. She fought against Franco and the Fascists, joining many in a cause that defined a generation of the literati and intelligentsia – Orwell and Hemingway numbered among them.

Simone was thin, with black hair, an ascetic face adorned with large black horn rimmed glasses and given to wearing long black skirts. Her eyes were dark and penetrating, but her overall appearance made it difficult for her new found comrades-in-arms to accept her as a serious combatant.

The Weils’ time in Marseilles ended May of ‘42, and they left for Casablanca to await passage to America. They sailed at last on a Portuguese freighter, the Serpa Pinto, and upon arrival in New York found an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. But Simone had no intention of staying. The idea of America was repugnant to her, as she loathed being the object of “philanthropy.”

Simone was intent upon getting to England to join the French government in exile under Charles De Gaulle. She had great difficulty in finding passage across the North Atlantic, all the while ignoring in her quest the inherent dangers of any voyage between America and England, as hundreds of merchant and Allied ships were sunk by Nazi U-Boats.

In New York she continued her search for religious certainty. She went to Mass at a small Catholic church where the Mass was said in English (a radical departure at the time). She also worshipped at a black Baptist church and at a Synagogue with Ethiopian Jews. She spent her days writing, often on eight-and-one-half-by-seventeen inch legal pads. Her handwriting was small and she would fill page-by-page with her thoughts about the world, the war, France, and religion.

In the meanwhile her six-month efforts to obtain space aboard a ship sailing to England succeeded. The journey across on a small Swedish frigate took three-weeks. Finally, the ship docked in Liverpool, and Simone did as planned – she joined De Gaulle in London.

Simone’s life was marked by a serious eating disorder (later identified as anorexia nervosa), but knowing Germany forced rationing upon the people of France, she would eat no more than they. And, in the end, this self-denial would cost her life. On 24 August 1943 she passed into eternity. She was 34.

We know much of Simon Weil’s life and thought, as she left a remarkable collection of articles, essays, and letters. But her death at so young an age was one more manifestation of history’s cruel cycle; the imposition of its random acts upon the innocent, and in the case of Simone Weil, denying the world one of its greatest servants – a child of God, like no other.

Or, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it, “the most luminous intelligence of the twentieth century.”

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader and serves on the city’s Human Relations Commission. He can be reached at, gmitro35@gmail.com

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