Simon van der Weele
Simone Weil once wrote about philosophy that it is “exclusively an affair of action and practice” (1970, 335). Weil, who was a Jewish intellectual, mystic, and political activist with Christian, Marxist and anarchist leanings, believed that philosophy could only be worth its while if it was willing to occupy itself with action and experience – with the reality of everyday concerns that give texture to everyday life. Her dedication to this idea is evident from Weil’s own life. Famously, she worked in factories, on fishing trawlers, and on farms; she also volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and (fruitlessly) attempted to advice De Gaulle on battlefield tactics during the Second World War. (Her suggestion, which was to parachute troops of nurses onto the battlefields of France, led De Gaulle to exclaim Weil was folle, a mad woman). All the while, these experiences became objects of Weil’s philosophical attention and were formative of the conceptual apparatus she eventually developed in her many essays, notebooks, and letters.
This, in a nutshell, is the central purpose driving David Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas: to examine Simone Weil’s thought through the prism of her life. In this lucid and knowledgeable book, which is both an introduction to Weil’s thought and a loose biography, Zaretsky starts from Weil’s insistence that “philosophy was neither theory nor discourse, but instead was practice” (10), and hence to be concerned with action and experience. The author, a historian who has previously written books on Albert Camus, James Boswell, and Denis Diderot, subsequently develops this idea by presenting the main philosophical concepts she developed in rich biographical detail to consider how she arrived at them and why they became important to her. In doing so, Zaretsky essentially argues that Weil’s philosophy is best read against the background of her biography, because her biography is inseparable from her philosophical ethos.
For Zaretsky, this ethos boils down to an unyielding attention for what he calls “the reality of life” (8) and her insistence that philosophy reckons with it. Citing Stanley Cavell, he writes that Weil was “exceptional in her refusal to be “deflected”; in her refusal to turn away from the reality of the other and the other’s suffering by way of philosophical skepticism. Cora Diamond (2003) has referred to this problem as “the difficulty of reality,” and she also mentions Weil as a “philosopher concerned with deflection” from it. To get a feel for how this ethos saturates Weil’s writing, it is worth reading a fragment from her essay Human Personality, also cited by Diamond (but not by Zaretsky).
Human thought is unable to acknowledge the reality of affliction. To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. It could happen at any moment that what I am might be abolished and replaced by anything whatsoever of the filthiest and most contemptible sort.” (2014, 81)
One way to read Weil’s oeuvre would then be as an attempt to acknowledge “the reality of affliction” and defuse the temptation of deflection. This also seems to be the reading of Weil proposed by Zaretsky in The Subversive Simone Weil.
It is a pity, then, that Zaretsky does not develop his allusion to Cavell in the introduction in the remainder of the book – at least not philosophically. In fact, although Zaretsky does compare Weil’s thought to the ideas of some other notable thinkers (George Orwell, Marcus Aurelius, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few), he rarely situates her in wider philosophical debates. He also does not provide fine-grained exegeses of her main philosophical works. But this does not seem to be the goal Zaretsky has set for himself in The Subversive Simone Weil. Indeed, this book should not so much be read as a philosophical interrogation of Weil’s thought than as an introduction to it, enriched by detailed biographical sketches that breathe life into her original ideas. Each of the book’s five chapters is devoted to a main concept of Weil’s vocabulary: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness. Zaretsky chooses these because he believes they “still resonate today. Or… should resonate” (11). Should resonate, because Zaretsky thinks that Weil’s concepts are not getting their proper due, and neither is Weil herself. He takes attention as an example: a popular topic amongst contemporary critics “in a world so deeply afflicted with attention deficit disorder” (12), but typically without any mention of Weil. One of Zaretsky’s aims here is to amend such oversights.
The five chapters that follow the introduction thus take as their subject a single concept of Weil’s – although, as Zaretsky professes in the introduction, “the terms often spill into one another” (12). The chapters are structured loosely, even impressionistically, their various sections separated not by subheadings but by asterisms. Each typically starts with a series of historical vignettes, setting the scene for how the concept in question began to matter to Weil. To elucidate the concepts he is investigating, Zaretsky cites liberally from Weil’s well-known books and essays, as well as from her notebooks and letters. He intersperses this exegetical work with brief forays into the work of like-minded thinkers, some of whom inspired Weil, some of whom were her contemporaries, and some of whom are inheritors of her ideas. Zaretsky’s writing throughout is outstanding: it is clear, to the point, and never needlessly complicated. It is also thoroughly absorbing. The way Zaretsky manages to weave together a coherent account of Weil’s thought from the different strands of her extensive oeuvre is nothing short of impressive.
The first chapter, “The Force of Affliction,” begins with Weil’s job interview at Alsthom, a factory manufacturing electronic equipment, when she was 25 years old. Weil had been working as a teacher in the south of France, where she had spent her evenings instructing French literature at a worker’s co-op. Seeking to strengthen her connections to the working class, Weil took a leave of absence from her teaching work and began her stint as a factory worker. It was in these “dim and deafening” (10) factories that Weil began contemplating the state of degradation and indignity she called le malheur, usually translated as “affliction”. Zaretsky cites Weil defining affliction as a condition that “deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things” (19); it referred to a stripping away of one’s dignity and humanity that “rob[s] us of the power to say ‘I’” (quoted in Zaretsky, 20). For Weil, the factory was a principal site of affliction. The monotonous work, the vile managers, and the deafening clanging of machines turned workers into “slaves,” whose exhaustion gave way to the “strongest temptation that this life entails: that of not thinking anymore, which is the one and only way of not suffering from it” (quoted in Zaretsky, 14). Zaretsky embellishes his discussion of affliction with vivid accounts of the worker’s life taken from Weil’s notebooks.
Weil found the cause of affliction in what she called puissance, translated as “force” or “power”. Power, writes Zaretsky, was for Weil a “fundamental datum of human existence,” one as “omnipresent and overpowering as gravity” (14). Power, argued Weil, is not in anyone’s possession, and can never be secured for good. For this reason, it is constantly chased after by those seeking to possess it, to keep it from rivals, and to secure it from resistance of the powerless. It is this pursuit of power that Weil locates the cause of oppression – and finally, of affliction. Here, Zaretsky takes some time to discuss Weil’s essay on Homer’s Iliad, which for Weil was chiefly a poem about force: the true hero is not a warrior, but force itself, she wrote. The essay, Zaretsky notes, was written as Weil fled Paris for Nevers soon after France’s defeat to Germany in 1940. Weil saw mirrored in the destruction of Troy the suffering of her own and her fellow Parisians; this was the work of force.
Weil’s account of power calls to mind Nietzsche’s and also seems to presage Foucault’s, but Zaretsky leaves this resemblance unexplored. Instead, he turns to George Orwell, who like Weil had spent time in Paris in a working class job, as a plongeur washing dishes in the basement of the city’s restaurants. Orwell, too, discerned in the plight of the plongeur the markings of slavery and the gradual sapping away of one’s capacity to think. But unlike Weil, argues Zaretsky, he did not explore the spiritual meaning of their suffering; he focused on a critique of the worker’s material conditions. For Weil, on the other hand, affliction was an almost mystical experience, especially later in life, when she began edging closer to Christianity. After all, what sense was there to make of affliction in the face of God?
Soon after Weil left the factory, she joined her parents to a coastal town in Portugal. There, she overheard a group of fishermen’s wives perform a religious ritual. It proved to be a transformative experience for Weil, who saw as by revelation that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others” (19). In this connection to God, the state of affliction acquired a more ambivalent status for Weil. It was, as Zaretsky puts it, “ground zero of human misery” (19), but her attachment to affliction was unmistakable – it brought the slave closer to God. Citing Mary Dietz, Zaretsky admits that Weil risks “fetishizing” affliction in these writings. However, he also points out that affliction itself holds no value for Weil as such; its value lies in what we make of it. “Whether it can teach us anything as grand as wisdom depends on how we define wisdom. If virtues like comprehension and compassion, toleration and moderation are to constitute at least part of wisdom, we could do worse” (20).
The second chapter, “Paying Attention,” is devoted to what is perhaps Weil’s most famous notion: the work of attention. The chapter begins with an interesting reading of Weil’s ‘Essai sur la sur la notion de la lecture’, in which she argued that our “readings” of the world – our perceptions and observations – are inevitably inflected by our moral orientation. Or, as Zaretsky puts it, “the way in which we read the world turns on our particular location—moral, social, political, and economic—within the world” (21-22). In effect, Weil is essentially proclaiming the inseparability of fact and value, which, as Zaretsky points out, brought her in disagreement with most prevailing epistemologies of the time. Weil’s position seems a clear precursor of those taken by analytic moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Bernard Williams, but Zaretsky does not dwell on these parallels. Rather, he ponders another question of Weil’s: if our readings of the world are situated readings, is there “a single and right way to read”? (22). For Weil, a fervent Platonist, the answer would have had to be “yes”. And she looked for answers in her concept of attention.
To explain Weil’s concept of attention, Zaretsky takes his readers to her high school lessons, in which she instructed her students not to find answers to geometrical problems, but rather to contemplate the problems themselves. This principle, for Zaretsky, contains the essence of Weil’s conception of attention. For her, attention is not a “muscular effort” of concentration, but rather a “negative effort,” “one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in” (22). Attention requires the suspension of thought, so that one’s consciousness is cleared of self-concern and, as Weil put it, left “detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23). Attention becomes a work of patient waiting, in which we diligently work at letting go of ourselves so as to make space for true understanding of fellow human beings. “In order for the reality of the other’s self to fully invest us,” writes Zaretsky, “we must first divest ourselves of our own selves” (23). It is in this way that attention becomes a method for discerning and responding to affliction. Attention is the moral work we must do to see what is “sacred” in the other.
Having defined the work of attention, Zaretsky makes brief excursions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – comparing them to Weil’s notebooks – and to Kant’s discussion of reverence, which he likens to attention in Weil’s sense. Citing Murdoch again, he suggests that both concepts are concerned with “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real” (1959, 51). The chapter then ends on a surprisingly personal note. Zaretsky ponders his own moral ineptitude as he faces a panhandler at an intersection as he is driving his car to work. (The scene, set in Houston, Texas, was not quite relatable for this European city-dweller who goes without a driving license.) Zaretsky berates his reluctance to witness the panhandler’s affliction with attention. “Let’s face it: she wants to be seen. Will I, though, allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come in between us?” (26). Zaretsky senses he is not up to the strict moral standard posed by Weil. But as he opens his car window to hand the panhandler some change, his children in the backseat, he hopes they will perhaps one day do so as well – and that even if they do not ask the panhandler, as Weil implores us to do, “What are you going through?”, then at least know that the question is important (quoted in Zaretsky, 27).
In the third chapter, “The Varieties of Resistance,” Zaretsky introduces the notion of resistance, which, he admits, is not strictly speaking a concept of Weil’s, but nonetheless a “a value that girds a great deal of her thought and merits a chapter of its own” (12). Zaretsky approaches resistance first of all as a common thread in Weil’s life. He narrates, for instance, her involvement in the Spanish Civil War and in the French resistance, both in the south of France and in London. He also chronicles how Weil rebelled against her own middle-class upbringing, by requesting to work on a fishing trawler (during a summer vacation), in a mine (whilst teaching in Le Puy), and on a farm – frequently egging on bemused workers to join her in protest. Zaretsky peppers these stories with great anecdotal details. For instance, he humorously describes how the family that let her work on the farm took offense in Weil’s insistence that their lives were wretched, poor, and altogether unhappy. “When their guest told them that she wanted to “live the life of the poor, share their burdens, and know their troubles,” the couple felt that Weil not only failed to recognize who they were, but also patronized them,” he writes (33). Such anecdotes paint Weil into a tragicomic figure: she was clumsy (her stint in Spain ended after she injured her foot stepping in boiling oil); she was inept (she fought in Spain with no idea of how to hold a gun); she made appalling mistakes (she dropped a suitcase full of secret Resistance pamphlets out in the streets). In many ways, Weil was unfit for the reality she was so eager to face – but which she nonetheless stubbornly kept close.
Throughout these experiences, argues Zaretsky, resistance also became an object of contemplation for Weil, even if not explicitly. He dives into Weil’s suspicion of the “collectivity,” which Zaretsky defines as “the convergence of the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that dictate our lives” (32). Collectivity, Weil believed, inhibits thought, and clear thinking is paramount to resisting the oppression caused by the vicissitudes of force. (Unsurprisingly, Weil was also suspicious of political parties.) This idea underlines once more Weil’s belief that the importance of thought lies in its connection to action. Zaretsky also discusses Weil’s complex form of pacifism, about which she changed her mind over time: having embraced pacifism for much of young adulthood, by 1939 she wrote in her diary that that “non-violence is good only if it’s effective” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35); a conviction she had already acted on several years earlier, when she joined the Spanish Resistance. As Zaretsky notes, Weil frequently “went to war on behalf of peace” (35); for her, in her own words, “[t]he struggle of those who obey against those command, when the mode of commanding entails destroying the human dignity of those underneath, is the most legitimate, most motivated, most genuine action that exists” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35). But if Weil valued resistance, she was not a dogged revolutionary: she was skeptical of the impulse to dehumanize and mistreat the oppressor one seeks to rise up against. Zaretsky closes this chapter with a reflection on the affinities between Weil and Camus (who was a great admirer of Weil’s), discerning traces of Weil’s “ethic of resistance” in Camus’ novels The Plague and The Rebel.
The fourth chapter, “Finding Roots,” starts with a discussion of Weil’s love for English pub culture, which she professed in her notebooks while living in London in the 1940s. What brought her to love the pub, argues Zaretsky, is their rootedness in the customs and traditions of what he calls an “English way of life” – which Weil discerned in the jolly atmosphere of the pub as much as in a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This notion of rootedness is also the thematic of Weil’s The Need for Roots, the last of her major works before her early death in 1943. In this book, Weil diagnoses the ills of modernity in terms of what she called déracinement or “uprootedness”: “the fact and feeling of homelessness” (41). For Weil, uprootedness conveys a sense of alienation from both place and tradition. Foreign invasion is one source of uprootedness, but Weil saw the condition epitomized in the factory, which uproots its workers both physically (by bringing them from the countryside into the city) and psychologically (through the rationalization of labour). Weil’s antidote to uprootedness is a “new patriotism” (50), which Zaretsky points out is to be nourished not by pride in one’s nation, but by compassion for others and an appreciation for the vulnerability of one’s nation. Zaretsky is careful to distinguish Weil’s conservatism from that of her right-wing contemporaries: he observes in her plea for a compassionate patriotism a more pacifying aspiration, as it “tightens the bonds of fraternity both between peoples and within a single people” (46). Her form of patriotism also causes Weil to denounce France’s colonial project. However, Zaretsky is critical of Weil’s reluctance to grand former colonies full independence, instead opting for a form of “protection” that would still tie them to “certain organized states”: “Weil,” he observes, “seemed either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that a growing number of the very people on whose behalf she spoke were no longer interested in such ties” (45).
The nation, then, emerges as a source of obligations to others. The content of these obligations is captured in Weil’s list of fourteen “needs for the soul,” which opens The Need for Roots. Zaretsky briefly discusses Weil’s famous critique of rights-based conceptions of justice in an essay called ‘Human Personality’: Weil was sceptical of the discourse of rights, which to her had a transactional undertone that she found painfully non-committal. To move away from the conditionality of rights, Weil proposed a discourse of obligation and duty based on the reality of human needs. Zaretsky then provides an insightful discussion of Weil’s similitude to Aristotle, in spite of her self-proclaimed love for Plato. He also does a good job linking Weil’s political thought to a variety of more contemporary thinkers. He likens her needs-based moral theory to Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory and compares her patriotic leftism to the communitarian impulse in writers such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Amitai Etzioni. Disappointingly, Zaretsky fails to mention care ethicists like Joan Tronto (1993), who have built on Weil’s critique of rights in the well-known “care vs. justice” debate that was foundational for the formulation of care ethics in the 1980s and 90s. By skipping care ethics, he misses a notable body of work in which Weil’s thought does still, in Zaretsky’s words, resonate (Bourgault 2014).
Finally, in the fifth chapter, “The Good, the Bad, and the Godly,” Zaretsky offers a more prolonged examination of Weil’s engagement with Christianity and mysticism. Weil’s relationship to Christianity, as Zaretsky notes, was fraught with tension, as she was split between “the desire to surrender herself wholly to the church and her indignation at so much of its history and dogma that prevented her from doing so” (52). Weil’s dialogue with Christianity materialized in her conversations with two interlocutors: the Dominican priest Jean-Marie Perrin and “aspiring Catholic theologian” Gustave Thibon (52). After her death, she left both men with unpublished work, which they subsequently went on to publish, the former in Waiting for God and the latter in Gravity and Grace. Zaretsky mostly approaches Weil’s mysticism in terms of her idea of décreation, which loosely refers to the unmaking or undoing of the self in the face of God. This idea hinges on Weil’s image of God, who “shows his love to his creation by withdrawing from it” (54). God, in Weil’s understanding, cannot coexist in a cosmos with the non-divine, and for this reason, has no choice but to withdraw and hide. To love God is to join him in hiding: “Our being is nothing other than the will that we should consent not to be. He is forever begging from us the being which he gives. And he gives it so as to beg it from us” (quoted in Zaretsky, 54). Zaretsky is understandingly baffled by Weil’s descriptions of décreation. He deems her God “at best neurotic, at worst sociopathic,” and refers to our relationship to him as a “bizarre family dynamic” (54). To make more sense of Weil’s mysticism, he turns to one of her most famous readers: the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. Murdoch, as Zaretsky puts it, adds another “o” to Weil’s “God,” and her notion of goodness turns décreation into a process of the gradual peeling away of the selfish ego, so as to open oneself to perceive and act on goodness. (Weil’s notion of attention, which became so important for Murdoch, is this idea’s backbone.)
This final chapter is briefer than the other four, and also a little less focused. Zaretsky oddly selects this chapter to expound on Weil’s distaste for political parties, where chapter three and four would probably have been more sensible choices. It is also surprising that Zaretsky has little to say here about the importance of Weil’s religious beliefs for her social and political thought. Especially towards the end of her life, these became increasingly indistinguishable. When, for instance, Weil writes that “the capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer… is almost a miracle” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23), this miracle is of God’s making; the miracle of goodness is also the miracle of God’s love. This is a thought Zaretsky hints at (especially in the first chapter), but he regrettably does not fully develop its ramifications here.
Zaretsky closes the final chapter with the observation that Weil’s thought is often impractical, even if it is important. Indeed, Weil’s “attraction to absolutes” (45) and the rigidity of her thought can encumber attempts to draw practical wisdom from her social and political philosophy. Or, as Raimond Gaita (2014, xxi) puts it, “[i]t is hard to be open to Weil’s political thought in a way that is consistent with both sobriety and idealism.” This is perhaps one reason why her thought does not resonate as strongly in contemporary thought as Zaretsky would like; but to Zaretsky, Weil’s severity is precisely her strength. Approvingly, he quotes Iris Murdoch, who once quipped that reading Weil is “to be reminded of a standard” (quoted in Zaretsky, 12). Indeed, Zaretsky sees in Weil an exemplary figure. Throughout The Subversive Simone Weil, his tone is reverential; and aside from some brief critical reflections (for instance, on her reading of the Iliad and on her position on colonialism), he refrains from scrutinizing her thought in much detail. Zaretsky frequently finds himself humbled by the unsparing nature of her thinking and of her personality, as well as of her insistence to engage with the world head-first. In the book’s epilogue, he refers to Weil’s friend and biographer Simone Pétrement, who poignantly observed: “Who would not be ashamed of oneself in Simone’s [Weil’s] presence, seeing the life she led?” (Quoted in Zaretsky, 60.)
In many ways, Weil embodies a picture of the intellectual that is much in vogue today: critical, uncompromising, and leaning towards activism. She is at least in this sense a timely figure. Nonetheless, Zaretsky does not fully make good on his promise in the introduction, which was to show how Weil’s core notions may resonate today. Sure enough, Zaretsky occasionally alludes to the relevance of Weil’s thought in our daily life (as in his encounters with panhandlers) or the present political moment (references to Trump’s administration abound). But the devil is in the details, and what sometimes misses from his discussions is a more sustained analysis of how Weil’s impractical stances may be rendered practical – or indeed, whether her rigidity and severity are not also in some ways flaws. If Weil really is so impractical, did she in fact succeed at avoiding “deflection” and face “the difficulty of reality”? By eschewing this question, or at most briefly hinting at answers (as he does in the epilogue), Zaretsky does not quite convince about the urgency of Simone Weil’s oeuvre for today.
But perhaps this is beside the point, as the accomplishments of The Subversive Simone Weil lie elsewhere. To be sure, Zaretsky is hardly the first to discuss Weil’s life in conjunction with her thought. Indeed, Weil’s biographical details punctuate many philosophical discussions on Weil. (Her martyrlike death of starvation, in part a consequence of her refusal to eat more than her fellow citizens in Occupied France, has become near-legendary.) But if these references can sometimes appear gratuitous, more concerned with myth-making than with sense-making, Zaretsky’s achievement here is to render Weil’s biography a rich resource for understanding her main philosophical ideas – and, in doing so, to provide a vivid, compelling, and stimulating introduction to the ideas of this singular philosopher. Newcomers to Weil’s oeuvre will be amazed (if not humbled), no doubt; but Zaretsky’s impressive scholarship should ensure that even those familiar with her life and work will find plenty to discover in this rewarding book.
Bourgault, Sophie. 2014. “Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35 (2): 1. https://doi.org/10.5250/fronjwomestud.35.2.0001.
Diamond, Cora. 2003. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1 (2): 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1353/pan.0.0090.
Gaita, Raimond. 2014. “Foreword.” In Letter to a Priest, by Simone Weil, xiii–xxiv. London and New York: Routledge.
Murdoch, Iris. 1959. “The Sublime and the Good.” Chicago Review 13 (3): 42. https://doi.org/10.2307/25293537.
Tronto, Joan. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.
Weil, Simone. 1970. First and Last Notebooks. Translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. 2014. “Human Personality.” In Letter to a Priest, 57–90. London and New York: Routledge.