La Passion de Simone
Ages ago (well, half a century to be precise) I read the works of Simone Weil with rapt attention. In the wake of Jean-Paul Sartre and his Existentialism, there was a general enthusiasm for things French. Together with many of my contemporaries I dreamt of going to Paris to live.
There was a deeper reason for my interest in Weil. Having been brought up in an atheist family, I was experiencing some pangs of religious longing. In her questing Weil sought to bridge the two religions, Judaism and Christianity--though her religious interests did not stop with those two. She was also a well trained classical scholar.
Who more precisely, was Simone Weil?
She was born in Paris in 1909 in an agnostic household of Jewish origin. She grew up in comfortable circumstances, as her father was a doctor. Her only sibling was the noted mathematician André Weil. Through much of her life she stoically endured many physical ailments, never allowing them to interfere with her quest for knowledge. Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle, introversion, and eccentricity limited her ability to mix with others, but not to teach and participate in political activism. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about mystical experience.
A proficient student, she learned ancient Greek at the age of twelve. Later, after reading the Bhagavad Gita, she learned Sanskrit. Like Ficino and other Renaissance savants, her interest in religions was universalist: she attempted to understand each religious tradition as expressive of transcendent wisdom.
In 1928 Weil finished first in the entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure; Simone de Beauvoir, her famous peer, finished second. After taking her degree in philosophy, Weil taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls in Le Puy in central France. Teaching was her primary employment during her short life. Most of the writing for which she is known was published after her death.
Weil was active in radical politics. She participated in the French general strike of 1933. The following year she took a twelve-month leave of absence from her teaching position to work incognito as a laborer in two factories, believing that this experience would allow her to connect with the working class. Her poor health and inadequate physical strength forced her to quit after some months. In 1935 she returned to teaching, donating most of her income to political causes and charitable endeavors.
In Italy in the spring of 1937, she experienced a kind of religious ecstasy in the church of St. Francis of Assisi, leading her to pray for the first time in her life. She experienced another, more powerful, revelation a year later and, from 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual, though not discarding their focus on social and political issues. She was attracted to Catholicism, but declined to be baptized; she explained this refusal in letters published in Waiting for God.
Weil did not limit her curiosity to Christianity. She was keenly interested in other religious traditions — especially Greek and Egyptian. She was also attracted to Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these traditions and others were valid paths to the divine. By the same token, however, she opposed shallow religious syncretism, holding that it effaced the particular essence of the individual traditions.
In 1942 Simone Weil was able to make her way to London, where she joined the Free French effort. The punishing work regime she assumed soon took a heavy toll; in 1943 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Yet she refused special treatment because of her long-standing political commitments and her ascetic detachment from material things. In sympathy with the privations of the people of occupied Europe, she limited her intake of food. After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August of 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34.
Since my encounter with the works of Simone Weil in the immediate postwar years, the French thinker seems largely to have dropped out of sight in the English-speaking world. Yet she is still widely read on the European continent, where her spiritual quest still resonates. A splendid scholarly edition of her collected works is under way in France.
Labels: Mysticism music Simone Weil