Isn’t it about time we started taking Simone Weil seriously?
Simone Weil’s (1909-1943) philosophical and religious ideas are radical, highly original, frequently unorthodox, and at many points expressly anti-orthodox. Commentators responding to the disconcerting unfamiliarity of her oeuvre tend to protest either too little or too much: too little, failing to recognize and register the full radicality of her ideas, or too much, defending her from her most radical claims as ill advised, mad, off the deep end. In my view, a serious critic does best to attend carefully to the full complexity and extremity of a thinker’s ideas, apprehending her meaning on the basis of her explicit words, reading them as cohesively as possible. Then the decision whether to ‘take or leave’ her thinking constitutes a second, distinctly separate moment of legitimate criticism. The critic’s role in the first place is not to filter, qualify, moderate, or correct her meaning, but to get it right to the extent possible; only then, to judge.
Weil is undoubtedly one of the most significant religious thinkers of the twentieth century, who left seventeen volumes of dense philosophical and religious writings when she died at age thirty-four. She is also, arguably, the thinker most unaccountably patronized and mistreated by critics in the history of modern thought. By ‘mistreated’ I mean that many prominent critics have ‘missed in their treatment’ and thus ‘treated Weil amiss’; that is, they have put little effort into ‘getting her right’ and the fault lies with them, qua critics, not with Weil as a bold, forthright, coherent, authoritative thinker. A handful of critics even verge on needless abuse—criticism of the chicken-pecking kind—mistreating in the more egregious sense of the word, employing Weil as a sort of Rorschach blot for self-amusing critical riffs.
Here I cite the examples of poet-critics Kenneth Rexroth and Paul West. West states: ‘We admire [her], but with a hunch that much of it amounts to a frenetic displacement of womanhood. Something crackpot emerges alongside what is her evident genius and her almost pernicious goodness.’ And Rexroth: ‘Hers was a spastic, moribund, intellectual, and spiritual agony. . . . This is a Kierkegaard who refuses to leap. Angst for angst’s sake. Anguish is not enough. When it is made an end in itself it takes on a holy, or unholy folly.’ (These criticisms, among others, are anthologized in A Library of Literary Criticism: Modern Romance Literatures, ed. Dorothy Nyren Curley and Arthur Curley [New York: Ungar, 1967], 490–92.) These caricatures ring funny at first quip, I admit, but the lasting effect is tiresome and unfair. Confabulated terms like ‘pernicious goodness’ and ‘unholy folly,’ cobbled together in a bid for wit, display how unserious the critics are. Meanwhile Weil’s body of work, as formidable as ever, remains awaiting a response.
Certain critics betray their own impatience and impertinence more than anything in their commentaries, as Weil, like any real philosopher, demands a great deal of her reader, who has to put effort into grasping her complex paradoxical meanings, sorting out the dialectical moments and radically contrasting viewpoints. With respect to major modern thinkers (Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc.) this work is presupposed as prerequisite for commentarial authority: the homework must be done before one can write competently or pass judgment on the thinker at all. Only after painstaking assimilation has demonstrably been undertaken does one dare publish even a brief scholarly article on such powerful canonical thinkers.
But for some reason Weil, the ‘mad demoiselle,’ is denied more often than most the benefit of this general scholarly expectation. Instead, commentators become impatient with her. Exasperation leads Maurice Blanchot to charge ‘a lack of rigor,’ ‘a lack of coherence’ (L’Entretien infini, Gallimard, 1969) and a similar impetuousness moves Leslie A. Fiedler to make the absurd assertion, in his introduction to her Waiting for God, that Weil ‘sought, rather than avoided, inconsistency.’ But what is a philosopher who seeks inconsistency? A confused and incompetent poseur?
Susan Sontag blithely asserts Weil’s ‘contempt for pleasure’ and ‘dedication to martyrdom’ (New York Review of Books, February 1, 1963), but precisely the reverse is evident as soon as one reads her. Like Nietzsche, Weil consistently regarded martyrdom with contempt, or at least with intense suspicion, at one point comparing martyrs to ‘Pavlov’s dogs,’ whereas she recommends that we ‘seize upon every delectation offered by pure pleasure’ while thrusting aside the merely mechanical and pleasureless following of our inclinations (Notebooks 277, 462). Weil understood pleasure as sacramental joy in the order of the world, which is ultimately a joy in divine incarnation. Here Sontag follows the dubious pattern of critics who look at Weil’s life, make judgments about what they see, then infer what Weil thought on this basis—while remaining nescient of her body of work.
Little better on this count, unfortunately, is the criticism of novelist Graham Greene, who writes of Weil:
She talks of suffering ‘atrocious pain’ for others, ‘those who are indifferent or unknown to me . . . including those of the most remote ages of antiquity,’ and it is almost as if a comic character from Dickens were speaking. We want to say, ‘Don’t go so far so quickly. Suffer first for someone you know and love,’ but love in these pages is only a universal love (New Statesman and Nation, October 6, 1951).
But Weil’s writings contain repeated clear statements that ‘both our love and our reason are subject to this paradox: that they are universal faculties which can only respond to particular objects’ (First and Last Notebooks, 285). She insists that for love to be real and universal, it can only be a transference by analogy of our love for particular persons and objects. Did Greene take the trouble to read her work before publishing this hasty criticism? Probably not that extensively.
T. S. Eliot opens his 1952 introduction to Weil’s The Need for Roots with the assertion: ‘The only kind of introduction which could merit permanent association with a book by Simone Weil would be . . . an introduction by someone who knew her’; he then immediately invokes her ‘difficult, violent, and complex personality.’ This opener is baffling given that there is nothing at all personal about this philosophical-political book. Would anyone write the same of Spinoza, Hegel, or Heidegger? Indeed, one begins to wonder how much Weil’s being not only a woman, but an unapologetically nontraditional woman—even a paradigmatically independent, free-living, celibate woman—has been a factor in this pattern of ‘treating her amiss,’ that is, continually adverting to her life and personality instead of attending to the seventeen volumes of the work itself.
Commentators not only harp on her style of dress, her ‘bizarre get-up,’ her ‘masculine’ and ‘hideous clothes with which she disfigured herself,’ but even on her ‘hiding behind’ thick eyeglasses—which seems a low blow since presumably she needed them to see, to read, to write. In my view Weil was a trailblazer, an inverse ‘style icon’ for women who elect to spend a minimum of time and precious resources on what they wear, how they look, in order to spend a maximum on things that matter ultimately: issues of life-and-death importance. One must clothe one’s nakedness as a member of society, but one need not care very much how. Her social-class-defying, femininity-redefining dress was as much an expression of her vocation as a monk’s cowl is to a contemplative. She demonstrated how purely it can be done: one need not compromise, one need not submit to the social tyranny of fashion and looks, especially as these are intensified many times over for young women (Weil was a young woman when she died). Another kind of beauty shines forth from her exceptional indifference to the style of clothes that drape the mortal frame. She thus testifies, even at a glance, to a truth we stave out of mind.
For decades Weil has proved easy prey for the wrong kind of criticism, but serious assimilation of her work has advanced persistently since her death. The time has come when facile, impatient, incompetent, hyper-personalizing criticism of Weil ceases to be so easy to publish, and only serious criticism will be tolerated. Precisely because Weil’s thinking is powerful and cohesive, it makes the implicit demand to be addressed with sober, mindful, probing attention. Was she mad? Yes, in a sense, but strictly in the ultimate dimension: in the domain of faith. Contra Rexroth, who apparently missed it, she explicitly embraces the leap of faith into the void—though not as ‘a Kierkegaard’ but uniquely as Simone Weil. She addresses faith rationally as a madness (folie) that is profoundly and scrupulously conscious of its raison d’être: it is a lucid, patient, truth-sharpened madness that transforms the life that is capable of it into a work of love. ■