Tag Archives: Simone Weil

The passionate genius, Simone Weil

Français : Bourges - 7 place Gordaine - Plaque...
Français : Bourges – 7 place Gordaine – Plaque commémorative Simone Weil (1909-1943) professeur à Bourges en 1935-1936 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who is, or was, Simone Weil? If increasing attention in the way of books and a newer documentary mean anything, particularly considering her death was some 70+ years ago, then she’s obviously “somebody.” At least two meanings of the word “prodigy” apply to Simone: (1) she was known to be a genius from a very young age and is a recognized philosopher, and (2) by her short, painful, yet beautiful and selfless life. Being a Christian mystic and having been “adopted” by Catholics (Simone never became a member of any church), had perhaps contributed to a certain level of obscurity until more recent years.

All books that bear Simone’s name were published after her death (1943), with one of the most well-know being Waiting for God (WfG; 1951), a collection of spiritual letters and essays. Much has been made of her spiritual life – and rightly so – but for a biography that focuses on her philosophy, see Palle Yourgrau’s Simone Weil (Reaktion Books 2011). A 2010 documentary made the film festival rounds and is now on DVD: An Encounter with Simone Weil. The odd film focuses on life, death, suffering generally, and on these words of Simone’s specifically: “Attention is the rarest form of generosity.” (I wrote a fairly in-depth review of the documentary here: Secular Girl Activist meets Christian Girl Activist . . .)

Simone was born in France in 1909 to agnostic Jewish parents. At the age of six she could quote classic poetry, and despite interruptions in her education (and the onset of migraines), she received her baccalaureate at the age of 15. Simone had a deep desire to know “truth,” so she attended graduate school and became a teacher of philosophy.

Do not think that she lived comfortably from the “ivory tower.” As early as age five she refused to eat sugar because the French soldiers could not have it, and she maintained this practice of food-denial all of her life. She chose not to turn the heat on in her rented rooms since the unemployed could not afford it themselves, and gave much of her salary to the poor and to workers’ causes. She was very politically active, striving to secure better conditions for factory workers, and was involved with the defense of her country during World War II.

Simone seemed to apply her whole self towards realizing her convictions. Even though frail, she was always working, thinking, writing—incessantly doing. She even went so far as to travel to war-torn Spain, in 1936, to fight against the Fascists. She was a pacifist but felt so strongly about the cause that she volunteered for the most dangerous assignments. Because of a severe cooking-related accident, however, Simone did not stay there for very long. And her witness of an execution of a 15-year-old boy by the people she supported, among other things, caused her to not return.

Perhaps the personal experience of war caused a crack in Simone’s idealism that became an entryway for God. In 1937, Simone wrote of an encounter while at Assisi: “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees” (WfG pp 67-68). Then in 1938, while having severe migraines during Holy Week services, Simone had the experience of separating herself from the pain to enjoy the beauty of the service and to receive understanding of the passion of Christ. That same year, while reciting a Christian poem about accepting Christ—which she claims she hadn’t understood as such—Christ indeed “came down and took possession of me” (WfG p 69).

Though she accepted Christ, Simone’s writings are controversial. Some do not believe Simone was really a Christian; she had consideration and respect for other religions, and some fairly unorthodox theological views. In her “religious” writings, she often wrote of wrestling with God over truth. Though she wrote about spiritual truths found in other religions, or even myths (CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien held similar views), in the final analysis only Christ is truth: “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms” (WfG p 69).  A useful work in this regard is Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature (Marie Cabaud Meaney 2008).

Her friends in faith were Catholic, but she refused to enter the church because of its history and its exclusionary practices. Despite being an “outside Christian,” she wrote conventional ideas like: “It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me” (WfG pp 50-51), and “. . . I think that God himself has taken it [her soul] in hand from the start and still looks after it” (WfG p 73). Going deeper into her thought we find: “Only obedience is invulnerable for all time” (WfG p 63), and “. . . I always believed that the instant of death is the center and object of life” (WfG p 63). Significantly, and counter to some who attempt to claim that Simone was not a Christian, she told a friend a few months before she died: “I believe in God, in the Trinity, in the Incarnation, in the Redemption, in the teachings of the Gospel” (from Simone Weil, by Stephen Plant, p 33).

[If you’re interested in more of Simone’s words, I wrote a “found” poem with her words–it is the 2nd poem on that linked page.]

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© Vicki Priest 2014, 2012 (this was published at Examiner.com 2011, then at withchristianeyes.com)

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Christian Poems IV: For Simone Weil

LOVE III

George Herbert

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
    Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
    If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here.
    Love said, “You shall be he.”
I the unkind, ungrateful?  Ah, my dear,
    I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
    “Who made the eyes but I?”

Truth Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
    Go where it doth deserve.
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
    My dear, then I will serve.
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
    So I did sit and eat.

.

In A Book of Religious Verse, H Gardner, ed. (Oxford Univ Press 1972), 132.

___________

Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Vicki Priest (This poem is included in the 2014 anthology, The Chorus, compiled and translated into Korean by Aeire Choi.  Poems are in both Korean and English.  The Chorus is a truly beautiful book of spiritual poetry, and well made [it’s heavy!].  Available through Aladin.)

God is pure beauty.  The longing
To love the beauty of the world in
A human being is essentially
The longing for the Incarnation.
What we love is perfect joy itself.

It is not in our power to travel
In a vertical direction.  Christ
Himself came down and took possession
Of me.  I was able to rise above this
Wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself.

Something stronger than I was
Compelled me to go down on my knees.
It is not my business to think about
Myself.  My business is to think about God.
Only obedience is invulnerable for all time.

I always believed that the instant
Of death is the center and object of life.
Every time I think of the crucifixion
Of Christ I commit the sin of envy.
The future is still to be feared.

The danger is not in the soul’s doubt that
There is bread, but, by a lie, to persuade itself
It is not hungry.  Christ is our bread.  If one
Turns aside from him to go toward the truth,
One will not go far before falling into his arms.

.

This “poem” consists of quotes by Simone Weil.

___________

IN MEMORIAM

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Love is and was my lord and king,
    And in his presence I attend
    To hear the tidings of my friend,
Which every hour his couriers bring.

Love is and was my king and lord,
    And will be, though as yet I keep
    Within the court on earth, and sleep
Encompassed by his faithful guard,

And hear at times a sentinel
    Who moves about from place to place,
    And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep of night, that all is well.
.

In The One Year Book of Poetry, P Comfort & D Partner, ed.s (Tyndale House Pub.s 1999), “Feb. 11” page.

Secular girl activist meets Christian girl activist: love and necromancy, OR, An Encounter with Simone Weil: A film review

This film is not yet out for general release.  See this FB page  or the website for more info.

Normally a review would recommend an audience for the book or movie or whatever it is that is being reviewed, but this film makes it difficult to say who exactly would prefer it or get the most out of it.  I love the late Simone and seriously looked forward to “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” but I was in for a surprise with this pseudo-documentary.  This film (the Director’s Cut), by Julia Haslett, is like a personal travel diary only instead of the destination being a place, it’s a person.  And the road there is strewn with corpses.

Ok, so let’s make a stab at the audience, or in this offering, audiences.  The filmmaker comes from the liberal anti-American, anti-Christian segment of America, as is made apparent in the film, so that same audience is probably the intended one (since a quote from Michael Moore is on the front dvd cover, this is not a risky guess); the secondary audience would be those who otherwise like Weil or want to know more about her, most likely having heard of her in Christian or philosophy circles.

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was one of those rare of the rarest of human beings, a person with extreme intellectual prowess fused with extreme empathy and charity.  She was an intellectual who taught philosophy (and taught it all in the original languages), gave up her teaching job to labor with factory workers, had conversations with the likes of Trotsky . . . but scratch the record . . . she was also a Christian mystic.  This film touches on her academic career, but focuses on Simone’s social activism (“political” activism in the film) and her unfortunate and apparently irrational taking up with God (film’s view, not the reviewer’s).   It also has much interesting archival footage.

Haslett makes this film, does this research, due to her sadness and feeling of regret after her father’s suicide.  Could I have done something to stop it?, she asks, and Can I do more to help others who suffer?  She is inspired by something Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”  Indeed, surprisingly true and knowledge worth acting upon.  How did Simone give attention, how did she alleviate suffering (or at least how did she try), and how does Haslett emulate Simone in this regard?

Without going into too much detail (a short bio of Simone can be found here, there is an excellent biography at the beginning of the book, Waiting for God, and there are numerous other sources about Simone as well), Simone didn’t just research social problems and make suggestions to the government.  She knew that the only way to understand someone’s suffering, at least to some degree, was to become them.  Thus the factory work episode mentioned earlier.   She also, from a very early age, paid attention to the sufferings of soldiers and workers and ate the small amounts they ate, or didn’t pay for heat if her fellow workers could not afford it.  She gave up on pacifism when she saw that war was inevitable and that providing help to the better side was a good; she fought in Spain for a short time (in 1936) with those against the fascists, and she volunteered to be a front-line nurse early in the Second World War.  She didn’t just talk, she walked the walk.

This is all well-known material regarding Simone Weil.  So what did Haslett do?  She does what she can to suffer alongside her brother who is in and out of depression, and she is involved with causes that are meant to alleviate suffering and bring about justice.  The problem with these causes is that they are very political and Haslett can’t seem to get herself to look at all the sides of the issues (she shows that there is voter fraud in Florida, on the side of the Republicans, but she ignores the voter fraud perpetuated by the Democrats).   Simone was very good at (and purposefully so) looking at opposing information.  Haslett’s inability to look at the other side, of humbling herself for that (or simply not villainizing the “other side”), shows up in another important way in this film.

Haslett is so enamored with Weil, and so mystified by some things about her, that she wants to meet her.  Since she can’t actually bring her back from the dead, she hires an actress (obviously a sharp one) to read and absorb Simone’s writings, and work in a factory like Simone did (sort-of), in order to “become Simone” so that Haslett can ask her questions.   [I’ll pause while you take that in.]   My first thought was, Why doesn’t she just try and understand Simone herself?   Haslett perhaps realized that she was incapable of doing so, but then, what use would there be in talking to and getting annoyed with an actress when you can basically do the same thing with a book?  It does indeed come to the inevitable head when the actress (bless her) says that “I” -meaning Simone – did not kill myself and by being  a slave of God’s I could get beyond my pain (Simone had very bad and long-lasting migraines) and try and do what I was called to do.

“Simone” insisted that she did not kill herself.  This is in reaction to many people’s claim that she passively ended her own life by not eating enough (while trying to get over tuberculosis); something the doctor who filled out her death certificate claimed.  Knowing Simone’s lifelong habit of only eating so much based on someone’s suffering–in this case, it was the amount allotted to her occupied countrymen in France–many question the doctor’s judgment.   But Haslett seemed to be trying to make the case that Simone killed herself, and had earlier submitted to Christ, out of desperation–desperation over not being able to stop the suffering of so many, and knowing that suffering would never come to an end.  It is presented that Simone had to have turned to religion only as a last resort – after all reason and rational thought were used up.  Reading Simone’s writings, one would be very hard pressed to come up with a justification of this opinion of Haslett and others.

For one thing, Simone insisted that “she had not needed to be converted; she had always been implicitly, in ‘secret’ even from her lower self, a Christian” (Fiedler 1951, 23).  Regarding suffering, she came to view her own, from the migraines, as a gift.  Of course, suffering caused by man should be worked against.  Regarding reason and rational thought, consider her claim:  “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth.  If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms” (Weil 1951, 69).  Very unlike Haslett, Simone knew that humans needed salvation.  In all the history now known there has never been a period in which souls have been in such peril as they are today in every part of the globe.  The bronze serpent must be lifted up again so that whoever raises his eyes to it may be saved” (Weil 1951, 76; see Numbers 21:5-8 and John 3:13-15 for biblical references).

All this is significant since Haslett is against it . . . yet she can’t seem to dismiss it.  At the end of the film we find that the brother she includes in the film, who suffered depression after his father’s suicide, committed suicide himself.  Haslett equates his suicide with Weil’s, though this seems very far from the mark (especially if you are of the opinion that Weil did not commit suicide).  She says that, since the world is doomed, the only choice is whether to commit suicide or not.  Wow.  I do hope that if any suicidal persons see this film that they aren’t encouraged negatively by it.  In any case, there actually seems to be hope in the end.

Amazingly, Haslett, for the first time, gives a nod to the supernatural; she says that to give attention is a “miracle.”  As she kisses a wall, she ends the film with this Weil quote:  “Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall.  The wall is what separates them but it is also their means of communication.  It is the same with us and God, every separation is a link.”  Perhaps the best audience for this film are all those who desire Haslett (and others like her) to look toward God longer, until she desires Him instead of the vessel in which He worked so brightly (Simone).
.

Fiedler, Leslie A.  “Introduction,” in Waiting for God.  Simone Weil (New York: Harper Colophon 1973)

Weil, Simone.  Waiting for God (New York: Harper Colophon 1973; reprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1951)