In conversation with Robert Zaretsky: Irresistible Simone Weil 

Simone Weil’s figure poses a challenge to each reader of hers. In this conversation, our editor Kasia Krzyżanowska speaks to prof. Robert Zarestky (professor at the University of Houston), about the heroine of his recently published biography: Simone Weil.

Kasia Krzyżanowska: When I thought about Simone Weil as you presented her in your book, it struck me how timely are her ideas. She wrote extensively about the need for roots, gave advice on how to pay attention to the suffering of other human beings, and depicted moral urge to engage in the world’s most burning problems. Her writings inspired many intellectuals around the world, including poet Czesław Miłosz, but also Albert Camus or even Hannah Arendt. I wanted to ask you, what personally inspired you to write a biography of Simone Weil?

Robert Zaretsky: It was happenstance. Several years ago, I was teaching a class that included Homer’s ‘Iliad’, and a colleague, a classicist suggested that I read an essay by Simone Weil on the Iliad — perhaps her most famous essay — ‘The Iliad or the Poem of Force’. I read it and I was blown away by it. I never, ever thought of looking at the poem from the perspective that Simone Weil did. My acquaintance with Weil more or less remained with that one essay for a few years, and then I began to write on Albert Camus . 

I ended up writing a series of articles and two books on Camus. As I wrote and read his work, I came to understand with ever greater depth, just how deeply Simone Weil’s work had left a mark on the post-war Camus. I thought that if I were to understand Camus better, I would need to understand Simone Weil better, and so I started reading her. The more I read Weil, the more amazed I was, and in many ways, the more confused I was. She’s an extraordinary clear writer on the one hand, and on the other hand she’s an extremely demanding writer. Writing a book on Weil might help me clarify my own thoughts about her work and about her life which are so deeply intertwined one with the other. 

Weil responded to modern-era problems, and yet her approach seems to be for many too hard to put into practice. You quote Susan Sontag, who remarked: “I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays share her ideas”. You also admit that it is hard to realize her moral advice. Why do you think it is so difficult to identify with her ideas? Do you agree — as Toril Moi put it in a London Review of Books review — that “following her path would destroy our families, our careers, our well-being”?

It was in that same review, if I recall correctly, that Toril Moi also suggested that I ended up writing a Simone Weil for the suburbs. I don’t think I did that, I can understand why that certain readers might come to that conclusion though. 

Weil represents an ideal that I think very few of us can ever achieve. More importantly, Simone Weil embodies an ideal that very few of us would want to achieve.

There’s something admirable about the lives of saints, and Simone Weil is often referred to as a secular saint, which is something that I don’t quite buy into. But while there is something admirable about their lives, there is also something else – the word ‘repellent’ is too strong. But I can’t help but think of a passage in a review that George Orwell wrote on Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography: there’s a moment in the autobiography where Gandhi reveals that when one of his children fell ill that he was told the doctors that he needed to eat some chicken broth. Gandhi refused, he did not want his son to eat the chicken broth for philosophical and religious reasons. Happily, his order was ignored by the family and the son survived after having eaten the broth. 

Orwell is stunned by this admission made by Gandhi. On the one hand, he deeply admires the embrace of this conviction on the part of Gandhi, on the other hand, he is deeply repelled by Gandhi’s refusal to surrender that conviction and instead do his best to save his son’s life. Which is a reminder for the vast majority of us that life is on this side of sainthood, and not on the far side of sainthood.

Now having said that, the point I try to make in my book is that Simone Weil nevertheless represents a standard, in fact this is the word used by Iris Murdoch, the English novelist and philosopher, in her own writings on Simone Weil — namely that she embodies a standard that we really can’t realise, we should think twice about trying to realise, but that it nevertheless reminds us of certain ideals that we should never ever lose from sight.

To follow up on what you have already said, why do you not regard her as a secular saint?

OI don’t think of her as a secular saint, if only because I believe that Weil herself would be bothered by such a comparison. She never ever saw herself in these terms. At the same time, there were elements to her character and to her life that remind us that sainthood is something that serves as a standard, but is something that we would be well advised not to seek on our own. She was an extraordinarily flawed human being. I mention this more than once in my book, and I’ve been taken to task by some readers for this attitude, but I can’t help but feel otherwise about Weil, namely that she is very difficult to live with. I’ve written a number of lives, and the reason I choose the lives that I write on is because I admire them, and I certainly admire Simone Weil. But the other element is that I also really enjoy spending time in their company, and so be it David Hume, or James Boswell, or Catherine the Great, or Denis Diderot, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Camus — these are men and women who I would dearly love to meet and to spend time with over a beer or over a coffee.

The one subject that I’ve written on that I don’t feel quite this way is Simone Weil. I would find that I would simply come up short in her eyes and that she would neither have the patience nor the interest in pursuing a conversation with me or spending time in my company. Whenever I read Weil, and this is simply an observation, I always feel in a way, ashamed that I am not meeting her expectations, and I have never ever felt that way with another writer, with another thinker. Paradoxically, it is one of the things that keeps drawing me back to Simone Weil, she makes me feel uneasy. 

Tony Judt, the great historian of ideas, once wrote that there is a difference between a moralist and a moralizer. A moralizer is someone who wags his finger at you and tells you what to do and what not to do; a moralist on the other hand is someone who wags her finger at herself. He was writing this about Albert Camus but it applies with equal force to Simone Weil: that

a true moralist is somebody who makes not just others uncomfortable, but makes themselves uncomfortable. [The quote is from Judt’s book, The Burden of Responsibility]

This was true for Albert Camus from time to time, but I think this is so much truer for Simone Weil. She was always uncomfortable with herself, and as a consequence that discomfort is manifest, it is contagious, I can’t help but feel it in her company too.

How much, do you think, she cared about the opinion of the others? How important for her was to be seen by her friends and relatives as a person who is brave (she joined the republican fighters during the Spanish civil war)? This ethical question could be also posed in contemporary terms: do you think that Weil would write about her suffering in the factory or the experience with this war on Facebook?

No, I think she would curse Facebook. Weil had a very poor opinion of popular culture and of popular media even in her own time. Somewhere she describes ‘Marie Claire’ (a woman’s magazine in the 1930’s as now), as cocaine, something that was addictive and, in a way, toxic for agency and for thought. I can’t help but believe that she would feel anything but the same way about social platforms today. 

You’ve asked a question that I have never really thought about. It’s fascinating — did she ever wonder what her friends and her family thought about her?

Given her own attitude towards herself, which was extraordinarily harsh and extraordinarily critical, and from all that I’ve read I don’t believe that she worried a great deal about what others thought.

She was so busy wondering about, at least in the final years of her life, what her god thought, or what she herself thought about herself, was she succeeding in doing what she set out to do regardless of that particular activity or mission. My guess is that she didn’t spend a great deal of time worried what others thought, she was elsewhere, her thoughts were elsewhere, they were not thoughts that were at all conducive for Facebook or Twitter. 

What caught my attention was your reference made in the book several times to the parachuted front-line nurses — an idea that Weil presented during the Second World War to a shocked de Gaulle. It was her response to the unbearable war conditions, or, as you write, a “gesture toward beauty and goodness”. Though this idea might not have been put into practice, today we witness resistance of Ukrainian civilians during the Russian unprovoked invasion. Unarmed, they encircle Russian troops with heavy armoury and demand they go back home. Or another instance: Belarusian women who dressed in white and red protested on the streets, risking detention, or actually being detained. Do you also see this resemblance?

That’s a terrific question. To tell very briefly, Weil’s plan was that the Free French would parachute women over an active battlefield, and that these women would be garbed in white, dressed as nurses, and that they would be dropped over battle fields to bring first aid to the wounded soldiers below. They wouldn’t be armed, and they would have a rudimentary training as nurses but nothing more developed than that. This is one of the most famous stories in relation to Weil and her relationship with the Free French and Charles de Gaulle. She rewrote this proposal when she was working for the Free French in late ’42 and early ’43 in London. The story goes that when de Gaulle read the proposal, he looked at one of his subordinates and said “Elle est folle” (“She is crazy”).

What I try to explain in the book is that she may be crazy but she is ‘crazy like the fox’, as we say. 

Weil explained this, but I don’t think de Gaulle was either ready or willing to understand what her point was, looking at, for example, the dedication and devotion of young SS members or even Wehrmacht soldiers who were willing to fight to the death because they were taken by the ideal that had been knocked into their skulls by the Nazi state ever since 1933. Weil wonders what can we put up against this: we have the material, we have the money, we have all of the forces necessary to defeat Nazi Germany. But something that money or material can’t furnish or buy is an ideal, something that one is willing to sacrifice one’s life for. She said this is precisely what the nurses plan provides: that you would be parachuting over these battles fields women who would be willing to die on behalf of this ideal, and ideal based on compassion, an ideal based on attending to the others, an ideal for which we will die. When she said ‘We’, she included herself, as she wanted to be in the very first group of women parachuting over a battlefield. This is something that I come up against time and again in her writings — that on the one hand her ideas are so terribly impractical How can you even begin to suggest that this is something we implement? But yet at the same time it makes the greatest sense in the world, you understand from her argument just how terribly important these ideals are. 

The instances that you just before about unarmed civilians encircling a tank: it’s just extraordinary, people were risking their lives. That of course was a spontaneous action, whereas Simone Weil’s nurses plan was a scripted response to the crisis. But I do think that they are both what is now taking place in parts of Ukraine and what Simone Weil was proposing is one and the same. If she were alive today and if she had seen or read about this incidence of civilians risking their lives to insist upon their shared humanity with the men in that tank, I think she would have understood that.

Let us talk a bit about Weil’s concrete ideas that you put forward in your book. As we discussed, though her way of thinking reflected her personal experience, it still has a universal appeal. Her concept of uprootedness is especially striking in this context: she discussed it in face of the German invasion of Europe during the Second World War and declining colonial rule. You make a link between the uprootedness Weil discussed and the lack of social capital — so the decay of civic institutions. Could you elaborate a bit on that? How did Weil understand uprootedness and how can we put this concept into our times?

Potentially, it is a controversial subject. As you know, in Europe as in the United States there is a growing number of voices on the right and on the far-right that insist upon this notion of ‘the great replacement’ ‘le grand remplacement’: that extreme right figures in France, in Hungary, Great Britain, and in the United States represented by, among others, our former President, who appeal to this notion that Americans are menaced with the prospect of becoming uprooted by these great waves of immigrants coming from different countries, and practicing different customs and rituals and of course speaking different languages. That’s not at all what Simone Weil meant.

Uprootedness has been a key element in extreme right wing thought in France ever since the late 19th century. It goes back as far as the Dreyfus affair and the writings of antisemites like Édouard Drumont or Maurice Barrès who spoke about ‘la terre et les morts’ (‘the earth and the dead’), and that is what defines Frenchness. It is definition that a Jew could never embody, according to Barrès. This belief has never died and is now growing once again in France. 

But what Weil means is something quite different: uprootedness has nothing to do with being pulled up from one’s town, from one’s region, and moved to an urban area, to a city. Uprootedness does not necessarily have anything to do with being displaced by war or catastrophe although it certain encompasses that.

What she understands by uprootedness is the state where everything, that web of connections that are professional, social, linguistic — that once kept a community together — begin to fray and fall apart. 

This is a consequence of industrialization, of the rationalization of labour, it is a consequence, as she argues, of new forms of communication (she disliked radio and magazines for that very reason). Of course, this is why she would have absolutely no truck with social platforms and the internet. 

The decay of the civic institutions, and this is something that Robert Putnam the American sociologist has so persuasively argued, in turn lead to the decay of civic values. She addresses this problem in ‘L’Enracinement’ (‘The Need for Roots’).  This was yet another work that she wrote while she was working for the Free French as an analyst. This book was meant to be more or less a policy paper for what France and the leaders of France needed to think about following the liberation of the country. She worried about the impact, not just of the war, but of society, in commerce, in industry, in communications that preceded the war. 

This could certainly be connected with our most burning contemporary problems: loneliness and wide-spread depression. This problem links with another topic of hers: Weil talked on affliction from a philosophical perspective while she herself worked in the French Alsthom factory in the early 30s. She experienced dire conditions; for her this place was a site of slavery. Could you say more on how did she envision human work and how her own experience influenced that?

After a few years of teaching at different lycées in France, Simone Weil decided she wasn’t accomplishing a great deal as a teacher and it was keeping her away from life (or the way that so many others lived their lives), so she took a leave of absence from the Ministry of National Education in France and she went to work in a series of factories in the Paris region. What she discovered there was, in her words, a new form of human slavery. 

The word that she uses to describe the emotional, the material and the phycological consequences of this new form of slavery is ‘le malheur’. 

It literally means unhappiness, but some English translators use the word “affliction”, and this gets closer to what Simone Weil understood by ‘malheur’. It is a condition not just of material want, it’s not just a condition of economic desperation: it goes beyond this. It has a spiritual aspect for Simone Weil, and this is before she begins to move towards Catholicism. But nevertheless, at least for a Platonist which she was from beginning to end, it has a spiritual aspect. 

What she understood is that working in the factory, on an assembly line, a machine so much more powerful than she herself, under the constraints of the time clock and the need to meet a certain quota every day at that factory, that affliction means the transformation of a human being into a thing. That can occur on the battlefield, which is the very thing she describes in her essay on The Iliad, but it can also occur in a factory. It can occur not just in a factory in her time, in the inter-war period, but it can occur in the equivalent in our time. I can’t help but think, for example, of people working in Amazon warehouses who have more than an inkling of what Simone Weil was talking about in respect to her experience on the assembly lines in the factories around Paris. She discovers at the end of the day — she writes about this in her factory journal — that she was no longer capable of thought while she was there. After she leaves the factory, she realizes that it is probably a good thing that she is no longer capable of thought: because if she could in fact think while being subjected to the inhuman rhythm and demands of this assembly line, the consequences would be fatal. In order to survive she couldn’t think. That is at least in part what she understands by affliction. But affliction arises in so many guises — it is certainly not limited to a factory floor or a battlefield.

For sure what you’ve just said could happen in a modern corporation: actually, every place where a force can be exerted potentially leads to affliction of both employees and leaders. Since we are talking in a journal covering topics related to democracy, I cannot avoid a question about Weil’s concept of democracy and citizenship, collectivity and obligations. You write that democracy for Weil was not good in, of, and by itself — why did she criticize this type of political form? And how did she conceive citizenship and civil duties?

Simone Weil has little patience with what today we call rights talk. This is an insight that is not unique to Simone Weil. It is something we find with Hannah Arendt in her ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’rights were not all they were cracked up to be. It something we discovered during the 1930s and the fate of the German Jews and then European Jews, that the rights which they thought were inalienable, eternal and universal, in fact were more or less rooted in a single nation state. When Jews were ruled not worthy of either citizenship or life within that nation state, this notion of rights didn’t do very much to protect them. 

Weil was bothered by rights talk, it smacked of transactional exchanges, of commercial exchanges, and it made us lose sight of what she thought was far more important — needs and obligations, which she discusses in ‘The Need for Roots’. In fact, she gives a list of needs that all human beings have: they are material, but also psychological and intellectual needs. Needs in turn entail obligations. First and foremost each and everyone of us, Simone Weil argues, has an obligation to the other to make sure that their needs are met. If their needs are not realized, their rights are merely formal. If their rights are to have any true consequence, we are obliged to first fulfil the needs of the other, to meet those needs. This would be the case for any healthy democracy. 

Weil had very little patience with the forms of twentieth century democracy. 

She wrote a policy paper, perhaps one that Charles de Gaulle actually did like, which called for the abolition of political parties. She thought that political parties get in the way of the healthy functioning of a democracy, because the moment one joins a political party, or represents a political party, you no longer speak, much less think, as a human being with one’s own agency — you speak and think in the logic and the language of that party. Rather than representative democracy she was far more sympathetic (this was also the case with Albert Camus) to the anarcho-syndicalists in France. She thought anarcho-syndicalism was a far more human and a far more effective way of guaranteeing true democratic processes than the various forms of representative democracy that existed in the west in the 1930s or, I imagine she would say, that exist in the west in the 21st century. 

The last question would regard the topic of Weil’s religious beliefs. Though she was born to a secular Jewish family, she became intellectually inspired by Catholicism by the end of her life. What did Catholicism mean to Weil?

During the last few years of her life, as you have just noted, Weil’s thought turn increasing towards religion. She begins a series of conversations with theologians, amateur theologians, for example, Gustave Thibon, with whom she worked on his farm in southern France for several months in the early years of the occupation, before she left France with her parents. Or with Catholic priests — this was the case with Joseph-Marie Perrin, the Dominican priest in Marseille with whom she had several conversations. She thought about conversion, but decided that this was a bridge too far: for specific reasons relating to church dogma she could not convert to Catholicism. 

The way I understand her approach to Catholicism was that it provided a framework that was more immediate and more personal than the previous philosophical framework in which she worked, namely Platonism. She was deeply indebted to Plato: she thought so much higher of Plato than she did, for example, of Aristotle. You see evidence of her Platonism in her early political works. And yet she has a series of mystical experiences in the waning years of the 1930s, each of them with growing intensity. She writes in a matter-of-fact fashion that she realises that Catholicism was the religion of slaves, and she saw herself as belonging to that population of slaves. It is not so much that that she embraces Catholicism, but that Catholicism, through these epiphanies that she had, embraced her. 

She had an extraordinary severe understanding of Catholicism, or more specifically, of her relationship with God. She writes about what she calls ‘décreation’ – de-creation — in which a Christian’s true task, according to Simone Weil, is to un-make one’s self in order to make the space for God to re-occupy. In other words, she understands creation by God, of God folding in upon himself, thus making space or room in the creation for humankind. That it is the task of those creatures to in turn to return their love to God by unmaking themselves in order to allow God to once again assume that space that he had sacrificed, that he had given up. 

Her understanding of her relationship to God is in some ways far more akin to medieval Catharism. which was judged a heresy by the Catholic church, than it is to traditional Catholicism. But surely this was something that was at play in Simone Weil’s mind in the last months of her life when she, in effect, starved herself to death in England. This is something that biographers and readers of Weil continue to debate, whether or not this was suicide or whether or not this was simply a sacrifice that she made not just on behalf of her God, but also on behalf of her fellow French in occupied France who could eat, thanks to ration cards, only so many calories a day. Some have interpreted it as a sign of her insanity. This was the conclusion of the English coroner following her death in 1943. 

In collaboration with Karen Culver

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