“One of contemporary analytic philosophy’s most persistent pathologies is its mania for “domestication”—that is, for the translation of Continental effusions into a cooler, cleaner vocabulary. Sometimes, domestication is merely a matter of untangling the terminological knots that make thinkers like Heidegger and Hegel so daunting to Anglophone audiences. Often, however, the practice involves the taming of ideas themselves, as if they were so many unruly animals. The domesticator offers up such morsels as a secularized Kierkegaard, or a Pascal who is more of a protoexistentialist than a Jansenist. What is lost in verve, domesticators claim, is gained in newfound plausibility, at least when the relevant arbiters are the atheistic liberals who preside over present-day academia.
On the face of it, Simone Weil is a remarkably poor candidate for domestication. Implausible and impractical to a fault, arguably more of a mystic than a philosopher, Weil is unlikely to appeal to sober rationalists, even in her most neutered guises. Her life and her work alike were rent by sharp contradictions. She was ethnically Jewish yet frequently anti-Semitic. She was a fervent pacifist for much of her life, but she worked alongside anarchist forces to fight fascists on the ground in Spain. (Admittedly, her efforts were ineffectual: She tripped into a pot of hot cooking oil and singed her leg before she saw any combat.) Although she trained as a philosopher at the famed École Normale Supérieure, she eschewed the measured tones of a scholar, opting instead for the oracular prose of a visionary or poet. She was bourgeois by birth, yet her desperation to display solidarity with the working classes drove her to the factories and the fields.
Unsurprisingly, given her resistance to the familiar classifications, Weil opposed political parties and institutional groupings of all kinds, refusing to join the Roman Catholic Church even after a series of rapturous conversion experiences. She never belonged to a readily legible political camp. A lifelong advocate of workers’ rights, a vigorous critic of colonialism, and a member of the French Resistance, she nonetheless came to dislike Marx, and the political views she embraced in her final writings have a decidedly right-wing flavor. By the time of her death, she was a proponent of patriotism, albeit not of the jingoistic variety, and a staunch defender of virtues such as honor, which she regarded as “a vital need of the human soul.” Finally, and most importantly, she was wracked by the intensity of her religious convictions. Her radical Christianity permeates almost all of her most celebrated writings, many of which have the ecstatic tang of prayers.
It is hard to see how a figure so marvelously intemperate could ever be bridled to the satisfaction of the Anglo-American mainstream. Still, the intellectual historian Robert Zaretsky has made an impressive attempt to win over skeptics in his new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas. Somewhere between biography and philosophical overview, Zaretsky’s study sorts Weil’s views into five central categories. Each of the corresponding chapters integrates discussion of her personal eccentricities with analyses, rehabilitations, and critiques of her thought. The results are lucid and informative, but the restraint inherent to the medium, in this case the sensible academic monograph, threatens to undermine the extremity of Weil’s fiercely singular and ferociously subversive message. . . .”
The Hedgehog Review (Summer 2021) (reviewing Robert Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil).