Reviews
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Pacifist, soldier, mystic, saint: The complex identity of Simone Weil

Karen Olsson

Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 2021 (reviewing Robert Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil) century French philosopher.

“About a year and a half ago, a bookseller in Princeton, New Jersey, told me that she’d lately noticed an uptick in sales of titles by Simone Weil, the twentieth-century philosopher. Donald Trump had something to do with it, I imagined: living under a regime of facile lies, more readers had been drawn to Weil’s difficult search for truth. While these book-buyers were seeking her guidance on their own, Robert Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston, publicly tried to steer more readers to Weil, writing a series of essays, for outlets including the New York Times and Foreign Affairs, in which he invoked some of Weil’s ideas as correctives, a means of seeing our way past the ruts and bromides of contemporary politics. . . . “

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Principled to a Fault and the violent originality of Simone Weil

Becca Rothfeld read

Excerpt:

“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).

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Principled to a Fault . . . And the violent originality Simone Weil

Becca Rothfeld read

Excerpt: 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 . . . .

The Hedgehog Review  (Summer 2021) (reviewing Robert Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil (2021)). As of 2021, the author, Becca Rothfeld, is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard University.

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Theatre project explores the philosophy of French mystic Simone Weil

Staff Reporter read

‘Simone Weil: Performance as an experience of nothingness’ is a new theatre research project by Dr. Tyrone Grima, which explores an approach to theatre-making, inspired by the philosophy and the spirituality of the French mystic, Simone Weil.

The project translates in a practical and experiential manner the insights of the spirituality and the philosophy of Simone Weil, particularly those on art and theatre, to the performative medium. This with the aim of discovering a way of putting into practice the theoretical framework of Weil in theatre-making. Central to the approach is the notion of ‘nothingness’.

Newsbook, June 10, 2021.

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“Simone Weil for Americans”

Christy Wampole read

Los Angeles Review of Books (April 26, 2021)

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The Weil Conjectures

Brian Hayes read

Sample: “. . . . Before going further I should make clear that The Weil Conjectures is not a textbook or a scholarly monograph. It is not addressed to an audience of mathematicians. But it raises questions about relations between mathematics and society that may well be of interest to the mathematical community. This issue is commonly discussed in terms of outreach—the challenge of communicating research-level mathematics to the public. In Olsson’s case it also becomes a question of reach: how can we help someone who feels a powerful attraction to mathematical ideas but cannot negotiate the rugged terrain of prerequisite knowledge?

The heart of Olsson’s book is a personal essay, in which she describes her own intense and turbulent encounters with the world of mathematics. That narrative is braided into the stories of the Weil siblings—whose lives were also marked by intensity and turbulence. . . .”

Notices of the American Mathematical Society, vol. 68, no. 2 (Feb. 2021) (book review)

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Simone Weil Bibliography

Saundra Lipton read

Although Simone Weil died very young at age 34, her essays and notebooks have been the topic of a significant volume of scholarship from a wide variety of disciplines including Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Nursing, Political Science, History, Psychology, Education, and Business.  However, the last comprehensive bibliography of critical works on Simone Weil compiled by J.P. Little, dates back to 1973 with a supplement in 1979 and a small update in 1995.  The diversity and range of this ongoing scholarship make an updated comprehensive bibliography critically important for those writing on Weil and her work.

Saundra Lipton, University of Calgary, and Debra Jensen, Mount Royal University have been active collaborators (till Debra’s untimely death July 15, 2012) in the compilation of a comprehensive bibliography of scholarly works on Simone Weil.  The goal of this project is to provide a valuable service to scholars and students in many fields by facilitating access to Weilian resources across disciplinary, geographic, and linguistic divides.  Publications worldwide have been surveyed. Over 5500 works have been discovered.  This online version of the bibliography currently lists more than 5000 book, essays, journal articles, and theses.

I dedicate my continuing efforts on this project to the memory of my dear friend and colleague Debra Jensen.

University of Calgary online library of resources