Biographical

Simone Weil: Writing for a General Intellectual Audience

Toril Moi watch

In this video, Professor Toril Moi explains the internal editorial process related to her London Review of Books review of Robert Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (2021). Among several other things, her lecture addressed how her review was framed and how its length had to be shortened — a point directly related to a substantive objection raised in a letter-to-the-editor by Professor Zaretsky.

The Subversive Simone Weil—A Review

Seamus Flaherty read

Sample from the introduction to the review:

“How much time do you devote each day to thinking?” That’s a strange question to ask a nurse from one’s hospital bed, but Simone Weil was no ordinary patient. On the contrary, philosopher, mystic, and, at that time, member of the Provisional French government in London, Weil was in every sense extraordinary.

Praised by André Gide as the “patron saint of all outsiders,” known to her fellow students at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) as the “Categorical Imperative in skirts,” and dismissed by Charles de Gaulle as “a crazy woman,” Weil was certainly unusual. At once charmingly amusing and maddeningly irritating without meaning to be either, Weil was a bona fide eccentric. As T.S. Eliot pointed out, one detects no sense of humour in Weil. Candid to a fault and always in dogged pursuit of the Good, she believed that thinking is what gives us dignity and protects us from tyranny. The unusual question she put to her nurse, in other words, was to her mind perfectly reasonable.

Quillette, July 30, 2021

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. . . . “

A Just and Loving Gaze

Deborah Casewell read

Excerpt: “Weil took no prisoners in any debate. Although Leon Trotsky had recently excoriated her critique of Marxism, Weil arranged for the Marxist revolutionary to stay in her parents’ apartment in December 1933 and host an illicit political gathering. This did, however, come at the expense of a night-long, intense discussion with Weil. While she always argued softly and clearly, that did not prevent the discussion from being punctuated by violent shouts.

That heart that beat across the world is perhaps why she always remained outside contemporary philosophical trends, and certainly outside of the academic and elite conversations in philosophy at the time. Weil’s philosophical commitments, while constant, often pale in comparison with her dramatic life and her political engagement. She enacted her philosophy with her commitment to causes, and finally with her body. This began with her declaration of Bolshevism at the age of 10, through to her university involvement in Marxism, trade unionism and pacificism. The first commitment declined as she found in Marxism itself plenty to criticise, though this did not prevent her from joining the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, albeit rather ineffectively. Yet, through all of this, two elements of her character remained constant: her self-denial for the sake of others, and the strength of her will. . . .”

Deborah Casewell is a Humboldt Research Fellow in philosophy at the University of Bonn and co-director of the UK-based Simone Weil Network. Her most recent book is Eberhard Jüngel and Existence: Being Before the Cross(2021).

Aeon, July 9, 2021

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.

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).

The Living Philosophy of Simone Weil

The Living Philosophy channel watch

Albert Camus called the philosopher Simone Weil “the only great spirit of our times.” T.S. Eliot said she was the greatest saint of the 20th century. Charles de Gaulle said she was insane. But who is she and what is the Simone Weil philosophy? Despite dying at the age of 34, Simone Weil lived a life that rivaled any philosopher. And it was the authentic life of a philosopher following her inner compass. She did not fall in with the intellectual milieu of her time by becoming a public intellectual (which was far from a matter of intelligence — she finished 1st in her class for philosophy at France’s elite university the École Normale Supérieure beating out Simone de Beauvoir in second place). She was born into a Jewish family and raised agnostic and yet found herself drawn towards religion; she fought in the Spanish Civil War and worked in factories for a year to understand the working class.

The Living Philosophy (YouTube), June 20, 2021