Written Essays

The Story of a Friendship

Gabriella Fiori

The following essay, by Gabriella Fiori, was originally published as an appendix to L’Europa di Simone Weil (Quodlibet, 2019), which was edited by Rita Fulco and Tommaso Greco. This essay, reproduced with permission, was translated by Michela Dianetti, who is the Italian correspondent for Attention. Certain referenced passages quoted below are from the English translation of Ms. Fiori’s book Simone Weil, an Intellectual Biography (University of Georgia Press, 1989, Joseph R. Berrigan trans.). The footnotes in the original essay were converted to endnotes and are referenced in the text in brackets, e.g. [1]. Hyperlinks have also been added. In the next issue of Attention, we will publish a long interview Michela Dianetti conducted with Ms. Fiori. — rklc 


to Rita Fulco, with gratitude

I hope that you will forgive me but I will be very personal and subjective. 

This time, in the long story of my relationship with Simone Weil, it all started with a dream. In late February 2018, after years of being absent from my dreams, André Weil came back to me, unexpectedly. We were in a convention center. I was alone in a sort of office, in front of a table covered by a white and red tablecloth (I could see only a sliver of it).

Suddenly, in the hall, which was flooded with a dazzling neon light, André came out of a room towards me with a jocular look, as if he wanted to play. He appeared as a ‘young’ seventy-year-old man, like when he came to visit me in Florence with his wife Eveline. (He was then teaching a class in Arcetri and was staying at an apartment belonging to one of the sons of the poet [Luigi] Fallacara.) André asked me to take him to Rosano’s Benedictines, where he followed the entire mass sung in Gregorian with his eyes closed, finding once again his sister’s love for that music. Then we walked on dead leaves under the trees of the Gricigliano Seminary. I remember him telling me “When you can’t endure the world there are two choices: either commit suicide or adapt to the circumstances.” His sister instead kept trying to change the world, and this was what caused her death.

Gabriella Fiori

That is how it worked between us: once we were alone together he would immediately talk to me about Simone; he answered my questions and went beyond answering them. It was as if she had appeared there with us, very skinny in the black suit that she used to wear at Bourbaki meetings. It was as if she heard what we said to each other in those conversations as we tried to understand her better and really listen to her words. In fact, more and more over the course of our friendship, sometimes unbearable for the intensity of its demands, I heard an immense cry rising up from the world, rendered uninhabitable from us, human beings dominated by the empire of force.

André Weil (per Sylvie Weil)

Why did André come to me in a dream and alone? I previously dreamed of him together with Simone during the time when I was writing my Biography. At that time, she would come to me around five in the afternoon, an hour in which I would usually start writing at the small orange desk retrieved from the basement. She would walk, bereted and caped, among the pines: the pine woods of my childhood in which my mother would tell me and my younger brother: “breathe, breathe!” It was the odor of the sun.

André came, I think because for him his sister never left. This was the same for Alain, who wrote in his diary[1] about the death of his young pupil, “an enigma.” Smiling, André gave me a light kiss and went away dancing. [The diary, previously unpublished, came out in France, under the title Alain, Journal Inédit 1937-1950, edited by Emmanuel Blondel (Équateurs, Paris 2018).]

The dream turned out to be premonitory. I had, once again, to find Simone and the story of our friendship.

The meeting

It began around the time when I was fresh from graduating in Classics from Class B at Michelangiolo, a high school in Florence. Driven by my personal passion (and thanks to the advice of a friend who predicted I would be a translator), I decided to attend courses at the French Institute and the British Institute of Florence — this before I enrolled at the university in the Department of Literature. (I went on to translate seven of Iris Murdoch’s novels. Murdoch also loved my way of translating Simone Weil and saw in her “a new horizon to direct the gaze upon”). 

France was part of our family’s destiny; my mother studied at Grenoble and my father worked as a construction engineer after the Great War; he led groups of workers in Marseille and Paris. For me, France was the homeland of my heart since my mother taught me French when I was six years old. . . . She did so through la Comtesse de Ségur and L’Art d’être Grand-Père by Victor Hugo. I learned his simplest poems by heart; for a child like me, they were the most interesting of his writings. . . . Later, I started to focus on English through the reading of Lydia Child’s The Girl’s Own Book.

With my first diploma, I was awarded a scholarship to go to Grenoble. Thanks to my parents’ support of my project, I was accepted there . . . with emotion and pride. I studied tirelessly and happily. With the French masters of dictionaries and grammar, I learned a proper method of research and writing by which to create essays based on a plan which provided a beginning, a center, and an end, all balanced with each other. 

I fell in love with the [various] authors and their lives; I lived by their thoughts. From the beginning of the year, the calendar of dissertations was available for the students (who were primarily female) with one per month per author. My studies ranged widely: from Pierre d Ronsard to Julie d’Aubigné, from Molière to Pierre do Marivaux, from Victor Hugo to Charles Baudelaire, and from Stendhal to Gustave Flaubert. My favorites have always been Montaigne and Blaise Pascal, the first for the truthfulness with which he paints himself “in his making,” and the second for the tragic tangibility with which he portrays the greatness and misery of man. My father, who loved Pascal very much, helped me; I re-read with emotion an old diary where Dad wrote: “Worked till two o’clock for Gaby” (so they called me). I later thought of these two authors as harbingers for Simone Weil.

Bookcover Attente de Dieu

How did I meet her? One spring afternoon, a dear friend of my family for generations — a lawyer, a great and refined reader who would often come visiting us — told us: “I am reading the wonderful book of an extraordinary woman.” It was Attente de Dieu, in French, because it did not yet exist in Italian. Simone Weil: he was attracted to her for a deep reason; he had found himself in the same spiritual condition as her, “on the threshold.” He was suffering a lot, not just because he was a widower with two young children, whose wife perished with her sister in one of the rare bombings of Florence, but because he had never managed to acquire the Catholic faith that his wife had. Hers was a strong and doubtless faith which, combined with her great love for him, would still demand his attention. I recalled him saying: “A memory commits more than a presence.”

Impressed, I asked an older friend – a guest at our house while she was preparing for a state exam – who wanted to buy me a meaningful present, for Attente de Dieu. Perplexed, she asked me again. I was moved by a very strong desire for the work of a female writer, in the wake of my love for autobiographies. (When I was ten years old, I requested as a present The Story of a Soul by Thérèse of Lisieux, and I devoured Sono la tua serva e tu sei il mio signore: Così visse Fiorenza Nightingale by Laura Orvieto.) [I was drawn to] women’s writing, cultivated spontaneously from reading alone or with my mother about women’s works. This love lived in my diary (titled Il mio cuore), in novels (one full novel on my mother’s family, today somehow lost), and in magazines (‘Gioia di vivere’, ‘Lumicino’: the only subscribers being the uncle of my mother and his wife). When I met Simone, Katherine Mansfield was a kindred spirit to me and an inspiration. For spiritual research, there was still Teresa. That a woman wrote seemed to me quite normal.

When I held [Attente de Dieu] in my hands, I found it arduous, mysterious and concerned with the essential. But the words I understood immediately, shining like diamonds from the gangue, were those of Simone Weil on friendship. She spoke of it as a new basis of all human relationships: parents, brothers-sisters, lovers, friends, and spouses. She talked about a sense of sympathy and benevolent preference that leads us to a person and that makes friendship different from charity [. . . .] However, even friendship must preserve a zone of “impersonal” indifference — the behavior of the soul that takes effort to reach, and whose ethical value I would later learn is at the foundation of Weil’s philosophy. 

Thanks to [this understanding] the two remain separate, they do not blend. One does not want to prevail on the other, so one is not tyrannical or possessive and the other is not idolatrous, and therefore he does not renounce freedom and personal vocation. Later, I found a thought from when Simone was twenty-five: “L’amitié ne se recherche pas, ne se rêve pas, ne se désire pas; elle s’exerce (c’est une vertu)” – “Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).”[2] A passionate reader of my work who became through me a lifelong Weilian, . . . gifted me this sentence, which he had engraved on a polished natural wooden board with oak refinement. Today it hangs in the hall of my house.

Later, on the feast of the Epiphany in 1963, La pesanteur et la grâce[3] arrived in paperback form, the most worn-out of my Weil books. I was told by one of my sources, Guillaume de Tarde, a Gascon gentleman, that in 1947 this book had been devoured as it “satisfied a mystical and philosophical need of the time.” It had a profound impact on me. In Marseille, Pierre Honnorat, a mathematician of the same seniority as André Weil, with a very strict father, had been with Simone on a spiritual quest, questioning those same “unbearable” thoughts that he also found in texts of the Eastern tradition. 

This – together with the presentation of the two poles of the outward and inward situation of the human being, Pesanteur (Gravity), to which one must not “give in”, and Grâce (Grace), which we have the capacity to receive but for which we must ask with “attitude de supplication” (an attitude of supplication) because it comes from somewhere else – zeroed in for me on the economy of everyday living. That which is essential must be borne in mind in any particular of the day, gestures, words, tones (“nothing is irrelevant”). Since those days, Weil and I have lived together in a friendship beyond time and space. 

Iris Murdoch

Meanwhile, there were my daughters, the running of a house with little help, and French and English substitutions and translations, which I had done initially as a ghost translator (an unforgiving job) and then under my name. Grazia Livi, now passed, a dear friend and a fine writer . . .  introduced me with great confidence to [several] editors. The first book I translated was Iris Murdoch’s The Italian Girl, (La ragazza italiana, Feltrinelli 1956). Murdoch judged my translation as the work of a spirited translator. I then translated other six novels written by Murdoch and corresponded with her quite often.

When Murdoch was invited to a conference at the British Institute, she visited Florence with her husband John Bayley; on that occasion, Iris was focused and light-hearted at the same time. . . . When seated next to me at lunch, the first thing she told me was: “when will you write something that is yours?” It was in 1968 and I was indefatigably translating her The Nice and the Good. That phrase felt like a gong strike. With my license for teaching French and English, I chose the tenured chair in English in the city (French would have taken me to the countryside) and kept, against all suggestions, translating. 

For Weil, I would have wanted to disseminate L’Enracinement — someone in Florence told me it was “dated.” Instead, I kept thinking that the world needed such a book. For years, I had seen Weil as disembodied or deformed because her thought was at one moment claimed by the right and the next by the left. In her life [however] she worked a miracle in maintaining her total commitment whilst never putting labels on her thought, which always remained wide open. Thus, I thought she needed to be understood in her complex vocational design. That is what I had tried to do for the ten years since my return to Paris in 1971. On June 18, 1981, my Simone Weil. Biografia di un pensiero first came out, published by Garzanti. It was welcomed with confidence in an eight-page review by the writer Gina Lagorio, now passed, who loved Weil . . . .

. . . . Bernadette and Mathieu Capitant, generous friends whom I had met through Hélène Vetch . . . lent me and my daughters the use of their apartment in rue des Écoles (where the Collège de France is located, in the center of intellectual Paris). Hélène told me about a group in Chambéry that met under the supervision of the engineer-inventor Jean Tavernier (1928-2017) and read Weil’s writings. They had organized a colloque in 1970, which was reported on in Le Monde. The group, composed of businessmen, doctors, housewives, and teachers, looked for (and knew they could find) the “nourishment” that Simone ultimately wanted her thoughts to be despite all her self-flagellation. 

Gustave Thibon (credit: Alchetron Encyclopedia)

Simone left her eleven notebooks to Gustave Thibon and sent her essays to Father Joseph-Marie Perrin. She also sent to all of us that great grand oeuvre rooted in “the needs of the soul,” saved from the dustbin in London, which landed in Albert Camus’ hands through Gilbert Kahn, Simone’s friend from 1937 who understood her deeply. I choose from his Entrée en matière in Simone Weil. Philosophe, historienne et mystique[4]the following sentences: “In her, there is a real path that is deeply relevant; she needs to fully live her thinking, at least for a certain time. But she ultimately heads towards the religious world that she discovered and realized, without any hope or desire to return.”[5] 

In the second colloquy organized in early June 1972 by the group of Chambéry at Tremblay-sur-Mauldre near Paris, the Association pour l’étude de la pensée de Simone Weil was born, which immediately published a cyclo-edited bulletin that became the magazine Cahiers Simone Weil from June 1978, founded by André A. Devaux (1921-2017).[6] In 1972 I was the only Italian, although in Florence since the fifties there was a very vivid Weilian fire around the writer Cristina Campo, with the psychoanalyst-writer-artist Gianfranco Draghi, the poet Mario Luzi, and the essayist Margherita Pieracci Harwell, who had with Campo already translated the Intuitions pré-chrétiennes.[7]

The age of Weilian civilization in Europe was starting; all who were involved in the group, from various professions, related to the two aspects of Simone’s character: trollesse[8] for a provocative originality, and/or a certain conscious ethical and spiritual path. I remember in this sense the skinny Englishman David Raper, an Old Testament specialist, and Gérard Perrodo, the beautiful, tall, blue-eyed, railwayman who said that “Simone Weil tells us to ‘look at everything with a different gaze’”; he was the godfather of a child with hydrocephalus, left alone in the world, whom he had welcomed into his house.                                                       

I was also in the group, encouraged by Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, who said that Weil had got “really at the heart of things.”

How did I work on her? A review of my biography was written by Marisa La Malfa; it appeared in the magazine École. She called my biography a “paso doble” [two step]. Yes, I have never anticipated nor preceded Weil, but I followed all her life and thought step by step. I engaged her own readings and searched for the places she sought after and loved. I followed her educational path, which was molded by her mother who wanted the best professors for the education of her children. I traced that path from her high school, Henri IV. Here Alain (“the Man” as his disciples called him) had faith in the human spirit. For Alain, that spirit “is neither a master nor a master of slavery.” Rather, it coincides with the will for freedom and the will for self-awakening at that point of the heart where the person “refuses to be an animal,” to be part of “the inertia of this world,” and decides to set out on a journey, to conquer himself day after day.[9] And I followed traces of Simone to the attic of the meetings of the Cahiers du Sud in Marseille, and all the way to her grave, cracked by a thunderstorm, in the Catholic section of Ashford’s New Cemetery. There I found a sweet old man who came every day to visit his wife. He had noticed the pilgrimage of the many people visiting the “brave young lady” whose “solitudine il dolore altrui ghermiva fino alla morte” ( “solitude seized other people’s suffering until her own death”). So it was written on a green marble nameplate that leaned against Simone’s tombstone; it was engraved in Italian and signed “C.M.”  I am told it is no longer there. “Pauper’s grave” — so said the people of Ashford, and this was not a simple emotional comment, but a legal fact. 

pauper is one who has no means, who belongs to no one, and after whom no one inquires. Such persons have no juridical character; they depend on the State which offers them a grave six feet deep for a certain number of years. Then they are erased forever, and others may be buried above them. This did not happen to Simone because, on February 5, 1957, the writer Leslie Paul bought her a grave for £12. At the beginning of 1958, he convened a committee composed of Eric Walter Frederick Tomlin (philosopher and author of a monograph on Weil), Richard Rees (translator of various Weil’s writings), T.S. Eliot ( the poet, and author of the preface to The Need for Roots (L’Enracinement), which he considered “prolegomena to politics, necessary especially to the young before they get ruined by parliamentary debates” (I quote by heart) and Herbert Read (poet and art critic, philosopher and pacifist). 

With the permission of Weil’s family, the committee affixed a very sober tombstone modeled on the commemorative plaques (for the fallen of the Resistance) in the Parisian Luxembourg gardens. It was inaugurated on May 1, 1958. A green nameplate appeared years later, placed there by whom we do not know: “Simone Weil: a woman who felt she was unattractive, who knew she spoke too much and was too intense; this caused her great anguish, as she knew how this separated her from the others. But she could not respond without becoming even more intense.” 

Leslie Paul, who met Weil in 1938 in connection with an article that appeared in an independent labor monthly periodical. [As he viewed it, Simone was making the] “same journey.” He saw her completely isolated from her contemporaries. “To those of her generation (e.g. Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir), her asceticism appeared to be an absurd form of neurosis. Camus [by contrast] was attracted to her by his own moral passion.” Paul dedicated a poem to her titled “Lady Whose Grave I Own.” It appears in his collection of works titled Journey to Connemara.[10] Paul’s poem caught Simone in her heroic stature with an enormous burden for a person to carry. I quote the final verses: “And so, Simone, the lady whose grave I own, / The migraine, the nausea without cessation, / The Solesmes masses beating on the brain, / The iron will shrug off so much suffering – / This we know. / But tell us godly Simone / Of the waiting till the Saviour came again. / Was this the real affliction, / The cross you had to bear, / That you were simply what you were?”[11]

From the time she first went to school on October 3, 1919, Simone was always intense, fascinating, and strange to others. She took “correspondence courses following a class here and there for short periods so that we went through all the stages without suffering routine” (André Weil). Geneviève Mathiot described her this way: “physically she was a little child, unable to use her hands but of extraordinary intelligence. She had the appearance of a diverse origin, of a mind that did not belong to our age or our milieu. She seemed to have lived for a much longer time.”[12] According to Mlle. Sapy [her composition teacher], Simone had a strong influence on her classmates and “overheated” the class. She often invited [some classmates home]. Left completely free by the Weils, they formed the group “the Knights of the Round Table” — they had their own uniform, swore an oath of fealty, and had to defend the innocents and the wrongly accused, and to practice charity. Each had to play a character of Breton legend. Simone chose a bachelor, the uncle of King Arthur, his constant counselor, and had given herself the task of guiding a less well-endowed classmate in her studies.            

During her time at Henri IV, Alain used to call her “the Martian” because, as he then wrote in his Journal, “she had nothing of us and was sovereignly judging us all.”[13] Camille Marcoux labelled her “an ante litteram hippy.” He came from Poitiers to the Paris Normale to study furiously. Simone made him a copy of the key for the turnê, the dormitory studio she shared with Simone Pétrement. Together they taught the rail workers of the Groupe d’Éducation Sociale founded in 1927 by Lucien Cancouët (a friend of Alain’s). They taught them sociology, political economy, the use of machines, the role of intellectuals in society, and about the war. Simone became a good friend of Cancouët and his wife; he was for her an image of the people. “We used to go together to see them often and Cancouët thought we were something other than friends; he would look at us in a suggestive manner. I was embarrassed. Simone did not even notice it. She remained involved in her fervent discussions in which she never lost the thread of the argument. She did so with calm inflexibility; she would examine everything in all of its complexity. Cancouët used to call her ‘the terrible.’”[14]

Weil’s ideal was to introduce the workers to knowledge and culture, which went along with her “dream” (since she was fifteen) of working in a factory, a place that she perceived as the most painful of her time and the most illustrative of all social problems. This is clear in her application to leave the teaching profession, which stemmed from her “desire of preparing a thesis in philosophy on the relationship between modern technology, the foundation of the great industry, and the essential aspects of our civilization, that is our social structure and our culture.” 

Boris Souvarine

Discouraged both by her brother André and her friend, Albertine Thévenon (this because of her weak health and poor manual skills), she pursued her aim. [This was made possible] thanks to her great friend Boris Souvarine who knew Auguste Detoeuf, the managing director of the Alsthom factory, Société de Constructions électriques et mécaniques. Simone was ultimately hired as a press worker on Tuesday, December 4, 1934. Taking such work upon herself allowed her to penetrate intimately into the relationship between workers and their work. Conversely, Albertine held that that was impossible because the condition of the workers was not one that can be chosen, but a “fact that influences the way of perceiving life. The worker does not know how to express the consciousness of what he does, in fact, he does not have that awareness.” 

[. . . . I first met Albertine] at eleven o’clock on a wet September night in 1973. I had wandered in vain in a car around streets with monotonous houses in her neighborhood in Saint-Étienne. [It] was an emotional meeting, at the square table covered by a red and white tablecloth. Her kind hands (changed by the years) were semi-open as she burst into tears: “If I were with her, I would have convinced her to eat, to take care of herself, she would not have died,” she said. But soon she recalled: “Simone knew how to be joyful, especially when we were together, but she would never look for happiness. No one could have done anything for Simone.” She told me about Simone’s “break-in” to her house (October 7, 1931); she was looking for Urbain, Albertine’s husband, a trade unionist teacher, who together with another teacher held classes for miners within the Collèges du Travail. “My hand was inside a sock to be darned; by the time I had closed the door again, she was already in the other room with Urbain. That break-in was due to the fact that the other wives of her syndicalist comrades kept Simone from the company of their husbands because they did not trust her. The discussion lasted so long that we had to make her a bed in the living room.

She came back every Thursday, her day off, to the all-girls high school in Le Puy (“three hours on the train in freezing cars!” her mother would write; for Simone, a party) to teach political economy: her lessons were prepared accurately with [help from] Urbain from week to week.” And her students, who were supposed to be on an equal level, how did they see her? “In the Loira, those who were attracted to her were few (they could be counted on one hand). But among the miners of the group of Saint-Étienne (worn men, rough, combative, with the experience of foreign Legion) she had nothing to fear. She was safe as if in a fortress, and she felt comfortable.”

And what of the friendship with Albertine? With Simone, her body was only an instrument, and not a means to affection — kisses and hugs were rare. Albertine remembered one time in a cinema showing the movie À nous la liberté by René Clair [1931]: “I was holding her on the shoulders and she was holding me on the hips. Another time in a café for workers, she hugged me around the neck. We were bound by a fraternal relationship, simple, flesh and blood. For me, knowing her was a vital experience like the birth of my children.” She brought with her “a breath of freedom. Her lack of conformism and her faculty of attention allowed her to discover in the everyday dust the seed of purity that there is. Her great merit was that of unifying in harmony her need for perfection and her life (all before any kind of religious experience) with perfect coherency.”[15]                      

[ * * * *]

[Her] political sensibility was “pre-rational” (Giancarlo Gaeta) – at the age of nine it made her consider the Treaty of Versailles unjust towards Germany, and at eleven made her demonstrate in the street together with the workers . . . . But in the agnostic atmosphere of her family, what was her religious sensibility like? Quite strong for her friend Edi Copeau, whom I met as mère François, Benedictine at the monastery of Vanves at the doors of Paris.[16] Daughter of Jacques Copeau, the Catholic playwright, and of a Danish Protestant, she was “divided in half”, until the age of twenty, by the religious fissure between them; since 1927 (Edi was twenty-two) they spoke a lot about religion in the house of Suzanne Gauchon-Aron, who had introduced them to each other, or along the street. Edi remembered Simone sitting on the floor at Suzanne’s, who would question her without end. “She seemed to expect something important from me. I felt that she was much superior to me and was astonished at her intense manner of listening to me. And then she knew the Holy Scriptures much better than I.”

When Simone received the letter bringing the news that Edi had become a nun, she was walking in silence with Marcoux along the fence of the Luxembourg gardens, and he recalls: “I had never seen her so upset. She had her hands thrust in her pockets; one knew they were rolled into fists. Finally, she took out a crumpled envelope, Edi’s letter. With her face inflamed, she said in three words that Edi became a nun. But she did not manage to show me the letter: it was too much for her”. Edi’s seemed to her the only life oriented towards a “vocation”. Which “pour chacun elle consiste en une succession d’actes et d’événements qui lui est rigoureusement personnelle et tellement obligatoire que ce-lui qui passe à côté manque le but [for each one it consists of a succession of acts and events strictly personal to him, and so essential that he who leaves them on one side never reaches the goal],” she wrote to Father Joseph-Marie Perrin (1905-2002).[17]     

Fr. Joseph-Marie Perrin

[They were quite different. On the one hand], Father Perrin was a French Dominican priest, and a Righteous Among the Nations award recipient, a sacerdos in aeternum). [On the other hand,] Simone was a French philosopher and Jewish; she was unclassifiable and absolute (as in the Latin sense of ab-soluta). [In her mind there was the need] to let the absolute descend in everyday life, the supernatural into the natural. The two met in Marseilles on June 7, 1941, thanks to Hélène Honnorat, Pierre’s sister. She was a devout Catholic, teacher of history, and spiritual disciple of Father Perrin, who thought that he could help Simone find the job she was looking for as an agricultural worker, He also hoped that Simone could have a fruitful conversation with him about her vision on Christianity. Perrin was sent to the convent in Marseilles as a tutor to female students. [At that time] Simone left Paris (the “open city’) with her parents and was also in exile [in Marseilles] with no possibility of obtaining a job as a teacher because she was Jewish. Their meeting was the encounter of two certainties of faith, rooted in the strength of their fidelity to their early vocations. 

Perrin had received God’s call (“be a priest”) when he was eleven, together with the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, after which his mother immediately had him learn Braille. She then put him in contact with the Institute of Blind People, so that he was able to finish his studies (he was such a lovely student that his classmates would compete to help him) and then became a Dominican priest. His ordination was on Holy Saturday 1929, with a dispensation by Pope Pius XI. 

By the age of sixteen, Simone had already decided to devote all her life to the search for truth “ne pouvant vivre sans elle [I could not live without it],” in a continuous effort of self-education in contact with “le malheur [the affliction]” of her time. Her unexpected encounter — although prepared by an entire life of “attitude chrétienne [Christian attitude]” towards the problems of the world, “de personne à personne ici bas entre un être humain et Dieu [person to person, here below, between a human being and God]” (Solesmes Abbey, Easter Week 1938)[18] — was the major focus of her dialogue with Perrin from the very beginning. This was a dialogue embedded in “a friendship inspired by an absolute love for the truth and by the orientation of the gaze in the same direction.”[19] 

Perrin distinguished three phases of their friendship: the first one (June 7th – October 14th, 1941) ended with Perrin’s answer to Simone still working in the fields. Happy with the progression of her inner quest, she thought that such richness of peace, fatigue, and of useful experiences, could design a new spirituality of labor, especially when it came to the work in the fields “as long as it was based on the belief in creation, Incarnation, and (she suggested) in the Eucharist.”[20] The second phase (November 1941–end of March 1942) was the moment in which she began to gather texts by Christian and non-Christian mystics that would become the Intuitions pré-chrétiennes. The third (from mid-March to mid-May 1942) was the goodbye letters Simone wrote as she departed for New York. [See Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Routledge Classics, 2021), pp. 21-58.]

Perrin gave Simone the tenderness and harmony of his family education, which had forever given him a special understanding of women. Simone opened herself to him, with a rare display of trust (indeed unique) and total frankness about the story of her pilgrimage along with Christ.

After a near-far dream — in which I was with Simone in an old kitchen, with an old cupboard and a big raw wood table where we were cooking (with children’s “little saucepans”) and all the while talking seamlessly — she would end, I would begin [anew], and vice-versa. There was a joy of intelligence between us. [Something of the same was what I found] in the pages of Iris Murdoch (Dublin 1919, London 1999), the famous novelist and philosopher, well-known in Oxford, where she taught for fifteen years.  Her essays [revealed an] independent thought, understanding, and strong human and moral objection to the anti-metaphysical dryness [of the times. Moreover, there was the influence of] both[the] existentialists (Sartre, above all, whose writings she disseminated in England and she also appreciated the method of his work) and her teachers, the analysts of language (Wittgenstein inspired her and she quoted him) and other colleagues such as Gilbert Ryle and Richard M. Hare

I see Murdoch as part of my destiny too (along with Weil), especially for her novels which I translated. I only discovered her as a philosopher in 2006, when Esistenzialisti e mistici was published in Italian by Il Saggiatore, with an introduction by Luisa Muraro. This was a wonderful collection edited by her biographer, friend, and literary critic Peter J. Conradi.[21] I then looked for books written about her, and I came across Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness[22]. [This book was] the result of a conference in May 1994 that held discussions on theological and philosophical problems of the time including human existence, the good, and moral identity “to explore the significance of the work of Iris Murdoch for contemporary thought.”[23] 

Central problem: “how we can and ought to picture the human insofar as any account of human life entails moral, metaphysical, and religious claims.” Since the very first time that Murdoch encountered Weil’s work, it was “total love at first sight.” She used to see her as a person “very religious – that fight between the Self and the non-Self is religion. I think she helped me to see what religion is.” Murdoch read her in French most of the time. Among her favourites were: CahiersAttente de Dieu (which fascinated her) and Pensées sans ordre concernant l’amour de DieuLa Source grecque.[24] She thought that the loss of a moral and political vocabulary was something to be remedied. “We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place. Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.”[25] Attention allows us to “see” reality. In an interview Murdoch described her novels as “a pilgrimage from illusion to reality.” Reality is in a relationship with true love, which allows us to see the Other and to let them exist. United by a shared love for Plato, Iris and Simone were both oriented toward this love for reality, which implies “l’obéissance à la nécessité [obedience to necessity],” “a spiritual obedience prompting purification and love.”[26] 

The aim is to become subjects of the Good, which means to become good. For this reason, among the many pages written by and about Iris Murdoch where I find Simone Weil quoted, I choose these closing lines from The Sovereignty of Good

“The humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are. He sees the pointlessness of virtue and its unique value and the endless extent of its demand. Simone Weil tells us that the exposure of the soul to God condemns the selfish part of it not to suffering but to death. The humble man perceives the distance between suffering and death. And, although he is not by definition the good man, perhaps he is the kind of man who is most likely of all to become good.”[27]

Gabriella Fiori

Tonight, I rediscover with emotion the affectionate dedication that Iris Murdoch wrote to me in the English edition of her book. Iris, whom I had barely started to understand, was definitely wrapped in the close embrace of the friendship that lived and still lives between Simone Weil and me. Among the many excellent Weil readers whom I met, in none have I found the tone of intimacy, joy, and of discovery that makes the English philosopher-novelist a continuer of Weil’s work. And I like to remember her in a photograph during her last days at the Vale House Alzheimer’s Home, where she was “radiantly happy” (John Bayley).[28]

Endnotes

[1] The diary, previously unpublished, came out in France, under the title Alain, Journal Inédit 1937-1950, Emmanuel Blondel, ed. (Paris: Équateurs, 2018). I read this news in Cahiers Simone Weil (vol. XLI, no 3, 2018).

[2] C, I, trans. by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr, in Gravity and Grace (London & New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 67.

[3] Simone Weil, La pesanteur et la grâce (Paris: Plon, 1947), trans. into Italian by Franco Fortini, L’ombra e la grazia, (Milan: Edizioni di Comunità, 1951). Anthology curated by Gustave Thibon, who chose them and grouped them under titles from the eleven notebooks of thoughts that Simone Weil entrusted to him in 1942, before her departure for New York.

[4] Gilbert Kahn, Entrée en matière, in Gilbert Kahn, ed., Simone Weil. Philosophe, historienne et mystique (Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1978) (talks from the second part of the Congress Vigueur d’Alain, rigueur de Simone Weil, Cerisy-la-Salle (21 July-1 August 1974).

[5] Gilbert Kahn, pp. 16-17 (M. Dianetti trans.)

[6] The second A. of his name is the initial of Annette Thillard, whom he married in July 1946, in Le Havre. Agrégé of philosophy in 1949, he was a professor in high schools, and then co-director of the Department of Philosophy of Université de Paris-IV. He focuses, in his work, mostly on French philosophy of the 20th century, from Bergson to Gabriel Marcel, but he is also very much interested in the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. He comments as well on Teilhard de Chardin, Péguy, and Saint-Exupéry. Regarding Simone Weil, she was a connecting thread in his thinking and works. He was president of the Association from 1974 to 1990. He founded Cahiers Simone Weil and he used to animate the annual congresses of the Association in an “unforgettable” way.

[7] IPC, partially translated into Italian by Margherita Harwell Pieracci and Cristiana Campo, La Grecia e le intuizioni precristiane (Turin: Borla, 1967; II ed. Milan: Rusconi, 1974).

[8] As her family used to call her, this was based on Selma Lagerlöf’s Norwegian trolls. André, the inventor of the nickname, told me this in a letter which, as usual, after our meeting in 1976, would answer my questions through the post.

[9] See my second book on Weil, written first in French because I was invited to write it in France. It is titled Simone Weil: Une femme absolue (Paris: Le Félin, 1987) and then in Italian: Simone Weil: Una donna assoluta (Milan: La Tartaruga, 1991).

[10] Leslie Paul, Journey to Connemara and Other Poems (Outposts Publications, Walton-on-Thames, 1972.

[11] The poem by Leslie Paul is from Journey to Connemara and Other Poems, pp. 17-18. [The background provided in the text is] from my conversation with Leslie Paul in his house in England in the summer of 1975. It was later published, like the other meetings, in Gabriella Fiori, Simone Weil (preface by Carlo Bo, Garzanti, Milan 2006); the English translation was by Joseph R. Berrigan (University of Georgia Press, 1989). 

[12]  [Quoted in] Pétrement, I ( translated into Italian by Efrem Cierlini), Simone Pétrement, La vita di Simone Weil, edited by Maria Concetta Sala and with a note by Giancarlo Gaeta (Milan: Adelphi, 1994). See also Gabriella Fiori, Simone Weil(Eng. trans.) p. 20.

[13] See Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil: A life, p. 26. Pétrement added: “I don’t know if she was aware of this.”

[14] From my conversation with Marcoux at his house in Poitiers in 1973. Marcoux was a Greek teacher in high schools and prepared many of his students for la Normale. This account also appears in Fiori, Simone Weil, pp. 46-47 (Engl. trans).

[15] From my conversation with Albertine Thévenon at her house, in September 1973. You can find all this mentioned multiple times in my biography, Simone Weil, as I explain in note 10 (italics were added to stress the importance given by Albertine to this concept).

[16] Quoted in Fiori, Simone Weil, see note 9, above

[17] Simone Weil, Lettre 4Autobiographie spirituelle, in AD, p. 38. Italian edition: Simone WeilAttesa di Dio, edited by Maria Concetta Sala, with an essay by Giancarlo Gaeta (Milan: Adelphi, 2008). English edition: Simone WeilWaiting for God, Introduction by Leslie A. Fiedler (Capricorn Books, 1959), p. 63.

[18] AD, pp. 39 and 45; WGLetter IV, pp. 61 – 83. 

[19] In J.-M. Perrin, Mon dialogue avec Simone Weil (Paris: Nouvelle Cité, 1984), p. 65 (M. Dianetti, trans).

[20] In J.-M. Perrin, Mon dialogue avec Simone Weil (Paris: Nouvelle Cité, 1984, p. 75 (M. Dianetti, trans).

[21] Iris Murdoch, Esistenzialisti e mistici. Scritti di filosofia e letteratura, trans. by Egle Costantino, Monica Fioroni, Fabrizio Elefante, Peter Conradi (ed.), (Milan: il Saggiatore, 2006). Peter Conradi, ed., Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Penguin Books, 1997).

[22] Maria Antonaccio e William Schweiker, ed.,  Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[23] Maria Antonaccio e William Schweiker, p. XI.

[24] Letter to Gabriele Griffin, 1981. Gabriele Griffin, The Influence of the Writings of Simone Weil on the Fiction of Iris Murdoch (San Francisco: Mellen Research UP, 1993), p. 58.

[25] Iris Murdoch, ‘Against Dryness’ in Existentialists and Mystics [1997] (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), p. 293.

[26] Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Chatto & Windus, 1992), p. 109.

[27] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts, in Existentialists and Mystics (1997), (New York: Penguin Books, 1999) p. 385. John Bayley, Iris and the Friends. A Year of Memories (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1999). 

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