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When Gravity Devalues Grace: Further Reflections on Thibon’s Weil Book 

Ronald KL Collins

Serious students of Simone Weil should veer clear of Gustave Thibon’s book Gravity and Grace. But why? What warrants such an admonition?

Quite apart from the respectful reservations I have regarding how Thibon did what he did with Weil’s words, there is a larger question of methodology – that is, how does one best approach the endeavor of reading Weil? Attentive to that question, there is the great advantage of studying Weil’s essays as a condition precedent to turning to her notebooks. Why? Because those essays embody Weil’s more disciplined effort to present her thoughts with clarity and structure. This aids comprehension and cogency. Thereafter, Weil’s notebooks, from which Gravity and Grace were extracted and modified, can add color and even enhance one’s understanding of Weil’s ideas. With that preliminary but important observation, let us now consider Gravity and Grace

Though the temptation to draw on Gustave Thibon’s impressionistic work is great, it is an enticement akin to a quick fix of a potent substance. Too often Thibon’s handiwork gives readers a false sense of Weil’s worth, her complexity, and the nature of her spirituality. In so many detrimental ways, Gustave Thibon (1903-2001) took the work out of understanding Weil. Its brevity and abstractness are as inviting as they are misleading insofar as they leave readers with a sense that to understand the rich measure of Weil’s thought one need only flea-skip through a snippet collection of her arranged words. 

I say this with the qualified concession that there may well be a certain inspirational value to Thibon’s work, something more incorporeal than rational. In proceeding thus, did Thibon encapsulate something of the inspirational essence of Weil’s life work? Then again, can that even be done if it means divorcing it from the disciplined thought so characteristic of her? 

In many significant ways, Weil was first and foremost an essayist – she did not write books let alone a book collection of aphorisms. Her notebooks, from which Thibon drew (albeit selectively and sometimes deceptively) were workbooks – a journal where this or that fresh and undeveloped idea might be stored for future exploration. Thus, a kernel of an idea was recorded there to be cultivated and refined in an essay. Quite often, after she wrestled with a diary entry she turned to the essay format to flesh out its wider and richer meaning. In the process the original idea matured; a seed gave rise to a flower. But it was that work – that tug and pull of the mind – that gave her essays their greatest worth, something that was lacking in the original abbreviated journal entry. By that measure, there is a certain hubris in believing that one can know Weil without working – as if nibbling on the unripe part is synonymous with knowing the ripened whole.  

Thibon’s book is not Weil’s book. Yes, they were friends (though very different in many ways).  And yes, she entrusted (albeit conditionally) her journals to Thibon. It is also true that it occurred to Weil that her ideas might one day give rise to a book by him.  (All of this and more is explored in some of my previous writings.) But that does not mean that the license he took in what he did would perforce have won Weil’s informed blessing.

Gustave Thibon transformed Weil and then presented his creation to the world as her book. It was as if this posthumous work had resurrected Simone Weil for the world to see for the first time. It was quite a feat, converting selections of her numerous journal entries into a handy and alluring collection of 39 short chapters (the chapter titled “Israel” was later dropped). Think of it, the essence of Weil’s écrits complets (from atheism to algebra and beyond) could be consumed in a mere 160 pages (English translation).    

Uninformed brevity is one of the hallmarks of modernity. Smartphones, texting, social media, politicians’ soundbites, and generative AI simplify life; they take the work out of “learning.” Information (mistaken for knowledge) is but a quick click away. Viewed from that conceptual perch and in some noteworthy ways, Thibon’s book is a modern work, one oddly in sync with trends ushered in by modern communication technologies. Another modern “advantage” of Gravity and Grace is that one can take a passage or two from it and then riff on it as if one actually understood Weil. For example, one can pick a passage or two or three from the “Decreation” chapter and run with it in different directions even though, as David Levy of the University of Edinburgh has pointed out, this word is not to be found in any of Weil’s well-known essays (more on that in a future post by Levy).

What all of this suggests is that it is quite difficult to get an informed sense of Weil’s philosophy if, like Thibon, one has only the notebooks. They are, after all, abbreviated thoughts and lack the benefit of the kind of elaboration found in Weil’s essays. If he lacked the benefit of access to the batch of essays Weil gave to Father Perrin when Thibon assembled Gravity and Grace, then the resulting product of his handiwork would be handicapped accordingly – not to mention the obstacles posed by not having read and reflected upon the report that became The Need for Roots. True, Thibon had many a conversation with Weil, which certainly helped inform his work. But whether that was enough to justify his approach is another matter.   

This raises an important and related Weilian question: how should one read her notebooks, how should one approach them with the requisite attention? Thibon’s answer was to compact them, restructure them, pick and choose from many varied passages, delete certain disquieting entries, and then stitch them together as if they were part of a single cloth. Voilà, a book “by Weil” emerged. (In a 1991 postscript to Gravity and Grace, Thibon described his role as simply “presenting Simone Weil’s first book to the public.” His handiwork was anything but that!)

Without wishing to contest the actual intentions of Thibon’s editorial objective, I respectfully submit that a more thoughtful approach would have been far preferable. Let me start with but a few preliminary words about how to approach the existing versions of the notebooks as offered in English, namely, the 1956 two-volume edition translated by Arthur Wills along with the First and Last Notebooks translated by Richard Rees.  

In their raw form, these notebooks present a challenge even to the seasoned Weil reader. For starts, it would be salutary to turn to such works after one has had some sound grounding in Weil’s essays. To that end, I would highly recommend a studied familiarity with the following primary works along with Simone Pétrement’s indispensable Simone Weil: A Life (1988): 

There are, to be sure, other important works (e.g., “The Iliad or Poem of Force” essay), but the above should suffice for openers. Admittedly, that is a heavy lift before turning to the notebooks to explore and appreciate the treasures that are offered therein. The immense work of this attentive task may explain why Thibon approached his undertaking the way he did – the Weilian mountain seemed simply too great for most to scale. (Might something of the same be said, for example, of Plato’s later dialogues such as the TheaetetusSophist, and Statesman?).

At the very least (and I cannot emphasize this admonition enough!), if one relies on a quote in Gravity and Grace, she or he should consult the late Martin Andic’s informative concordance identifying the place in the notebooks from which a quote was lifted (I’m in the process of revising and completing Martin’s work.)    

More will be said, notably by D.K. Levy, about the Notebooks in a future issue of Attention

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