LOOKING FOR SIMONE : Saint of Estrangement

Article excerpt

It took twenty-seven years, much longer than I'd imagined when I made this promise to myself, but last October, during my first trip to England, I visited Simone Weil's grave. This is not, I realize, on the standard itinerary for one's first Grand Tour, and it wasn't easy to make the 100-minute train trip from Waterloo Station to Bybrook Cemetery in the suburban town of Ashbrook-on-Kent when London and all its attractions beckoned. My Weil obsession began in a sophomore religion class at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn. A visiting Jesuit held up a picture of a young French woman wearing thick glasses and an unexpectedly girlish smile who'd starved herself to death during World War II by refusing to eat more than what was available to those in Nazi-occupied France. My fascination was quickly fed by a sampling of her work, the enthusiasm of a number of my teachers, some essays about her (the first being Susan Sontag's in Against Interpretation), and the then-recent publication of what remains the best biography, Simone Weil: A Life by her school friend Simone Petrement.

"What is Simone Weil doing buried in England, anyway?" a friend had asked me. Like many of us, she didn't know a lot about this easily misunderstood person; for starters, she wasn't sure how to pronounce Weil's name. It's not "While," or "Wheel"; say "Weigh," then soften the "W" to a "V" ("Veigh") and you have it right. Knowing the proper pronunciation, however, will not help you find her grave: the people of Ashbrook tend to get both names wrong. "Oh! You want See-MOAN-ee While! Why didn't you say so?" The locals didn't know much about her, but were aware she was important, somehow. "She cared a lot for the poor, didn't she?" one asked, and I could have directed her to Ashbrook's town hall, where the hat Weil wore while harvesting grapes near the end of her life is on display. A remnant of one of the several occasions when Weil put aside her protected upper-middle-class intellectual status (discovering in the process how soul-destroying incessant manual labor can be), this small straw sunhat is unremarkable-looking yet oddly touching. What a small head she had, I thought, staring through glass; and how perfectly this hat witnessed its one-time wearer's frailty.

To answer my friend's question fully takes some doing. Weil arrived in England in 1942 from New York, where she and her parents had lived after fleeing occupied France. She hoped the Free French would allow her to return to her homeland as a frontline nurse. Their lack of enthusiasm for her plan led to frustration and disillusionment and, finally, illness and death, on August 24, 1943, at the Ashbrook sanitarium, not far from where she is buried.

Getting off the train at Ashbrook that warm October morning, and finding my way to the cemetery, I realized how many contradictions Weil's life seemed to embody. She was born in Paris in 1909, the younger child of highly intelligent parents, who demanded (and got) brilliant children. Yet Weil thought so poorly of her achievements she once identified herself with the barren fig tree Jesus cursed because it bore no fruit. She studied and wrote constantly--on philosophy, literature, history, social and labor issues--but she cared little for singling herself out, and published very few of her writings. (Today, much of Weil's work is not available in English. Someone should commission a volume similar to the thirteen-hundred-page Weil collection published in France by Gallimard, and return Petrement's biography to print.) Weil stressed self-awareness in her writing and teaching, but her conflicting personal and intellectual responses to Jews and Judaism will continue to leave readers confused, uncomfortable, even enraged. Weil's maddening blindness to the crucial contributions of Judaism to Christianity (she insisted Greek influences were more important than Hebrew) as well as her insensitivity to the suffering of the people she resented being identified with are a major stumbling block to some Weil admirers. …