Magazine article New Criterion

Simone Weil: A Saint for Our Time?

Magazine article New Criterion

Simone Weil: A Saint for Our Time?

Article excerpt

August 23, 2002, will be the fifty-ninth anniversary of the death of Simone Weil, a French Jew revered by many Christians as an uncanonized saint. Exegetes of diverse faiths (and none) have written at length about her mystical meditations. Andre Gide declared her "the most spiritual writer of this [twentieth] century." Albert Camus called her "the only great spirit of our time."

While she lived she published very little: a few articles on political and social questions mostly in trade union papers; a few essays on literary themes, including one on The Iliad in the Marseilles journal Cahiers du Sud in the winter of 1940--41. The bulk of her work, the religious writing, was left in the form of manuscripts, notes on a theme--often in the form of apercu rather than argument--and letters. The theologian Gustave Thibon collected and published some of these after the Second World War, thus bringing her to the notice of intellectuals throughout the European world and launching her international reputation. Numerous collections are now available, in many languages, and volumes on her life and work proliferate. First they trickled and then they poured from the university presses of Europe and America. The Reader's Catalog from The New York Review of Books currently lists eighty-nine titles under "Simone Weil." Amazon.com has forty-three books for sale, by her or about her, published since 1987, of which about one-third have appeared in the last year or are about to appear, and these are in the English language only. Dozens of references to her are to be found in many a language any week of the year in publications dealing with religion, philosophy, literature, politics, sociology, twentieth-century history, classical Greece.

According to Francine du Plessix Gray in a recent biography of Weil, (1) Pope Paul VI claimed her as one of the three -- with Pascal and Bernanos -- most important influences on his intellectual development. It may be that the only reason she is not and is never likely to be Saint Simone is that she was never baptized. She refused baptism a number of times, the last as she lay dying. She regarded herself, however, as a true Christian, too true, by her own understanding, to become a member of the Catholic Church (the only existing church to which she felt drawn). She felt she could be "faithful to Christ" without being a member of the Church; perhaps even more so because she was outside it. "A few sheep should remain outside the fold to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different."

Simone Adolphine Weft was born in Paris on February 3, 1909, the second child and only daughter of Bernard and Selma Weil. Her father was a well-to-do physician. He and his wife belonged to that large international class of cultivated, bourgeois Jews who were left-wing in their politics and considered themselves heirs of the Enlightenment rather than of Mosaic Law, or survivors of the Inquisition and the ghetto. Marx and Freud were their prophets. If they were not observant of their ancestral faith in their daily lives, they were still generally inclined to acknowledge its traditions and to turn up dutifully once a year to their parents' or grandparents' Passover dinners.

Perhaps the only thing typically (though of course not exclusively) Jewish about the upbringing of the Weil children was its intellectual climate. What such parents expected of a son and -- perhaps to a lesser extent -- of a daughter, was that he, and she if at all possible, be a genius. It seemed they would not be disappointed in the case of the boy. Early on, Andre showed himself to be a talented mathematician. His sister had no such distinction. She saw this as a fault and a failing, and was deeply envious of Andre. His gifts made her feel so inferior that at the age of fourteen (she was to confess in later years) she fell into despair. Hope revived in her, however, when the thought came to her that there was another way to qualify for entry into the paradise of genius. …

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