Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Elective Antipathies

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Elective Antipathies

Article excerpt

Elective Antipathies Simone Weil BY PALLE YOURGRAU REAKTION BOOKS, 189 PAGES, $16.95, PAPER

Simone Weil continues to fascinate. Civilization could be saved, she contended, only by a Platonic Christianity stripped of its carnal, Jewish side, through identification with the suffering Christ rather than in the hope of resurrection. Not even Weil herself could subsist on the thin broth of pure spirit; in 1943, not yet thirty-five, she died of tuberculosis aggravated by self-starvation, an eerie presentiment of today's Europe wasting away from infertility and anomie. She rejected the Judaism of her antecedents and abhorred the God of the Bible, whom she thought cruel, but also refused the sacraments, mainly because she objected to Jewish elements in Catholicism.

The most recent entry in the huge literature on Weil comes from Palle Yourgrau, a professor of philosophy at Brandéis University. Yourgrau has a talent for raising uncomfortable issues, and his slim biography of Weil will outrage Christians as much as Jews, for he takes Weil's side against her detractors from both religions.

Yourgrau explains Weil's antipathy towards the Jewish God in an idiosyncratic but convincing way. Her critics charge that she betrayed her two peoples, Israel and France, in their hour of greatest need; indeed, Weil may be the only leading intellectual figure despised equally by French nationalists and Jewish intellectuals. But this double "betrayal" stemmed from a single motivation: Weil objected so adamantly to the national idolatry endemic in European (and particularly French) Christianity - the conceit that "holy France" was God's chosen people - that she blamed Israel and its God for inflicting the idea of election on the world in the first place.

If the election of one people meant that some other people had to suffer, she wanted none of it. And because election is always the election of a particular people in its flesh, Weil rejected the fleshly, Jewish elements in Christianity, in particular the Resurrection. Identification with the suffering Christ, she averred, should be enough.

Her biographer Francine du Piessix Gray claimed that Weil's "rantings against Judaism" stemmed from Jewish self-hatred. Yourgrau argues that Weil was not anti-Jewish any more than she was anti-Catholic or anti-French. Rather, she was a moral absolutist faced with an intractable problem: the irrepressible impulse of her beloved France (along with the rest of the European nations) to "elect" itself. As Yourgrau explains, "For Simone, France was not 'holy France,' any more than Germany was home to the 'Master Race.'"

Weil rejected any and all connections with this tendency toward national idolatry. On her deathbed - after she had made her way from America to England in order to join the Resistance - Weil declared, "I cannot have any direct or indirect or even any very indirect connection with the French Resistance." On the day Paris fell to the Nazis, Weil had said, "It's a great day for Indochina," that is, for the oppressed French colonies.

Working backward from her abhorrence of national idolatry, according to Yourgrau, Weil's theology seeks to excise the fleshly, Jewish side of Christianity and repudiate the supposedly cruel God of the Hebrew Bible. She is so thorough that she leaves us with nothing but pure spirit, allying herself with Plato, in whom she claimed to find "intimations of Christianity." It's all beautifully, madly logical. No simple Marcionite preaching a de-Judaized Christianity, Weil is far more consistent than Marcion and his successors: to root out all affirmations of the election of Israel implies expunging every vestige of the flesh from Christianity. She brings to mind Chesterton's comment that it is not the poet but the mathematician - and she had a keen mathematical mind - who goes mad.

Weil's extreme remedy to the problem of idolatry may have led her into heterodox territory, but it was based on a correct historical insight. …

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