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Francine Du Plessix Gray, 'Simone Weil'

Penguin, 2001; 208pp; currently out of print

This was my first encounter with Simone Weil, the French philosopher, teacher and political activist, and I found her mesmerising – a huge intellect and a huge conscience. She dealt with the challenge that knowing and understanding the world creates an obligation to be involved in it, to affect it, by hurling herself into the stream of life to an extent verging on madness.

Although frail and clumsy, Weil sought out gruelling work in factories and farms; she was a union organiser; she went to fight with the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. Her drive to work for social justice and to live a life of poverty consistent with the lives of the mass of the world’s population arose from an almost supernatural compassion for others.

I suspect that there may be better books on Simone Weil. The author is too present in this book. We are bombarded with Weil’s anorexia. Certainly the body and mind entanglement was a difficult part of Weil’s life, but this is a very modern American take on it.

Likewise Plessix Gray shows a lack of understanding of why Weil disliked Judaism, in particular for its violent rhetoric. This was a very widespread stance at the time among the secular European intellectuals with a Jewish heritage.

There is a strand of censoriousness that is peculiar to find in a biography. Plessix Gray describes as “priggish” Weil’s stance that for France to be worthy of freedom it had to let go of its colonies. The author can’t help but be outraged by Weil’s “obstinate pacifist rationale”.

One has to try to pick out Weil’s political and tactical thoughts of 1938 from Gray’s judgement of them as “naive and utterly shocking”. Weil considered “that the French nation might save itself a great deal of suffering by opening its gates to the enemy. Whereas another world war would be a disaster for the entire world, she argued, a German domination of Europe, ‘bitter as the prospect may be’ would not be a worse prospect, in the long run, than France’s colonial domination”. These provocative arguments could well have been found in Peace News at the time and are an interesting insight into the political thoughts of pre-war anti-imperialists and of the strength of the international perspective that pacifists took.

Despite my internal tussles with the author I was gripped by this book and sped through the fascinating trajectory of childhood genius, French left-wing politics, radical pacifism to troubled spirituality and a yearning to be parachuted into France by the Resistance.

Topics: Radical Lives