Simone Weil's Odyssey and Humanity's Inward Quest

SIMONE WEIL: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY by Gabriella Fiori, Translated by Joseph R. Berrigan,

Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 380 pp., $35

IT could just be that Simone Weil's time has come. When she died in 1943, she was only 34 years old, but well known as a political philosopher in Europe. She had been an activist in labor and radical movements; and she had fought with the anarchists in Spain. Wherever she went, she seemed to exhaust the potential of a given ideology or movement by living out the meaning of the ideas.

As Gabriella Fiori's superb new biography suggests, Weil turned away from political action toward contemplation as the ground of her existence. She turned away from materialism and atheism and embraced a very special form of faith.

Weil's story is pertinent in this time of the breaking of nations. As Eastern Europe bursts like an ungainly phoenix from the ashes of collectivism, who knows whether it will fly or not? Perhaps Europe as a whole is ready to follow Weil's path.

That path is really an odyssey. Fiori charts Weil's wandering course from the intellectually rich home life given her by her loving parents, nonreligious Jews who even followed her to the Spanish front and brought her home after she injured her foot. After Weil studied philosophy, she taught for a while before she discovered what she called, much later, her true vocation, which involved ``indifference to all ideas.'' She put her ideas, and her frail body, to the test of manual, unskilled labor. Now she began to see life from the ``workers''' point of view. In words that Gorbachev would echo, Fiori explains Weil's conviction that to be free, man should not escape work but discover a motivation for overproduction. Weil's ``aesthetics of work'' grows out of her direct experience in the workplace.

Weil traveled to Germany and witnessed the competition between the Nazis - the National Socialists - and the communists. She soon equated them in their disregard for the true needs of workers. Thus she became an outcast in radical movements.

As she rejected radical movements, Weil became interested in Christianity. She would never accept the violence of the Old Testament God, and she would never accept the use of force by the Holy Roman Empire. For Weil, there was a strict continuity from the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages, to Hitler: The wedding of the state to force. Totalitarianism, as students of contemporary Europe now understand, happens when truth is defined by force.

But a trip to Italy revealed to Weil a dimension of experience that pointed in another direction. Fiori writes, ``Never satisfied, she spends hours before the Last Supper of Leonardo and the Christ of Mantegna, the Michelangelo of the Medici chapels and the Concert of Giorgione. She is struck by the room of Botticelli in the Uffizi.'' The image is moving: this severely intellectual young woman who disguised herself in rags and who rejected the occasional love affair for the bonds of friendship - Simone Weil ``intoxicated'' with the joy of this art!

With Hitler's armies threatening to invade France, Weil experienced the turning point of her life. She goes to Solesme during Holy Week, 1938. She meets a Benedictine and two ``Englishmen'' (one was American) who together, but separately, help her discover an overwhelming dimension to existence, a dimension that does not erase her hard-won Machiavellian awareness of reality in politics, but one that opens her to a personal source of order and joy. As Fiori shows, Weil disovered that ``despite everything'' God might love her.

Weil's deep compassion for the workers, her willingness to reject heady ideas for the experience of suffering others go through, her altruism, is now completed by a higher form of suffering: the patience and compassion that springs from faith. Weil's writings on this experience of faith, collected after her death, are a valuable waymark in the European search for a nonideological mode of understanding one's role in the world.

Fiori explains Weil's breakthrough: ``By directing, even in an imperfect way, our power of attention to the proper reading and imploring light from on high for this reading, we progressively climb a little higher, and this happens with every action we achieve with this attention.'' Then she quotes Weil: ``Nothing good is ever lost.''

Fiori's intellectual biography is a splendid achievement. Through narrative, paraphrase, and quote, she reveals the continuity and development of Weil's experience. She rejects the approach taken by others who fail to see the connection between Weil's womanhood and her radical thinking about the key issues of our time.

ESCAPING the Nazis, the Weil family went to New York. But Simone wanted to get back to France to be with the people. She got as far as Kent, England. Her proposal to form an elite order of nurses to serve on the front lines was rejected by de Gaulle. The Ministry of War agreed with her that the combination of physical and psychological care would have been a boon. Weil thought of it as a response to Hitler's racist ideology.

Never particularly strong, Weil's health failed when she rejected food that she thought should be sent to her compatriots in occupied France. When she died in her bed, she seemed at peace. Fiori's biography compels the observation that Weil must have thought she had exhausted the potential of political and social action in her time.

Fiori concludes that to grasp her message, we must see her whole, not as genius and woman, but as ``woman-genius.'' ``By reviving the inward quest of man in history, she has discovered the key to a wisdom which can be applied to the daily life of every man on both the individual and the social plane.''

This is an important book. It answers the question of the hour: What next? The crisis in Europe is far more than an occasion for self-congratulation by democratic regimes. History is making demands that point in the direction taken by Simone Weil. Having recapitulated so much of modern history in her short life, she looked beyond history and found peace. She could do no more.

Now that there's a receptivity to going beyond totalitarianism, Weil will be heard.

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