One of her “big ideas” was that the sickness of the modern world is caused by “uprootedness.” We are, Simone Weil believed, lost. The only antidote is a social order grounded in physical labor. Only manual work can save us.
Weil herself was preternaturally a worker by brain, not by hand. Small, myopic, physically awkward and weak, it is difficult to think of anyone less suited to toil in a factory, workshop or field. Weil was a French intellectual of the purest sort. Considered a prodigy from childhood alongside her brother Andre, who went on to become one of the twentieth century’s greatest mathematicians, she had mastered classical Greek by age twelve, was steeped in advanced mathematical physics by fifteen and at twenty came top in the entrance exam to the super-elite École Normale Supérieure. That was the same year, 1928, that Simone de Beauvoir had finished second.
Part philosopher, part activist, part mystic, Weil is almost impossible to classify. A youthful Marxist who abandoned the faith in favor of liberal pluralism. A lover of all things ancient Greek who equated the Roman Empire with Nazi Germany and Hitler with Caesa, she was a mass of contradictions. Yet her reputation has grown over time as one of the most original and uncomfortable thinkers of the twentieth century. T.S. Eliot, a great admirer, considered her “a woman of genius, a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.” “A genius,” added one of her many anthologists, “of immense revolutionary range.”
Born into a comfortable, secular Jewish home, she repudiated this already threadbare link to her ancestral roots, carrying on in later life—following a vision at the age of twenty-eight in the chapel of St Francis in Assisi—a mystical love affair with Jesus.
via Lapham’s Quarterly.
...the spiritual Simone was becoming increasingly mystical and Christian —she drew close to the Catholic Church in her later years, but resisted the final baptismal step. This led her to crave release from academia and the abstract life of the mind and lose herself in obedience. Like early medieval mystics, Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint John of the Cross, she prayed that her individuality be obliterated by the necessities of toil, that her intelligence might be extinguished through punishing physical fatigue. At times she turned for solace and inspiration to the Bhagavad-Gita and other sacred Hindu texts. These notions—anathema to left-wing French intellectuals then and now—became her vocation. Like Leo Tolstoy, she saw a connection between physical fatigue and spirituality, and hoped, however foolishly, to have a religious experience on the factory floor. “Physical work” she wrote in her best known book Gravity and Grace, “makes us experience in the most exhausting manner, the phenomenon of finality.” Workers, she wrote, “need poetry more than bread, and religion alone can be the source of it.”
Perhaps the purest expression of Weil’s mystical notion of the sanctity of physical labor comes at the end of her essay “La Condition Ouvrière,” published, as were most of her writings, long after her death. “If man’s vocation is to achieve pure joy through suffering, manual workers are better placed than all others to accomplish it in the truest way.”
Weil died at thirty-four by self-induced starvation in wartime London, the coroner recording a verdict of suicide “while the balance of her mind was disturbed.”