Some saints or heroes are known to us like family, with everyday foibles and failed humanity. St. Peter, the cowardly lion of the Twelve, so blustering yet in the end so true as Cephas, the Rock, is one of these.
Other saints or heroes are indeed the Other, the perpetual unknown, calling to us from a mysterious, holy, and separate place. Simone Weil, 1909-1943, for decades and until recently appeared to many of her readers as one of these Others. Weil continues to inspire, to enrage, and to challenge.
A thinker of amazing clarity, an activist of rare integrity, and among the purest of hearts who nevertheless infuriates to this day, the twentieth-century philosopher, activist, and mystic Simone Weil grows in reputation as hundreds of books and articles multiply considering her legacy.
Now independent film artist Julia Haslett has written, produced, and directed one of the first English-language films on Weil, the documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil, premiered in 2010 and released in 2011 by Line Street Productions.
Julia Haslett has just introduced Simone Weil to a new generation, a generation, like Haslett, who want “not to be an accomplice, not to lie, not to remain blind.”
Haslett’s passionate pursuit of Simone Weil parallels that of many other single-minded searchers for truth, authenticity, and justice to whom Simone Weil speaks so directly.
Weil, a brilliant, first-time teacher in a French town in 1931, found herself drawn to be the champion of the homeless and unemployed who labored at a public works project breaking stones close to her school. Weil anticipated, and in a way invented decades early, the lifestyle of the committed young activist-thinker of recent years, who might work as an educator for a time, or as an organizer, or as a writer. Weil attempted all of these simultaneously.
But Weil was more than this. She is now recognized, after the work of Peter Winch and others, as one of the most significant philosophers of the Twentieth Century, called by Albert Camus “the only great spirit of our time.”
While many on the Left are catalyzed by Weil, so are many on the Right as well. Raymond Aron, whose wife attended school with Weil, said of her–
“The message of Simone Weil is not a left-wing message, it is a non-conformist message, reminding us of truths which we were no longer accustomed to hear.”
Aron, Raymond. 2001. The opium of the intellectuals. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, pg. 50.
Simone Weil wrote with power. Her words can cast her audience into autobiographic reverie, and transform mere readers into, a least for a while, her devotees. These can recount, like the narratives of “What I was doing when Kennedy was shot,” or “Where I was when the 9-11 attacks took place,” their own circumstances when they first read Simone Weil and began to search libraries and archives for more and more obscure portions of her legacy and life.
Few match Simone Weil’s writing for brilliance, for clarity, and for pearl after pearl of insight. Even when she is terribly wrong–and she could be impetuously and stubbornly so–Simone Weil still somehow inspires. Scholars have, decades after her death, assembled multiplying volumes of Weil’s finely spun gold laced with wool that will animate and perplex poets, philosophers, and searchers for centuries. Academics already speak and write about “Weil Studies,” while bards, playwrights, and composers have generated art in her name.
Julia Haslett’s cinematic quest for Simone Weil is among the more visually compact treatments of Weil in any medium. Haslett, following Weil’s inspiration, does not separate ideas from people and situations, but directs her attention–a commitment so important to Weil–to the personal and concrete living predicament.
Haslett’s “Encounter” begins by introducing herself and her mission of universal attention to human suffering, by proposing as the first spoken words of her film, “What response does seeing human suffering demand of us?”
In order to answer that question, Haslett sought out Simone Weil, first by seeking memories of her, starting with the New York City apartment building in which Weil and her parents stayed in 1942. Haslett tracked down photos of Weil and of her life, film footage of contemporary events, and visited many locations associated with Weil.
Haslett also located those who had some kind of contact with Weil. She interviewed Jeanne Duchamp, a surviving student of the young teacher Weil from the early 1930s; Florence de Lussy, an editor of Weil’s complete works; Weil’s niece Sylvie Weil; Weil’s cousin Raymonde Weil (Nathan); Madame Thibaud, a witness of the small group of friends who hosted Weil in southern France in the early 1940s; and Fr. Jobert of Solesmes Abbey, where Weil had one of her mystical episodes. Along with de Lussy, peace activist and educator Anna Brown of the Social Justice program at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, and also noted literary-cultural theorist-critic Sylvere Lotringer provide their comments and reflections.
Haslett’s Weil is Weil as the inviolate lonely truth-seeker activist, whose integrity separated her, in the end, both from established politics and conventional religion. While Haslett stated that Weil distrusted organizations of any kind, it is also true that Weil joined a teacher’s union and was very active in union matters during her first teaching assignment at Le Puy-en-Velay.
Haslett follows the accepted phases of Weil’s development (childhood through university education, 1909-1931, teaching and labor-political activism, 1931-1937, and religious exploration, migraines, and final writing frenzy, 1935-1943).
Haslett directs us to Weil’s student Jeanne Duchamp, who as a high-school student learned from Weil, when faced with a choice among several options, “Always do what will cost you the most.”
Haslett tells us that at six years old Weil gave up sugar in solidarity with French soldiers at the WWI front, at ten sneaked away from home to attend a labor union demonstration, and at twenty-five quit her teaching job to work at a factory.
Weil, as she has done with many others, also appears to have cast Haslett into her own self-examining narration. Haslett began her quest when after her own father’s death, and her subsequent call to witness to human suffering, she read Weil’s words, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Throughout Julia Haslett’s film we learn not only of Weil but of Haslett’s commitment to attending to human suffering, and of Haslett’s own attention for her brother Timothy and his tragic struggle with depression. Haslett takes upon herself a particular burden of attentiveness: “If I don’t pay attention, someone might die.”
Unlike many biographies of Weil, Haslett’s film does not dwell on Weil’s relationship with her own older brother Andre, one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest mathematicians, nor significantly with Weil’s strenuous rejection of much of her own Jewish heritage.
Weil had a tendency, as de Lussy noted, to “rush to the goal she had set for herself,” to perpetually forge ahead. I call it, “diving in.” Weil once convinced Leon Trotsky, his wife, and his bodyguards to stay as guests in the Weil’s Paris apartment, and then proceeded to argue with Trotsky. (Haslett does not mention that Madame Sedov (Mrs. Trotsky) reportedly heard the ruckus from another room and said of Weil, “This child is holding her own with Trotsky!”)
Florence de Lussy spoke of Weil’s “union between the most demanding intellect and the heart.” According to de Lussy, readers of Weil “do not come away unscathed.”
Haslett prominently displays Weil’s dictum, “Truth is too dangerous to touch, it is an explosive.” (Catholic Workers will recall here Peter Maurin’s “Easy Essay” about the dynamite of the Church.)
Haslett imaged Weil’s pilgrimage from child and student (1909-1931); to teacher (1931); to visitor to Germany during Hitler’s rise (1932); to factory worker and labor activist (1934); to mystical experiences (1935-8); to Republican soldier in Spain (1936) and visitor to Assisi (1937); to renunciation of pacifism after Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia (1939); to flight from conquered Paris to southern France (1940); to work on the grape harvest and daily recitation of the Greek Lord’s Prayer with absolute attention (1941); to retreat to New York City with parents (1942); to passage to England to work on behalf of Free French government in exile (1942); and to death in Kent, UK (1943).
At several of these milestones, Haslett featured a Weil aphorism, such as, “It is not religion, but revolution, that is the opium of the people.”
While the heretofore pacifist Weil volunteered and briefly carried a rifle with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, she balked at the near execution of a priest and the summary execution of others by the anarchists. Shortly thereafter, the ever-clumsy, near-sighted Weil stepped into a scalding pot, and had to be removed from the front. The badly injured Weil then found her way to Assisi, where she experienced a transcendent, Godly presence.
Haslett highlights Weil’s reflection on how factory work makes things of workers, and bridges to Weil’s quote, “Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves. Slaves cannot help belonging to it. And I, among others.”
Frustrated at a point in her search for Weil, Haslett hired bilingual actress Soraya Broukhim to live and research the part of Simone Weil, and to speak as Weil to Haslett.
(Warning: film spoilers. Stop reading here if you prefer to see the film first.)
One scene toward the end of the film depicts Haslett and Broukhim as the Weil avatar sitting on the floor and moving the Weil pictures in an alternating montage, in a way evocative of Weil’s own characteristic kneeling in concentration over a book or set of notes.
Among other important themes of Weil are suffering and affliction. Weil’s search for knowledge was participatory, through action. She therefore sought out experiences of suffering and affliction.
Lotringer noted that Weil “Never wanted to talk about, but to be part of what she was talking about. And she could only do it if she participated in it.”
Weil wanted to join the first wave in Czechoslovakia to fight the Nazis, and later, in the early 1940s concocted a scheme in which an elite group of battlefield nurses would also parachute into France to assist the resistance, a scheme she would share with anyone who would listen until her death in 1943. Similarly, she wanted to serve in the first wave of these combat nurses. Again, Lotringer: “She didn’t want to survive. She wanted to understand.”
Haslett’s film tries to balance the narrative between Weil the philosopher-activist and Weil the religious mystic. “Not a religious person” herself, Haslett, while feeling “betrayed by Weil’s turn toward God,” tries to understand how Weil could turn away from “political struggle” to a religious search.
Haslett brings us to the very spot behind the pillar at Solesmes Abbey where Weil perched contemplating Christian mysteries. Some clergy have this same nickname for “behind-the-pillar Catholics,” those whose worship is private and contemplative, and who, like Weil, literally seek out the spots behind the pillars.
Haslett’s narrative returned to Le Puy-en-Velay, where the young Weil first taught in 1931. This town has its own statue of a Red Virgin. (Was this posting of Weil in Le Puy, a town towered over by a reddish statue of the Virgin and Child, a joke on the part of Weil’s critics in the education establishment, or of God himself, since Weil was herself nicknamed the “Red Virgin” since her student days?)
Anna Brown and Haslett appear to agree that Weil had no where else to go but religion. Brown stated Weil turned to religion when “reason had been exhausted.”
In tears, Haslett saw at this later point in Weil’s life a philosophical dead end, and here Camus’ paradigmatic choice, after Hamlet, between life and suicide.
But something else beyond this choice appears to lead Haslett’s final narrative forward. Haslett notes that in one of her final writings, Weil stated:
“You think I have something to give. I too have a growing certainty that there is within me a deposit of pure gold that must be handed on. Only I become more and more convinced that there is no one to receive it.”
(The above passage forms the fundamental theme of Prof. E. Jane Doering’s very important recent book: Doering, E. Jane. 2010. Simone Weil and the specter of self-perpetuating force. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. Doering contends that in her final writings Weil had accomplished a paradigmatic integration of her thinking about the source of force, and thus provided a clue to the reduction of human conflict. It is interesting also to note that Weil, marginalized among the Free French government in exile, did her most significant work while working alone toward her death in seeming near despair, in parallel fashion to her brother Andre (1906-1998), who made some of his most important mathematical discoveries while imprisoned in 1940 by the French government for choosing not to serve in the military.)
In these final segments, Haslett brings forward yet more Weil quotes on attention:
“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to ask him, ‘What are you going through?'”
“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. It is almost a miracle. It is a miracle.”
Haslett then recalls Weil’s Platonic notion that every separation or wall is also a potential link.
Haslett has successfully, if not rather bravely, blended two narratives, Weil’s message and life with significant events in Haslett’s own life. While not every critic so far likes this approach, I think it is one worthy of Weil herself.
Haslett has therefore crafted a moving epiphany of Simone Weil for a new generation.
Composer Daniel Thomas Davis deserves specific mention for some of his fine compositions that grace this documentary, as well as some well-chosen compositions by others, including Oliver Messiaen and Hildegarde of Bingen.
Since research is still evolving on Weil controversies such as her probable baptism and her strident views on Judaism, the Weil encountered in Haslett’s film is the heretofore accepted Weil as the perpetual outsider, who yet individually transcended human division. There is much more to Weil than this, but several films could not adequately address her complexity and gifts to humanity.
Is there very much more to Simone Weil than time permitted Haslett to reveal?
The answer to this question is emphatically yes, because the world is still catching up with Simone Weil. Witness how, even in her style of dress, minus the hat and with more modest shoes, Weil presaged the Annie Hall style by decades.
Sylvie Weil’s Contribution
The year 2010 saw not only the premier of “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” but the publication of several books which cast further light on her. I’ve already mentioned Prof. Doering’s above.
Perhaps the most significant of these books was the English-language release of Sylvie Weil’s At Home with Andre and Simone Weil by Nortwestern University Press (Weil, Sylvie, and Benjamin Ivry. 2010. At home with André and Simone Weil. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, ISBN 9780810127043 cloth, 0810127040 paper).
Sylvie Weil’s book goes a long way to revise our view of Simone Weil away from the Other I referred to at the beginning of my essay above, toward that of a very loved, gifted, and eccentric family member.
Sylvie Weil, whose graceful, self-effacing intelligence and beauty shone forth during Haslett’s interview with her, writes with irony, wit, thoughtfulness, and regret:
My insufferable aunt, my saintly aunt, that amazing one-woman outfit perpetually grinding out publicity about poverty, misery, and misfortune!
Silvie Weil, At Home with Andre and Simone Weil, 2010, Northwestern University Press, p. 154.
Sylvie, who is as we Americans put it a “dead ringer” for Simone, spent moments of her youth freezing Simone’s devotees in their tracks as if they had seen a ghost. But the young Sylvie Weil, torn between the moral paradigm of Aunt Simone, and, well, the other paradigm of Brigitte Bardot, took a very different path from that of her aunt, had her own bout with pneumonia and at a similar age to her aunt nearly died, but instead found not only love, but in the end the Jewish faith.
Sylvie Weil merited her own national recognition in France both as a student and as a writer-playwright. Sylvie provides an essential account of Simone, a lament of sorts, but also, most importantly, the healing of a memory.
Like cousin Raymonde in Haslett’s film, Sylvie repeats the family tradition that Simone’s mother went to heroic levels of deception to convince Simone that filet mignon was dog food, and that Madame “Selma” Weil had waited in line for hours with working women to get Simone the food which only they ate.
In many ways, Simone needed her parents–the effervescent Selma and her quiet physician father Bernard–to survive, just as she apparently somehow yearned to separate from them in order to die. From Sylvie we learn that Simone’s cult was established by Simone’s parents, who spent the rest of their days transcribing her notebooks, conveying them to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and making her, and their own Paris home a public shrine, consecrated by Camus’ visit prior to his Nobel acceptance speech. This cult split the family apart, with Sylvie’s father Andre substantially separating from his parents amid disputes and lawsuits over Simone’s literary legacy. Sylvie, who grew during these sad times of family separation, comes to terms directly with these difficulties, and in the end transcends them.
Sylvie Weil also confronts head-on the “Jewish question” as it pertains to Simone Weil, and reveals, like other critics, Simone as the disconnected heir of the Jewish tradition of charity, righteousness, and justice, tzedakah. Sylvie was livid with Simone for not writing directly of the Shoah when she was almost certainly in the know about it. It is Sylvie Weil, separated by two generations from the family rift with Simone Weil’s observant Jewish paternal grandmother, who reconnects herself, and thus in a way Simone and her admirers, with the gifts of Judaism.
With Sylvie Weil’s account, and with the credible story of Simone Weil’s baptism securely on video-tape (see my future post), Simone Weil as the perpetual Other has thankfully been brought back to earth.
Yet ironically, placing Simone Weil back onto the earth brings about the possibility that, with several more turns of the world, the world and even the Church may indeed formally recognize her, but much more soberly and realistically, for her heroic virtue.
Sylvie Weil is living proof of family love’s ability to heal memories over generations. As she aged past the death-age of Simone and joins the age of her own parents and grandparents, and as she researched the generations of her own heritage, Sylvie has, through the process of psychological re-parenting–the process of reviewing one’s own development as one plays out the role of parent–made a major contribution to the human family with her book.
Simone Weil studies will never be the same thanks to Sylvie, and that is a very good thing. After Sylvie’s contribution, it may not be necessary for so many young gifted geniuses like Simone to immolate themselves to seek the truth and to witness to it. The world makes martyrs of enough of these young gifted ones beyond their own doing.
Other Sanity and Social Justice blog posts in preparation on Simone Weil:
Simone Weil and Judaism
Simone Weil’s Probable Baptism
Simone Weil and Lanza del Vasto
Simone Weil and the Question of Asperger’s Syndrome
Reflections on Simone Weil’s Eating Disorder
Trending Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir
Simone Weil, Attention, and the Ethics of the Nursing Profession
Simone Weil, Secrecy, and her Rejection of Sexuality
Answers to Some of Simone Weil’s Questions in “Letter to a Priest”
Links to reading with and about Simone Weil
And perhaps more. . . when I can get to them!
Please see my earlier post on Simone Weil.
© Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved
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