by ALEX CARNEVALE
Simone Weil was a self-loathing Jew; these creatures were somewhat rarer in her time. Fleeing Hitler with elderly parents in tow, the Marechal Lyautey set down at a camp on the outskirts of Casablanca. Ms. Weil socialized little with her fellow passengers: she had to finish her writings on Pythagoras. For a certain type of Jew, anything outside of her own experience is a solace.
Her destination was New York, where she planned to safely deposit her aging progenitors. She had been to Germany and witnessed the nascent fascism gripping it. She knew far better than most what the result might be. The other refugees regarded her with understated curiosity, a wonder she ignored.
She had been born into a secular home like so many of us. A bout of appendicitis when she was three had rendered her susceptible to a litany of diseases and infections. For this reason and others, she held herself apart. The group stayed in the camp at Ain-Seba for seven days before boarding the Serpa Pinto. After a stop in Bermuda, they would arrive in New York.
She had to interact with passengers, given that amount of time on board. One young Jew, Jacques Kaplan, remembered speaking to her:
She was very pleasant, very protective, very sarcastic. What especially struck me was the astonishing contrast between her and normal people — or rather, ordinary people. She couldn't bear the cabin-class passengers, because they openly enjoyed comforts that those in steerage were deprived of. She took an interest in me because being a 'scout', I volunteered to take charge of the refugee children in the hold.
She did not simply distrust wealthy people, she loathed their vices with an intensity that astonished even her comrades. Simone de Beauvoir said of her that "her intelligence, her asceticism, her total commitment and her sheer courage, all these filled me with admiration, though I knew that had she met me, she would have been far from reciprocating my attitude. I could not absorb her into my universe, and this seemed to constitute a vague threat to me." This was so.
It was July when she arrived in America for the first time in her life. (The voyage from Morocco had taken a month.) Once she had placed her parents in a Upper West Side apartment near Columbia, she planned to abscond to England, where she could support the war effort. She worried that trapped in New York, she would "die of chagrin."
Her next transatlantic voyage would not come so easily. Reduced to a sleeping bag on her elderly parents' floor, she despaired. She considering moving south to work with improverished blacks, but this was only an idle threat of sorts. Her oversized glasses were always foregrounded by a cigarette. She never ate enough, and her dress and general appearance was the least of her concerns. Completely out of familiar waters, she could not even really write.
She attended Mass with her only friend in New York, a stranded French woman whose name was also Simone. Her favorite church was a Baptist parish in Harlem, where she was the only white person in the vicinity. She missed France terribly, and perhaps envied the fervent nature of the worship she witnessed. Enlightenment had come to her once, and some trivial part of it could be reclaimed in such places.
She wandered Harlem incessantly, watching the children and families there. A friend wrote from England with encouraging news, giving Weil hope she would be near the continent again soon. She explained her desire to be in the thick of fighting to her friend Maurice Schumann in this way: "The suffering all over the world obsesses and overwhelms me to the point of annihilating my faculties and the only way I can revive them and release myself from the obsession is by getting for myself a large share of danger and hardship." There was no word in her native language for this, in German it is called schaudenfreude.
She resumed writing the notebooks she had begun in Marseilles, half-Pascal and half-Saint John. Throughout they were infected with an altogether startling degree of self-immolation. By November she had secured a berth on a Swedish boat. She did not really apologize to her parents on her departure, only saying, "If I had several lives, I would devote one to you, but I have only one life and I owe it elsewhere." Despite this, I do not think she was ungrateful.
On the deck of the Vaaleran, passengers feared that clear skies could signal torpedoes. In a far better mood, Weil related myths and folk stories to her unlikely compatriots. She loved these little moralities because they tied up existence in a manner that could never really be approximated in life. They also reinforced her conviction in a philosophy of good and evil as a guiding principle. The Vaaleren docked in Liverpool and her friends filtered into the kingdom, while she was detained for three weeks as a result of her political past and present.
Once free, she wandered the streets as before, attending readings and performances wherever she found them. Having safely returned to Europe, she now desperately wanted to leave England and join the war in France. In the meantime, she lodged with a widowed mother of two, occupying an attic with a working stove. She wrote that the room was "very pretty with branches full of birds and, at night, of stars, just outside the window." Her harsh cough echoed through the house; when she was well enough she helped the boys with their schoolwork.
When Jacques Kaplan met up with her in London, Weil's health had already begun its steep decline. She struggled to even communicate with him, or anyone. Mass was the only thing she felt she required now, and she attended it at a Jesuit church. After collapsing in her room, Weil entered Middlesex Hospital in April of 1943. Digestive problems prevented her from eating very much, and her health worsened considerably. In her last days, she still expected to leave the place, to see her parents again.
She is buried where the Catholic section meets the Jewish section in Ashford New Cemetery. The priest charged with officiating her funeral missed his train and never arrived. She was just 34.
In her essay 'On Human Personality' Weil writes:
To put into the mouth of the afflicted words from the vocabulary of middle values, such as democracy, rights, personality, is to offer them something which can bring them no good and will inevitably do them much harm. These notions do not dwell in heaven; they hang in the middle air, and for this very reason they cannot root themselves in earth.
It is the light falling continually from heaven which alone gives a tree the energy to send powerful roots deep into the earth. The tree is really rooted in the sky.
There is something so condescending in that, but also a terrible corrective as well. I do not know what living in Simone's world would have done to me, and I shudder to think of it. Are we the tree or the roots?
The more I learned of Simone and her ideas, the closer and farther from her I became. I was forced to realize that all the things I dislike most about her, or in anyone, are things I find in myself down to the molecular level. Finally, though, her way of thinking is a dead end, because any philosophy that makes life so dreadful must be discarded. We cannot accept Simone Weil fully, as she is, and so are reduced to taking only a small part of the whole. This cannot help but stand as a betrayal of a woman who had faith in the power of absolutes. No one could have been Simone Weil and survived.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
"Of The Night" - Bastille (mp3)
"Of The Night (Icarus remix)" - Bastille (mp3)
From Simone Weil's Marseilles notebooks. Reprinted as the prologue to David McLellan's masterful biography of Simone, Utopian Pessimist: The Life And Thought of Simone Weil:
He entered my room and said: 'Poor creature, you who understand nothing, who know nothing. Come with me and I will teach you things which you do not suspect.' I followed him.
He took me into a church. It was new and ugly. He led me up to the altar and said, 'Kneel down.' I said 'I have not been baptized.' He said: 'Fall on your knees before this place, in love, as before the place where lies the truth.' I obeyed.
He brought me out and made me climb up to a garret. Through the open window one could see the whole city spread out, some wooden scaffoldings, and the river on which boats were being unloaded. The garret was empty, except for a table and two chairs. He bade me be seated.
We were alone. He spoke. From time to time someone would enter, mingle in the conversation, then leave again.
Winter had gone; spring had not yet come. The branches of the trees lay bare, without buds, in the cold air full of sunshine. The light of day would arise, shine forth in splendor, and fade away; then the moon and stars would enter through the window. And then once more the dawn would arrive.
At times he would fall silent, take some bread from a cupboard, and we would share it. This bread really had the taste of bread. I have never found that taste again.
He would pour out some wine for me, and some for himself — wine which tasted of the sun and of the soil upon which this city was built.
Other times we would stretch ourselves out on the floor of the garret, and sweet sleep would enfold me. Then I would wake and drink in the light of the sun.
He had promised to teach me, but he did not teach me anything. We talked about all kinds of things, in a desultory way, as do old friends.
One day he said to me: 'Now go.' I fell down before him, I clasped his knees, I implored him not to drive me away. But he threw me out on the stairs. I went down unconscious of anything, my heart as it were in shreds. I wandered along the streets. Then I realized that I had no idea where this house lay.
I have never tried to find it again. I understood that he had come for me by mistake. My place is not in that garret. It can be anywhere — in a prison cell, in one of those middle-class drawing rooms full of knick-knacks and red plush, in the waiting room of a station — anywhere, except in that garret.
Sometimes I cannot help trying, fearfully and remorsefully, to repeat to myself a part of what he said to me. How am I to know if I remember rightly? He is not there to tell me.
I know well that he does not love me. How could he love me? And yet deep down within me something, a particle of myself, cannot help thinking, with fear and trembling, that perhaps, in spite of it all, he loves me.