Simone Weil‘s 1935 factory identification photo. “A modern factory reaches perhaps almost the limit of horror. Everybody in it is constantly harassed and kept on edge by the interference of extraneous wills while the soul is left in cold and desolate misery. What man needs is silence and warmth; what he is given is an icy pandemonium.”
Reaktion Books, 2011. 189 pp.
Luminous, penetrating and uncanonizable, the writings of 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil were neither originally conceived as books nor published as such during her lifetime. The dissemination of her work began with the posthumous publication of Gravity and Grace, a selection of aphorisms culled from the notebooks she’d kept in Marseilles before leaving for New York in 1942. In subsequent years, more than 20 volumes of her writings on politics, science, Greek classicism, history, geometry, philosophy, trade unionism, and theology have appeared. Weil famously died of cardiac arrest brought on by tuberculosis and starvation in London in 1943 when she was 34 years old. Gravity and Grace was published five years later.
Weil’s extraordinary life, like her writings, exemplified most of the dissonances of her
age. Born in Paris to an upper-middle class secular Jewish family, her precocious, driven
childhood was marked by an unusual sensitivity to the suffering of the poor, which led
her early towards Marxism. Attending the elite École Normale as one of its first three female students, she was a philosopher by vocation, but apart from her lycée professorships, she did nothing to advance her intellectual reputation. She was far too absorbed in developing her ideas — a project, she believed, that could only be pursued experientially. Traveling to Germany in the early 1930s, she warned French leftist colleagues of fascism’s deep and dangerous appeal. She organized the unemployed, taught Worker’s Education, debated ideology with Leon Trotsky and, at age 25, took a year’s leave from her lycée professorship to work in a factory. Doubtful of the French left’s ability to reach, much less represent, workers’ experience, she wanted to know for herself what it means to be dispossessed.