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.
Throughout that year Weil suffered from headaches, didn't eat and recoiled from scoldings, learning first-hand the existential state of malheur — bad happiness, or affliction — a condition she would later describe in her notebooks as "anonymous ... it deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things. [The afflicted] have no words to express what is happening to them." Two years later, volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Weil observed the narcotic effects of power and violence. Exhausted and disillusioned, she traveled through Italy in search of beauty. Alone in a small chapel, she found herself overwhelmed by "something stronger than I was [that] compelled me for the first time to go down on my knees." Her subsequent work was informed by a yearning towards God, i.e, a supernatural, absolute Good that can be approached only through selfless attention, a detachment borne of humiliation; a state described by Georges Bataille as "unknowing" and by Proust as "knowledge through pain." "Affliction," she wrote in The Need for Roots, "confers immense prestige so long as it is accompanied by strength."
"I do not separate my thou...