SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, on August 26, the coroner at Grosvenor Sanatorium, a sprawling Victorian pile located in the town of Ashford, about 60 miles southeast of London, ended his examination of a patient who had died two days earlier. The cause of death, he wrote, was “cardiac failure due to myocardial degeneration of the heart muscles due to starvation and pulmonary tuberculosis.” But the clinical assessment then gives way to what appears to be an ethical judgment: “The deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.”
The deceased was buried in Bybrook Cemetery in Ashford; a flat marker laid across her grave was engraved with her name and relevant dates:
3 février 1909
24 août 1943
Weil’s grave, its location highlighted on the cemetery map, has since become one of Ashford’s most visited tourist sites. By way of acknowledging the constant stream of visitors, a second marble slab explains that Weil had “joined the Provisional French government in London” and that her “writings have established her as one of the foremost modern philosophers.”
But one can fit only so much on a grave marker. In January, Weil arrived in London in order to work for Charles de Gaulle’s Les Français libres. Yet as was so often the case in her life, she eventually refused to belong to any club that would accept her as a member. Four months after she joined the Gaullist movement, Weil announced her resignation. She gave as her reason the fact that her superiors had repeatedly refused her request to be sent on mission to occupied France.
Such a mission, Gaullist headquarters believed, would end in Weil’s capture and death. The odd thing is that Weil didn’t disagree. She tried to persuade Maurice Schumann, an old friend who had become one of de Gaulle’s advisors, that any assignment “not requiring technical expertise but involving a high degree of hardship and danger, would suit me perfectly.” Even more improbably, Weil declared that should she be arrested, her feeble health guaranteed she would die “without giving anything away.”
But there is an even odder aspect to all of this, one that reflects the gravestone’s claim that Weil is “one of the foremost modern philosophers.” During her short life, Weil published very little. A graduate of France’s elite institution of higher learning, the École normale supèrieure, Weil worked hard at avoiding the sort of work expected of her. Though she taught in several different lycées, Weil grasped, as she told one student, that teaching kept her away from “real life.” To the dismay of school administrators — one of whom dubbed her the “Red Virgin” — she demonstrated with striking workers, participated in labor union debates, taught adult education classes, and wrote for a variety of newspapers. Like George Orwell and Albert Camus, while Weil was very much on the political left, she distrusted revolutionaries no less than she did reactionaries. Certain that a Marxist regime, even more so than a monarchist regime, would lead to totalitarian rule, Weil threw her support to anarchist and syndicalist organizations.
Even these activities, though, were not real enough. For Weil, reality was rooted in the world of manual labor. Often, a morbid romanticism seems to drive her desire to experience this world. As she told one baffled fisherman who took her on as a deckhand even though she was mostly useless, her “misfortune” was that she had never been poor. Weil made the same confession to a farmer and his wife for whom she wished to work: “What I want is to live the life of the poor, to share their work, live their troubles, eat at their table.” The couple, stunned by this request from a well-to-do Parisian bourgeoise, reluctantly invited her into their lives. Less reluctantly, they disinvited her a month later. Chief among their reasons was that Weil never stopped peppering them with questions and did not eat when they sat down to a meal, explaining that the “children in Indochina are going hungry.”
But something else — something that shrinks or skeptics cannot explain away — was at work in Weil’s pursuit of work. “So far as one has only an idea, one has nothing that’s real,” she insisted. “The great human error is to reason in place of finding out.” The task of finding out meant stepping outside the laboratory or library, the cafe or classroom. Philosophy, she reminded herself in her journal, “is exclusively an affair of action and practice.” She might have added that it is also an affair of truth, but as she told her students, truth must “always be a truth about something.” Something lived, something experienced, something pounded into one’s bones. This truth, she sensed, eluded her fellow intellectuals, even though they pretended to speak for workers. How could they wax theoretical on the alienation of workers when “they themselves have never been cogs in the machinery of factory”?
Weil’s quest to match her words with the world led her not just to fishing trawlers and farms, but also, and most famously, to factories. In late 1934, Weil took a leave of absence from teaching and spent the next year working at three different factories in Paris. It was within the walls of these deafening and dreary buildings, yoked to a machine where she was condemned to repeat the same motions countless times, that Weil made one of her most disturbing discoveries: le malheur. Best translated as affliction, this inhuman state resulted less from physical suffering than from psychological degradation. Reduced to a machine-like existence by their relentless and repetitive physical labor, harried by time clocks and hounded by foremen, the workers were quite simply unable to think at all, much less think about resistance or rebellion. This apprenticeship in alienation forced upon Weil the realization that the factory makes it “almost impossible for me to overcome the strongest temptation that this life entails: that of not thinking anymore, which is the one and only way of not suffering from it.”
But Weil was cursed by the inability to stop thinking, even in the most dire of circumstances. How could it be otherwise? If she had stopped thinking, she would have stopped being Simone Weil. Chain-smoking cigarettes, adjusting her wire-rimmed glasses, and wearing the same dress she had the day before (and would wear again the next day), Weil repeated a core conviction to her students: “If one stops oneself from thinking of all this, one makes oneself an accomplice of what is happening. One has to do something quite different: take one’s place in this system of things and do something about it.” If philosophy didn’t lead to such a conclusion, it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
Come France’s defeat and occupation by the Nazis, the imperative to “do something about it” grew unbearable. In part, what Weil did was write. The last three years of her life were, at least from a literary perspective, the most productive. She wrote under a pseudonym while living in Marseille — a necessity, since the Vichy regime prohibited Jews from all white-collar professions — and continued to write when she reached New York. It was as a writer and thinker that Weil caught the attention of Les Français libres, who brought her to London in late 1942 to assist in making plans for the reestablishment of republican government and law after France’s liberation. During the few months that she spent there, Weil wrote several hundred pages, ranging from terse analyses to what is perhaps her magnum opus, L’Enracinement, or On the Need for Roots.
But for Weil, none of these works, despite their compelling and often unsettling insights, qualified as doing something about it. Writing was not enough. As Weil told Schumann, “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.” What better way, Weil thought, to get this share of danger and hardship than as a nurse? Not the usual sort of nurse, like those treating her in Ashford and to whom she was quite kind. (The doctors, on the other hand, lived in white-knuckled terror of visits to her room.)
Instead, Weil had in mind a different vocation for nurses, one she described in painstaking detail in a series of drafts. In the title to one she wrote in English — “A plan for a group of volunteer fire-line [sic] nurses” — the spelling mistake is all too telling. The nurses’ mission was less to save the lives of wounded soldiers than to offer up their own lives. Parachuted onto the front lines, the nurses would serve by applying dressings and tying tourniquets on the injured. More important, though, the women, whose white uniforms were tantamount to the wearing of bull’s-eyes, would serve themselves up as targets for German soldiers. As Weil explained matter-of-factly, “They would need to offer their lives as a sacrifice.”
General de Gaulle possibly read no further than this line when he famously blurted: “Mais elle est folle!” Perhaps Weil was a bit mad, but as the rest of the plan reveals, there was a method to her madness. She observes, rightly, that German military successes were not just a matter of strategy and material, but also spirit and men. This was particularly the case for the SS, who were prepared “not only for risking their lives but for death.” The trick was not to copy Nazism’s brutal idolatry, Weil noted, but instead to create its opposite. Embodying compassion and solicitude, not cruelty and savagery, the nurses would be sent “wherever there is the most brutal carnage something which evokes the homes [our soldiers] have been obliged to leave.”
Not surprisingly, Weil wished to lead the first wave of nurses to be airdropped onto the battlefield, and took a first aid course in hopeful preparation for her assignment. But when her plan elicited nothing more than silence or shock, Weil despaired of doing something about the war. Or, at least, doing something beyond what she had been doing for months: eating no more than those living in occupied France, who were subject to extreme rationing, were able to eat. Given her tubercular lungs, paralyzing migraines, and weak heart, this act of “doing something” proved no less fatal than parachuting onto the front lines.
Yet her dashed hopes remained with her till her dying day. The last entry she wrote in her journal was just one word: “Nurses.”
Did Weil, as the coroner concluded, kill herself? We will never know the answer, of course. But I cannot help but quote a coroner’s report on a Jesuit priest from The Plague, a novel by one of Weil’s great admirers, Albert Camus: hers is a “doubtful case.” For Weil, death was neither the means nor the end to philosophy. Instead, it was a possible consequence of doing philosophy — at least if we understand philosophy not as an academic discipline, but as a way of life. As the contemporary philosopher Costica Bradatan observes in his brilliant study Dying for Ideas, “philosophizing is not about thinking, speaking or writing […] but about something else: deciding to put your body on the line.”
This is too much to ask of nearly all of us, at least to the fatal degree Weil asked it of herself. But as with Socrates and Seneca, Weil obliges us to recall not just the price of the philosophical life, but also its purpose.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the LARB history editor. His new book, Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, The Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment, will be published next spring by Harvard University Press.