EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD READ the works of the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909–1943), particularly her political writings, which offer unorthodox counsel for traversing a tumultuous age. She foresaw, more than most modern thinkers, the many forms of technological and social alienation that have produced everything from Trumpism and insurrectional politics to media addiction and what Anne Case and Angus Deaton have called “deaths of despair.” Weil’s original, selfless style of thinking offers an antidote to the narcissism and conformity that characterize today’s “follower” syndrome. The readers of her work will surely appreciate the acuity of her deep thinking in our era of slick surfaces. How many philosophers do you know who would leave the classroom’s comforts for the assembly line or to toil in the fields, just to make work less of an abstraction?
In his new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, Robert Zaretsky retroactively draws up the blueprints for some of the load-bearing concepts that support the architecture of Weil’s compelling thought. He notes from the beginning the many contradictions she embodies. She was:
An anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery, a teacher who dismissed the importance of solving a problem, the most willful of individuals who advocated the extinction of the self.
Weil was a strange person who resisted all attempts to lessen her with labels. It is impossible to read her work without finding something about it that bothers you. For the rationalist, it is at times too devout and full of passion in the Christological sense. For the feminist, it is too dismissive of the role of gender in precipitating social wreckage. For the committed Catholic, it is too loose in its theology and too willing to turn to Eastern religions and other sources for extra-doctrinal stimuli. And yet it would be difficult to find nothing in Weil’s work that compels you.
After an introduction that contextualizes Weil’s short, unusual life, Zaretsky dedicates chapters — each written in an elegant, accessible prose — to five essential columns that brace her philosophy: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness. In his chapter on affliction, he details the many forms of misery Weil identified among the factory workers she labored alongside. For her, it was not only the physically punishing nature of the work or its daily humiliations that afflicted those on the assembly line. The larger atrocity is that the nature of the work prevented workers from thinking. “Affliction resulted less from physical suffering than from psychological degradation,” Zaretsky writes. “Ridden by stern foremen and driven by production goals, workers were shorn of their human dignity.” After walking readers through Weil’s readings of various scenes of affliction — drawn from the Iliad, the Book of Job, and the historical example of the Nazis’ conquest of Europe — Zaretsky reminds us of Weil’s formula for affliction. She argued that affliction, in her own words, “deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things.”
Regarding attention, Zaretsky notes that some American writers in the 21st century have explored the theme in our new age of distractions — he mentions Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019) and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009) — but laments the fact that in these books, Weil, the peerless theorist of attention, is never mentioned. In many ways, she was perhaps too attentive, alarming interlocutors with her intensely heedful gaze. She could not simply be in a situation without investing her undivided attention in it. Weil’s attention was not teleological in that it was not bent on finding a solution to a problem. Rather, as Zaretsky argues, “[r]eflecting upon a problem, rather than resolving it, was Weil’s goal.” This kind of attention was central to Weil’s pedagogy, which comes through in her description of the main objective of education. “Although people seem to be unaware of it today,” she wrote, “the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.” This kind of attention requires boundless patience. In describing the mechanics of Weil’s practice of attention, Zaretsky writes, to “attend means not to seek, but to wait; not to concentrate, but instead to dilate our minds. We do not gain insights, Weil claims, by going in search of them, but instead by waiting for them.” Weil has much to teach the impatient and distracted citizens who are perhaps too sidetracked by the busy-ness of their lives to notice the many civic crises we’ve sunken into.
In the chapter on resistance, Zaretsky illustrates Weil’s prescience on the detrimental effects of a particular kind of mediatic environment. Weil argued that with certain kinds of new media that had begun to appear in her life, “you can make a whole people swallow with their breakfast or supper a series of ready-made and, by the same token, absurd opinions.” That media ecosystem — and the far more perilous and swift one we endure today — generates slogans devoid of thought and provokes violence using lies. As Zaretsky writes of the empty slogans that resonate through various echo chambers, whether “they are chanted by the French Communists of her era (‘We are building a better future!’) or by American Republicans of our era (‘Make America Great Again!’), we confront the same phenomenon: the disemboweling of language and beggaring of thought.”
Weil wrote an entire book on the metaphor of rootedness called (in its English translation) The Need for Roots, a book you should pick up as soon as humanly possible, if you’ve not read it. Rootedness is one of Weil’s most salient themes and the one perhaps most applicable to contemporary American civic strife. To be rootless is to suffer from social alienation, and she anticipated the many forms of social alienation and psychological torment faced by the American (white) working class today. Zaretsky rightly points out that “Weil had already witnessed the atomizations and the anomie bred in the factories, and the sense of having become forgotten or invisible on farms.” One of the epigraphs in this chapter is a Trump quote: “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.” The uprooted person is the fascist, the nationalist, the white supremacist, who would rather destroy the world than share it with others. The quote is fitting because, as Weil understood, the person who feels socially alienated, as though their roots have been severed, will seek to sever the roots of those around them.
Zaretsky’s final chapter on goodness brings God into the picture. He notes that Weil’s relationship to religion was an uneasy one, visible on each page of her spiritual autobiography Waiting for God. “There is,” he writes, “a constant thrum of tension in Weil’s relationship to Christianity, as she was pulled in opposite directions by the desire to surrender herself wholly to the Church and the indignation at so much of its history and dogma that prevented her from doing so.” A contemporary American might find this chapter particularly edifying, given that our collective identity crisis owes much to the religiosity braided into the United States’s DNA. Weil was suspicious of all institutions — governments, political parties, religions — because these abstract entities eventually tend toward one goal: the accumulation of power. She wondered how benevolence and virtue could be elevated without dogma. She asked herself how one might be a good Christian without Christian ideology. In the second half of the chapter, Zaretsky triangulates God, Weil, and the Anglo-Irish writer Iris Murdoch, who, in her books Existentialists and Mystics and The Sovereignty of Good, thought about the relationship between goodness and godliness. I’ve often wanted to ask members of the MAGA crowd a question that Weil (and Murdoch) might also have asked them: “How can we be great if we can’t even be good?”
Zaretsky’s timely volume speaks obliquely about the many trials Americans have endured in recent years and will continue to endure. He admits that it would be difficult and probably unwise to implement many of Weil’s extreme ideas, writing, “I cannot speak for the tens of thousands of other readers, but I, for one, often find myself in the untenable position of sharing her ideas and yet being aware they cannot be, and perhaps should not be, acted upon.” I sympathize with Zaretsky’s position, seeing both relevance and risk in Weil’s claims, but it would be hard to deny the originality and sincerity of her unusual brain. Which might well spark new forms of political thinking since we seem to have run out of ideas worth living for.