Simone Weil was a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and political activist. Today, not many people know about her—could this have something to do with the historic erasure of female intellectuals? Since today is Weil’s birthday, Kristen Cochrane highlights why she’s worth remembering.
Simone Weil (pronounced VAY) was a writer and philosopher whose name you don’t hear very often in contemporary parlance, even though her contemporaries included Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean Hyppolite. Could the unfamiliarity most people (especially outside of academia and writing) have with Weil have to do with the historic erasure of female intellectuals? Or, could it have to do with the fact that people dismissed her once she went from an agnostic, Jewish family to Christian Mysticism? The answer is still unclear, but her controversial personality that divided many is the reason why we are thinking of Simone Weil, who died in 1943 at the young age of 34.
Simone Weil in the early 1940s in Marseille, France (From The New York Review of Books)
1. Simone Weil was educated during a time where men comprised the majority of students in higher-education in France.
Weil was one of the first women to graduate from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), a prestigious university with alumni such as sociologist Émile Durkheim, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and classics scholar Jacqueline de Romilly. During her time at the ENS, Weil was part of a number of demonstrations and protests that attempted to unsettle the staid environment of a prestigious university. Athanasios Moulakis writes in Simone Weil and the Politics of Self-Denial that Weil would not only be part of demonstrations, but would do things just to annoy “les bourgeois”, which sounds amazing.
2. Her sympathy compelled her to think about the suffering of others, so she rationed her food to align with what soldiers at war ate.
During World War II at age five, she chose to not eat sugar because the soldiers could not. Throughout the rest of her life she continued this solidarity, refusing to eat more than what was rationed for the soldiers.
3. She was a serious activist.
In 1936, Weil left her teaching position and joined an anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War. She said this about her experience: “In July 1936, I was in Paris. I don’t like war; but I found the position of those outside the war far more horrifying than war itself. When I understood that, as much as I tried to believe otherwise, I couldn’t ethically refuse to participate in the war – that’s to say, I couldn’t wish every day, every hour, victory for some and defeat for others while doing nothing myself. I told myself that I must put Paris behind me and I caught a train to Barcelona with the intention of enlisting. That was at the beginning of April, 1936.”
4. She was perceived as intimidating, but she was not afraid to cry.
Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir recalled meeting Weil when her and Beauvoir were both in university. Weil was holding a meeting in the courtyard of the prestigious Sorbonne university in Paris, a meeting which sought to argue that a revolution was the answer to feeding the hungry masses. Apparently, Beauvoir told Weil that perhaps what the people needed was not revolution, but meaning to their existence. Weil matter-of-factly retorted that Beauvoir had evidently never gone hungry. However, Beauvoir said she remembers Weil openly crying about a catastrophic earthquake that had just happened in China.
5. She engaged in participatory research to understand what factory workers went through.
Rather than just writing about the working-class and what it is like to work in a milieu that middle-class and upper-class people don’t experience, she sought to undergo it herself. In late 1934, she stopped teaching and began a short stint as a factory worker. She worked at the Renault auto plant until the summer of 1935. According to Terry Tastard, Weil “suffered painful burns while operating an industrial furnace. She noted how this time of high unemployment made all workers vulnerable to the whims and moods of the supervisors, but that women suffered the most.”
6. French philosopher Albert Camus was a big fan.
Not that Weil needed Camus’ approval to validate her life and accomplishments, but it’s worth mentioning that he once said that Weil was “the only great spirit of our times”.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, “Happy Birthday Angela Davis,” HERE :)