Thursday, July 28, 2011

Simone Weil

Today’s Awesome Woman is Simone Weil (3 February 1909 – 24 August 1943), a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist. I just discovered her yesterday as I was looking for a quote on compassion & empathy.

"The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have the capacity do not possess it."

And I wanted to learn more about the woman who wrote it. Weil had a fascination with affliction, which went beyond simple suffering. Only some souls are capable of truly experiencing affliction; these are precisely those souls which are least deserving of it—that are most prone or open to spiritual realization. Affliction is a sort of suffering plus, which transcends both body and mind; such physical and mental anguish scourges the very soul.

War and oppression were the most intense cases of affliction within her reach. At the age of six years old, she refused sugar in solidarity with the troops entrenched along the Western Front. In 1919, at 10 years of age, she declared herself a Bolshevik. In her late teens, she became involved in the workers' movement. She wrote political tracts, marched in demonstrations, and advocated workers' rights.

She was born in Paris to Alsatian agnostic Jewish parents who fled the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. She grew up in comfortable circumstances, as her father was a doctor. Her only sibling was André Weil, who would go on to become one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. She suffered throughout her life from severe headaches, sinusitis, and poor physical coordination, and spared no scrutiny to these in her philosophical writings. n 1928, Weil finished first in the entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure; Simone de Beauvoir, her more long-lived and famous peer, finished second.

Weil's fellow student, the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, wrote of Weil in her book Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter:
She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre get-up; A great famine had broken out in China, and I was told that when she heard the news she had wept: these tears compelled my respect much more than her gifts as a philosopher. I envied her having a heart that could beat right across the world. I managed to get near her one day. I don't know how the conversation got started; she declared in no uncertain tones that only one thing mattered in the world: the revolution which would feed all the starving people of the earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find the reason for their existence. She looked me up and down: 'It's easy to see you've never been hungry,' she snapped.

After receiving her degree, Weil taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls in Le Puy and teaching was her primary employment during her short life. During this time she also taught free classes to workers on the railroads, in the mines and in the fields, and she donated large portions of her small salary and her time to aid them in their struggles for economic justice. At one point, she took a 12-month leave of absence from her teaching position to live for a year at the lowest level of the French factory system -- as an unskilled women worker, believing that this experience would allow her to connect with the working class. She did piece-rate factory work. Because she had poor manual dexterity and an over-active mind she could not work efficiently enough to pay rent and buy sufficient food.

In 1936, despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She identified herself as an anarchist and joined the Sébastien Faure Century, the French-speaking section of the anarchist militia. However, her clumsiness repeatedly put her comrades at risk. After burning herself over a cooking fire, she left Spain to recuperate in Assisi. She continued to write essays on labor and management, and war and peace.

Weil was born into a secular household & raised as an agnostic. Attracted to Christianity, in 1937 she experienced a religious ecstasy in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. However she declined to be baptized; preferring to remain outside due to "the love of those things that are outside Christianity" She was keenly interested in other religious traditions — especially the Greek and Egyptian mysteries, Hinduism (especially the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita), and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these and other traditions contained elements of genuine revelation, writing that:
“Greece, Egypt, ancient India, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflection of this beauty in art and science..these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ's hands as his captive. I think I might even say more.” She was, nevertheless, opposed to religious syncretism, claiming that it effaced the particularity of the individual traditions:
“Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else...A "synthesis" of religion implies a lower quality of attention”

In 1942, she traveled to the USA with her family. Weil spent this time living briefly in New York City, in Harlem, amongst the poor. After New York, she went to London, where she joined the French Resistance. The punishing work regime she assumed soon took a heavy toll; in 1943 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and instructed to rest and eat well. However, she refused special treatment because of her long-standing political idealism and activism and her detachment from material things. Instead, she limited her food intake to what she believed residents of the parts of France occupied by the Germans ate. Her condition quickly deteriorated, and she was moved to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, England.

After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34. The coroner's report said that "the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed." To this day, the cause of her death remains a subject of debate for many.

Most of the writing for which she is known was published posthumously.

"In the decades since her death, her writings have been assembled, annotated, criticized, discussed, disputed, and praised. Along with some twenty volumes of her works, publishers have issued more than thirty biographies, including Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage by Robert Coles, Harvard's Pulitzer-winning professor, who calls Weil 'a giant of reflection.' " ~ Alonzo L. McDonald, from the forward to Wrestling with God, An Introduction to Simone Weil

“The principal value of the collection is simply that anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading.” ~ Susan Sontag, The New York Review of Books​/1963/feb/01/simone-weil/

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