Simone Weil and the Project of Self-transformation

“I am only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation.” (Susan Sontag)

Recently, preparing to review a book I had been assigned, I read most of the writings of Simone Weil and, for the first time, Simone Petrement’s biography of Weil. (It was a typical example of research overkill, a problem which hampers my speed as a reviewer.) This morning, reading another biography—Benjamin Moser’s forthcoming, about Susan Sontag—I encountered the sentence quoted above. It reminded me of Weil. If ever there was a person engaged in a project of self-transformation, it was Weil.

She seems to have begun her project at her lycée (high school), under the influence of the philosopher Alain. The first sign of it was a sudden change in her handwriting. From a sloppy scrawl, it became “constructed, designed, and completely willed.” The style of her essays shows a similar discipline, a complete rejection of rhetorical flourish and self-indulgence in favor of hard, clear, simple sentences, succeeding each other with a merciless focus on the main point. She perfected this style in a series of private notebooks that were only published after her death. They constitute one of the great works in the genre of private philosophical writing, to be read in the company of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Cahiers of Paul Valery, the Pensees of Blaise Pascal, and the Wastebooks of Georg Lichtenberg.

After Weil finished school, somewhat grudgingly she went to work as a philosophy teacher, but devoted all her spare time to labor organizing and political activism. Her special study was the exploited and oppressed condition of factory workers. Considering the sources of their oppression and how a non-exploitative form of the factory could be arranged, she decided the problem required not mere cerebration but the transformation of her own life. More perhaps than any other thinker engaged in these problems, she believed there was a problematic gap between intellectuals and the people whose liberation concerned them: it was necessary, she believed, to raise the educational level of the worker, but also to immerse the intellectual in the life of the worker. She donated a lot of time and effort to teaching in adult education cooperatives, and she also tried to live no higher than factory workers do, practicing an asceticism in the matter of clothes, lodgings, and food that was devoted to reproducing for herself the conditions she sought to ameliorate for others.

Her family were so disturbed by her ascetic choices that they tried to improve her conditions secretly. Her mother bribed her roommate to buy nicer cuts of meat and tried to sneak new clothes into Weil’s things when she visited. Later, when Weil was transferred to Auxerre, her mother found and furnished a room for her. “As soon as her mother left [Simone] rid the apartment of all the furnishings that she considered unnecessary.”

After teaching for a few years, she decided that the only way to theorize a non-exploitative form of factory life, and to understand the sources of oppression, was to experience factory life for herself. She took a sabbatical for “research,” and got herself a job at a factory, refusing to live on anything but what she could make there—a bit less than normal workers, since she struggled to meet the quotas required for the full wage. Simone was surprised by her own docility in response to suffering. She found that struggling to meet the absurd demands of speed and productivity in the Fordist factory completely sapped her considerable energy and more or less broke her will. She concluded that revolutionaries who base their hope for revolution on the rebelliousness of the oppressed do not know what they are talking about, but she was confirmed in her belief that it was crucial for those who theorized liberation to experience bondage. She had already lost faith in political parties like the communist party, ostensibly engaged on behalf of factory workers, and now she began to distrust even labor organizers: direct acquaintance, she thought, in this as in so many other domains of life, was the only road to clear thinking.

In 1938, suffering from the anguish of current events (Europe was careening toward war) and experiencing frequent migraine headaches, she took to repeating the words of George Herbert’s poem “Love”, to distract herself from pain. She focused hard on the words. One day, in the midst of this repetition, she felt what she described as “real contact, person to person” with God. She was glad, afterwards, that she hadn’t read the mystics before this experience, because she found it very like what they described but would have been worried, otherwise, that she had merely reproduced an experience she had read about.

Weil died in England, in her early thirties. Her death was pronounced a suicide by self-starvation. What actually happened is that, despite being quite ill, she decided it was important not to indulge in luxuries unavailable to soldiers and those in occupied France, so she refused to eat more than she imagined they would eat. It wasn’t enough. Suicide or not? I don’t know. But she died as she lived, committed to her project for self-transformation.

Petrement acknowledges that Simone Weil can seem from the outside to have been merely attracted to unnecessary suffering and martyrdom, a kind of masochist, “but first all because of a desire for justice. Since affliction exists in the world, she found it difficult to go without her share of it; and above all she believed that one must share in it so as to understand how one can really remedy it. Furthermore, she thought later on that only through affliction can one come to know that truth of existence, the complete and absolute truth.”

I’d say her life counts as an example of the project of self-transformation. True to her word, Susan Sontag was interested. She wrote an essay about Simone Weil for the NYRB. Here is part of it:

I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas. […] Similarly, with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; most of their modern admirers could not, and do not embrace their ideas. We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and—only piecemeal—for their “views.” As the corrupt Alcibiades followed Socrates, unable and unwilling to change his own life, but moved, enriched, and full of love; so the sensitive modern reader pays his respect to a level of spiritual reality which is not, could not, be his own.

Simone Weil.