A dangerous desire for martyrdom

Can there be anything more wearying than a saint? One of the reasons to hope that there will be no life to come is the prospect…

Can there be anything more wearying than a saint? One of the reasons to hope that there will be no life to come is the prospect of having to share eternity with the likes of St Paul, or Teresa of ┴vila, or Matt Talbot. Saints do not bang their tankards, or pinch wenches, or call for more cakes and ale; saints, for the most part, do not laugh. And in the case of Simone Weil, a saint in all but title, she did not even eat.

Weil was born in 1909 into a well-to-do family of Parisian Jews. Her father, a doctor, came from a long line of wealthy Strasbourg merchants; her mother had spent her early years in Russia, whence her parents had moved in 1880 to Belgium. The Weils were, or believed they were, thoroughly assimilated, and indeed, as Francine du Plessix Gray informs us, Dr Weil "disliked talking about his Jewishness". This was a not unusual attitude among middle-class European Jews before the war. Simone Weil, who was 10 before she learned that she was Jewish, developed attitudes toward Judaism that were highly ambiguous, to say the least. In 1943, when the tide of war indicated an Allied victory, she prepared a paper for the Free French administration in London on the governing of France after liberation in which she wrote that the existence of an officially recognised Jewish minority "does not represent a good thing; thus the objective must be to bring about its disappearance" by total assimilation into French society in general.

The Weil parents were loving to the point of suffocation. Simone and her brother AndrΘ, who was three years older than she, were cosseted dreadfully. Simone had been a sickly baby who, when she was weaned at 11 months, refused to eat solid foods to the point that the doctors expected her to die. As an adult she suggested that she had been "poisoned" by her mother's milk, adding: "C'est pourquoi je suis tellement ratΘe" (That's why I'm such a failure). Mme Weil guarded her children obsessively against contamination or infection. She would not allow them to be kissed by anyone outside the family, and encouraged compulsive hand-washing. DΘgoutant, "disgusting", was a word frequently to be heard in the Weil household, and Simone often employed it to describe herself.

The two children were extraordinarily precocious; in fact, in their different ways they were both geniuses. AndrΘ showed a mathematical bent at an early age, and by the time he was 12 was "solving mathematical problems beyond the doctoral level and was reading Plato and The Iliad in the original Greek". Although she was devoted to her brother, and he to her, it must have been hard for Simone to come to terms with AndrΘ's brilliance.


They conversed together in Latin and Greek, and read the French classics and the ancient tragedians and philosophers; they discussed astronomy on the tram. They fought, too, "in the deepest silence", Mme Weil recalled, "so as not to attract our attention . . . We heard only a shuffling; never a shout. When we came into the room, they'd be pale and shaking, each holding the other by the hair".

Simone was a dedicated student. When she entered the exclusive LycΘe Henri IV she came under the influence of "Alain", the pseudonym of the renowned teacher and philosopher ╔mile Chartier. Alain came from the Normandy working class, and encouraged his pupils to flout bourgeois conventions. He was a Cartesian, teaching, as Gray puts it, "that doubt is the true agent of enlightenment", a lesson that Simone Weil never forgot. It was to Alain that she sent her first major work, Oppression and Liberty, which she wrote in 1935 (it is available in English in the recently published Routledge Classics series).

Alain's brand of patriotic socialism had a deep appeal for Weil, who all her life was tormented by the thought of poverty and injustice in the world at large - in her youth she refused to eat more than the barest minimum because, she said, the Indochinese were starving. Her attitude to food, however, had deeper sources than extreme humanitarianism. Although she tried to live healthily, and take exercise - she joined the first women's rugby team in France! - her urge toward self-mastery and self-transcendence was irresistible. She was, in plain terms, anorexic, as so many female mystics have been. She was also given to mortification of the flesh; at school her classmates noticed a blackened hole in the back of her hand, where seemingly she had burned herself with a cigarette, either to keep herself awake at her studies, or to test her capacity for pain.

After graduation from the ╔cole Normale SuperiΦure, Weil applied to the Ministry of Education for a teaching post, which she secured; however, her arrogance and uncompromising political attitudes had made enemies for her at the Normale, one of whom, Celestin BoulgΘ, who had nicknamed her the Red Virgin, arranged for her to be sent to the far-off and dull town of Le Puy. On arrival there, Weil came across a postcard of a statue of the Virgin Mary, known as "the Red Virgin of Le Puy", which she bought, and sent to BouglΘ.

Although she was firmly of the left, Weil was implacably opposed to the Communist Party and to Soviet Communism in particular, recognising clearly its totalitarian, not to say fascist, nature. She was very active in the trade union movement, not always to the delight of union officials, and in 1934 she went to work for a year in a succession of factories, doing the lowest, most soul-destroying menial tasks, which sapped her strength and permanently damaged her health. She still ate little, refused to heat her room and often slept on makeshift beds and sometimes even on floors.

The Spanish Civil War galvanised her into action, and she went to Spain to fight against Franco. Hers was an inglorious war. Always clumsy, she put her foot into a pot of boiling oil, and was invalided out of the Republican forces. In despair, she returned to her family in Paris to recuperate, which proved a long and painful process. She saw clearly that world war was inevitable, and adopted a militantly pacifist stance, if the oxymoron may be permitted. In later years, when she recognised the true nature of Hitler and his henchmen, she would come bitterly to regret her pacifism.

The French collapse before the German invasion was a terrible blow, one from which she would not recover, allowing her biographer to suggest that "she died out of patiotism, out of sorrow and shame for the fate of France". In the same paragraph, however, Gray puts forward a subtler hypothesis: "She died of something that might be called (depending on how you look at it) an illness - her pathological need to share the sufferings of others".

When Paris fell, the Weils fled south to Marseilles, and from there, in 1942, they sailed for New York. Simone hated being in America, and petitioned strenuously to be parachuted into France to join the Resistance, or at least to be allowed to go to London to work for the Free French there.

The latter request was eventually granted, but when she got to England she found that what was on offer was hardly more than a clerical post, translating reports from the Resistance and writing the odd position paper. She grew increasingly weak, and eventually developed glandular tuberculosis. She was taken into a sanatorium in Ashford, in Kent, where she ceased to eat altogether. She died on August 24th, 1943. 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". In her last weeks Weil had written:

The eternal part of the soul feeds on hunger. When we do not eat, our organism consumes its own flesh and transforms it into energy. It is the same with the soul . . . The eternal part consumes the mortal part of the soul and transforms it. The hunger of the soul is hard to bear, but there is no other remedy for our disease.

For years Simone Weil had conducted a kind of tormented flirtation with Catholicism. She could neither believe, nor not believe. Many of her attitudes were, as priest after priest assured her, entirely heretical. She held that, in the act of creating the world, God had renounced his all-powerfulness, stepping back, as it were, to allow in the new realities. She also had trouble with the Resurrection, and with the absolute necessity for salvation of the sacrament of baptism. Toward other doctrines she was enthusiastic to an unhealthy degree: "When I think of the Crucifixion," she wrote to one of her religious counsellors, "I commit the sin of envy."

Du Plessix Gray has written a fine introduction to the life and thought of this strange, compelling and infuriating woman. She has tried, she writes, to portray her subject by setting her philosophy into the context of her peculiar family life, and the life of her turbulent times.

Weil has been a deep influence on many thinkers, from Albert Camus to Czeslaw Milosz. She has had her critics, too. The American poet Kenneth Rexroth described her final work, The Need for Roots, as "a collection of egregious nonsense", while Conor Cruise O'Brien accused her of encouraging in the same book "a rigid, primitive, and eccentric form of censorship". The critic Alfred Kazin, however, was surely right when he wrote of her, beautifully, that she was "remarkably open to all human experience at its most extreme, neglected and uprooted . . . What she sought more than anything else was a loving attentiveness to the living world that would lift man above the natural loneliness of existence."

One cannot finish this biography, though, without experiencing a surge of anger at the thought of how much more Weil might have achieved had she allowed herself to live. Especially in these terrible days, we know all too well how dangerous is the desire for martyrdom.

John Banville is Associate Literary Editor and Chief Literary Critic of The Irish Times