r e c o m m e n d e d    r e a d i n g


The combination of these two facts – the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it – constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality. Whoever recognizes that reality recognizes that link. Because of it, he holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect. This is the only possible motive for universal respect towards all human beings.

                                                Simone Weil

                                                “Draft for A Statement of Human Obligations”

                                                                SIMONE WEIL, AN ANTHOLOGY ed. Sian Miles

Our Contributing Editor suggests books for reflective reading at the turn of the century:

Kathy Callaway (HEART OF THE GARFISH [U. of Pittsburgh]; THE BLOODROOT FLOWER [Knopf]; “Little String Game” and “Estonian Letters,” Archipelago):

At a recent conference on her work at Columbia University in New York, Simone Weil came under fire for her “hostility towards Judaism” (see “Simone Weil’s Mixed Legacy,” The New York Times, Nov. 20 1999). A noted professor of Jewish history remarked that she was “an anti-Semite whose views were an ‘unpardonable perfidy to some.’” Another worried that she had too rosy a view of the ancient Greeks, and “even her admirers…speak of her as a kind of ‘mad virtuoso.’” Weil is an easy target, but she is not to be tossed aside quite so easily. How quick we were, in another direction not long ago, to turn away with a shudder from the supposed suicide of Primo Levi, throwing into the closet a life’s searing work on the Holocaust and quickly shutting the door.

Joseph Brodsky once remarked, “The difference between the European and the American is that the American is incapable of holding two opposing ideas in his head at the same time. The European, historically speaking, has been forced to.” Twice in the Baltics I have lived surrounded by the troubled results of half a century of Soviet domination, rather to be expected; but right underneath this was lodged all that had not been dealt with from WWII, a dark, confused matrix of contradictions only now beginning to rise to the psychological surface. The War ended for them only a year or two ago, they will tell you. Tempers on the subject of who did what to whom are running very high, and though their governments have made the right genuflection to the Knesset, the average person cannot speak at all of WWII, or of the Holocaust in particular, and does not ever want to think about it. (Germany, compelled to think about it, is – ironically, perhaps – 50 years ahead of such places in healing the national psyche).

Weil did not live to see the end of the war, but a mind so concerned with the mainsprings of human morality cannot be said to harbor a private agenda to do with anti-Semitism or ethical irresponsibility. What we have in Simone Weil’s work is everything she thought, her entire development minutely catalogued. If some of it disturbs us, it might help to remember that this is not a writer capable of self-censorship for history’s sake. Here is a thinker whose every waking moment was dedicated to examining the very reasons for man’ s continuing injustice, starting with her own mind and her own actions. Relentlessly she documented painful self-discoveries. These led her to a classic remedy, one with timeless and universal application. Visionaries have no defense. They do not calculate. In another 200 years no one will care about the handful of statements which we do not like, and all her other, stunning insights into human morality, or lack of it, will still apply.

I discovered Simone Weil quite by chance in 1987, in Fargo, North Dakota, and found her just in time. Some years later I was in the Baltics: a real lesson for Liberals and Leftists to undergo. It is she I intend to read again to help me understand the damage I saw. Although she was deeply and passionately involved in Communist causes in the 1930s, I now want to know what she thought about Marxism by the time of her death in l943. I trust her ruthless self-honesty: she never did things by half-measure, never hesitated to put into action her own conclusions. Did she already guess what Marxism might lead to? Would she have said, like Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the founders of the Indian state, when asked in an interview why he had renounced the Communism of his youth: “Because it did not, for me, answer the question: Why should a man be good?”?

Simone Weil, OEUVRES COMPLÈTES (Editions Gallimard, available from Blackwell’s, U.K.). Her complete works have never been published in English. GRAVITY AND GRACE (Univ. of Nebraska; Routledge & Kegan Paul). WAITING FOR GOD (HarperPerennial). THE NEED FOR ROOTS (Routledge). SIMONE WEIL, AN ANTHOLOGY, ed. Sian Miles (Grove Press; Weidenfeld & Nicolson): this book contains much of GRAVITY AND GRACE and, importantly, “The Iliad or The Poem of Force,” and “Analysis of Oppression,” part of her course on Marxism given to a miners’ study group in 1934; “Prerequisite to Dignity of Labour,” on factory work, 1941; and “Draft for A Statement of Human Obligations.” OPPRESSION AND LIBERTY (U. of Massachusetts Press.

Out of print but essential: THE NOTEBOOKS OF SIMONE WEIL, 2 volumes, tr. Arthur Wills (Routledge, l956; G.P. Putnam’s, l956). FIRST AND LAST NOTEBOOKS (Oxford U. Press, 1970). SELECTED ESSAYS, 1934-43 (Oxford, 1962). SIMONE WEIL SEVENTY LETTERS (Oxford, 1965). The definitive biography: Simone Pétrement, SIMONE WEIL, A LIFE. A memoir by a close friend, a peasant-farmer, Gustav Thibon, SIMONE WEIL AS WE KNEW HER A good, careful study, E.W.F. Tomlin, SIMONE WEIL (Yale Univ. Press, 1954).


See also:

Estonian Letters,Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 1

Little String Game,” Vol. 1, No. 2

Folly, Love, St. Augustine,” Vol. 3, No. 3



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