Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Mystique Of The Manual

One of her “big ideas” was that the sickness of the modern world is caused by “uprootedness.” We are, Simone Weil believed, lost. The only antidote is a social order grounded in physical labor. Only manual work can save us.

Weil herself was preternaturally a worker by brain, not by hand. Small, myopic, physically awkward and weak, it is difficult to think of anyone less suited to toil in a factory, workshop or field. Weil was a French intellectual of the purest sort. Considered a prodigy from childhood alongside her brother Andre, who went on to become one of the twentieth century’s greatest mathematicians, she had mastered classical Greek by age twelve, was steeped in advanced mathematical physics by fifteen and at twenty came top in the entrance exam to the super-elite École Normale Supérieure. That was the same year, 1928, that Simone de Beauvoir had finished second.

Part philosopher, part activist, part mystic, Weil is almost impossible to classify. A youthful Marxist who abandoned the faith in favor of liberal pluralism. A lover of all things ancient Greek who equated the Roman Empire with Nazi Germany and Hitler with Caesa, she was a mass of contradictions. Yet her reputation has grown over time as one of the most original and uncomfortable thinkers of the twentieth century. T.S. Eliot, a great admirer, considered her “a woman of genius, a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.” “A genius,” added one of her many anthologists, “of immense revolutionary range.”

Born into a comfortable, secular Jewish home, she repudiated this already threadbare link to her ancestral roots, carrying on in later life—following a vision at the age of twenty-eight in the chapel of St Francis in Assisi—a mystical love affair with Jesus. In words that were deeply disturbing to many, written in wartime London in the same year Hitler’s Final Solution went into full effect, she described the Jewish faith, the faith of her fathers as a “Great Beast” of religion, and ancient Rome as a “Great Beast” of materialism, declaring both dislikeable. It was from her own highly idiosyncratic reading of the Greeks—Homer, Sophocles, Euripides and above all Plato—that Weil derived her ideas about the mystique of manual work. “For the Greeks”, she wrote, “physical labor is the direct expression of religious faith…And willingly consented to…it is the most perfect form of obedience.”

In 1931 she received a brilliant aggregation in philosophy from the École Normale Supérieure, and was sent forth into the world as a newly minted high school teacher, a career for which she was almost comically unsuited. Eased out of several lycées in provincial France by anxious parents and outraged administrators for failing to get her often adoring pupils to pass the requisite exams, she spent her evenings hanging out with workers, debating, organizing and taking part in strikes. Known around the Left Bank of Paris as “The Red Virgin,” she seems to have been blessed —or cursed—with an almost unendurable empathy for the downtrodden. Eventually Weil applied for a leave of absence from teaching to study at first hand the condition of the French industrial working class. Her uncompromising attitudes, disheveled physical appearance, monotonous voice and lack of almost all conventional social grace did her few favors, but she eventually managed to find employment in a steel plant, an experience that proved physically, emotionally and spiritually shattering. It seared her like a branding iron.

“What a factory ought to be” she wrote to a friend, “is a place where one makes hard painful but joyous contact with real life. Not the gloomy place it is.” She was fired from three such factory jobs in quick succession, unable, with her small misshapen hands and weak arms, to master the minimal requisite mechanical skill to fulfill her quota.

Why on earth would a frail intellectual woman from a well-off bourgeois background wish to subject herself to such torment? With Weil, nothing was simple. Her motives were twofold. At first, the political Simone wanted to understand—from the inside, from the bottom up—why the French industrial workers of the 1930s were so docile. Why they did not rise up and smash the capitalist system as the radical left had predicted, especially at a time of economic turmoil and the distant thunder of encroaching war? The news Simone Weil brought back from the “icy pandemonium of industrial life,” as she called it, was that, to be a worker meant losing all dignity, all autonomy. This crushed state rendered thought—let alone action—moot. While she was employed on the assembly-line she came to see herself and her fellow workers, women in particular, as slaves. “In the factory,” she wrote in a letter to a militant syndicalist, “all the reasons upon which my self-respect were based were destroyed by weeks of brutal restraint.” Nearly a century earlier, Karl Marx had urged the workers of the world to unite and lose their chains. It was religion—“the opium of the people”—that befuddled their minds, preventing them from seizing destiny by the throat. Weil, based on her participant observation of the mentality and actual conditions of French workers, begged to differ, turning Marx on his head. It was in fact the unrealizable prospect and promise of revolution, not religion, that was the true opium. Change would never come from “below”. This insight led her to repudiate the radical left to the eternal disgust of many of her revolutionary friends, and former mentors—among them Trotsky.

At the same time the spiritual Simone was becoming increasingly mystical and Christian —she drew close to the Catholic Church in her later years, but resisted the final baptismal step. This led her to crave release from academia and the abstract life of the mind and lose herself in obedience. Like early medieval mystics, Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint John of the Cross, she prayed that her individuality be obliterated by the necessities of toil, that her intelligence might be extinguished through punishing physical fatigue. At times she turned for solace and inspiration to the Bhagavad-Gita and other sacred Hindu texts. These notions—anathema to left-wing French intellectuals then and now—became her vocation. Like Leo Tolstoy, she saw a connection between physical fatigue and spirituality, and hoped, however foolishly, to have a religious experience on the factory floor. “Physical work” she wrote in her best known book Gravity and Grace, “makes us experience in the most exhausting manner, the phenomenon of finality.” Workers, she wrote, “need poetry more than bread, and religion alone can be the source of it.”

Perhaps the purest expression of Weil’s mystical notion of the sanctity of physical labor comes at the end of her essay “La Condition Ouvrière,” published, as were most of her writings, long after her death. “If man’s vocation is to achieve pure joy through suffering, manual workers are better placed than all others to accomplish it in the truest way.”

Weil died at thirty-four by self-induced starvation in wartime London, the coroner recording a verdict of suicide “while the balance of her mind was disturbed.” Since her death, interest in her life and work has exploded. Some twenty volumes of posthumous writings have gradually appeared, and no less than thirty biographies. One would expect her to be embraced by Catholics—the reformist Pope, John XXIII, said of her “I love this soul.” Yet we find this difficult, awkward, and in many ways disturbing woman, whose ideas ran so counter to the dominant modern intellectual grain, revered in the most unexpected places. Mary McCarthy for instance, hardly someone interested in matters spiritual or religious, discovered and came to celebrate Weil early, translating Weil’s astonishing essay "The Poem of Force," on Homer’s Iliad in 1945.

As for Simone de Beauvoir—the atheistic high priestess of Saint Germain and all things left wing—she had already taken note of Weil as a child, when she was trounced by her in the ferociously competitive entrance exam to the École Normale. “Her intelligence, asceticism, and total commitment,” wrote de Beauvoir forty years later, “as well as her sheer courage, filled me with admiration…I especially envied her for her heart.”

Text by Peter Foges