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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 24th, 2001


Simone Weil (Penguin Lives Biographies)

by Francine Du Plessix Gray

A review by Elizabeth Judd

Flannery O'Connor once said that she didn't envy anyone inclined to write about Simone Weil. Revered by activists, feminists, and the followers of various religions, castigated for repudiating Judaism during the Holocaust, Weil remains a paradox, legendarily altruistic but also combative and fanatically stubborn. She was born in Paris, in 1909, to doting Jewish parents; wrote philosophical essays while driving herself to the brink of exhaustion laboring alongside factory workers; and even fought briefly in the Spanish civil war. Toward the end of her life Weil's thinking was transformed by a mystical experience, and at thirty-four she died of tuberculosis exacerbated by years of starving herself in solidarity with the world's hungry. Albert Camus adored Weil's work, Pope Paul VI considered her one of the three most important influences on his intellectual development, and T. S. Eliot said she possessed "a kind of genius akin to that of the saints."

Weil's ablest biographers, including her close friend Simone Pétrement and the psychiatrist Robert Coles, whose 1987 portrait was reissued in March, often seem cowed by her virtuousness, too tentative in exploring the irrational elements of her character. Francine du Plessix Gray, approaching Weil afresh in the Penguin Lives Series, errs in the opposite direction, needling her subject with great relish and sometimes expertly hitting the mark. When recounting Weil's refusal to heat her apartment out of sympathy with the unemployed, she suggests Weil's naiveté with an eloquent parenthetical aside: "(She would be surprised to learn that most of them lived in well-heated spaces.)" And by lavishing so much space on Weil's overprotective mother, who followed her daughter around (even to the Spanish civil war), cajoling Weil to eat, Du Plessix Gray profitably hints that the parental safety net allowed Weil to cultivate a distinctly adolescent rebelliousness throughout her short existence.

Unfortunately, Du Plessix Gray's dutifully researched but otherwise perfunctory chronicle too readily veers toward caricature. Her repeated emphasis on Weil's clumsiness, thick glasses, and "hideous clothes with which she habitually disfigured herself" is sadly ironic given Weil's principled abstention from the physical (Weil never had a lover or indulged her lifelong romance with food). At times one senses that Weil has aggrieved Du Plessix Gray on some deeply personal level. She laments Weil's "extraordinarily self-centered vocation for self-effacement," confessing a desire "to shake Simone by the shoulders and say, 'Come off it, you spoiled brat – get off your high horse!'" A smart, irreverent critique of Weil would have been fascinating, but Du Plessix Gray comes off as lightweight and weirdly seething.

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