Writing with her customary grace and acuity, Francine du Plessix Gray, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated At Home with the Marquis de Sade
, examines an equally extreme character at the opposite end of the moral spectrum in Simone Weil
. Weil (1909-43) displayed early the ferocious intellect that took this daughter of affluent, highly assimilated French Jews to the peak of her country's rigorous educational system and made her an important modern philosopher. But Weil remains a beacon to activists because of her passionate, intensely personal commitment to the world's oppressed and her need to directly share their sufferings. This need had its neurotic aspects, and Gray's elegant biography does not gloss over Weil's lifelong anorexia, her distaste for physical contact, her peculiar brand of anti-Semitism, or the unyielding self-righteousness that led her to cut off friendships for minor offenses. Yet the overall tone is one of sympathetic respect for an extraordinary human being unable to develop the willed blindness that enables most of us to live comfortably while others go without. Weil gave up prestigious teaching jobs to do manual labor; she performed dangerous work in the Resistance; and, when threatened by a Vichy policeman who exclaimed angrily, "You little bitch, we'll have you thrown in jail with the whores!" she replied coolly, "I've always wanted to know that milieu." Her slow, exceedingly tentative movement toward Christianity grew from her need to affirm her solidarity with the world's "slaves," and her prescient denunciation of Communism at a time when most radicals embraced it arose from her understanding that Soviet apparatchiks abused the working class just as egregiously as their putative opponents, the fascists. This is an outstanding introduction for general readers to the influential thought and rivetingly conflicted life of a seminal figure in 20th-century intellectual history. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Gray, who as novelist and biographer has illuminated the mystery of human suffering (most recently in At Home with the Marquis de Sade, 1998, a Pulitzer Prize finalist), was the perfect pick to write a volume on Simone Weil (1909-1943) for the admirable Penguin Lives series of short, popular biographies. Weil, the Jewish-born but Christ-loving, intermittently blue-collar author of brilliant political essays and breathtaking spiritual aphorisms, was a complex of suffering on all levels. She suffered from a profoundly negative self-image, incapacitating migraines and self-starvation, voluntarily assumed factory labor of the most grueling kind, endured the defeat of France in WWII and distance from God. The paradox in this panoply of ills is that, while superficially humbling, they reveal Weil's enormous force of personal will. Gray is a wise and compassionate Virgil to the bewildered reader who chances upon this transfixing, even seductive inferno (or purgatory, or heaven the boundaries blur) of largely self-imposed pain. She clarifies the gradual transition in Weil's life from left-wing political activism to world-renouncing spirituality, and critiques what she sees as "priggish" and "perverse" tendencies in Weil's moral idealisms, from her Francophile fervors to her gnostic anti-Judaism. In some ways, Weil was simply a "spoiled brat," Gray notes. Finally, Gray absolves Weil of her excesses by revealing the intense spirituality beneath them and the love and admiration she elicited despite them. If Gray herself tends to excess, it is in her multiple citings (at least 13) of anorexia as medical cause of her subject's extremes. But her fine selection of perfectly apposite anecdotes more than compensates. The result is a virtuosic achievement, possibly unique among popular treatments of Weil: a short, measured biography of a short but startlingly unmeasured and unmeasuring life.
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