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In Our Time: Simone Weil

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 15:15, Friday, 16 November 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Simone Weil. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI

Simone Weil


Reading Simone Weil for a week and being involved in an intense programme and then thinking more about her feels like being locked in a cell of my past, both the religious angst, the philosophical yearnings and the French connection.

It became even stranger when, immediately after the programme, I went up one floor in Broadcasting House to read a bit of Alice Through The Looking Glass for a forthcoming BBC celebration programme.

Out into the streets and the Christmas lights still blazingly on at 10:30 in the morning, which to a thrifty Northern soul seems to be a bit of a waste of electricity! But the other side of that thriftiness is a completely undiminished pleasure in Christmas decorations and so I hope they're on all through the night.

Last Friday I went to dinner with friends and, being early, walked the length of Oxford Street at about eight o'clock at night, magnificently arrayed (though not as good as Regent Street) in their Christmas finery, especially the big stores sheeted with decoration, sometimes a little bit too tasteful for me. There was a bunch of young lads - bulging muscles, white T-shirts - using the scaffolding outside the building to do exercises they would normally do in the gym and attracting as big a crowd as if they'd been a jazz band. There were the remnants of a jazz band - a single trumpeter - playing rather dolefully, a little bit worse for drink, I'm afraid, but full of the Christmas spirit, and then turned the corner into Park Lane, not lit up, the comforting darkness of Hyde Park across the way, the big hotels, discreetly shepherding their secrets towards the festive season.

Saturday was a day of Establishment. Off to Wadham College, Oxford - my old college - again early, so wandered through Oxford and came across a bunch of about 30 diminutive carol singers with lanterns and parents going up one of the little lanes around the Radcliffe Camera. I could have been in a Dickens film. Perhaps I was? And on to the Great Hall at Wadham, with the candles and the silver candelabra and people dressed up to celebrate the 90th birthday of Claus Moser, Warden of Wadham for many years, and a man who has spread his great talents across our culture since he arrived here from Germany in the late Thirties. What an amazing life he has had, from watching Hitler's torchlit marches from a flat in which some of the finest music in Berlin was played (and he was one of the instrumentalists), to moving to this country and becoming a leading figure in Harold Wilson's Civil Service and ... too much to relate, as I discovered when I tried to select the highlights for the toast that I made to him.

Sunday was back with the populace on Hampstead Heath. Such a glorious day, but after the Remembrance Service - another mass occasion which is getting ever bigger, I think, and the small crosses outside Westminster Abbey grow every year like winter crocuses (soon to take the whole of the lawns over) - on to Hampstead Heath, absolutely jam-packed with visitors. You mustn't complain about visitors if you are one of them. And what is there to complain about, with so many folk come to this postage stamp Lake District, overlooking London, and full of amiability and enjoyment of a glorious Indian autumn?

Sunday was hard reading. Monday was the beginning of what could only be called an Establishment week. I asked a question about overseas students in the House of Lords. Then there was a meeting at the British Academy of some of the hundred or so scientists and others who have come together to defend British universities. Later in the week there was the Royal Institution where Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were going to speak. Blair, alas, couldn't come because of the illness of his father, but to see Clinton in action was worth the ticket. He just loves it. Even after a long talk he went to shake hands and mingle, ever Presidential and much thinner than he was. The drawl is entrancing and the use of plain and folksy metaphors gives wonderful colouring to his speech.

The next morning to the Royal Society to talk to Paul Nurse about the programme that Tom Morris and I are doing about the changes in culture in this country over the last 120 years. It's odd really that these great Establishment places - oh, I forgot! Westminster Abbey on Wednesday to hear Professor Angie Hobbs (a regular on In Our Time) talking about Plato and secular morality - harnessing their energy to so many causes so well-directed to the 21st century.

At least, that's my story.

It would be great to have the space to make a number of connections here, between classes, between periods in our history and between the metropolis and the provinces, but Ingrid quite rightly will be saying "Enough is enough".

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


  • Comment number 1.

    Any chance you could revert to sending these wonderful blogs in simple text? They do not display well on my BlackBerry!

  • Comment number 2.

    1st thoughts on IOT(Simone Weil).This is a case of a programme that was rushed and needed to be placed in 2 or 3 programmes.Speakers were just getting into their strides when they were unceremoniously shuffled off so the next speaker could explain.There was no rhythm nor shape to the proceedings.Simone Weil is an eclectic figure whose work and influence required to be dealt with in different programmes. Mr Bragg needs to look at being more good mannered in how he asks for a contribution then cuts people off in mid-flow without so much as a sorry or reason that he would like to concentrate on a different topic ornuance of ideas. The speakers must feel totally bereft of the space required to develop their pieces on this complex figure and have confidence in what they have to say.Weil deserves the time needed to talk about the concentration and density of her thought.The speakers were allexcellent.

    As a thinker Weil is up there with the political theorists,thephilosophers, the religious mystics,the politically engaged.She was extremely idealistically impulsive and did things for which she was not practically suited e.g. worked in Peugot factories for a year,breaking herself mentally and physically;fighting in the Spanish Civil War,when she couldn’t handle a gun,and her colleagues took her away from the action. She burned herself cooking.and was invalided out,luckily, as all the females in the regiment were killed later in fighting.She practiced what she preached as Hans-Pyle said.She wanted to match the living conditions of the poorest workers..She also had possibly a form of anorexia(she had troubles with being feminine and desexed herself). Why can’t we apply medical categories in her case?She wasn’t Christ!She refused medical treatment and food before she died of TB, due to political idealism rather than poor body image.She had a horror of physical contact,she couldn’t relate to the ‘personal’ side,she could only live on the abstract level of the impersonality of ‘truth’.Sherelated to ‘love’through suffering, the Christian concept of loving your neighbour. She came closest to pure intellectual being,as she rejected her Judaism(was she anti-semitic?) and converted to Catholicism when she realized she was a ‘slave’, but didn’t get baptised,as she loved things outside of Christianity as much like nature, art,other religions, science.She claimed the whole of Christianity was in the Lord’s Prayer. Known now as a Christian Platonist or Christian anarchist.

  • Comment number 3.

    After going to Germany in 1932 she predicted that Nazism would triumph over the left.Christ came to her as she read Herbert’s poem ‘Love III’ and possessed her.OnlyChrist could give’meat’(his own)to the famished. Reading this poem for such a highly wrought andfragile ego-less person I can believe this.The idea of love as radical self-sacrifice. Idea of decreation to come closer to God.Called herself a ‘Bolshevik’when told she was a Communist at school.She argued with Trotsky due to the formation of elitist bureaucracies as oppressive as the worst capitalists.She went off Marxism as Lenin and Trotsky never worked in a factory or knew what it was like. Possibly due to her malnutrition, she had mystical experiences.She expressed herself in aphorisms due to Pascal’s influence.She insisted that writing should be based on experience.She said the spirit found in the Gospels animated also the classics of Greek literature. To the spiritual ills of ideology and fanaticism in World War II she wanted to give a spiritual answer,namely the re-Christianization of Europe to which she (though not baptized herself) wished to contribute in some way.Her key concepts:force, necessity,attention,decreation,detachment,separation,rootedness and affliction have whole essays written on them.Glad you covered the metaphor of the wall.Both self and world are constituted only through informed action upon the world when what is unforeseen presents itself to us.Principles are nothing unless acted upon.

  • Comment number 4.

    Isn't it odd that for all her celebrated ability to empathize, Simone Weil lived through the rise of Naziism and much of the Holocaust, without, as far as I know, having a single compassionate word to say to her fellow Jews!? She preached the embracing of affliction, but when the Vichy authorities refused her a job because of her Jewish background, she wrote back to explain that she should not be persecuted because she did not consider herself to be Jewish! These rather serious failings are perfectly in line with her more general pathology: her fear that entanglements with concrete, actual, particular people might interfere with her arid and abstract concern for human-beings-in-general.

  • Comment number 5.

    I cannot agree she was pathological. Her mother's solicitude had also an excessive side - she had a phobic dread of microbes and imposed onher children compulsive hand washing. Mme Weil ruled, that outside the immediate family, nobody else was allowed to kiss the children. Throughout her life, Simone avoided most forms of physical contact. She also had problems with food. At the age of six she refused to eat sugar, because it was not rationed to French soldiers in the war.She believed in there being no barriers between the elite and the working class.She gave tutorials to the working classes in languages and Greek. She went on protest marches with working class unions getting herself in trouble with her teaching employers.You were not supposed to fraternise with the workers as a teacher.She also identified more with the French people as an assimilated Jew,wanting to help them after the war,working for De Gaulle.As a secular Jew she had no identification with the Jewish people or race. She loathed her Jewishness.Sartre similarly rejected his background as a Frenchman and a member of the bourgeoisie.This didn’t hurt his philosophy(called ‘Voltaire’by De Gaulle.

    She may be perceived as somewhat wilful in her interpretation of the Gospels through a Platonic,Greek perspective(e.g.translating the Lord’s Prayer from Greek) rather than a Hebraic origin.She did dislike the Jewish God it was mentioned,not the Christian one.She also was blind when she went to research the Left in Germany in 1932 she did not see the anti-semitism or mention it once.She saw herself more as an individual than a member of a race.She set high standards on herself(but did not impose them on others).She gave her wages away to the unemployed.She was a pacifist who joined the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.She was a manichean who saw as the Cathars did that the senses were part of the world of Becoming,unreliable,when she
    wished to penetrate into the world of Being(Platonic Forms).She didn’t hate the Jewish people,she just didn’t acknowledge that part of herself. It meant nothing to her.She is firmly in the tradition of religious philosophers,Kierkegard,Pascal,Marcel.Her thought is crystalline inclarity and has great depth.It has the impersonality of geometry.Her brother being a great mathematician.She died when her mind was unbalanced by malnutrition. She refused food and medical treatment out of sympathy for the plight of the people of Occupied France.She was quixotic in temperament.

  • Comment number 6.

    I don't think that Weil's indifference to the Holocaust can be chalked up to assimilation. Everyone knew that the Jews were singled out as special victims of hatred and persecution by the Nazis. So many non-Jewish intellectuals spoke up about it - what was holding Weil back? Again, if Weil was a saint of humane empathy, how did she manage not to notice antisemitism during World War II?

  • Comment number 7.

    She drew an extensive parallel between imperial Rome and Hitler’s Germany, that is surely revealing of the serious level of her thought,its enrichment of our culture. That Hitlerism consists in the application by Germany to the European continent, and the white race generally, of colonial methods of conquest and domination. (Immediately after, of course, she says that these—both Hitler’s methods and the “normal colonial ones”—are derived from the Roman model.)I admit she displays an unpleasant silence on the Nazi persecution of the Jews,but as she was abroad in Kent working for the SOE and she died in 1943,she may have missed a lot of what came out about the Holocaust in 1945.She didn’t care what people said about her,her sincerity was uppermost,she meant what she said.Trotsky lodged with her parents and she took him to task about the Kronstadt Mutiny.She dismissed Communism and Fascism because they arrive at the same point.She saw through the USSR much earlier than the rest of Europe did.She never felt any obligation to toe any party line.She never joined any group:if she saw any hypocrisy or compromise,she would call that out.She eliminated the gap between belief and action.She thought Judaism has a very violent God,always waxing wrath. There was a lot of slaughter going on.Why she didn’t like Judaism:God the Father is always cross with you.She rejected Judaism due to her need to examine the other side.Her hard, ascetic life with its suffering contributed towards her spirituality.

  • Comment number 8.

    She saw France as under German occupation and she and her parents fled to Marseilles,to escape France,got stuck there 2 years due to visa problems,doing there some of the greatest thinking of her life in the c/o Catholic intellectuals.Camus was a great promoter of her.She escaped and was desperate to throw herself into the Resistance struggle for her country.She had a will to ignore something that didn’t interest her(e.g. eating when she’s dying/interest in her Jewish background).She felt she had a gift.A last letter to her parents said she felt she had within her a deposit of pure gold which she had to give out.Her stance was ofwaiting for God,she substituted Jesus for food. She abhorred every ivory tower, whether academic or religious or political. She rejected every device that excluded her from the common world.Rather than considering the world from the abstracted throne of reason, she engaged the world from the ground. Despite her faith and conviction, the profound violence of the church prevented her from joining in communion;also the church’s habit of silencing rational thought. She feared the easy path, a path that would lead to false religion. She feared an easy community that would blunt the profound loneliness. It is alone that she can be sure of herself, sure that reason guides her thought. It is alone, outside of the communion that she can be sure that faith is not propped up by her desire for community.She completely identified herself with the alien and rejected of institutionalized religion.

  • Comment number 9.

    Out of all of the Gospels the character that Simone Weil most envied was
    the Good Thief - crucified with Jesus while recognising Jesus was not a criminal (Matthew 27:44).

    ... le bon larron est de loin celui que j’envie davantage.

    Letter III, 1942 in Waiting for God

    Might not this make her into a biblical Martha character?

  • Comment number 10.

    The Good Thief was told directly by Jesus before he died that he would be with Him that day in Paradise. How wonderful to know for certain on the point of death, when all hope of making reparations for one's sins has gone, that you would be with God for all eternity. How absolutely incredible! I see no reason that envying the Good Thief makes Simone Weil into a Martha character.

  • Comment number 11.

    I agree with John Thompson's point that this subject would be better covered by two or three episodes. (I used to think that criticism only applied to subjects I knew something about, but I think every substantive topic is starting to feel a bit superficially treated.)

    Also, could be a cultural difference, but I also find the interruptions a bit brusque and just rude (i.e., like asking someone for the time, and cutting them off after they just give you the hour.)


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