MARCH 7, 2020
IN THE SUMMER or fall of 1943, La France libre, the London-based provisional government led by General Charles de Gaulle, received a letter from across the Channel. In three closely typed pages, the writer, identifying himself as “un résistant intellectuel,” described the “anguish” he felt as he surveyed the political and moral landscape of Nazi-occupied France. We are teetering, he declared, between renaissance and ruin. Moreover, those struggling on behalf of the former were driven by two often competing ideals: “The clear desire for justice and profound demand for liberty.” Yet, he warned, if we can one day create a doctrine based on these two imperatives, they would lead to the “complete overhaul” of the nation’s constitutional and financial institutions. One way or another, in short, France would never again be the same.
De Gaulle most probably never read this letter. He was, for the most part, too busy making life wretched for Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to find the time to read or reflect on the clandestine missives sent by the internal resistance movements. Besides, while de Gaulle cast himself as the embodiment of a free France, he had a cast of hundreds to attend to the details of achieving this freedom. This cast included analysts who read these letters from France, recapped the contents, and reported them to their immediate superiors.
This particular letter, I think, would have caught the attention of one of the analysts. Like the writer, the analyst was thinking hard how to balance the often-competing imperatives of liberty and justice. Equally important, she wanted to be sent to France in order to fight, like the writer, in the Resistance. As she told a friend, the suffering of those in France “obsesses and overwhelms me to the point of annihilating my faculties and the only way I can revive them and release myself from the obsession is by getting for myself a large share of danger and hardship.” Her efforts to persuade her superiors, however, were repeatedly rebuffed. Indeed, when de Gaulle himself read one of the analyst’s proposals — namely, to lead a group of nurses as poorly trained as herself to be parachuted onto a battlefield — he dismissed her as “crazy.”
But the analyst was not around to read this letter. By the time it arrived, she had not only already quit her post, but had quit life. Hospitalized in London due to her worsening tuberculosis — a disease also afflicting the letter writer — the analyst refused to eat more than could those subject to severe food rationing in France. What the analyst saw as an act of solidarity was instead seen by her doctors as an act of insanity. When she died in late August, the coroner’s report concluded that she “did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.”
The letter writer and analyst, it turns out, had more than tuberculosis in common. The former, Albert Camus, and the latter, Simone Weil, went on to become two of France’s most famous thinkers and writers. Camus had already established himself during the war not just as the author of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, but also the editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat. By the time of France’s liberation, the French-Algerian writer had become the face — a rather Humphrey Bogartian one at that — of the French Resistance. Sixty years later — he died in a car crash in January 1960 — Camus is also the face of French existentialism.
As for Simone Weil, fame had to wait. She certainly did not seek it out — as evidenced by the many contradictory things she did during her short life. Weil taught philosophy to middle-class students and Greek tragedy to industrial workers; she organized French pacifist movements and carried a gun alongside republicans during the Spanish Civil War; she was fluent in Greek, Latin, English, and German, and worked on assembly lines in a series of factories; she was born into a secular French-Jewish family and died as a near-convert to Roman Catholicism.
Weil also wrote a great deal — much of it during the final months of her life in London — yet very little of it was published before her death. Two years after the war’s end, however, the man to whom she entrusted her personal notebooks, a winegrower named Gustave Thibon, published a selection of her entries under the title La Pésanteur et la grace, or Gravity and Grace. (When not tending to his vineyards, Thibon tended to theology and politics, supporting the antisemitic and authoritarian Action Française during the interwar years and, during the war, the equally antisemitic and authoritarian Vichy regime.) The book catapulted Weil into orbit, one that was widened three years later by the publication of Attente de dieu, or Waiting for God. This book was edited by yet another Catholic intellectual, the philosemitic and résistant Dominican priest Jean-Marie Perrin, and was based on the half dozen or so poignant yet probing letters Weil wrote to him on the subjects of faith and the Church after she had left France in 1942.
These works led Weil to be recognized as a religious thinker. Whereas Weil the political and philosophical thinker — the one who insisted that, since she “lacked the necessary data,” she “left the question of God alone” — remained obscure. All of this changed dramatically, though, by the early 1950s — a change largely due to Camus. Shortly after the war, Camus, who had become an editor at Gallimard, launched a new series called “Espoir.” At first, hope seemed in short supply: the first book he published in this series was titled Asphyxia.
Soon after, though, in 1948, Camus discovered Weil’s manuscripts. The impact was seismic not because he found something new and strange in her writings, but because he found something old and shared. Not only was the public’s understanding of Weil forever changed, but so too was Camus’s understanding of himself. It was not that he changed. Instead, he became more fully Camus.
Beginning in 1949, with the publication of L’Enracinement (The Need for Roots), Camus edited seven of Weil’s books. In these works, Camus found a thinker as taken — as possessed, really — by ancient Greece as he was. His tragic sense of life — whether embodied by Sisyphus or Doctor Rieux, the narrator of The Plague — was reinforced by Weil’s reflections on ancient Greece, particularly her remarkable essay “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.” The rare and “luminous moments” undergone by Homer’s heroes who face the relentless pounding of force is recreated in the scene when Rieux and his friend Tarrou go for a silent swim together while the plague rages in Oran.
Similarly, Camus’s visceral knowledge of suffering — he was raised by a deaf and mostly mute mother who worked as a housecleaner — was sharpened by Weil’s notion of le malheur, or affliction. Among the writings Camus published was Weil’s “Factory Journal,” in which she records her experience, one that nearly killed her, of working in three different factories over the course of a year. As she concluded about such work, you kill yourself “with nothing at all to show for it […] that corresponds to the effort you put out. In that situation, you really feel you are a slave, humiliated to the very depths of your being.” Weil explored the distinction between suffering and affliction in her essay “Human Personality,” which Camus not only published but from which he also copied long passages in his notebooks.
Describing yet another manuscript of Weil’s that he published, La condition ouvrière (The Worker’s Condition), Camus insisted that she revealed in a way no one ever had before the nightmarish lives of industrial workers: “It is essential that the suffering of the worker, a state which dishonors our civilization, be repaired immediately.” In his Nobel Prize address, Camus channeled Weil’s horror at the degradation of human beings — their transformation into things — in the workplace and public sphere. By becoming a writer, he declared, one becomes responsible for others. It was the writer’s duty to speak on behalf of the silenced men and women who are subjected to “unending misery.”
In a telling (though poorly documented) account, Camus fled to the apartment of Weil’s mother, Selma Weil — with whom he worked closely in his editing of Simone Weil’s manuscripts — in order to “gather his thoughts” upon receiving news about the Nobel Prize. In an equally telling (and well documented) account, Camus made mention in Stockholm of his intimate ties to Weil. When asked by a reporter which writers he felt closest to, Camus named the poet René Char and Simone Weil. When the journalist observed that Weil was dead, Camus replied that death never comes between true friends.
Perhaps the deepest intellectual mark left by this friendship is found in what Camus called his “cycle of rebellion.” When he first encountered Weil, Camus was trying to complete this particular cycle. Like his earlier “cycle of absurdity” — formed by The Stranger, Caligula, and The Myth of Sisyphus — this new cycle contained a novel, a play, and a philosophical essay. He had already published the novel — The Plague — and was about to stage the play, The Just Assassins. The essay, though, was another story. Camus was struggling, riddling his notebooks and letters with expressions of doubt and despair over whether he would ever finish the book. And if he did finish it, he kept asking himself if it would ever amount to anything at all.
When The Rebel finally appeared in 1951, there were critics — Jean-Paul Sartre, for one — who thought it amounted to very little. There were others — René Char, for one — who thought it amounted to a great deal. Camus’s other close friend — Simone Weil — would no doubt have agreed. At times, in fact, Camus seems to be addressing Weil rather than the reader. This is especially true when he takes up the distinction between rebellion and revolution.
Rebels, Camus declared, resist those who oppress and treat them as less than human:
It is for the sake of everyone in the world that the slave asserts himself when he comes to the conclusion that a command has infringed on something which does not belong to him alone, but which is the common ground where all men — even the man who insults and oppresses him — have a natural community.
This is a clear echo of Weil’s claim that the “struggle of those who obey against those who command, when the mode of commanding entails destroying the human dignity of those underneath, is the most legitimate, most motivated, most genuine action that exists.” But the rebel, unlike the revolutionary, also resists the temptation to dehumanize and mistreat that same oppressor. Rebellion, paradoxically, must be moderate. Weil declared, in her Oppression and Liberty, that lucidity with oneself as well as others “does away with insatiable desires and vain fears; from this and not from anything else proceed moderation and courage, virtues without which life is nothing but a disgraceful frenzy.” In the Iliad essay, she again insists on the need for moderation first expressed by the Greek poets in their “conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium.” Similarly, Camus echoed the ancient Greek conviction that measure is, well, immeasurably important. The lesson of ancient tragedy, he wrote, is that “limit must not be transgressed […] To make a mistake about this limit, to try to destroy the balance, is to perish.”
The vehicle of revolution in Weil and Camus’s day — communism — long ago turned into a rusting hulk. But the world is heavy with other vehicles of immoderation, and the fumes are thicker than ever. They seem to bleed into the thoughts and words of most everyone; they risk poisoning not just those who first wield it, but those who rightly seek to defeat it. What Camus took from Weil merits our attention more than ever: “The logic of the rebel is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness.” If happiness seems a wager too wild, at least for now, we might at least consider a stake on civility.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author of numerous books and articles on French intellectual history. His new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in February 2021.