AUGUST 28, 2019
NO. 79. If you would know the woman, start there. Had her posthumous fate played out as she preferred, her name would not have appeared on her gravestone, but instead there would have been anonymous numbers of the kind assigned to paupers. And for 15 years after her death, Simone Weil was a nameless nobody at Ashford Bybrook Cemetery — stone No. 79 between the Jewish and the Catholic sections.
Fate, however, had other plans for this Frenchwoman, who was marked for greatness though touched by tragedy. Though she never published a book in her lifetime, many books have been stitched together by others based on her voluminous essays, diaries, letters, class lectures, and various things she wrote for newsletters, journals, and the Free French resistance movement. To add to the Weil bounty, numerous biographies, including a forthcoming one by Robert Zaretsky, have been written about her, along with countless pages of commentary. In that regard, two just-released books are noteworthy: When Fiction and Philosophy Meet: A Conversation with Flannery O’Connor and Simone Weil by E. Jane Doering and Ruthann Knechel Johansen and The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown by Karen Olsson.
With Venice Saved, yet another of Weil’s unfinished works is resurrected, and happily so. Early on, Albert Camus recognized in Weil a great mind that wrestled, as did his, with fundamental problems of the human condition. And so he arranged to publish 11 of the first Weil books to be released by Gallimard. There was also Gustave Thibon, who culled portions of her journals and organized them topically, and with a Catholic bent, in Gravity and Grace (La Pesanteur et la grâce). Others followed suit in piecing together her writings on topics ranging from colonialism to mysticism and from political philosophy to physics.
Enter Silvia Panizza and Philip Wilson, who are the first to translate into English Weil’s three-act tragic play, including eight pages of revealing extracts from the author’s notebooks that sketch out her ideas about the direction of the play, which was almost complete. Panizza and Wilson also add explanatory commentaries and endnotes to fill in a number of the blanks left open by Weil. In most cases, these notes are quite insightful and helpful. Sometimes, however, the editors’ scholastic asides distract from the main focus of the play (e.g., on the question of whether Weil was a “feminist” or whether her views match up with Sudhir Hazareesingh’s “five characteristics of French thought”). Even so, their translation and admirably researched presentation of Venice Saved fill a gap in the Weil literature and contribute much to the mosaic — at once philosophical, political, and mystical — of her legacy.
June 1940, Vichy, France: There in a tiny rented apartment, recuperating from a leg infection and working atop a sleeping bag spread out on a kitchen floor, Simone Weil pondered the plot of a play (Venise Sauvée) she began in Paris. Her draft of the play was based partly on a 1674 work by the abbot of Saint-Réal (César Vichard) and partly on historical events. In it, Weil artfully wove together in dramatic form several key concepts in her philosophical lexicon: gravity, grace, uprootedness, friendship, necessity, affliction, attention, metaxu, and beauty. Vital to the play is Weil’s notion of force, the idea that was the philosophical and psychological centerpiece of her powerful essay “The Iliad or the Poem of Force” (1940). Also key is the notion of attention, which she termed “the rarest and purest form of generosity. It is given to very few minds to notice that things and beings exist” (April 13, 1942 letter). And then there is her notion of friendship that twists and turns in the play’s plot.
“A necessity as strong as gravity condemns man to evil, keeping all good from him except in limited quantities, painfully acquired, all mixed and soiled with evil, except for the appearance here below of the supernatural that suspends the effects of earthly necessity.” So wrote Weil in a 1941 essay titled “Morality and Literature.” Those lines (translated by E. Jane Doering) would make for an illuminating epigraph to Venice Saved. Think of them: a gravitational-like force tilts us, by “necessity,” toward “evil.” Gravity is the rule, grace the exception. That “supernatural” moment inspires the tragic hero’s actions in Venice Saved, though not without some collateral damage in the form of real-world consequences that point to a metaphysical injustice.
Venice Saved is a play Weil reworked and revised many times yet never quite finished. It is a story of a horrific evil abated, even though evil later demands its murderous due. A city — its beauty, heritage, and citizens — survives thanks to the attentive (in the Weilian sense) actions of the lead character, Jaffier, who was part of a group of Spanish mercenaries who had plotted to sack the city in 1618. Nonetheless, Jaffier’s actions, noble as they are, trigger deadly consequences for his friends, the co-conspirators — consequences of the kind doled out by the Nazis, whose brutality was being exercised when Weil penned her play.
The beauty of Venice, which was already there, caused Jaffier to make the tough choice not to destroy the city. As such, it served a function basic to Weil’s religious philosophy: beauty opens the way for grace to enter the human heart, even when one is prepared to do evil. In the mystifying process, a city was saved and its people were not uprooted. Consequently, Jaffier (perhaps unwittingly) takes on the role of the sacrificial lamb that will absorb the evil and thus stop its perpetuation as far as he humanly can.
One wonders: Would the hero have opted to save Venice if he knew his co-conspirators (his friends) would not be saved as promised by the Council of Ten? The problem raised by the question and exemplified by Weil’s play is that once force is set in motion it perpetuates itself until absorbed by a pure soul, a Christ figure, or something existentially akin to that. To ask such questions is to invite Monsieur Camus into the room and to contemplate the “absurd” and what follows in its tragic path.
There is also the question of what exactly was saved when Venice was saved — aesthetic value, moral and historical traditions, the “rootedness” of the city’s inhabitants? Such questions help to discipline the mind, to scrape it clean of the scum of abstractions, and that, ultimately, is Weil’s goal.
A word of caution: No philosophy or political creed merits respect unless it is subjected to exacting scrutiny. This is especially true of thinkers who, for one reason or another, become so celebrated that critical thought evades those who preach their gospel. In a 1934 letter to his sister Helene, Ludwig Wittgenstein objected to the “idolatrous veneration” being heaped on him. Weil expressed a similar concern in a letter to her parents written on an August 4, 1943, in which she expressed the hope that her readers would ask: “Is what she says true?”
Regrettably, too many Weil followers and commentators fail to heed her admonition (some notable exceptions can be found in the works of Peter Winch and Mario Von Der Ruhr, among others). They seek to defend her views, no matter how debatable these are. The problem is compounded when attentive care is not employed in using certain highly complex Weilian terms, such as affliction, decreation, and contradiction.
Weil is best approached, at least in the early stages, with a certain degree of sophrosyne, the Greek word for soundness of mind or mental sobriety, which was so valued by Plato. To stress this in regard to Weil is not to discount the mystical side of her thought, any more than it would be to discount the Pythagorean side of Plato’s thought. It is simply to say that one must prepare and take precautions before venturing to scale the loftiest peaks.
This new edition of Venice Saved invites just that sort of careful, critical approach to Weil. It offers her philosophy from perspectives that her other works do not and thus widens the lens through which we can view her ideas. In the splendid spectrum of this play, Weil’s tragic side melds with her life-affirming side.
The editors and their publisher chose wisely when they selected the book’s cover image — a detail of the Church of the Redeemer and St. George by a 17th-century Venetian artist. In it, the beauty of Venice lives on. As one peers into the depths of the picture, the joy of the play’s closing lines complements the dramatic portrait: “How lovely on this sea are the rays of the day.”
Ronald Collins is a retired law professor and co-director of the History Book Festival and book review editor for SCOTUSblog. His next book, influenced in important part by the thought of Simone Weil and Albert Camus, is Reason in Ruins: America’s Destiny in Perilous Times (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). His essay (with Finn Nielsen) on Weil’s concept of law appeared in Simone Weil’s Philosophy of Culture: Readings Toward a Divine Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 1993), edited by Richard H. Bell. His recent review essay of Karen Olsson’s The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown (2019) appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.