***** _New York Times_ 20 November 1999
Simone Weil's Mixed Legacy By PAUL LEWIS
As a brilliant but radical philosophy student in Paris in the late 1920s, she was nicknamed the Red Virgin and the Categorical Imperative in Skirts.
But today Simone Weil is remembered mainly as a French Jew who used her stunningly original intelligence to denigrate the Jews on the eve of World War II and espouse a mystical Christianity of her own invention.
Last week French and American scholars gathered at Columbia University for a conference to discuss her writings and her odd combination of beliefs.
Why is there such interest in this young Frenchwoman with such repugnant views on Jews? A woman who joined General Charles de Gaulle's Free French in London before dying in 1943 at the age of 34 from tuberculosis aggravated by self-imposed starvation. (She was trying to share the hardships of the occupation.) Even her admirers speak of her as a kind of mad virtuoso.
T.S. Eliot called her genius "akin to that of the saints," while Albert Camus spoke of her "madness for truth." At the conference, Sylvere Lotringer, a professor of French literature at Columbia, called Weil "one of the great minds of the 1930s and '40s, pushing her ideas to the limit without pity for anyone, in a kind of delirium."
As a young teacher, Weil worked on behalf of the unemployed and dreamed of restoring dignity to manual labor. She joined the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, compared Hitler to Julius Caesar and encouraged de Gaulle to unify the French resistance by creating a National Council of the Resistance. Later, she urged de Gaulle to ban political parties in postwar France because their lust for power encouraged totalitarianism.
Weil wanted to found an elite nursing group to tend wounded soldiers at the front. Only months before her death, she begged to be parachuted into occupied France on a secret mission -- "preferably a dangerous one."
Not surprisingly, however, the conference was dominated by Weil's hostility toward Judaism. She died before the horrors of the Holocaust became known, but in general she saw the Israelites of the Old Testament as cruel imperialists and their God as vengeful and violent. The lives of the patriarchs were "sullied with atrocities," she said, while the prohibition against idolatry encouraged "the chosen people" to self-worship.
"I am paralyzed by the thought that I am accused of descending from people who could not find anything better to give humanity than Jehovah," Weil wrote. Christianity, she believed, sprang from the spirituality and grace of ancient Greece but had been subverted by imperial Rome, which turned it into a centralized, domineering religion in its own image. Nevertheless, she was never baptized, nor did she ever join any Christian church.
As a paraphrase of Weil's view, Jeffrey Mehlman of Boston University said: "Rome, the incarnation of imperial statism, ripped Christianity from the spiritual fabric that sustained it and reinterpreted it spuriously as the heir of the this-worldly religion of Israel and its God of vengeance."
Some scholars at the conference felt Weil viewed Hellenic civilization through rosy spectacles. She explained away the destruction of Troy, for example, by saying the Greeks never gloried in it as the Romans did in their annihilation of Carthage.
For Page duBois, a classicist from the University of California at San Diego, Weil's sense of the purity of ancient Greece was based on "selective reading" that omitted "the sex and drinking."
Still, there was no agreement on Weil's attitude toward fellow Jews or the effect of her thinking on contemporary anti-Semitism. Michael Stanislawski, a professor of Jewish history at Columbia, called her an anti-Semite whose views were an "unpardonable perfidy" to some.
Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, a French philosopher, pointed out that under the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Petain, Weil proposed limiting Jewish entry into the French civil service and sought to encourage Jewish assimilation and mixed marriages.
But Lotringer defended Weil, arguing that assimilation was a way of shielding France's Jews from persecution by eliminating them as a separate minority.
The mystical nature of her Christianity led her to welcome suffering -- which she called "affliction" -- believing it brought the soul closer to God. This, several speakers suggested, may have diminished her sympathy for Jewish suffering in occupied France.
In any event, her attitude toward Judaism apparently arose from a conviction that the ancient Israelites were aggressive and cruel; this caused her to battle oppression -- except, it seems, against her own people. *****