Book Review Wednesday: Simone Weil by Francis du Plessix Gray

31 October 2007

A quick review of a book I’ve been reading lately.

I had heard of Simone Weil before, but I never knew anything about her.  I’d seen this book at the library before, and always been intrigued.  I had read Gary Wills’ bio of Augustine of Hippo in the Penguin Lives series before, so I felt that the series itself was pretty good.

Simone Weil is a complicated figure: Jewish but loathe to admit or embrace her Jewishness, a leftist disenchanted with Communism (a rare bird in the 1920s and 30s), a militant who embraced pacifism.  Her anarcho-syndicalist leanings earned my sympathy early on, as did her love of Greek, but her odd form of anti-Semitism definitely turned me off.  Weil is an odd one, who also seemed to be fascinated with monastic practice, especially chant and austerity of dress.  And yet du Plessix Gray manages to make Weil a sympathetic figure, mainly by highlighting Weil’s sincerity: no matter how outlandish Weil’s stand on an issue was at a particular time, Weil seems to be one of those few people who always tells the truth in political and philosophical discussions.

Weil was also a sufferer of anorexia, which colors much of her writing, although never explicitly.  At a time when eating disorders were taboo or simply unknown, I felt great sympathy for this sensitive, thoughtful woman who seems to have had as good a heart as she had a conflicted, sometimes truly negative self-image.

A test of a good biography is balance and how much it piques interest.  Du Plessix Gray avoid hagiography while emphasizing how important Weil’s thought was, not necessarily during her own time, but in ours.  This bio also makes me want to pick up The Simone Weil Reader or Oppression and Liberty. If you’ve always been curious about Simone Weil, an oft mentioned 20th Century thinker who is rarely actually read, pick up this one.

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