Hands of Simone Weil

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<p>The Hands of Simone Weil Author(s): Franoise Meltzer Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Summer, 2001), pp. 611-628 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344316 Accessed: 07/06/2010 23:29Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=ucpress. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.</p> <p>The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Critical Inquiry.</p> <p>http://www.jstor.org</p> <p>The Hands of Simone Weil</p> <p>Frangoise Meltzer</p> <p>Philosophyis to reflectionwhat the work of the hands is to action. - Simone Weil, "On Thought and Work" As Marx notes, social, productive labor is man's(and woman's)essential activity and leads, in principle, to human self-developmentand fulfillcommument. It is not surprising,therefore,that for the self-proclaimed nist Simone Weil, work and workingconditions would be central to her philosophy.The hedonist notion-that the pursuit of pleasure and idleness is the fundamentalgoal of human being (as argued, for example, by Russell and Hume)-was as alien to Weil'sthinking as was amusement (or leisure) for its own sake in her short life. But we must be careful not to confuse her life with her philosophy (a difficult task, as any work on she Weilwill attest).What she argues for in defense of "man," very rarely accords herself. She takes great pains to deny herself the duties that we owe every living being, duties that she actuallycataloguesin "Draftfor a But Statementof Human Obligations."' even for the rest of humankind,A shorter version of this article was first given as the Nuveen Lecture at the University of Chicago divinity school and at Johns Hopkins University. I am grateful for the helpful and insightful comments I received in both of those forums. I profited immensely as well from a course on Simone Weil that I cotaught with David Tracy at the divinity school a few years ago and am grateful to him for his generous reading of this essay. Finally, special and to Joshua Yumibe. thanks to Jay Williams, editor extraordinaire, Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own. 1. See Simone Weil, "Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations," trans. Richard Rees, An SimoneWeil: Anthology,trans. Rees et al., ed. Sian Miles (New York, 1986), pp. 201-10.CriticalInquiry27 (Summer 2001) ? 2001 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/01/2704-0005$02.00.</p> <p>All rights reserved.</p> <p>611</p> <p>612</p> <p>FranfoiseMeltzer</p> <p>TheHands of SimoneWeil</p> <p>Weil counters Hume's ideal life of contemplation with attention,a far more rigorous and intense form of meditation. "Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man."2Moreover, attention is not to be confused with will; it is rather bound up in desire (here Weil is strongly influenced by her reading of the Stoics). Attention specifically requires the passivity of the I and the disappearance of the subject: "Attention alone, that attention which is so full that the I disappears, is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call 'I' of the light of my attention and turn it onto that which cannot be conceived."3 Attention then (which in its highest form is prayer) entails great energy, toil, struggle, fatigue. It is described, in other words, in the language usually associated with labor or work. Indeed, Weil's form of contemplation is only possible through work: "Only through the experience of labor do I meet, together, time and space, time as the condition, space as the object of my action."4 As she argues in the brief essay "On Thought and Work,"the realization that work is a necessity comes at the same time as the appearance of freedom.5 My purpose, however, is not to account for Weil's ideas on labor and selffulfillment but rather to argue that the reception of her thought, which considers the religious and the Marxian as two irreconcilable strains, has failed to see that her ideas on work provide a ground for demonstrating a coherence and indeed a strange synthesis between these two strains.62. Weil, "Attention and Will," Gravityand Grace,trans. Arthur Wills (New York, 1952), p. 170. 3. Ibid., pp. 171-72. 4. Quoted in Simone P6trement, La Viede SimoneWeil,2 vols. (Paris, 1973), 1:146. 5. See Weil, "Sur la pensee et le travail,"Premiers ed. ecritsphilosophiques, Gilbert Kahn and Rolf Kiihn, vol. I of Oeuvrescompletes, ed. D'Andre A. Devaux and Florence de Lussy (Paris, 1988), pp. 378-79. 6. There have been a number of articles on Weil and work, although not in the direction I attempt to go in this essay. See, for example, Eugene Fleur, "Le 'Social' dans La Conditionouvridre," CahiersSimoneWeil7 (Dec. 1984): 341-46; Rene Prevost, "La Philosophie du travail chez Charles P6guy et chez Simone Weil," CahiersSimone Weil 7 (Dec. 1984): 350-59; Robert Chenavier, "Civilisation du travail ou civilisation du temps libre? Actualite de la pensee de Simone Weil," CahiersSimone Weil 10 (Sept.-Dec. 1987): 238-54, 406-17; See also Louis Patsouras, Simone Weiland the Socialist Tradition(San Francisco, 1991), and Lawrence A. Blum and Victor J. Seidler, A Truer SimoneWeiland Marxism(New York, Liberty: 1989). Finally, see Clare Benedicks Fischer, "The Fiery Bridge: Simone Weil's Theology of Work" (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, 1979).</p> <p>Frangoise Meltzer, coeditor of CriticalInquiry,is professor and chair of the department of comparative literature and professor in the department of romance languages and in the divinity school at the University of Chicago. Author of Salomeand theDance of Writing(1987) and Hot Prop(1988), she has just erty (1994) and editor of The Trial(s)of Psychoanalysis ForFearof theFire:JoanofArc and theLimitsof Subjectivity (2001). completed</p> <p>CriticalInquiry</p> <p>2001 Summer</p> <p>613</p> <p>It has been easy to dismiss Weil's life, except as a curiosity, a life that defies norms of almost every sort and has thus generated a large number of hagiographic or scornful biographies. Despite such statements as the that "Simone acutely gendered one by George Steiner in The New Yorker Weil was, undoubtedly, the first woman among philosophers,"' or T. S. Eliot's (in his introduction to The Need for Roots) that Weil is "a kind of genius akin to that of saints,"8or even Camus's remark that The Needfor Roots is one of the greatest books to come out since the liberation of France-9 and these are but random examples of the many in praise of her-despite much acclaim and great, if perplexed, enthusiasm for her thought, Weil's specific writings on work have been testily banished from the three arenas out of which she thought: Marxism, theology, and philosophy. Weil famously spent nearly a year (1934-35) in sweatshops and factories and in their description.10 In 1933, she had requested a leave of absence from teaching for personal studies. She wanted to experience firsthand the life of the factory worker, whose rights she had so passionately championed. Her writing repeatedly asserts, both from the perspective of the factory worker and from that of the intellectual, that (skilled) manual work is the prerequisite for attention because it allows for the union of action and thought. With Bacon, Weil believes that only when matter is accepted as an obstacle to thinking can the will be liberated."1 But the stupefying conditions in the modern factory, with its production7. George Steiner, "Bad Friday," The New Yorker, Mar. 1992, p. 91. The article is, 2 among other things, a review of Thomas R. Nevin, Simone Weil:Portraitof a Self-exiled Jew (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1991). Noting that Yiddish was a language that Weil "ignored or might have despised," Steiner concludes his essay by adding, "she was also a transcendent schlemiel." 8. T S. Eliot, preface to Weil, The Needfor Roots:Preludeto a Declarationof Duties toward Mankind, trans. Wills (Boston, 1955), p. vi. Eliot almost immediately takes it back: "Perhaps 'genius' is not the right word," he muses because one can disagree so violently with her. But she had a "great soul" and was one "who might have become a saint." He adds, pensively, "Asaint can be a very difficult person: I suspect that Simone Weil could be at times unsupportable" (ibid). 9. "Mais ce livre [L'Enracinement], des plus importants, a mon sens, qui aient paru un 9 depuis la guerre ...." (Albert Camus, Oeuvrescompletes, vols. [Paris, 1983], 4:91). 10. See Weil, La Conditionouvriere(Paris, 1951), hereafter abbreviated CO; and the and subsequent, more theoretical Oppression Liberty,trans. Wills and John Petrie (Amherst, Mass., 1973). 11. Although Weil's critique of capitalism relies a good deal on Marx, her notion of work is also classical: Francis Bacon's idea that nature can only be conquered through obedience, for example, was a clear influence on her thought. Nevin says that she assigned Bacon's aphorism natura enimnon nisi parendovincitur as a dissertation topic when she taught at Roanne. See Nevin, SimoneWeil,p. 395. Nevin cites Weil's "Meditation on Obedience and and Liberty,pp. 140-46. The essay alludes to Bacon's notions as well, Liberty," Oppression although very obliquely. More obviously Baconian is Weil's notion that the philosophy of work is materialism: "Action which meets an obstacle gives us matter.Matter is something which imposes an inevitable order on our actions. Everything is matter except thought,</p> <p>614</p> <p>FranfoiseMeltzer</p> <p>TheHands of SimoneWeil</p> <p>lines, repetitive action, and unskilled labor invariably render attention an impossibility, which was an outrage to Weil. The factory, as Weil was constantly to complain, with its numbing work and enormous physical demands, destroys the mind. In "Sketch of Contemporary Social Life" and from Oppression Liberty, Weil writes: "Technical progress and mass production reduce manual workers more and more to a passive role; in increasing proportion and to an ever greater extent they arrive at a form of labour that enables them to carry out the necessary movements without understanding their connection with the final result."12 A page later we read that contemporary society suffers from an "inversion of the relation between means and ends-an inversion which is to a certain extent the law of every oppressive society-here becomes total or nearly so, and extends to nearly everything." The result: "Machines do not run in order to enable men to live, but we resign ourselves to feeding men in order that they may serve the machines."'3 Weil's own factory work was intended to demonstrate to herself her conviction that assembly line work prevents attention in her sense, indeed, prevents thought altogether. Over and over again, the journal she kept during her factory work attests to her crushing fatigue and inability to think.14 And yet attention for Weil is only possible through work. The paradox is for her one of the profound scandals of high capitalism. If attention is only possible through work, attention is itself a form of labor-of the mind and soul-a work of thought that is the right of every human being to exercise. Indeed, Weil follows her teacher and mentor, Alain, in believing that thinking itself is labor. Thought is a battle, says Alain: "The outside invades and thought stands on the ramparts."'5 Weil writes to a student during her factory experience: "For the reality of life lies not in sensation, but in activity-I mean activity both in thought and action" (CO, p. 34). She does not echo Nietzsche's critique of epistemological models. Unlike him, Weil holds that physics and mathematics underlie everything in the world. Nietzsche's statement that the faith onwhich seizes upon necessity. Materialism is inconceivable without the notion of mind" (Weil, "Sur la pensee et le travail," pp. 378-79). What is retained from Bacon in Weil is the idea that obstacle is necessary to liberation and, ultimately, attention. 12. Weil, "Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression," Oppressionand Liberty,p. 110. 13. Ibid., p. 111. 14. Throughout La ConditionouvriereWeil describes factory work as the death of the soul, destruction of the mind, slavery of the worst sort, and so on. For example, during her factory days, she wrote to her friend Albertine Thevenon, "In order to put oneself in front of one's machine, one must kill one's soul eight hours a day, one's thought, feelings, everything." She adds, "This situation causes thought to shrivel up, to withdraw just as flesh withdraws before a lancet. One cannotbe conscious" (CO, p. 28). 15. Quoted in Gabriella Fiori, Simone Weil:An IntellectualBiography,trans. Joseph R. Berrigan (Athens, Ga., 1989), p. 32; hereafter abbreviated SW</p> <p>CriticalInquiry</p> <p>Summer 2001</p> <p>615</p> <p>which our belief in science rests is still a metaphysical faith is not only one with which she agrees, but which for her carries no inconvenience. She wrote that there was an analogy between work and geometry,16 and her work will be understood completely only if one takes into account the extent to which her models and metaphors rely on physics (her use of the term force is but one of many examples). She believes, with Plato, that geometry is the purest form of rationalism; in her words, that relation is to mathematics what force is to history. Force is here understood both as the living energy of meaning (as in Hegel), or even as human will (Kant); but she borrows from physics as well, where force is the doctrine of opposing tensions, according to which it is a primary aspect of physical reality and a regulative element in the universe (Heraclitus). Force is what is called today a force field, where, philosophically, the universe is seen as a vast system ruled by the interaction of energies (as it was for the Stoics, who abandoned Aristotle's model of contiguity). In her famous article on the Iliad, Weil writes that force is the equalizer, the symmetry of blindness: Such is the nature of force. Its power to transform man into a thing is double and it cuts b...</p>

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