While I was ill last week I read an extremely strange book, with a strange history. In 1943, it seems, the Free French government in London wanted a study of why the French nation collapsed so thoroughly in 1940, a collapse not entirely military, but also moral and, if the term is allowed, spiritual as well. To perform this task some obscure bureaucrat obtained the services of a 33-year-old refugee lately arrived from New York. She had volunteered for secret operations in France, but she was so obviously incompetent at any physical task that, I imagine, they fobbed her off on some third secretary, who gave her this assignment.
This was Simone Weil, and the report she wrote is the book called, in English, The Need for Roots. Well, Simone. How you feel about Simone depends on how you feel about religion in general and religious enthusiasm in particular. If, for example, you think St. Francis of Assisi was a maniac who should have stuck with dad and made a killing in the rag trade, then you will have little sympathy with Simone: from this view, saints are nutters, end of story.
If, on the other hand you think that the world is deeply wounded and requires individuals to point this out by the example of their bodies rather than by preaching, then people like Simone Weil will be of interest. Counter to the current notion that only stupid people are religious, Weil was accounted the most brilliant woman in France. She was first in her class at the most selective and rigorous school in France (Simone de Beauvoir was second in the same class, which gives you an idea) and on the basis of her early work was expected to set the world of French philosophy alight. Instead she took a menial job at a Renault factory, a typical Simone thing to do. Like most saints, she was a terrific pain in the ass: too smart to ignore, too dangerous to heed, too brave to surrender. Just like L. Cohen's Suzanne, you know that she's half crazy, but that's why you want to be there.
She loved the Greeks and hated the Romans, a somewhat ahistorical position, as the Greeks were not quite so wonderful, nor the Romans quite so bad as she portrays them, but her point is that what she considered the Roman aspects of life in her era seemed to totally dominate society and had to be resisted in just the spirit that the Christian martyrs did. She was an adherent of no organized religion, which allowed her to be more religious than anyone else of her time, and so she is called the Apostle to the Atheists. In this book, her critique of both communism and fascism is vivid and devastating, but she turns the same light on liberal capitalism, which shrivels as well. Her demands that the world should be changed are, of course, impossible demands, but making impossible demands is the business of the saints, and somehow the world is changed; sometimes, and slowly to be sure.
Her main point in the report was that obligations came before rights, and that it had been a mistake for the men who wrote the great liberal constitutions of France and the US to focus on rights. This does not mean in the usual way that rights come with responsibilities. She's making a metaphysical point about the status of human beings and what they owe to one another.
She never wrote a great book. Her oeuvre consists of scraps, letters, diary entries, articles, and this report, which was probably filed and forgotten as soon as received. Certainly the Fourth Republic did not usher in a dispensation notably different from that of the Third, except that the fascism that was wildly popular among the French prior to the Liberation could no longer show a public face. The Need For Roots is dated in some ways, as you would expect, but big chunks of it are applicable to any modern society, and, in the midst of the sterile politics we now enjoy, a fresh breeze from a source beyond the world.
A few months after she finished the report Simone Weil died, at thirty-three, of tuberculosis aggravated by inanition. She had resolved not to consume more calories than were provided by the Germans to their slave laborers.