This is a guest post by Julia Haslett. Julia is the director and producer of An Encounter with Simone Weil.
In 2004, I read this line: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It so intrigued me that I decided to learn more about the woman who wrote it. Her name was Simone Weil and she was a French philosopher, activist, and mystic, from the 1930s. I was amazed by what I discovered. Weil was a brave young woman willing to speak truth to power. She was brilliant, politically committed, empathic, and kind of bad-ass. In her twenties, she was a leader in the male-dominated labor union movement. In 1936, she went to Spain to fight in the Civil War––putting her body on the line for what she believed in. When her teaching job was threatened because she’d helped organize a protest, she responded by saying, “I’ve always considered dismissal as the crowning of my career.” She wrote copiously and insightfully on religion, history, philosophy, and ancient Greece. Her writings deeply influenced the likes of Albert Camus, Susan Sontag, and Czeslaw Milosz. But despite all this she was little known both in and outside academia.
That was enough to give me a sense of purpose. I would do what I could to introduce Simone Weil’s life and ideas to more people. I was a documentary filmmaker so it made sense to make a film about her. And so she became my mission for what ended up being the next six years of my life.
The resulting film, An Encounter with Simone Weil, premiered in Europe in late 2010, and in the U.S. in April 2011. It was well received, even winning an award at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival. Over the past year, I’ve shown the film at numerous universities in the U.S. and Canada. I’m happy to say that Women Studies departments sponsored many of those screenings, and along the way it got a plug from the feminist philosophers blog. And then this July in Dublin, An Encounter with Simone Weil had its first official “feminist” screening sponsored by the Irish Feminist Network––a 2,000-member organization committed to engaging young people in feminist discussion.
This might lead you to assume that Weil was herself a feminist. That however was not the case. In fact, she rejected the title, along with identity politics altogether. Instead, she postulated a “decreation” of the self. She believed the self must be dismantled in order to reunite with God. In that context, Weil denied all aspects of her own identity––her gender, her class, her Jewishness, and, at times, even her intellect. Her activism was itself literally self-annihilating, leading to her death from self-starvation at the age of 34. Stuck in London and unable to help her French compatriots in occupied France, she refused to eat more than the rations afforded them. This act of solidarity was tantamount to suicide given her recently diagnosed tuberculosis.
Some have posthumously diagnosed Simone Weil as anorexic––she under ate her whole adult life. I tend to resist that diagnosis because of her strong attraction to the Christian mystics and Christian asceticism more generally. However, there’s no denying a classically “feminine” nature to her activism that led to a sacrifice of self in the interests of another or of a cause. A group of female students in Canada actually formed a group to discuss just that subject after the film screened on their campus last fall. The question of how to engage politically without denying one’s own needs is an active one for women and men alike, especially in an era characterized by increased direct action like we saw with Occupy Wall Street. I’d argue though that women are historically and culturally better positioned to theorize about it.
All this is to say that Simone Weil is an extremely complex figure, who serves as both inspiration and warning. Undoubtedly, she deserves to be read more widely and studied more thoroughly. Eight years after starting An Encounter with Simone Weil, she continues to be my most reliable and nourishing intellectual companion. My humble hope is the film will make her that to more of us, despite her complicated relationship to feminism.
Clara Fischer of the Irish Feminist Network puts it well:
“I think that the issue of Simone Weil’s feminism is a tricky one…her rejection of traditional gender roles makes her a feminist in many people’s eyes. She led a remarkable life – a life that was unconventional, a life of the mind, of political activism, and of mysticism. This in itself, and her subversion of the feminine it entails, could be viewed as being broadly in line with feminism, as could her concern with social justice. Some commentators have remarked that had she lived a bit longer, she probably would have developed a more explicitly feminist position. While that is of course speculative, I’d also like to think so.”
So would I.
If you’d like to learn more about Weil here are some resources and reading suggestions:
- Simone Weil Reader
(contains some of her best political and spiritual writings)
- Simone Weil: An Anthology
(another good introduction to the range of her work)
- Waiting for God (Perennial Classics)
(a collection of Weil’s essays on faith)
- Oppression and Liberty (Routledge Classics)
(a collection of her political writings focused on Marxism)
- www.simoneweilmovie.com (the film’s website with our trailer and more Weil info)