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  • Saints, Scandals, and the Politics of Love:Simone Weil, Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini
  • Lisabeth During (bio)

1. The Trouble with Saints

Now the problem is this. Have we found a positive foundation, instead of self-sacrifice, for the hermeneutics of the self? I cannot say this, no. We have tried, at least from the humanistic period of the Renaissance till now. And we can’t find it.

– Michel Foucault, speaking in Berkeley, 1980 (qtd. in Irwin 169)

The reputation of political thinkers is a tricky thing. Sometimes your strongest supporters are your worst nightmare. At other moments, your best friends can see you more clearly than is strictly comfortable. The French militant, philosopher, and mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943) is a good example. In the years 1932 to 1933, she was connected to the dissident, Trotsky-leaning Communist Boris Souvarine and his Cercle communiste démocratique. She taught philosophy to well-bred young women, organized the unemployed, led strikes and shouted from the barricades, while writing disciplined, methodical analyses of the limits of Marxism and the rational necessity of revolution. Édouard Liénert, who was her comrade on Souvarine’s journal La critique sociale, describes her:

She was an unusual individual. Gifted with exceptional intelligence and erudition, her political judgment was very sound…But she had a strange taste for vain gestures, senseless risks, even for useless sacrifices.

(Surya 521)

Vain gestures, senseless risks, and useless sacrifices: the portrait seems familiar. Saintliness and politics are not a good match. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. Gustave Thibon, Simone Weil’s great friend, editor, and executor of her writings, almost all of which were published posthumously, wrote in his introduction to the first of those publications (Gravity and Grace, 1947):

Who was that kindly bishop who wanted to add to the Litany of the Saints the invocation: ‘From Living saints, Good Lord deliver us’? A [End Page 16] Francis of Assisi or a Joan of Arc in responding to their distant vocation would never hesitate to make their immediate neighbor suffer.

(Thibon 111)

Weil didn’t stop at theatrical gestures. “In a sense,” Thibon goes on, “she remained all her life the inflexible child who sat down in the snow and refused to go on because her parents had given the heaviest baggage to her brother to carry” (119). Never willing to sleep on a bed when she could sleep on the floor, to take the chair lift on the ski slopes when she could walk painfully up the hill, or to accept her full salary when others (lacking degrees from the Ecole normale supérieure) received less, Weil

did not seem to realize the complications and even sufferings she caused in the lives of others as soon as there was a question of her own vocation to self-effacement…Though utterly and entirely detached from her tastes and needs, she was not detached from her detachment…In the great book of the universe spread often before her, her ego was, as it were, a word which she may have succeeded in effacing but which was still underlined.

(Thibon 110, 112)

Forced because of her Jewishness to leave France during the German Occupation, she refused safety in New York with her family. She volunteered for De Gaulle’s Free French government in exile, but her plan to form a company of front-line nurses to be parachuted behind the battle lines was rebuffed. In the early months of 1943, Weil was in London writing a program for the renovation of post-war France, and frustrated. Being a sedentary intellectual was not her idea of service. Weakened by a mixture of self-starvation, tuberculosis and despair, Simone Weil died on August 24,1943.

History has known a few women in flight towards a political heaven or a personal disaster, women repudiating their bourgeois origins, women who sound like Simone Weil. They are attractive subjects for hagiography and for melodrama: they are avid for the dangerous and disturbing moments of the moral life, impatient with security and compromise, self-destructive (according to their enemies), or mad (according to many authorities, legal or psychiatric). One of these is Irène Girard, the wandering heroine...


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