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A Martyr to Essentialism : SIMONE WEIL An Intellectual Biography by Gabriella Fiori translated by Joseph R. Berrigan(University of Georgia Press: $35; 376 pp.; 0-8203-1102-2) : UTOPIAN PESSIMIST The Life and Thought of Simone Weil by David McLellan (Poseidon Press: $21.95; 316 pp.; 0-671-68521-X)

April 15, 1990|Nancy Mairs | Mairs, a poet and essayist, is a practicing feminist Catholic, you should excuse the oxymoron. and

Weil's life was, by her own choice, brief. On its outlines, Gabriella Fiori and David McLellan agree. She was born in Paris in 1909 to nonpracticing Jews, a "gentle, self-effacing" doctor, in McLellan's words, and his "assertive," "indefatigable" yet "articulate, persuasive and charming" wife, whose father had prevented her from studying medicine.

Selma Weil, preferring her son, Andre, encouraged her daughter to be manly and forthright even at the risk of appearing rude. Both biographers reveal the young Weil as sickly, obstinate, disgusted by physical touch, devoted to but competitive with her older brother.

Like Andre, she was highly educated, receiving a degree in philosophy from the Ecole Normale Superieure. In spite of devastating migraine headaches and generally poor health, she then taught for several years. She also became involved with trade unions, wrote articles for syndicalist publications and held menial jobs in several factories, the better to understand workers' lives.

Her activist inclinations led her to Spain during the Civil War, but within days of joining the anarchist militia there--with an ineptitude that characterized her physical life in general--she stepped into a pot of boiling oil and burned herself so badly that her parents (who dogged her wanderings and rescued her from more than one disaster) took her back to France.

Upon the occupation of Paris in 1940, the three went to Marseilles, where Weil continued her writing, found agricultural work and deepened the spiritual quest that had gradually superseded her political activism. After a short, unhappy stay in the United States in 1942, she left her parents behind to join the Free French in London.

Disillusioned and chagrined that no one had found her "any useful work that involved a high degree of hardship and danger," she stepped up the self-starvation she had practiced to some degree all her life, and by the end of August, 1943, she was dead--still unbaptized--despite her profession of faith "in God, in the Trinity, in the incarnation, in the redemption, in the Eucharist, in the teachings of the Gospel"--because of her resistance to the institutional church.

Into this biographical framework, both McLellan and Fiori weave summaries of Weil's rigorously intellectual reflections in the form of letters, articles and books, many of which were not published until well after her death. McLellan is the more successful at this task. His presentation, although plodding, is lucid and substantial, as his synopsis of Weil's favorite themes reflects: "her biting criticism of the view of history as progress; her antipathy to Rome and Israel; her admiration for the Greeks; the mistaken dominance given to science in contemporary society; her strong connection of art and literature with moral values; the centrality accorded to physical labour; her unwillingness to consider political institutions, however democratic, as the main legitimizers of the distribution of power; her awareness of the danger of all collective activity; her insistence that genuine liberty and equality could only be founded by reference to other worldly values."

Fiori's approach, less conventionally academic, promises to be lively and inventive: Basing her work solely "on evidence provided by people who knew her and upon her works," she intends "a biography . . . designed as a mosaic reconstruction or, even better, an organism of living cells." Unfortunately, thanks to shifts in tense and point of view, overblown rhetoric and typographical oddities, the result is more of a mishmash, for which author, translator and editor all must bear responsibility.

Instead of a simple statement that Weil rejected the idea of marriage, for instance, Fiori is translated as saying, "As far as the idea of love codified in marriage, associated somehow with feminine attraction, dates, clothes, the signals and messages of use and wont, she perhaps never paused there at all." If a clear sense of Weil's being fails to emerge through McLellan's dutiful but dull prose, it fares no better in Fiori's meandering verbiage.

And for some reason, the life that lies at the heart of any biography, even an "intellectual" one, never does quite animate either book. Perhaps the difficulty is that neither confronts Weil's anomalous existence as a creature, and specifically a female creature, struggling against incarnation. As the subtitle and structure of McLellan's book suggest, he views "thought" as separable from, and even preferable to, "life"; and, except to report her always disheveled appearance and her crippling headaches, he ignores her bodily experience almost entirely.

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