Encountering Simone Weil

By Simon Barrow
March 5, 2012

I have recently watched Julia Haslett’s remarkable film, ‘An Encounter with Simone Weil’, and I know that my life will not be the same as a result. Not because I was previously unfamiliar with Weil, but because this particular meeting with her (or, at least, with what can be known through her writings and through the remaining fragments, images and testimonies to her life) is so deeply personal and challenging – in a way that doesn’t just go away.

“From the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War to anti-war protests in Washington DC, from intimate exchanges between the filmmaker and her older brother (who struggles with depression) to captivating interviews with people who knew Simone Weil, the film takes us on an unforgettable journey into the heart of what it means to be a compassionate human being,” as the DVD cover note puts it.

For those who don’t know, Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher, political activist, social thinker and mystic. A profoundly contradictory soul – in the most illuminating sense of that term – she was an almost archetypal embodiment of the ‘utopian pessimist’: a Marxist who rejected most of what the communist movement of her time embraced, a pacifist who found herself joined to the fight against fascism, a secular Jew who struggled with a deep anti-Judaism, and eventually a Christian who was unable to be baptised into the Church because of what it rejected in others. Her tragically early death was at least partly self-inflicted.

To read Simone Weil’s works on philosophy, politics, theology, ethics, labour, or war and peace is to be inspired by a mind and a person both vivaciously brilliant and gripped by suffering. It is to be illuminated and troubled at one and the same time. Moments of disarming, enlivening clarity are followed, almost instantly (for me at least), by moments of confusion and contradiction.

How like life in all its fullness and possibility, one might say. And, indeed, like the ‘sickness unto death’ which is part of our fractured living, its shadow and silent accompanist. Simone Weil seemed to sense it all – and this intensity, both personally and intellectually, was her greatest strength and her greatest weakness… for which one can only be grateful. Though it is, like all gifts truly worth having, a strange one.

Julia Haslett’s encounter with Simone Weil, which is what this film is about, as much (if not more so) than Weil herself, is one shaped by deep wounds – those of suicide and depression. Her movie is a quest to understand how to respond to human suffering with moral responsibility and true human empathy. It is a quest to understand Simone Weil. And it is also (though she doesn’t quite put it this way) a quest to understand herself and her relationship to her immediate family and others.

If I say that this film is a glorious failure in relation to its aims, that should not in any way be taken as a non-commendation. Quite the reverse. Less brave and honest movies (and this one is undoubtedly both of those things) would have come up with tidy answers or images. Haslett’s does not. Like its subject, it challenges us to think and feel in a way that does not divide the mind and the body but recognises their inescapable unity. In its authenticity, this is, at times, a discomforting experience. But also an immensely worthwhile one.

Julia Haslett’s first meeting with Simone Weil was in the form of one phrase which stays central to her encounter: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” The making of this film was a generous act, and it deserves attention.

There is much more that I could say (not least about the connection between the themes of the movie and theological concerns, which it does not overtly address), but for the time being I will leave it here. This is not intended as a review. It is more a taster of one person’s encounter with another’s, and an invitation to watch the film – which is showing across the US in festivals, cinemas and related venues. Additionally, it is available on DVD in a variety of ways, and it is due to be shown in Britain later this year.

Regarding Simone Weil herself, the Wikipedia page (accessed 5 March 2012) is actually rather good. It is Wiki-criticised for “being written like a personal reflection or essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject”, for potentially containing “original research”, and for “excessive links”. So my advice is to grab it while you can! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simone_Weil

Heather McRobbie’s 2009 article ‘Should we still read Simone Weil?’ and the literate discussion that follows it, gives a good flavour of the lively differences she evokes. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/feb/03/religion-simo...

Stephen Plant’s Simone Weil: A brief introduction (Orbis, 2007) is a good one volume introduction, with an emphasis on her Christian significance. David McLellan's superb Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil (Simon & Schuster, 1990) focusses more on the social and political aspects, while recognising the importance of her mystical vision.

Of course, there’s no substitute for reading Weil’s work directly. In English translation, I would recommend The Need for Roots and Waiting for God as good places to begin.

More will follow about Julia Haslett's film on Ekklesia. In the meantime, for information about ‘An Encounter with Simone Weil’, and to help support it, go to: http://www.linestreet.net/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/simoneweilmovie/ Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/simoneweilfilm YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/SimoneWeilMovie

There is a KickStart campaign to raise funds to get the movie shown in more theatres. You can contribute here: http://kck.st/yw1tqE


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His lode stars among the ‘cloud of witnesses’ include, from the C20th, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Howard Yoder and Simone Weil.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.