Simone's Svengalis: A Petainist, a Missionary, and the Making of Simone Weil
Two of the first books published in the name of the brilliant absolutist Simone Weil (1909-43), La Pesanteur el la Grâce (Gravity and Grace) (1947/8) and Attente au Dieu (Waiting on/for God) (1950), were tendentiously fashioned. Consequently the packaging that her Svengalis—the Petainist Gustave Thibon and the missionary Jean-Marie Perrin—imposed, so severely distorted her thought that the first is no longer considered by French specialists to be her own work and the second has no stable text. Nevertheless these two problematic books have defined Simone Weil. This talk reveals the origins and purposes of the books that Thibon and Perrin created.
Benjamin Braude is an associate professor of history at Boston College. His research focuses on the construction of collective identities in the Middle East and Europe, as well as Jewish and Ottoman history. Specifically, he examines the formation of racial, religious and ethnic identity in Jewish, Christian and Muslim culture. He is currently at work on a projent entitled "Sex, Slavery, and Racism: The Secret History of the Sons of Noah," which examines the construction of attitudes towards identity from the ancient Near East to the present, and the role that the Biblical narrative of Noah’s sons played in the production of our modern racial imaginary. He is also the co-editor with Bernard Lewis of Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Catholic scholars embrace Simone Weil for her Catholic conversion and writings on Christian mysticism. According to Boston College history professor Benjamin Braude, however, the prevailing narrative of Weil’s life has been severely distorted—first by the men who edited her first two books, and then by scholars who have consistently preferred hagiography to history.
Speaking at the Boisi Center’s first lunch colloquium of the semester on February 11, Braude laid out an alternative history of Weil’s life that casts serious doubt on the conventional wisdom. According to Braude, Weil’s eventual embrace of Christianity was profoundly shaped by the wartime context of occupied Vichy France. Since Weil and her family were Jewish, Braude argued that her conversion was in part a form of protection against the notoriously anti-Semitic Vichy regime. Without questioning that Weil had sincere mystical experiences, Braude noted that her professed spiritual epiphanies of the mid-1930s were only recorded by Weil in the 1940s, after the fall of France.
Braude also addressed the controversy surrounding Weil’s anti-Semitism. Focusing on an overlooked essay that explores the Genesis story of Noah’s naked sons, Braude explained that the essay was outrageously anti-Semitic, effectively implying that the Jews and Nazis deserved each other.
At the same time, Braude harshly criticized the distortions of Weil’s editors: Gustave Thibon, who composed the book Gravity and Grace by pasting together discreet statements from Weil’s journals, and the missionary Joseph-Marie Perrin, who released her book Waiting for God. Braude explained how both men misrepresented her philosophy, exaggerating both her interest in Christ and her anti-Semitism. Such distortions had a clear ideological purpose: for a loyal Petainist like Thibon, Braude said, “Weil’s anti-Semitism justified his own.”
Simone Weil, Œuvres complètes, ed. André A. Devaux and Florence de Lussy, et al. Paris, Gallimard, 1988, 16 volumes.
__________, Formative writings, 1929-1941, ed. and tr. Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
__________, The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 2 vols. tr. Arthur Willis, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
__________, First and Last Notebooks, tr. Richard Rees, London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Athanasios Moulakis, Simone Weil and the Politics of Self-Denial, tr. Ruth Hein, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.
David McLellan, Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil, NY: Poseidon Press, 1990.
Francine Du Plessix Gray, Simone Weil, NY: Viking Press, 2001.
George Abbott White, ed., Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
Simone Pétrement, La vie de Simone Weil, first edition, 2 vols. Paris, 1973.
_____, Simone Weil: A Life, tr. (of first edition) Raymond Rosenthal, NY: Pantheon Books, 1976.
_____, La vie de Simone Weil, second edition, Paris: Fayard, 1997.
Sylvie Weil, At Home with André and Simone Weil, tr. Benjamin Ivry, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010.
Thomas R. Nevin, Simone Weil: Portrait of a Self-Exiled Jew, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
In the News
Responses to the terror attacks in France in early January raise concerns about nationalism and the place for minorities in Europe. Problems associated with individual and group rights and identity are at the heart of Simone Weil's writings; at a Boisi Center lunch on February 11, 2015, Boston College history professor Benjamin Braude will speak about the French intellectual's work, which is especially poignant in today's context.