Dr Jacques Cabaud is Simone Weil's first biographer. His book,
"Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love," is published by Harvill Press
London, 1964. This is a transcript of the full interview with Jacques Cabaud
speaking to Lyn Gallacher from his home in Germany.
Presenter: Lyn Gallacher
Details or Transcript:
How did you first come across Simone Weil?
In 1950, I was in Paris on a scholarship to work on a thesis, the title of which
was "Pascal the Mystic". That's when I fell upon a newspaper review of
Simone Weil's second posthumous book: "Waiting on God". The quotations
in this article were so striking, and of such exceptional literary quality, and
the authenticity of the mystical experience so obvious, I fell under the spell
immediately. "Pascal can wait", I thought," this is genuine, this
is great furthermore, this is new, untouched territory. Forget secondary
literature. I'll be the first! I'll write her biography." This was seven
years after her death.. Somebody had to interview the witnesses of her life,
very few of whom had died, as she had, during the war years. Luckily, her
parents had carefully stored her manuscript writings which were plentiful.
You mean her parents were aware their daughter was a genius?
That she was exceptional, had always been obvious. Until shortly before her
death, she had been intellectually overshadowed by her elder brother, Andre, who
had been since childhood a mathematical prodigy. People used to say of Simone:
"She's Andre Weil's sister." But as time went by, towards the end of
her life, people began saying of Andre: "He's Simone Weil's brother."
The impact of her posthumously published texts however soon surprised even her
What about the texts Simone published during her life?
These were articles for specialised reviews, mainly, but not exclusively on
political themes. They had a limited circulation. But they drew the attention of
the cognoscenti. Boris Souvarine, who had been head at one time of the French
communist party, but later broke with Stalin, and who was the first to write an
authoritative biography of the still living dictator, admired Simone immensely:
"She's the most intelligent woman I've met since Rosa Luxemburg," he
Why did the posthumous writings create a kind of sensation?
First of all, there was the element of surprise. Simone Weil had been known for
her involvement in political and social causes. And all of a sudden she is
revealed as a religious thinker. Except for the three last years of her life, in
very limited circles in Marseilles, New York or London, she had been known as an
agnostic. And now she is revealed as a mystic.
Well, that is what she might be best known for, isn't it?
Once she became a believer, as a result of her own personal experience of the
divine, it was as a very unconventional one. You might say she was a convert who
refused to become a member of the very Church whose dogma she was convinced was
authentically supernatural. And yet she let a friend who insisted upon baptising
her do so, shortly before her death, perhaps as a gesture of friendship. However,
after this had happened, as she was asked upon entering the sanatorium in
England in which she was to die a week later...as she is asked at this point by
the nurses what was her religion, she refused to give an answer...
And as a mystic, what a paradox! She is the only one I know who refused to pray.
At least for three years, after her initial mystical experience in 1938 "because
she was afraid of the power of suggestion of prayer." Then, in 1941, as she
was reciting the "Our Father" in Greek, but merely because she thought
it was a beautiful text,"(at) the very first words" she writes,
"...my thoughts (were torn) from my body and transported to a place outside
space where there is neither perspective nor point of view. Space opened up. The
infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception (were) replaced by an infinity
to the second...degree. At the same time, filling every part of this infinity,
there (was) a silence, a silence that is not an absence of sound but that is the
object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises, if
there (were) any, only reach(ed) me after crossing this silence."
After this amazing event, she gave up on her resolution to abstain from prayer,
and became a full-fledged mystic: a condition in which the previous experience
would repeat itself, while at other times, she writes. Christ is present with me
in person, but his presence is (then) infinitely more real, more poignant, and
clearer than on that first occasion (in 1938) when he took possession of
me." If you recite the "Our Father" "with total
concentration", as Simone did, maybe you too will benefit of such
extraordinary heavenly visitations. However, St John of the Cross warns against
yeaning for such private revelations. What is interesting, significant and
compelling in Simone Weil s case, is that her attitude could more closely be
likened with Jacob's fighting with the angel.
But of course, she had such a multifaceted personality and the range of
her interests was so wide she has much to offer in many areas.
That is also what explains why she has had such an impact. She challenged, even
in her own time, so many preconceived ideas. Yes, she was a great debunker of
popular prejudices. To Marx's conception of religion as "the opium of the
people", she retorted that in reality, the very revolution which he yearned
for was the opium of the masses. It was not as if Marxism had been found wanting
without having been tried. It had been tried and been found to be nothing else
than "oppression in the name of function." In the leftist circles in
which Simone was moving in 1933, this last definition caused furore. She was
alive then, and could be reckoned with, in her own limited way, as Trotsky soon
found out. But today, when she is no longer with us, her most challenging
perceptions, if they arouse interest among scholars or intellectuals, it is alas,
more in a speculative way than for any practical purpose. Have you ever heard a
politician quote Simone Weil, when the controversial question of immigration
arises? She only wrote two books: her major one is "The need for roots".
Yet who, among responsible leaders of opinion has ever showed that he took into
consideration Simone's assertion that "uprootedness is the great plague of
the twentieth century." Displaced populations having lost all link with
their spiritual and cultural heritage treated as abstractions. "The loss of
the past," she said, "is equivalent to the loss of the supernatural."
And how severe her indictment of the American way of life! She saw its impact on
international politics as that of a nation consisting of uprooted people bent
upon uprooting the rest of the world.
Yes, Simone Weil was prophetic in many ways. For instance in what she
wrote about the colonialisation of Africa and in Asia.
In 1939, she was writing that "it would be in the colonial power's own
interests to emancipate progressively its own colonies." It took French
politicians two bloody wars, one in North Vietnam and one in Algeria, before
they realised the truth of this statement. As early as 1936, had not Simone Weil
foreseen the future when she wrote "...a European war might...be the signal
for the great revolt of the colonial peoples to punish our indifference, our
cleverness and our cruelty."?
Do you think her analysis of the hardships attendant to the proletarian
class of those days has still some bearing on the conditions of industrial
I like to think her analysis of the inhuman conditions of physical labour which
she herself experienced first-hand when she worked as a factory-hand in 1934-35
may have been one of the many factors which did bring significant improvement in
this area. But of course, her insights are still 100% cogent and pertinent as
far as third-world factory-hands are concerned. As far the industrial nations
are concerned, she had foreseen the day when machines would be so subservient to
man that robots would perform the repetitive tasks on assembly-chains: as a
result of which man could no longer be considered as a mere appendage of
Besides her first unexpected mystical experience of 1938, what is it
that led Simone Weil to shift her attention from tbe political to the spiritual?
This shift was not an about-turn. With the Spanish war in which she took part
and where she was wounded and which would have cost her life if she had not been
sent back home, the international situation became her main cause of concern. As
a pacifist notice the inner contradiction, Simone Weil was already a pacifist
when she went to fight in Spain ...as a pacifist, she thought appeasement was
the price to pay to prevent a renewal of the slaughter-house type of warfare of
1914-1918. However, when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, she
realised that with such a man, pacifism was an longer an effective option. In
the beginning of 1940, she drew up a "Memorandum on the Formation of a
Front-Line Nursing-Squad". With all her altruism this was a self serving
project, because she could not bear the thought of remaining in the rear as a
civilian when soldiers were risking their lives in the front. However dramatic
situations are not such that they can deter a genius from producing masterpieces:
she wrote poetry, started 'Venice Preserved', a drama in verse which remained
unfinished, and, in the midst of many projects and articles, kept what could be
considered an "intellectual diary", her 'Notebooks', in which she
jotted down whatever seminal thoughts came to her mind. These notations have
become a mine-lode for apprentice-scholars in search of topics and material for
PhD dissertations, since they are anything but systematic. In her before-last
letter to her parents before her death in 1943, Simone wrote that she was aware
that there laid in her "a deposit of pure gold that must be handed
down." Well, there are plenty of golden nuggets in these 'Notebooks'.
Don't you think that in some cases these nuggets have got to be cleared
of their gangue? What do you make of this for instance: "I must love being
nothing. How horrible it would be if I were something."
This must be understood in the light of two trends in Simone Weil's thinking.
The first is that of Christian humility. The second trend is an anti-ontological
mode of thought proper to the Buddhist tradition. There was in Simone Weil a
kind of aesthetic nostalgia towards what Paul Valery called "the purity of
non-being". This is in my eyes the regrettable expression of an aspect of
oriental philosophy: it is also to be found in modern philosophy, for instance
in Sartre. But in regard to such ambiguities in her thought, we must not forget
Simone Weil is not a systematic, but a thematic thinker.
Simone Weil lived in a time of turmoil and great suffering. Did this
heighten her perception? She writes: "Affliction compels us to recognise as
real what we do not think possible."
The turmoil was there, no doubt: two world-wars and an industrial crisis. As for
the suffering, it was not only that which Simone could be aware of whenever she
witnessed distress and misery, or read about them in the newspapers. It was also
the suffering which she endured in her own body, since from 1930 onwards she had
headaches, which she described in 1942 as "a pain located around the
central point of the nervous system, at the point of junction between body and
soul, which goes on even during sleep, never ceasing for a second. For ten years
it has been such, and accompanied by such a feeling of exhaustion, that my
attempts at concentration and intellectual work were more often than not as
devoid of hope as those of a man condemned to death awaiting execution on the
next day." As for the suffering of the rest of mankind, she seemed to have
been even more aware of it than of her own. In her student days as she was
walking with some friends in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, she took one of
her companions by the lapel and said: "How can you laugh, at a time when
children are suffering in China?" And, as you just noted, affliction
certainly, "compels us to recognise as real what we do not think possible",
because it inflicts upon us what in our innermost being we reject as an assault
on our very integrity.
Is suffering useful? Is it a sign of authenticity? Is it Christianity's
sign of authenticity?
"The tremendous greatness of Christianity", writes Simone Weil, "comes
from the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy against suffering but
a supernatural use of suffering." Affliction then is "a marvel of
divine technique". "For even the direst pain, so long as consciousness
endures, does not touch that point in the soul which consents to a right
direction." That is because love is an orientation, not a state, of the
In reference to the cross, Simone Weil writes: "To be just it is
necessary to be naked and dead." Is it also necessary to be forsaken by God?
She is choosing here Christ on the Cross as the perfect model: "naked and
dead" after having uttered the words expressing total dereliction: "My
God, my God. why hast Thou forsaken me?" Simone Weil is not for queasy
souls. She wrote: "When I think of the Passion of Christ I commit the sin
of envy." For her, the point of intersection of time and space is that of
the two parts of the Cross.
I do not think she need have worried about having been deprived of this share of
the Passion which Christ has kept for those who follow Him. In fact she was
grateful for it and wrote about the infinite love "who made (her) the
priceless gift of affliction".
I'm intrigued by her emphasis on "waiting" as a form of
creative attention. Is she describing a spiritual practice, an ethic for
For want of a better word, "waiting" is the one used to translate the
French word "attente". And "attente" is more closely related
to "attention", than is the English "waiting". And "attention"
is synonymous with "contemplation". Thus does the soul that remains in
its place, "waiting; not motionless, nor shaken or displaced by any shock
from without", thus does this soul bear spiritual fruit from "the seed
of divine love thrown into" it. For we have here to guide us the analogy of
what takes place when we become aware of a truth. The mind remains in the state
of suspension essential to contemplation." Attention is linked to desire.
It is not linked to the will, but to desire. (Or more exactly to consent:
attention is consent. That is why it is linked to the good)." The very
density of these formulations points out that we are entering the mystical area,
that for which the soul was made when it was created by God. For Simone, "all
the various kinds of attention are merely degraded forms of religious attention.
It is only when we think of God that we can think with the maximum of attention".
Why does love need to be absent? Is waiting enhanced by the abaence of
love? Simone Weil writes: "The absence of God is the most marvellous
testimony of perfect love" and again: `Nothing which exists is absolutely
worthy of love. We must love that which does not exist." Is this too
It is not too extreme if you realise we are reaching into the highest areas of
mystical speculation. Simone Weil, in the last quote "Nothing which exists
is absolutely worthy of love", is merely making a distinction between
"existence" and "being". "Existence" is
participated being: "being" is the way in which alone God can be said
to "be", through his very essence. Simone Weil also wrote: "God
alone is truly worthy of our concern: He alone, and nothing else." Thus, we
are in love with what does not exist: and at the same time, we are in love in
what alone is worthy of our love, because it alone "is". This does not
mean that everything else is illusion. Everything else simply assumes reality
and value through God alone. "God is mediation": "God is
mediation between God and God,
between God and man,
between God and things,
between things and things,
and even between each soul and itself."
And yet this trinitarian God can be said to be "absent". Because of
the ontological reasons mentioned before. And he shows his love through absence.
Because, even though He can have no part with the finitude in which we live,
except through Incarnation, He created all this finitude of ours through a
withdrawal from Himself which allowed for our existence. At this precise point,
we have what I would call, a metaphorical depiction of the mystery of Creation.
Thus God has to be absent so that we may be. He proves his love through his
This explanation of creation through the notion of a withdrawal of God is a
gnostic one, which is to be found also for instance in cabbalistic texts, though
Simone Weil does not seem to have read them. It is sad to say that her
indebtedness to the dualist tradition which goes back to Piato, led her now and
then to statements which are not in agreement with traditional Christianity.
The spiritual drama of her late years arose from the fact that she was trying to
think out her mystical experiences in the inadequate terms of cartesian-kantian
philosophical concepts in which the notion of analogy is never properly
formulated. Thus she labours under a kind of technical .handicap, which does not
prevent her, most of the time I would say of making statements of great depth
and incredible beauty. She is never more convincing than when she lets her heart
speak. Because she was in, love with Truth.
One of the features of her writing is that she
is eminently quotable.
Yes, she is. And that is one of the reasons people like to compare her to Pascal.
However there is more energy in his style, as might be expected. And so many
scholars have tried their hand at translating him into English, that the
available versions of the "Pensees" are not in need of improvement.
This is not the case however with many of Simone Weil's texts. There is a kind
of transparent depth, of unaffected emotion, of controlled urgency, of immediacy,
a poetry of the simple statement, of restrained lyricism, for which it is hard
to find in most foreign languages an adequate transcription. Furthermore, her
sense of humour, her at times diguised but biting irony, and her use of metaphor,
are difficult to convey in a language like English, with its partly Germanistic
roots. If she were to be translated, I would say it should be in classical Greek,
which her French at times reminds us of. She was in a way more a contemporary of
Plato than of those figureheads of French Literature of her days. It was once
she was she dead, that she was soon felt to belong to the classics.
Simone Weil's life and work has played a big part in your life. Could
you perhaps, give us a brief anecdote to end with?
Well, here is an astonishing story. Though it has to do with Simone's after-life,
am not making this up. I tell it because it has illustrative value.
A man had a dream... He dreamt that he entered into a building, took an elevator
up to the top floor, where he found a door and pushed the buzzer. Upon being
invited to enter, he walked across an apartment and reached a room where he saw
a large table at which someone was seated, who looked as if she might be a
"You must know many languages", he told her.
"Where I am, we speak only one language", she answered.
At this point, the man woke up. The language in question he guessed to be that
Some time later, after he discovered the writings of Simone Weil, he made by
telephone an appointment with Mrs Selma Weil (Simone's mother), and proceeded to
number 3, rue Auguste Comte in Paris. When he came to the building, he
recognised it. And he entered the very elevator he used in his dream, reached
the same floor, saw the same door, walked through the same apartment and came to
the same room, where stood the same table. On the wall, he noticed a photo which
was that of the very same person he had seen in his dream. The books of Simone
Weil he had read had not been illustrated. Thus he saw there for the first time
the features of the person he had met in his sleep.
Since this story was told to me by the man himself, a reverend and furthermore a
psychiatrist, and "there are more things in heaven and earth" than our
philosophy can think of, I did not doubt his tale. He is dead now, but I
hesitate to mention his name. The gist of the matter however is that this story
brings home a point which was made by Pascal: "C'est le coeur qui connait
Dieu." "It is through the heart that we know God". And, may I add:
"And everything else also."