The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

11 October 2011


Many terms have been used to describe Simone Weil—philosopher, activist, teacher, spiritual leader, Jew, Christian, mystic, prophet—yet in each instance the name circumscribes as much as it reveals the essence of her existence.

Weil (pronounced veigh) was born in Paris in February,1909. Her father was a successful doctor; her mother, cultured and ambitious, was from a family of wealthy merchants. Her parents were Jewish but, in the manner of progressives throughout Europe, strictly secular. Their faith was not in God but in education. Simone and her older brother André were raised in a home without toys or other distractions. Intellectual pursuits were the chief form of pleasure. André, who grew up to become one of Europe's most brilliant mathematicians, was doing advanced geometry at the age of nine. Simone could read Greek at twelve, and taught herself Sanskrit a few years later. Both siblings were prodigies in school, but her older brother's obvious genius instilled feelings of inferiority in Simone which she carried all her life.

She was, to say the least, a sensitive child, yet her sensitivity was not that of a spoiled schoolgirl but of a compassionate conscience. In 1919, though just ten years old, she was appalled by the punitive humiliation the Treaty of Versailles inflicted on Germany at the end of World War I—a prescient objection, since the humiliating conditions gave rise to Hitler a decade later. That same year, she turned up missing in the house and was found on the boulevard marching in a labor demonstration and singing the Internationale.

Acute awareness of suffering and injustice were a defining element of her life. Though highly educated—she finished first in the entrance exams for France's highest grande ecolé—she worked in factories, vineyards, and on farms to share with workers the hardship of manual labor. Throughout her life, she gave most of her earnings to humanitarian causes and the poor. She fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, but was so inept in the setting she ended up burning herself with hot cooking oil and being evacuated to a field hospital. It was one of many instances of excruciating pain and bad health she endured, including lifelong eating disorders and migraine headaches.

Through frail health and the upheavals of social activism, Simone continued to develop her personal philosophy of compassion and unfailing devotion to truth. She filled a great many notebooks with her thought, nearly all published after her death. She quickly moved away from the agnosticism of her parents toward a relationship with God that was radically spiritual and highly personal. "We do not pledge ourselves to love God," she wrote, "we give our consent to the engagement which has been formed within us in spite of ourselves."

The nature of this engagement, its meaning and practice, Weil described as attention. Attention, whole-hearted, selfless commitment to an external reality, be it picking grapes or studying Plato or alleviating suffering, was to Simone a form of prayer. Indeed, to her it amounted to our principle form of communion with God and humanity:

Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application that leads us to say with a sense of duty done: "I have worked well!" . . . But in spite of all appearances, it is also far more difficult. Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. . . .

Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle, it is a miracle. . . . The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: "What are you going through?"

It was this profound ethical stance that first drew Julia Haslett to Simone Weil. "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity," Weil wrote. Inspired, and to some extent goaded, by the quotation's insistence, Haslett embarked on a six-year journey investigating the author of the idea and how one might apply it amid the myriad and endless sufferings of the 21st-century. The result is Haslett's extraordinary new film, An Encounter with Simone Weil, which is part bio-pic and part personal essay on the meaning of compassion, activism, care, and attention. Haslett's film engages courageously with the densities of existence, its quandaries, suffering, lack of clear solutions. It confronts what Weil called "the sacramental concept of the good," exploring questions of "moral and spiritual responsibility."

An Encounter with Simone Weil achieves this without a moment's preaching or evangelizing, through the sustained act of attending. Like Weil herself, Haslett's central motive is a quest for synthesis of the personal and eternal. The film suggests a more vital description of its subject and heroine. Weil, beyond the inventory of descriptions at the top of the post, was above all a spirit on fire. She died in exile in England at the end of World War II, just thirty-four years old. Her soul continues to cast light.



susan t. landry said...

i wish we lived a bit closer, Tim. i hope this evening goes well. good luck, and congratulations for your work in putting together the program.

Timothy Cahill said...

Thanks, Susan. You certainly would have been welcome and I'm sure have loved being there. The film was even more powerful shared with an audience, and Julia was articulate and engaging in the conversation afterward. A special evening.

Anonymous said...

having "met you" at marylinn's just this week, i came to your website, finding this quote speaking back to what i wrote in comments at marylinn's site:

"We do not pledge ourselves to love God," she wrote, "we give our consent to the engagement which has been formed within us in spite of ourselves."

i would very much like to watch this film. here in montana, it may become a separate adventure in the making.

sherry o'keefe

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