Robert Zaretsky: War and Work are the Forces of Life
Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author, most recently, of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life.
Between the barbecues and ballgames that punctuated my Memorial Day weekend, I went to my office to clear off my stereotypically messy college-professor desk. While I was shifting the towering piles of paper from one spot to another, I came across an old photocopy of a text by Simone Weil: “The Iliad, Or the Poem of Force.” Reading the fading pages, I sensed, quite unexpectedly, that this beautiful and searing essay on Homer’s epic unearthed a deep connection between the two holidays, Memorial Day and Labor Day, that we Americans usually think of as merely the bookends to summer vacation. War and work, Weil observed, are the twin pillars of the modern experience, creating the frame through which contemporary life is best observed.
One of the 20th century’s most original and unsettling thinkers, Weil was born into a Gallic version of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. Her parents were worldly and smart Parisians who considered their Jewishness much as Weil’s father, Bernard, a successful doctor, viewed the appendix: the residue of evolution. Weil’s powerful mother, Selma, oversaw a rambling apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Michel that, according to one observer, resembled a “genius factory.” At the age of 14, her brother, André, entered the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he dazzled his mathematics professors, while Simone had mastered Latin, Greek, German, and English by the age at which other Jewish girls were preparing for their bat mitzvahs. The siblings spent their childhood arguing over passages in Racine and Pascal and their later years comparing notes on Eastern religions, in particular Buddhism.
As for her native Judaism, Weil had little good to say about it. Indeed, she protested mightily against what she thought were Judaism’s manifest shortcomings, especially in comparison to Christianity. Weil probably protested too much—there are deep Jewish concerns that infuse her work—but her protests nevertheless led her to a long flirtation with conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, if André resembled Salinger’s Zooey Glass, Simone shared Franny’s driven, spiritual, and self-punishing character. As a toddler, she chose to deny herself sugar as a gesture of sympathy with the French soldiers in the trenches; as a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, she chose to work on factory assembly lines; she fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and later, as an exile from France, joined de Gaulle’s Free French in London....
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