The Hands of Simone Weil Author(s): Françoise Meltzer Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Summer, 2001), pp.

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to human self-developmentand fulfillcommument.Simone Weil. all translations are my own. I profited immensely as well from a course on Simone Weil that I cotaught with David Tracy at the divinity school a few years ago and am grateful to him for his generous reading of this essay. work and workingconditions would be central to her philosophy."' even for the rest of humankind. by Russell and Hume)-was as alien to Weil'sthinking as was amusement (or leisure) for its own sake in her short life. productive labor is man's(and woman's)essential activity and leads.The Hands of Simone Weil Frangoise Meltzer Philosophyis to reflectionwhat the work of the hands is to action.that for the self-proclaimed nist Simone Weil. special and to Joshua Yumibe. social. 0093-1896/01/2704-0005$02.00. thanks to Jay Williams. CriticalInquiry27 (Summer 2001) ? 2001 by The University of Chicago. Richard Rees. duties that she actuallycataloguesin "Draftfor a But Statementof Human Obligations. Rees et al. Finally.What she argues for in defense of "man. See Simone Weil. It is not surprising. as any work on she Weilwill attest). editor extraordinaire. Unless otherwise noted.The hedonist notion-that the pursuit of pleasure and idleness is the fundamentalgoal of human being (as argued. An SimoneWeil: Anthology. 1. in principle. "On Thought and Work" As Marx notes. ." trans. "Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations. 1986).therefore. All rights reserved. She takes great pains to deny herself the duties that we owe every living being. 201-10. ed. pp.trans.. 611 . for example. But we must be careful not to confuse her life with her philosophy (a difficult task." very rarely accords herself. A shorter version of this article was first given as the Nuveen Lecture at the University of Chicago divinity school and at Johns Hopkins University. Sian Miles (New York. I am grateful for the helpful and insightful comments I received in both of those forums.

"La Philosophie du travail chez Charles P6guy et chez Simone Weil. 1984): 341-46. I have to deprive all that I call 'I' of the light of my attention and turn it onto that which cannot be conceived. time and space. "Sur la pensee et le travail. space as the object of my action. struggle. Finally. Graduate Theological Union. however. 1979). fatigue. 170. Robert Chenavier. Rene Prevost. Liberty: 1989). Blum and Victor J.D. "The Fiery Bridge: Simone Weil's Theology of Work" (Ph. "Le 'Social' dans La Conditionouvridre.5 My purpose. D'Andre A. Seidler. p. Arthur Wills (New York. coeditor of CriticalInquiry. 171-72.. 1988). 5. See also Louis Patsouras. Ibid. pp." CahiersSimoneWeil7 (Dec. "Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man. 1973).612 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of SimoneWeil Weil counters Hume's ideal life of contemplation with attention. that attention which is so full that the I disappears. for professor and chair of the department of comparative literature and professor in the department of romance languages and in the divinity school at the University of Chicago. attention is not to be confused with will.trans. It is described."4 As she argues in the brief essay "On Thought and Work. A Truer SimoneWeiland Marxism(New York. "Attention and Will."Premiers ed."3 Attention then (which in its highest form is prayer) entails great energy. which considers the religious and the Marxian as two irreconcilable strains. "Civilisation du travail ou civilisation du temps libre? Actualite de la pensee de Simone Weil. she has just erty (1994) and editor of The Trial(s)of Psychoanalysis ForFearof theFire:JoanofArc and theLimitsof Subjectivity (2001). Berkeley.a far more rigorous and intense form of meditation. Quoted in Simone P6trement. vol. ed. although not in the direction I attempt to go in this essay. 6. 406-17. Weil's form of contemplation is only possible through work: "Only through the experience of labor do I meet. 1952)." Gravityand Grace." CahiersSimone Weil 10 (Sept. 378-79. diss. There have been a number of articles on Weil and work. (Paris. together. toil. and Lawrence A.6 2. 1:146. Gilbert Kahn and Rolf Kiihn.. Devaux and Florence de Lussy (Paris. in other words. Author of Salomeand theDance of Writing(1987) and Hot Prop(1988). Indeed. See Weil. See. I of Oeuvrescompletes.2 vols. 3. completed . time as the condition. it is rather bound up in desire (here Weil is strongly influenced by her reading of the Stoics)."the realization that work is a necessity comes at the same time as the appearance of freedom. La Viede SimoneWeil. Frangoise Meltzer. see Clare Benedicks Fischer. Simone Weiland the Socialist Tradition(San Francisco. 1991). Weil."2Moreover." CahiersSimone Weil 7 (Dec. Eugene Fleur. in the language usually associated with labor or work. 1987): 238-54. is required of me. 1984): 350-59. Attention specifically requires the passivity of the I and the disappearance of the subject: "Attention alone. is not to account for Weil's ideas on labor and selffulfillment but rather to argue that the reception of her thought. pp.-Dec. 4. ecritsphilosophiques. has failed to see that her ideas on work provide a ground for demonstrating a coherence and indeed a strange synthesis between these two strains.

. and the and subsequent.10 In 1933. Mar." 8. [Paris. a mon sens. C. 11. George Steiner. if perplexed. hereafter abbreviated CO. undoubtedly.. Simone Weil:Portraitof a Self-exiled Jew (Chapel Hill. Liberty."' or T... 395. with its production 7. Eliot's (in his introduction to The Need for Roots) that Weil is "a kind of genius akin to that of saints.trans. The Needfor Roots:Preludeto a Declarationof Duties toward Mankind. Mass. Eliot. 91." The New Yorker. 10. See Nevin. 1991). vols. p. Wills and John Petrie (Amherst."1 But the stupefying conditions in the modern factory. 1951). 9. pensively. preface to Weil. Her writing repeatedly asserts. N." (Albert Camus. vi. Nevin says that she assigned Bacon's aphorism natura enimnon nisi parendovincitur as a dissertation topic when she taught at Roanne. Noting that Yiddish was a language that Weil "ignored or might have despised.. But she had a "great soul" and was one "who might have become a saint. 1983]. enthusiasm for her thought. whose rights she had so passionately championed. the first woman among philosophers. She wanted to experience firsthand the life of the factory worker. Although Weil's critique of capitalism relies a good deal on Marx. des plus importants. "Mais ce livre [L'Enracinement]. Weil famously spent nearly a year (1934-35) in sweatshops and factories and in their description. The article is. was a clear influence on her thought. 140-46. "Asaint can be a very difficult person: I suspect that Simone Weil could be at times unsupportable" (ibid). Weil believes that only when matter is accepted as an obstacle to thinking can the will be liberated." he muses because one can disagree so violently with her. qui aient paru un 9 depuis la guerre . 1955). 2 among other things. theology. p."8or even Camus's remark that The Needfor Roots is one of the greatest books to come out since the liberation of France-9 and these are but random examples of the many in praise of her-despite much acclaim and great. Nevin cites Weil's "Meditation on Obedience and and Liberty.pp." Steiner concludes his essay by adding. La Conditionouvriere(Paris. for example. except as a curiosity. The essay alludes to Bacon's notions as well. Everything is matter except thought. 1973).p. Oeuvrescompletes. Wills (Boston. More obviously Baconian is Weil's notion that the philosophy of work is materialism: "Action which meets an obstacle gives us matter. trans.Matter is something which imposes an inevitable order on our actions. See Weil. 4:91). she had requested a leave of absence from teaching for personal studies. "Bad Friday." He adds. her notion of work is also classical: Francis Bacon's idea that nature can only be conquered through obedience. T S. more theoretical Oppression Liberty.CriticalInquiry 2001 Summer 613 It has been easy to dismiss Weil's life. . S. Weil's specific writings on work have been testily banished from the three arenas out of which she thought: Marxism. Eliot almost immediately takes it back: "Perhaps 'genius' is not the right word. a review of Thomas R." Oppression although very obliquely. that (skilled) manual work is the prerequisite for attention because it allows for the union of action and thought. both from the perspective of the factory worker and from that of the intellectual. and philosophy. SimoneWeil. a life that defies norms of almost every sort and has thus generated a large number of hagiographic or scornful biographies. With Bacon. Despite such statements as the that "Simone acutely gendered one by George Steiner in The New Yorker Weil was. 1992. "she was also a transcendent schlemiel. Nevin.

prevents thought altogether. Throughout La ConditionouvriereWeil describes factory work as the death of the soul.14 And yet attention for Weil is only possible through work. Weil writes: "Technical progress and mass production reduce manual workers more and more to a passive role. For example. she wrote to her friend Albertine Thevenon. to withdraw just as flesh withdraws before a lancet. but we resign ourselves to feeding men in order that they may serve the machines. "Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression. the journal she kept during her factory work attests to her crushing fatigue and inability to think. 14. Simone Weil:An IntellectualBiography.. p. Ibid. Materialism is inconceivable without the notion of mind" (Weil. one's thought. Indeed. and extends to nearly everything. Weil holds that physics and mathematics underlie everything in the world. says Alain: "The outside invades and thought stands on the ramparts. and unskilled labor invariably render attention an impossibility. 1989). Ga. 34). one must kill one's soul eight hours a day. The paradox is for her one of the profound scandals of high capitalism. 110. everything. Quoted in Gabriella Fiori. In "Sketch of Contemporary Social Life" and from Oppression Liberty. during her factory days. and so on. indeed. 15.trans.614 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of SimoneWeil lines." She adds. as Weil was constantly to complain. attention. but in activity-I mean activity both in thought and action" (CO. 378-79). Weil follows her teacher and mentor. ultimately. Berrigan (Athens. 32. The factory. repetitive action.p."'3 Weil's own factory work was intended to demonstrate to herself her conviction that assembly line work prevents attention in her sense. in believing that thinking itself is labor. Nietzsche's statement that the faith on which seizes upon necessity. hereafter abbreviated SW ." Oppressionand Liberty. 28). "This situation causes thought to shrivel up. with its numbing work and enormous physical demands. Over and over again. Joseph R. slavery of the worst sort. 13. attention is itself a form of labor-of the mind and soul-a work of thought that is the right of every human being to exercise. p. which was an outrage to Weil. Weil."'5 Weil writes to a student during her factory experience: "For the reality of life lies not in sensation." pp. Unlike him. p. 12. What is retained from Bacon in Weil is the idea that obstacle is necessary to liberation and. Thought is a battle. Alain. in increasing proportion and to an ever greater extent they arrive at a form of labour that enables them to carry out the necessary movements without understanding their connection with the final result. "In order to put oneself in front of one's machine. p.. destroys the mind. She does not echo Nietzsche's critique of epistemological models. "Sur la pensee et le travail."12 A page later we read that contemporary society suffers from an "inversion of the relation between means and ends-an inversion which is to a certain extent the law of every oppressive society-here becomes total or nearly so. destruction of the mind." The result: "Machines do not run in order to enable men to live. 111. feelings. If attention is only possible through work. One cannotbe conscious" (CO.

her Cahiers. 1962]. Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler."7 16. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle. "The Iliad. Heraclitus has a doctrine of opposing tensions according to which force is the first aspect of physical reality and is a regulative element in the universe. 173. p. This is the view that is probably closest to Weil's. the universe is seen as a vast system ruled by the interaction of energies (as it was for the Stoics. James of . She wrote that there was an analogy between work and geometry. I will mention only a few aspects here. that geometry is the purest form of rationalism. In her famous article on the Iliad. with Plato. Aristotle's model of contiguity (a mover and a moved). Simone Weil Reader. "force" has a particular history in philosophy which "might" does not. Panichas (New York. 1977)." trans. "Tragedy as a Dramatic Art. in her words. along with the fort/da game he mentions in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle". philosophically. where force is the doctrine of opposing tensions. and ed. Oeuvres ical formulas and proofs. or even as human will (Kant)."which is the word Weil used. ed. E Hegel. who abandoned Aristotle's model of contiguity). while Aristotle (whom Weil disliked intensely) holds a fairly modern notion of a dynamical concept of force. but which for her carries no inconvenience."in Hegel on Tragedy. as I have noted. 6 in 2. trans. E P B. which were of most importance to Weil. Force is here understood both as the living energy of meaning (as in Hegel). ed. Moreover. Weil writes that force is the equalizer. Anne and Henry Paolucci [New York. In the passage cited. and are realized substantively in the volitional activity of mankind" (G. In more contemporary discourse. and of those who wield it.16 and her work will be understood completely only if one takes into account the extent to which her models and metaphors rely on physics (her use of the term force is but one of many examples). The Stoics' notion of the universe as a vast system ruled by the interaction of forces (which is surprisingly similar to the modern notion of force fields) abandons. Hegel mentions force as essential to tragedy: "The genuine content of tragic action subject to the aims which arrest tragic characters is supplied by the world of those forces which carry in themselves their own justification. "Mathematics is the capacity rigorously to reason on the nonrepresentable" (6:2:384). Alyette (Paris. Osmaston et al. Plato's principle of motion is relegated to the world soul. p.. W. In notebook 6. Poem of Might. Force is what is called today a force field. 6:2:164-278. vol. it petrifies differently but equally the souls of those who suffer it. but she borrows from physics as well. for example. Weil. 1994). George A. the symmetry of blindness: Such is the nature of force. as I hope is obvious from the discussion here. trans. where. ed. These are filled with mathematcompletes Degraces et al. one might fold Freud's notion of Nachtrdglichkeit (deferred action). I have changed the translation "might" back to "force. See.CriticalInquiry Summer 2001 615 which our belief in science rests is still a metaphysical faith is not only one with which she agrees. see Sigmund Freud.and in particular notebook 5. which serve also as analogies to Weil's philosophical analyses. Its power to transform man into a thing is double and it cuts both ways. As to the philosophical tradition offorce. that relation is to mathematics what force is to history. 46).. She believes." The StandardEdition of the Complete PsychologicalWorks SigmundFreud. she writes. 17. into this economy. unwilled remembering. according to which it is a primary aspect of physical reality and a regulative element in the universe (Heraclitus).

as theorists such as Stephen Kern. See Marshall Berman. (London.Fatigue. This.Brecht. In this sense she is not a modernist (I am thinking here of Rabinbach's use of the term). argues Simmel. algebra". the active being who has a hold on it. then Weil is rigorously antimodernist. Of course. 1992). for example. 1978). it is more complicated than this. Weil critiques modernism on the grounds that modern life makes the mind and body strangers to one another so that the "spirituality of labor" is lost. the passive being who is subjected to the world.and the Originsof Modernity (Berkeley.19 But it is Husserl.20 And. and Eugene Lunn have noted. Eugene Lunn.. 209. geometry Strachey. mechanization. 1982). But she is for rationalization. and Adorno (Berkeley. it has lost its connection to manual labor.p. have become "money.616 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of SimoneWeil Weil is neither an antipositivist nor a positivist. the repression of seventeenth-century scientific discoveries (of which modernism would see positivistic doctrines as the sinister return). It has to be remembered that science itself was never seriously questioned in fin-de-si&cle France. as several theorists have noted. Helmholtz and Marx. her notion of attention insists upon such a separation. and Stephen Kern. and much of the Frankfurt school make similar arguments. Marshall Berman. Weil critiques: modern science is based on abstract analysis. "Force and Signification. 1983)." Jacques Derrida plays on many of these resonances. "Algebra." she argues. for the notion of objective truth. 18:7-64."Gravityand Grace. 3-30. On the contrary. Weil. and the convergence of culture and labor must be seen in this historical perspective." Writingand Difference. pp. linked to the cosmos and to the productivity of work. In "Force and Signification. But if we think of modernism as. even among those modernists who reject its scientific optimism. TheHuman Motor:Energy. and does not hold Adorno's belief that modernism's retreat from work and exchange leads to a retrieval of art. positivism contributes to how the body is perceived. among other things. Alan Bass (Chicago. 24 vols. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experienceof Modernity A (London. For Weil. . See Anson Rabinbach. 1953-74). and. see Jacques Derrida. 19.'8 although much of her writing resonates astonishingly with that of Walter Benjamin. 20. 1983). on the other. the unconscious has taken over. 18. too. work is a metaphysics that bridges the gap between the conscious subject and the fixity of the world: "I am always two: on the one hand. in The Crisisof EuropeanSciencesand Transcendental who writes that Descartes's method is absurd because it Phenomenology that the whole world can be thought in the analogy of nature. Lukaics. The Cultureof Timeand Space: 1880-1918 (Cambridge. Mass. Marxismand Modernism: Historical Studyof Lukdcs. Benjamin. She takes literally Descartes's cleavage of mind and body-indeed. see the body as a field of forces capable of endless transformations. The "three monsters of contemporary civilization. for example.trans. Weil shares modernism's rebellion against commodification.

factory conditions.6:1:111-12). Malcolm Imrie (Boston.23the body remains a central focus of power for Weil and the social relations of the workplace the laboratory capable of providing a cure for work-related ills. writing. Weil does not affirm the body to be a motor (as did in fact Descartes)." Gravityand Grace. 23. For now. 209. production) coupled with a religious vocabulary (prayer. 2 in 2 of Oeuvrescompletes(Paris.22 Despite the promised liberation of the body by automation (prophesized by Marx and more recently by Andre Gorz). Marxism and Catholicism (both of her own brand). "The Mysticism of Work. unless the work is assembly line." Premiers p. Weil. more subtle movement of the hand. icritsphilosophiques. p. and the hunger and thirst which come from fatigue. vol. I want to insist (again) that it is in the concept of work and its human product. then."25It is a prophylaxis in that it confirms the absence of idleness and the insistence on attention in her sense. can 21. This metaphysics. "if fatigue does not figure in it.trans. the body. she writes. fatigue is finally inextricable from work-whether it be manual work of the hand (Freud's repetition compulsion rendered literal on the assembly line) or that other. soul. The machine. is grounded in the twin concerns of idleness and fatigue. which abases the worker. liberates thought.24 Part of the difficulty in reading Weil lies in this use of labor/political concerns and vocabulary (machines. See Andre Gorz. See Weil's comments on Taylorism in the text of her lecture. and the machine for her mimes the energy of the universe. but they do not join them. significantly (but with the inevitability of all work theory). But the body for Weil is more like Hegel's notion of Ausserung:the outwardness of being. work. is not the machine's fault. "Ce qui abaisse le travail." et Ecrits historiques politiques.ed. fatigue. 25. universe) and a philosophical rigor that sublates both registers into a metaphysics of work. We will return to the hand in a moment."2 Geometry and physics. Fatigue as pathology emits inevitably from alienated labor: "No poetry concerning the people is authentic.CriticalInquiry Summer2001 617 and physics lead me to conceive how these two beings can be joined. Unlike many philosophers on work. fatigue is both a pathology and a prophylaxis against the demands of modernity. a notion that is carried through the more chilling varieties of modern theory on the subject such as Taylorism or the science of work in general. In her own writings. ce n'est nullement la machine elle-meme. she adds." she writes. however. If. 1985). 22. "La rationalisation. hereafter abbreviated "MW. 2:458-75. for Weil fatigue is so as well but for completely different reasons. Geraldi Leroy. c'est le travail en sdrie"(Weil. but not the abstractions of algebra. god. Cahiers. 1988). "Science et perception dans Descartes. as Rabinbach notes. Weil. as Weil understands them. 236. Pathsto Paradise:On the Liberation from Work. 24. But that." . the assembly line. that the two contrapuntal strains in her thinking.

Noting that she was "ugly and conspicuously filthy. 1986). is the other realm. 30. "the supernatural" (pp. says Weil."he adds that Lazare "cast a spell as much by her lucidity as by her visionary powers of thought. p. p. of course. he had an "accident very common in the nineteenth century. hereafter abbreviated "PDL. while accusing him simultaneously of ignoring the "something else" which is.28 Political activism itself is for the protection of the soul. "he did not know" that something transcends them both." trans. "Is There a Marxist Doctrine?" and Liberty. Such remarks as the following were not destined for happy reception among the Marxists: "Man." But he is not sure she is sane and says that what fascinates him the most about her is "the unhealthy eagerness that prompted her to give her life and blood for the cause of the downtrodden" (BN. 31). Wills and Petrie. her remarks were destined to scandalize.26 She is particularly scandaleusefor orthodox Marxism. "is born a slave and . . "Analysisof Oppression. on the one hand." See also Weil. Harry Mathews (New York. Dubbed the Red Virgin by some who knew her and named Lazare by Bataille in his powerful novel Blue of Noon. affection and near hatred. he began to take himself too seriously" and thus suffered from "a sort of messianic illusion which made him believe that he had been chosen to play a decisive role for the salvation of mankind. to think in the full sense of the word. however. I am arguing that Weil's metaphysics of work creates a ground for her engagement of both Catholicism and Marxism (again: in Weil's version) without. Weil. according to Weil. Bataille's description of Lazare is a mixture of awe and disgust. One of the many curious concatenations in Weil's writing lies here. which she calls the supernatural. "Prerequisite for the Dignity of Labour."she writes."trans. This something. which Weil formulates as Oppression looking at the relationships of force in society. 169-70. Simone Weil:An Anthology." This is not the first time that Weil uses religious vocabulary to describe Marx. she also uses Kant's the meaning of transcendental: way in which we talk about that which is not 26. hereafter abbreviated BN." Thereafter. This is a largely Neoplatonic position that offered her the synthetic approach she loved.618 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of SimoneWeil be understood as a necessary (and willfully unresolved) dialectic in her philosophy. Blue of Noon."27 When Marx made his famous statement denouncing the separation between manual and intellectual labor. 254.. and most work on Weil examines one at the exclusion of the other. precisely. 175)." everything else is meaningless. These are the two strains that critics have generally characterized as profoundly contradictory or finally incommensurable. or noumena for Weil. Miles. But then. trans.pp. Weil. 169-95.. pp. Simon Weil:An Anthology. in that Weil calmly engages frequently opposing discourses on her way to a given analysis. . 28. Weil holds with Plato that there is a parallel realm to that of phenomena. 29. 27. but it is also Kantian in part. "it was impossible for him . Marx had an idea of genius. a transcendental to which we aspire and which lies somewhere in memory. The tranquil indifference that Georges Bataille saw in her is echoed at the conceptual level. eliding the contradiction and incommensurability such ajuxtaposition produces. At the same time. 157. servitude is his natural condition. where she is dismissable first and foremost because she is a convert to Christianity. See Georges Bataille. Without this "something..

235). Small wonder then that she has been called (by David McLellan. she says so brutally. As a revolt against the injustices of society. See David McLellan. it will be remembered. and the worker "is better placed than all others to accomplish it in the truest way" ("PDL. she writes. These two positions cannot be held simultaneously. within a system that prevents the worker from becoming enriched ("a worker who becomes rich ceases to be a worker"). as Marx understands it. in other words. which is the opiate of the people ("PDL.CriticalInquiry 2001 Summer 619 given us to know. It is in this sense that there can never be progress for humankind. for example) a utopian pessimist. she does not engage in revisionary Marxism. there is neither time nor need. the worker will simply desire "to escape . When she thinks he is wrong."p."pp. though initially a revolt against injustice. she repeats. written language (hence. joy through suffering is man's vocation. 247). As if these views were not enough to appall any Marxist. . Weil rejects. .29 These religious views. revolution is "right and proper. from the working condition" ("PDL. withShe reads Plato throughKant and uses both notions of transcendental out "revisionary" elucidation. she says. a worker's imperialism exactly analogous to national imperialism" ("PDL. there is no beauty. In short. Nothing has changed. Weil writes that revolution will change nothing but the claim to power. to the worker). The same holds for her views on the role of the Church from her particular Catholic perspective. The worker should take possession of culture. but Weil does so. 256)." It is revolution itself. I would add. She would not be baptized. This depressing statement is followed by one no more reassuring: the ideal factory could be transformed into a kind of church. Weil goes on to note that when the acquisition of money is the object of desire. 246). Weil will reject as well any progress toward Spirit as promised in the Phenomenology the Spirit. of Marx's division of manual and intellectual labor is overcome by attention. in particular. which Gorz will echo (without attribution) some fifty years later. In this passage. in "Prerequisite for the Dignity of Labour. often becomes very rapidly as it has done in the past. Revolution is the true opiate of the people. Unfooled by the differing valences between Marx and Hegel. The worker must be given the power of handling language and. In Marx. as well as composition. The conclusion: "workers need poetry more than bread" ("MW. prescient) Hegelian move.. allowing the contemplation of great art and the time for attention while the work of the hands continues. So. she never joined the Communist party. 246-47)." But no revolution will get rid of "the essential misery of the working condition. Simone Weil:UtopianPessimist(London. Weil's constant commitment to teaching literature and philosophy."p."p. This is revolution. for revisionism. Marx's idea of revolution. The hegemony and its hierarchy will remain: "Most revolutionary feeling. 1989)." In a brilliant (and. in her work. creating a kind of vertigo in the experience of reading her. too." p. combined with the severe critique of 29.

since that time. these stances and proposals can be found in Rabinbach and Gorz (Arendt is far too Aristotelian) where. 170. "Israel") are to be found in the French edition of Gravityand Grace. The most respectful and willfully logical critique of her writings on the Jewish religion comes. creates a turning away much like.La Pesanteuret la grdce (Paris." Life. because the behavior of men is static. 1963). L6vinas notes that what haunts Weil is a platonic clarity. and Hindu sacred texts are acceptable outside the Christian ones. And. 31. when she went to the States with her family in 1942.32 But it should be noted that Weil also rejects the 30. p. is not a passion. responses to Weil's ideas on Judaism. Her unmitigated hatred of the Hebrew Scriptures (how can a sacred text condone the cruelty of God?) has. reverse this argument. elicited much criticism from scholars of Judaism. "Simone Weil contre la Bible. Nevin's chapter includes a discussion of various responses to Weil by Jewish thinkers. Weil gets into trouble as well. there are far less generous.pp. Chaldean. "AStranger unto Her People: Weil on Judaism. 32."31 Of course. On theological issues."30 We can. goodness is always a stranger to Judaism and evil is specifically Jewish. 23559. have led many to overlook the radical stances and proposals Weil assumed to improve working conditions. Her religious intensity and matter-of-factness make Weil insupportable the French sense) for the pres(in ent era and for any Marxian reading. she is inconsistent (his word is ambigui) in her use of the Bible: at times she uses it as historical documentation. The universality of God is everywhere present as a prefiguration of the Passion except in Judaism. These are notebooks Weil left with her friend Gustave Thibon. L6vinas makes clear from the beginning of his essay that he will respond to her with logic." Difficile liberte:Essais sur lejudai•me (Paris. Egyptian. "It is act. in a passage that demonstrates a great understanding and admiration for Weil's thought. Moreover. they are received as both significant and original. from L6vinas. God can be forgiving only if he first posits cruelty. as false witnessings to be rejected out of hand. needless to say. He lists the problems: Weil hates the Hebrew Bible. She saw in the Gospels "the same interiorization of religious truth that the Greeks achieved with geometry in the register of theoretical knowledge. concludes L6vinas. . Ibid. The taboo against religion in this context. The most hostile essays on Judaism (for example. 165. It is in history. p. He begins with Weil's declaration that "the proof that the contents of Christianity existed before Christ is that there has not been. because they are stripped of any religious tenor.. any considerable change in the behavior of men. Moreover. at others. Emmanuel L&vinas. our aversion to the face of misery. the embarrassment of it.620 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of SimoneWeil Marx. as Weil notes. See Nevin. In other words. 1947). with the language of philosophy. a priest. I think. he notes cautiously. Only Greek. if rigorous. the mentality that eventually produced Christianity has always been present." SimoneWeil.

"34They do so in Weil. 317). 1968). "Action is the affirmation of God. aesthetic or religious. p. to impose that truth. .33 But philosophy. trans." pp. but from political activism. "May religion and philosophy. "'Le Beau et le bien. pp. 626. and in social structures. 36. p. The history of European Christianity is a history of those interrelations as they have influenced the Church. The political point is clear: "I do not grant her [the Church] the right to impose her comments on the mysteries of faith as being the truth." Every revolution. leads to a return of the sacred "in the form of an enthusiasm or fervor . he sees "religiosity" as does Weil: already in human relations. Western metaphysics). 34. as Derrida puts it citing Jan Pato'ka. See Jacques Derrida. 73). It is curious that. in Derrida's words." OeuvrescomplBtes (Paris. Derrida." she writes. David Wills (Chicago. in openness to mystery. by exercising the power of depriving the faithful of the sacraments." Indeed.. All those anathemasit "are a part of history and have no present validity" (quoted in SW. The Gift of Death." The doctrine of anathemasit will forever prevent Weil from being baptized. 1995). 33. philosophique. In her "Last Thoughts. 319). See chapter I in particular. Charles Baudelaire." writes Baudelaire."' Premiers ecrits p. that corresponds Weil is the only writer I can think of. The Gift of Death.." but only for the "information of the faithful" (quoted in SW. p. "politics excludes the mystical. "the abdication of responsibility. and therein perhaps lies the trouble for both."35 in what Derrida calls the Tradition (that is. for whom the mystery of the sacred is inextricable. Weil argues that the Church has no "right to limit the operations of the mind or the illuminations of love in the realm of thought. Derrida writes that Christianity is already in interhuman relations. 34. more recently. "Mais Faction est affirmation de Dieu" (Weil. which a posteriori interprets these relations in order to fashion its own hegemony and power." Its mission is to be guardian of sacred texts and to formulate decisions on "essential points. to an abdication of responsibility. "come one day as if compelled by the cry of one who despairs." written in England shortly before she died. "outside" the history of Christianity itself. "L'Ecole pagan. Derrida has argued something quite similar. "Secrets of European Responsibility. 35. In The Gift of Death. 236). We do not need Marx to remind us of the prevalent notion that. Even less do I grant her the right to use threats and force. PatoEkaargues that the mystery of the sacred has as its effect.36 Nevin himself concludes that "for any reader of Weil her relationship to Christianity and its church should be considered secondary to her relationship with her own people" (p. like religion and Marxism. 21. Although he agrees with L6vinas that religion is grounded in individual responsibility. 1-34.CriticalInquiry Summer 2001 621 Church and this for political as much as religious reasons. has its own problems with Weil. not only from the idea of responsibility (as in L6vinas).

like her speaking voice we are told by those who knew her. she rarely bathed. but not about work" ("MW. especially in L'Enracinement [The Needfor Roots] remains unsurpassed in French). 232). are to be found too in her life. religion. This elision between registers is disconcerting because it refuses to recognize itself as such. of Jewish origin and Catholic faith. (I speak again here of her life only because the political activity is for her to be seen as a natural extension of her thought. appear as a breach in Western thought. an intellectual who hung out with the working class and changed her grammar and intonation accordingly. disciplinary boundaries. and certainly teleology-between philosophy. 36). for Weil. she considered it to be a great misfortune to be a woman). for example. her hair wild and unkempt. It is a kind of brilliant but exasperating parataxis. in one of his least charitable moments in a litany of generally uncharitable descriptions. She was. she told her young girl students. These transitions.622 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of SimoneWeil The vehicle for articulating this elision. But as Eric Auerbach points out. writes that around her he felt the weight on his wrist of"a garbage-eating bird of ill-omen" (BN. Weil's writings are unnerving because they rigorously refuse to see the difference-in valence. parataxis can become a weapon of eloquence. which deny a change of discourse formation and which consciously deny as well the inappropriate. 122). is merely legalized prostitu- . She moves between them with astonishing fluidity." and among the workers she was "alien intellectual" (BN. a Communist troublemaker from bourgeois parents who refused to join the Party. So. Bataille. in Barcelona she was "alien French. Weil purposefully does not acknowledge the great upheaval that Derrida (still reading Pato'ka) examines: the transition from the Platonic to the Christian worldview."p.) So. is followed by a detailed account of how to improve machines in a factory and then by a series of "proofs" that rest on the fact that neither Plato nor Aristotle had any notion of work: "The Greeks knew about art and sport. In her own life. even style. is possessed of a matter-of-factness and aphoristic sparseness which moves unhesitatingly among those three realms. she alternated between endless readings and writings to organizing strikes and rebellions in the streets. In other words. These two systems that (in Derrida's terms) are marked by an economy of incorporation (of the orgiastic mysteries) in the case of Platonism and by an economy of repression (of the same) in Christianity do not. after all. and political activism. this necessary syllogism. at every level. and vice versa. as Bataille puts it. A discussion of the contemplation of God. Rigorous inappropriateness imposed as something natural was her ontology. is philosophy. and a woman who went to extremes to be unattractive (her clothes were soiled. her prose style (the limpidity of which. she was a Catholic who refused baptism and scolded the church. too. She was also a teacher whose philosophy courses were willfully scandalous (the family. p.

consists in "conceiving one's entire life before oneself and directing it all in a sense determined by the will and with one's labor. as is the author's lack of acknowledgement of this shock. while the writer presses on.38 I would suggest that the hand is a problem for Weil. combined with her ill health and general awkwardness. p. she wrote to her friend Albertine Th&venon. and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. Weil disassociates the will. which has its own philosophical tradition. Weil. In any case. Weil's terrible migraines. the reader is frequently confronted with cockroaches. To Thevenon she writes of a nice worker who helps her when she is in despair over work she cannot do well. The syllogism is shocking. See Weil. As she puts it in a letter to a student. or parataxis. In the same letter. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. CO. 31). is the site of struggle for Weil." It is here that I would suggest that we consider the hand. and not very strong" (CO. In Weil's writings. Choosing contexts in which she was clearly out of place. "Attention and Will. she speaks of how fatigue and pain make her lose control over her muscles. made manual labor both dangerous and exremely difficult for her. everything else follows logically."that inappropriateness. Existence itself.p. and the metaphor she uses to do so is the hand: "We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will. 22 and 26. inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind. To beg for them is to believe that we have a father in heaven. that 37. we can only beg for them." The hand. . She could not make her hands useful or rapid-neither in factory work nor in writing. As this is not the case. If inner purity." Gravityand Grace. therefore. It is like Kafka's technique: once you accept that Gregor Samsa is a cockroach. pp. it should be remembered. an abruptness that the matter-of-factness in the tone refuses to recognize. it is particularly difficult to get factory work without a certificate when one is "like me. She continues: The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles. they might be the object of will. slow. is a way of living the truth of existence. from attention. deaf to our cries of protest. she combined an insistence upon marginalization with the equal insistence that such is the lot of "man. and her will was in fact powerless to control what she scornfully refers to as "a few movements of a few muscles. 38.37 Let me first note that this passage is a prime example of what I mean by Weil's abrupt transition of registers. awkward.CriticalInquiry Summer 2001 623 tion) and a factory worker whose inept hands and crushing migraines got her consistently fired. some of which I will mention here. 169. it is significant that Weil uses the act of the hand as a demonstration of will because her hands always gave her difficulty (they were notoriously awkward and apparently very small)." she writes.

precisely because it is the organ. should be beautifully penned in a manner that eluded her) nor in her manual tasks. the cockroaches. then. should be such a source of misery for her. she wrote. for Weil. a few major texts on the hand. . fail. Her hands became the obstacle that consistently thwarted her theories. both of the mind and body. For Weil. in Weil's writings as a fundamental and vital given that we can see why hands. for example. your eyes. No wonder she felt an affinity for Mallarm6 who. the hand is supposed to be the very organ of elision her writings require. it should be by the hand. The hand. But Weil's hands refused her the easy transitions that her thought assumed. And at the same time it is the way through" (p. It is perhaps the place where. himself unconcerned with the hand (except for the "Sonnet in X"). with Alain. your hands. nevertheless saw writing as a death. that stands as a transparency between being-in-the-world and spirit. in this context. And if her bumpless shifts between registers are to be manifested and indeed realized. It is only if we understand the shifting registers. We read there. being fired from her factory jobs because of them). I have written elsewhere on Heg39. as an erasure of the subject. her thought is put into question for her. 37). remains the place in Weil where the smoothness of thought is interrupted. The hand. 132)." she writes to her student. and the issue of the hand. but I hope that it will help to develop what is at stake for Weil. as I have noted. Certainly this is how Hegel saw it. "this world is the closed door. the hand mimes the move in Weil from thought to action.pp. is a metaxu-both an obstacle and a way to truth. because the elision itself stumbles. rhythms that. miss (she was always. one feels singularly incomplete" (CO.39 But here the obstacle is unwanted and becomes a source of great embarrassment and finally despair.624 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of SimoneWeil she obsesses about it."Gravityand Grace. The awkwardness of her hands constantly made her stumble. how important it is to exercise your muscles. as Hegel puts it. 132-34. echoed that of the universe. "I cannot emphasize enough. through the hand. Work is rendered visible. Such a consideration will necessarily be brief. For if we agree with my earlier assertion that it is work that sublates and unifies what I am calling the three registers of Weil's thought. See her essay "Metaxu. She could keep the beat neither in her writing (which she believed. It is worth considering. They broke the rhythm she saw in the factories. Without such exercise. She spoke constantly of her lack of dexterity ("maladresse naturelle") and urged her students to train their hands and bodies as she had not. and of its actualization. as a confrontation with the white page that provides infinite obstacles. then we can view the hand as the site of work. realized. p. where the erasure of the I fails because it constantly draws attention to itself. It is a barrier. in other words.

through thought. Engels. Ibid..42 Like speech." he writes. and since he is primarily his own fate. the hand is both being and doing. Phenomenologyof the Spirit. V. "First labour" [into which the hand has been elided]. the hand is granted the privilege of "transparency" between inner and outer even if a separation between the two will come of the hand's work. the "living artificer" of man's fortune. for the inner. Salomeand theDance of Writing: (Chicago. pp. 162-76. the hand is elusive in character because it is. W. then. he is present as the animating soul. 189. next to the organ of speech. begins in the same vein: "Thus the hand is not only the organ of Here. In a passage on palmistry.40 In the chapter on "Reason" of the Phenomenology of the Spirit."41 Hegel will align speech with the hand and thus with work. a being-for-another. through action.CriticalInquiry Summer 2001 625 el's notion of the hand. for in it. pub." which widened "man's horizon" and allowed for speech. bothinner and outer and yet (as always with Hegel)." Individuality is here "the object for observation. trans. is the activity itself. but some of this ground needs to be revisited to frame the problem. It is the living artificer of his fortune. . in general. It is the organ. Engels goes on to claim that it is the hand. 42. in other words. as the active organ of his self-fulfillment. it is the hand most of all by which a man manifests and actualizes himself. The hand. it is the manifestation of work both as that which yields product. E Hegel. A. where thought and action are. p. That the hand. 187. elided. like work. and that which reaches conclusions. from which it is then separated. (Peking. is linked with fate. The Part Played by Labourin the Transition from Ape to Man. Frederick Engels."43 ism. must represent the in-itself of the individuality in respect of its fate is easy to see from the fact that. precisely as Weil would have it. p." The outer of the individual acts "only as an organ in making the inner visible or. pp. See Frangoise Meltzer. "with labour. cannot provide the antithesis between inner and outer because it is itself an antithesis. the hand will thus express this in-itself. 41. my emphasis. in so far as it is in the organ. Like speech. however. trans. We may say of the hand that it is what a man does. PortraitsofMimesisin Literature 40. 6. The hand. Hegel notes. neither. 1977). it is also theproductof labour. G. 185. the working hand externalizes the inner being. 1987). the influence of Hegel is evident. like the speaking mouth. Nevertheless. 1975). Miller (Oxford. there is a discussion of possible laws for the relation of "selfconsciousness to actuality. finally. 43. despite the pervasive Darwinlabour. in a curious document (written in 1876 and published twenty years later) entitled The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

for Engels "man" is the product and the organ of the hand. and Plato. make for the essence (a word still permissible in those texts) of what is "man. the hand is directly tied to speech. or explained. Plato. almost autonomous. for example.. as we are with our feet. The Laws.626 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of Simone Weil "after it and then with it speech-these are the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man. The hand is always tied to thought and to techne and therefore always engaging the dialectic of inner being and outward manifestation.795a. ed."44We have moved into political theory. which are seen as "natural. 45.794d. pp. was to have been the introduction for a work originally entitled "The Three Basic Forms of Slavery. the hand is part of our bodily organism."45 It should be clear by now that the hand in Hegel." he writes. including production.795d. the human hand and speech. He adds: In the common view. 6. Labor allows for man's evolution.J. thus leading to speech. In similar terms. It is at once a part of the body and a thing apart. 1973). And these two attributes. Even in Descartes the hand has this strange status. by its be44. not insignificantly for Weil. "The hand is a peculiar thing. It is unnatural (and the fault of mothers) to favor one hand over the other: "Unnatural are the devices by which it is contrived to make a man's left weaker than his right.. 1366. in The Collected Dialogues of Plato. that they help achieve a perfect synthesis. The characteristic difference between "apes and human society" for Engels is one word: labor." writes Engels. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton. Ibid. 7. In the case of Hegel and Engels. Heidegger too engages the hand. "ever fashioned even the crudest of stone knives. The Engels text.." Difference between the hands is to be eradicated and thus with it a "universal misunderstanding" that "there is a real and natural difference in the serviceability of either hand for various actions. or balance. 3. Engels. . trans. Lane Cooper et al." Plato's concern with the hands. "No simian hand. then." The Athenian who makes this statement wants a race that will be "ambicrural and ambidextrous. but the hand remains the organ that transcends the inner/outer dialectic." The hand itself. Such a dialectic is in turn. 7. for reasons already stated. serves as a metaphor for the larger metaphysical agenda of each text. eludes essence. But the hand's essence can never be determined. fundamental to any philosophy (political or not). 7. is that they serve the notion of symmetry and wholeness. N. however. indeed." In Plato's Laws. pp. there is a discussion that concludes that we should all be ambidextrous. of course." The connection of the hand with speech is not to be overlooked. 1367.

in her insistence on the dismantling of the subject. emerges as well in the story of Isaac from Genesis. presumably because man is a sign. 27:22). disguises his hands with animal skin in order to pose as his brother Esau and thus receive the blind Isaac's paternal blessing. in DeconstrucII: The TextsofJacquesDerrida."'4 The hand occupies.46 Resonating with Engels." says the dying Isaac. Derrida. in her incorporation of technology and industry.CriticalInquiry 2001 Summer 627 ing an organ which can grasp. in her insistence on an epistemology grounded in physics and mathematics. Simone Weil is. too. 16). Heidegger's essay on thinking. think. if anything. the hand is implicated in the hypostatization of thinking as work and writing as the preservation of thought (logocentric concerns notwithstanding). a gesture meant to carry man into the great oneness" (W p. of which I am generally quite suspicious. he is writing out of a long tradition of philosophical discourse about the hand-the hand as elided into labor and as a manifestation of thought and speech. 16). can have hands" (W. but they do not have hands. WhatIs CalledThinking?trans. 1968). concludes Heidegger." trans. "but the hands are the hands of Esau" (Gen. Whether it is writing or engaged in work. Heidegger notes that the hand is to be differentiated from all paws. These labels. Jacob. Weil shares. p. when he reads this passage. or fangs by "an abyss of essence. Apes. have organs that can grasp. as Derrida puts it. as we have noted. The hand "designs and signs. that is. Nevertheless. John P. "Geschlecht Heidegger's Hand. "The voice is Jacob's voice. Jr. may be of use here if only to articulate her disjunctions. p. The case of Weil turns this figural tale around: the voice never betrays her. in her smooth and yet fierce juxtaposition of varied quotations from often antithetical sources (like the 46. came out ten years after Weil's death. She is postmodern. "only a being who can speak.. thinking." And in a textual moment that achieves the unity of which Plato'sAthenian dreams. Leavey. into the complexities of abstract thought. J." The hand is with speech what permits thought. "The hand thinks before being thought. and at the same time veiling the common source of both. Thus when Alain holds that thinking is labor. John Sallis (Chicago. p. Heidegger writes that "two hands fold into one. The combination of speech and the hand as revealing thought. it is thought. 171. an anachronism in her late modernist age. it will be remembered. man's essence. postmodern before the fact. to use Heidegger's term). Glenn Gray (New York. hereafter abbreviated W 47. a view that. 1987). ed. quiltlike. in all of these texts. of course. of revealing and at the same time of hiding a truth of being. the hand is a play of showing (monstrousness. Or. a thought. the hands frequently do. tion and Philosophy: . Martin Heidegger. claws. 16. then.

from different traditions). of which Max Weber. A dignity. and others) but with the added warning that such homelessness destroys the human soul. she is postmodern in her notion of diracinement:the idea that uprootedness is a sign of the times (later echoed by Deleuze. and the conditions necessary for achieving it. Plato. Her textual hands are as graceful as she would have had them be in the factories: she reaches easily for Marx. together make for a human dignity. without apology. could only have a glimmering. . and religious documents of all sorts to argue that the work of the hand. and the labor of thought. Kant. Hegel. and in her critique of late capitalism. Lloyd. and perhaps most importantly. or even Marx. Guattari. Geertz.628 FranfoiseMeltzer TheHands of SimoneWeil postmodern architect who alludes and incorporates. Finally.

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