Excerpt from Simone Weil
Simone Weil (Penguin Lives), Chapter One

--From Simone Wiel (Penguin Lives) by Francis du Plessix Gray. (c) June 2001, Viking, used by permission.


1. The Factory of Genius

GROWING UP in Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century were two contented children from whose household all toys and dolls had been categorically banned. It had been their mother's intent to nurture their intellectual skills, and the gambit had obviously worked. The older child, Andrè Weil, born in 1906, was solving the most advanced mathematical problems by the time he was nine; by the age of twelve he had taught himself classical Greek and Sanskrit and become an accomplished violinist. His sister, Simone, three years his junior, a strikingly beautiful girl with dark, limpid eyes, was reading the evening paper aloud to her family when she was five, and would master Greek and several modern languages in her early teens. The siblings often communicated with each other in spontaneously rhymed couplets, or in ancient Greek. When reciting scenes from Corneille or Racine they corrected each other with a slap in the face when one of them made a mistake or missed a beat. Theirs was a hermetic, rarified world-the young Weils' conversations, though never meant to exclude anyone, were so laced with literary and philosophical allusions that they were barely accessible to outsiders. Who could have guessed, for instance, that Simone's recitation of the lament for Hippolyte from Racine's Phèdre was meant to inform her brother that she had completed her Latin composition and was ready to study Aeschylus with him as soon as he was finished with his differential calculus?

The Weils' saga begins, as so many do, with the myth of the perfectly happy family. The uncommon brilliance and talents of their son and daughter may have been the crowning glory of the Weils' cosseted lives, but it was hardly the only one. Dr. Bernard Weil's practice as an internist had thrived ever since he had opened it. His wife, Selma, was a dynamic woman who radiated intelligence and joie de vivre, and their mutual devotion was legendary. As for the early flowering of the Weil children's genius (how could one have wished for more amazing children?), Mme Weil was almost totally responsible. Dr. Weil-kind, loving, and thoroughly enlightened, but taciturn and easily overwhelmed by his forceful spouse-was far too busy with his medical practice, and let his wife make the major decisions concerning their children's education. Selma, also known in the family as "Mime," had much desired, in her youth, to become a doctor. Her father having forbidden her, for the usual patriarchal reasons, to go to medical school, she seemed to have rechanneled her vast energies and ambitions into her children's success. Because few educators were skilled enough, in her judgment, to stand up to her son's and daughter's formidable gifts, within a span of five years Simone and Andrè would attend more than a half-dozen schools and be instructed by scores of private tutors. One might well say that the dominating Selma Weil was a genius factory of sorts, masterminding every move in her children's intellectual training, tapping every available educational resource to assure the fulfillment of their talents.

Mme Weil was as scrupulous about her children's physical well-being as she was about their education. A phobic dread of microbes ruled her household. The Weils were close friends of the eminent Russian-born microbiologist Elie Metchnikoff, a director of the Pasteur Institute, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his pioneering research on infectious diseases. Having picked up from the scientist, as Andrè Weil later wrote, "a dread of germs which [Simone] would carry to an extreme," Mme Weil ruled that her children should not be kissed by anyone outside the immediate family. When she took her son and daughter onto a Paris bus she had them sit on the top deck so as to minimize any chance of infection. Compulsive hand-washing was another habit she imposed on her children. At mealtimes, if Andrè and Simone needed to open a door after having washed their hands, they had to shove it open with an elbow. These phobias about food and germs would strongly affect Simone's psychic makeup. The word dégoutant, "disgusting," seems to have been frequently used by the Weils, and from the time she could talk she often said, "I am disgusting." By the time she was four she disliked being kissed, even by her parents, and for the rest of her life she displayed repulsion for most forms of physical contact. When she was five, a friend of her parents, a doctor, was so touched by her beauty that he leaned down to kiss her hand. Simone burst into tears and cried, "Water, water! I want to wash!!"

Simone Adolphine Weil was born on February 3, 1909, in her parents' apartment on the Rue de Strasbourg, just south of the Gare de l'Est (since destroyed, the street was rebuilt as the Rue de Metz). When she was five her family moved to a larger flat on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Her mother, née Salomea Reinherz (she had shortened her first name to "Selma"), came from a wealthy family of Jewish businessmen who had prospered in the import-export trade in many countries. Selma spent her first few years in Russia, which her parents left in the wake of the 1880s pogroms to move to Belgium. Hers was the more artistic side of the family. Her father wrote poetry in Hebrew, and her mother, who would live with the Weils until her death, was a gifted pianist. As for Dr. Bernard Weil, who was addressed by his children as "Biri," he came from a family of Jewish merchants that had been settled for generations in Strasbourg. His politics were mildly left of center, and he was an extreme secularist. He disliked talking about his Jewishness. This reluctance must have had its share of complexities, for his mother, who lived on in Paris into the 1930s, remained very pious. She kept a kosher kitchen and proclaimed that she would rather see her granddaughter die than marry a Gentile. When visiting her son's family, she would follow her daughter-in-law, Selma, into the kitchen and scold her for cooking foods that were contrary to Jewish dietary laws.

In this ritualistically hygienic family, Simone, who had been born a month premature, spent a very sickly infancy and childhood. When the baby was six months old, her mother continued to breast-feed her while recovering from an emergency appendectomy. Simone began to lose a great deal of weight and grew very ill. When she was eleven months old Mme Weil was persuaded to wean her, but Simone, in an early struggle of conflicting wills, refused to eat from a spoon. She became so thin that several doctors gave her up for lost; until the age of two she did not grow in height or weight, and had to be fed mush from bottles into which increasingly large holes were pierced. Reflecting, as an adult, on these early crises (which might have played a role in the severe eating problems she developed in adolescence), Simone sometimes speculated that she had been "poisoned" in infancy by her mother's milk: "C'est pourquoi je suis tellement ratée," she'd say, "That's why I'm such a failure."
Simone continued to be delicate throughout her childhood. At the age of three she took months to recover from her own appendectomy, which so traumatized her that for many years the sight of the Eiffel Tower, which she and her mother had had to pass on the way to the hospital, made her cry. Whenever a stranger came to visit her family, she even left the room in fear that he was a doctor. Her mother grew all the more obsessive about her daughter's health, pampering and cosseting the hypersensitive, moody child. "She is indomitable, impossible to control, with an undescribable stubbornness that neither her father nor I can make a dent in," she wrote a friend when her "Simonette" was five. "I certainly have spoiled her too much....I can't help but fondle and kiss her much more than I should."

Although they never rebelled overtly against their coddling parents, the young Weils clearly became very gifted at manipulating them. As they grew older they occasionally derided their exceptionally protected childhoods. One of their favorite pranks was to get on the bus without their socks on a cold winter day and go through their "neglected children" routine. Teeth chattering, shaking with mock shivers, they announced to concerned passengers that their neglectful parents did not even buy them any socks. ("You wretch!" a woman once shouted accusingly at Mme Weil.) Another good game was to go knocking at strangers' doors to beg for food, pleading that their parents were letting them "die of hunger" (they especially asked for sweets, which were forbidden in the Weils' home). On hearing of such jests Dr. and Mme Weil were overcome with shame and indignation, and their offspring continued to act out their psychodramas all the more gleefully.

The advent of World War I, which put to rest the complacent myth of progress that had prevailed for over a century among Europe's liberal bourgeoisie, was the first pall cast on the young Weils' life. It was the critical event that thrust Simone out of the smug cocoon of her affluent childhood and gave her an inkling of what would become a central theme of her work-suffering or "affliction." The principal impact of the war on her own family was constant relocation. Mme Weil and her children followed Dr. Weil, who had been drafted into the army medical corps, to the towns of Neufchâtel, Mayenne, Laval, Chartres, renting spacious houses in each community to be close to his army quarters. It was during these war years that Simone's precocious political consciousness and her bent for self-sacrifice first became pronounced (at the age of three she had already turned down a wealthy relative's gift of a jeweled ring on the grounds that she "disliked luxury.") In 1916, when she was six years old, she decided that she wished to go without sugar because "the poor soldiers at the front" did not have any. That same year she adopted a "godson" at the front, a French custom during World War I, whereby families signed up to send food and clothing to underprivileged soldiers. By gathering and selling bundles of wood, Simone earned her own money to buy provisions for "her soldier." He came in 1917 to spend a leave with the Weils. Simone grew immensely fond of him. He died in action the following year, and she grieved greatly over this loss.

By the age of ten the intense little girl with the mass of tangled black hair, who already read several newspapers a day, began to display her sensitivity to issues of justice and her sense of history. In 1919, at the Great War's end, she was appalled by the manner in which the Treaty of Versailles "humiliated the defeated enemy." A few years later she would write to a friend, "I suffer more from the humiliations inflicted by my country than from those inflicted upon her," noting that the Versailles Treaty cured her once and for all of any "naïve patriotism." A superdiligent student who displayed a particular fascination with world events, she seems to have followed the course of the Russian Revolution fairly closely and talked about it in school, for, upon being accused by a classmate that year of being a Communist, she defiantly replied: "Not at all; I am a Bolshevik." Issues of domestic justice were equally urgent. During a summer vacation, Simone, increasingly uncomfortable with the sense that she belonged to a very privileged elite, assembled the bellhops, chambermaids, desk clerks, and porters at the hotel where her family was staying, chided them that they worked too hard, and urged them to form a trade union.

A few months after the war's end, as her family was settling back into their apartment on Boulevard Saint-Michel, Mme Weil noticed that Simone was nowhere to be seen. She rushed downstairs with her housekeeper to see what Simone was up to. The ten-year-old was found in the thick of the labor union demonstrations being staged a few blocks down the avenue, marching alongside the workers as they sang the Internationale and shouted their demands for better wages and hours.
The year 1919, when her political consciousness began to flower, offered Simone yet other epiphanies. According to Andrè Weil, it was then that the Weil children first learned that they were Jewish, a discovery that needs some elaboration. Both Dr. Weil, a professed atheist, and his wife exemplified the pattern of extreme assimilation that distinguished the progressive Jewish intelligentsia in France. This integration had to do, in part, with the Revolution of 1789, through which France became the first country in Europe to grant Jews rights of full citizenship, and which enabled them, in the following centuries, to rise to higher positions of eminence in the academic and political sphere than in any other European nation (philosopher Henri Bergson, sociologist Emile Durkheim, composer Jacques Halévy, Socialist premiers Léon Blum and Pierre Mendès-France, among them). Notwithstanding the acutely anti-Semitic currents later made manifest by the Dreyfus affair and the right-wing group Action Française, France's early pattern of tolerance inspired its Jewish community to display its patriotic fidelity by blending totally into the national melting pot. "No Jew prays harder for his country than a French Jew...," in the words of the contemporary French Jewish scholar Alexandre Alder. "This nation is the emancipator of Jews, and will provoke among them torrents of eternal devotion."

The intensity of Simone Weil's patriotism-a critical but savagely committed patriotism that may have shaped her destiny more deeply than that of any twentieth-century writer-might be seen in the light of this uniquely French pattern of assimilation. The same need for assimilation led Dr. and Mme Weil to decide that their children should not be told the difference between Jews and Gentiles until they had reached a fairly mature age. Mme Weil had suffered considerably from anti-Semitism during her youth in Central Europe and often stated her "profound desire to integrate herself into French society." As an Alsatian Jew, Dr. Weil had had to deal with a double level of alienation: Neither Jews nor Alsatians were ever seen as genuine "Fran¸ais de France." Simone's extremely tortured emotions about Judaism and her acute sense of deracination-her fundamental inability to experience a sense of "belonging" to any organization or milieu-are more understandable when seen in the light of these very complex family attitudes.

There was yet another way in which the year 1919-20 was an emotional turning point for Simone: It was the time when she had to confront, and accept, the genius of her brother, Andrè, who was to become one of the two or three most prominent mathematicians of the postwar era.

As is the case with most mathematicians, Andrè's gifts had flowered very early. He had come to his vocation at the age of eight, when he found a geometry book at an aunt's house and studied it as an entertainment. Seeing him working for days on end on mathematical problems, his parents took away papers and pencils so that he could get back to occupations more "normal" to his age; but they dropped this taboo when they noticed that he continued to write out equations on cement sidewalks. At the age of twelve he was solving mathematical problems beyond the doctoral level and was reading Plato and The Iliad in the original Greek. At the age of fourteen, three years below the minimum age required by the government, he obtained a special dispensation to take his bachot-the state-sponsored baccalaureate exam-and passed it with the highest scores in the nation. He then started preparing for the examinations that would allow him entrance to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the prestigious graduate school that has trained much of France's intellectual elite-Henri Bergson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Georges Pompidou, among scores of others. Such preparations are traditionally made through a few years of cramming school called cagne (ironic student argot for "laziness," also spelled "kha¯gne")-intermediate institutions attached to the best lycèes-but Andrè whizzed through cagne in one year instead of the usual two, passing the exams that allowed him access to the scientific division of Normale with, again, the highest scores in France.

How would Simone-immensely competitive and ambitious by nature, always striving to attain first rank among her peers-accommodate herself to the fact of her brother's all-too-evident genius? Any sense of rivalry the siblings felt toward each other was bound to be made all the more complex by their great mutual devotion. Notwithstanding her distaste for physical contact, Simone was extremely receptive to other expressions of tenderness, and adulated her brother all the more because of the affection he lavished upon her. From their early childhood on, Andrè had done all he could to bring his brilliant but slightly less precocious sister into his own rarefied sphere. At the age of eight, for instance, he had decided that as a birthday present to his father he would teach his five-year-old sister to read. He made her work for long stretches, sometimes six hours in a row-even their walks were devoted to practicing spelling-and accomplished his goal in a matter of weeks. "Simone...follows Andrè everywhere," their mother reported during a summer vacation when her daughter was five. "She's interested in his every move...he protects her, he helps her clamber out of tight spots, he often gives way to her." As they were growing up, Andrè continued to share with Simone what he was learning in school and on his own, introducing her to Plato, explaining astronomy to her on the tram. The siblings communicated on such a level of intellectual virtuosity that on one occasion, a woman sitting behind them on the bus got off, angrily exclaiming, "How can anyone train children to be such parroting savants!"

Relations between the siblings were not perpetually harmonious, however. The scholarly silence of their quarters gave way on occasion to a muffled, thumping sound. Mme Weil came rushing into their rooms, and found Simone and locked in physical battle: "They fought in the deepest silence, so as not to attract our attention..." Mme Weil recalled. "We heard only a shuffling; never a shout. When we came into the room, they'd be pale and shaking, each holding the other by the hair." But such squabbles-one particular spat began when Simone refused to lend her brother her copy of Racine because it contained passages about sex she felt he shouldn't see-were infrequent. Most times the Weil children maintained the tone of affectionate serenity and elevated intellectual pursuit established by their parents. Voices were seldom raised, divisive or sensitive issues (such as Jewishness) were avoided. Though "Biri" is rarely heard about in family accounts-he is not so much absent from family affairs as eclipsed by his wife's dominating presence-the Weils' mutual devotion continued to be exemplary. One of their idiosyncracies, at mealtimes, was to save the morsel of meat or fowl they each knew the other most fancied-he saved her the tidbit of lamb nearest the bone, she saved him morsels of the chicken's second joint-with the result, their children teased, that each of them might end up with the food they liked least. (Mme Weil, a hefty woman, was a gourmet who put a great importance on cuisine and fussed a lot about the freshness and healthiness of different foods; this, too, might have been a factor in the eating disorders Simone was to develop in her teens.)

Other preferred topics of conversation at the Weils' dinner table-music, literature, and Andrè's favorite hobby, the collecting of rare editions of Greek and Latin texts-were occasionally held in the family's second languages, German and English. It was a highly cosmopolitan family. Mme Weil, who had inherited a tidy income from her prosperous merchant father, loved to travel, and several times a year devised ingenious vacations for the family to enjoy together. In fact, one is bound to be struck by the variety of fashionable, luxurious vacations the commanding Mme Weil planned for her family. Spending substantial sums on their travel, the Weils took off, not only on summer vacations but on any other major holidays-Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, All Souls' Day-to a variety of glamorous destinations, such as biking trips in the Tyrol or hiking treks in the Black Forest. It might have indeed been difficult for Simone and Andrè to take that essential step of a healthy adolescence-a measured rebellion against parental authority-with a father and mother as eminently generous, progressive, loving, and enlightened as Dr. and Mme Weil. They even knew how to use that potent tool of emotional release, humor, to keep their kids in line; for along with a merciless outpouring of intellect there was a lot of affectionate teasing, at the Weils' dinner table, about everyone's foibles. Andrè had not studied long enough hours today to be content, so the ribbing might go. Papa had not sufficiently exhausted himself working at his office to be happy tonight. Maman had not organized the lives of others as much as she would have liked. Simone had not suffered enough to feel worthy. This last allusion was bound to be brought up frequently, for it was clear, by the time she was fourteen, that the most singular trait of Simone's character was her almost pathological receptiveness to the sufferings of others, and her strong tendency to cultivate her own.

--From Simone Wiel (Penguin Lives) by Francis du Plessix Gray. (c) June 2001, Viking, used by permission.
--From Simone Weil (Penguin Lives), by Francine Du Plessix Gray, Francis Du Plessix Gray. © June 25, 2001 , Lipper used by permission.