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Powerful lives

Simone Weil and George Orwell never met and it seems unlikely that they ever heard of one another. Nonetheless, the fact that 2003 is the 100th anniversary of Orwell’s birth and the 60th of Weil’s death allows us to note other far more significant similarities between the great English and French writers. It is not certain that they would have admired each other, but each would have recognised in the other the seriousness of purpose and prophetic qualities that they wore like stigmata.

Weil’s anniversary, unlike Orwell’s, has passed relatively unremarked in this country. While she left several works which are now regarded as political and spiritual classics, unlike Orwell she left no powerful motifs or aphorisms which have become part of the language of the West. She remains an essential writer of the 20th century, however, because of, as Susan Sontag put it, her ‘scathing
originality’. The continuing influence of Weil and Orwell upon our culture flows not only from what Albert Camus described, in Weil’s case, as a ‘madness for truth’ but also from their manner of pursuing it. It was this combination which made them ‘scathingly original’.

Orwell’s history is well known but what of Simone Weil’s? A potted summary might go as follows: she was a brilliant young French woman, born in Paris in 1909 in a fully assimilated, secular Jewish family. Her teachers recognised early in her a gift for philosophical thought. Like so many millions in her day, she was politically of the left and identified strongly with the unemployed and working people. In 1934, she took leave from her teaching position to work in an electrical works. The following year she worked in a forging works and a car factory and in 1936 she joined an anarchist trade union group engaged in Spain against Franco, but was injured by boiling oil and had to return to France without fighting. After the defeat of France in 1940, she escaped and worked for the Free French in London. She died aged 34, in London in 1943.

Her political experiences, especially her manual work, marked her irrevocably. She took a year’s leave from teaching to ‘make a bit of contact with the famous “real life”’. Writing to her Dominican friend Fr Perrin in 1942, she described the effects on her of labouring:

After my year in the factory … I was, as it were, broken in pieces, body and soul. That contact with affliction killed my youth. Until then … I knew quite well that there was a great deal of affliction in the world, I was obsessed with the idea, but I had not had prolonged and first-hand experience of it. As I worked in the factory … the affliction of others branded my flesh and my soul … What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that to this day when any human being, whoever he may be and in whatever circumstance, speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help feeling that there must be a mistake … There I received forever the mark of slavery.

Both Weil and Orwell sought to identify themselves with the poor and downtrodden, but this does not essentially  distinguish them. Any full understanding of the two writers must acknowledge their common tendency to embrace what Weil called malheur or ‘affliction’. Both Weil and Orwell were repelled by the Leninist-Stalinist notion of revolution in which the infliction of suffering was at best a necessary evil for the attainment of the socialist utopia. Both knew instinctively that the integrity of the end attained is dependent on the means used to attain it. Rather than inflicting suffering on otdrahers, they were psychologically disposed to tolerate their own suffering, even to desire it. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell wrote of his feelings upon his return from serving as a imperial police officer in Burma:

I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt I had got to expiate … I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man … At that time failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement … seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying … My mind turned immediately towards the extreme cases, the social outcasts: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes … What I profoundly wanted, at that time, was to find some way of getting out of the  respectable world altogether.

He might have been reading Weil’s mind. They each would have recognised the other’s deep vein of compassion. For Weil the factory was a ‘penal institution’ in which workers were forced to suffer physically and morally to the point that their suffering was replaced by apathy, which she regarded as ‘the worst form of degradation’. She wrote: ‘A working woman who is on the assembly line, and with whom I returned on the tram, told me after a few years … one ceases to suffer, even though one feels gradually stultified.’ Orwell had similarly dreadful epiphanies. As his train pulled out of Wigan on the way back to London he noticed something which led to this justly famous passage:

As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses … At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face … and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desperate, hopeless expression I have ever seen … For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant  suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard,  poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

Both Orwell and Weil were pessimists who feared a future in which Stalin’s or Hitler’s vision of the world would ultimately triumph. Unlike Orwell, Weil found God in such a world. Recuperating from her factory travails in 1935, she wrote ‘… the conviction suddenly came to me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, I among others.’

Despite this, she refused baptism until on her deathbed.

Like Orwell, Weil remained passionately egalitarian but also a libertarian.

However, her political thought and writing, unlike his, became more and more infused with a religious vision. This progression can be seen in her two great political works, Oppression and Liberty (which collects her ’30s anti-Soviet essays) and The Need for Roots, written in London for the Free French, a manifesto for a Christian socialism (1943). The French Intelligence chief said of her after her death later that year, ‘Her kingdom was not of this world.’

Simone Weil died in London of despair, anorexia and tuberculosis. She had lived ascetically to the point where she destroyed her fragile mental and physical health. Orwell, also tubercular and probably depressed, finished writing Nineteen Eighty-Four on a bitterly desolate Scottish island, destroying his health and dying prematurely in 1950. She was 34, he was 47. Both died young because they had lived self-sacrificially to an abnormal degree—a way of life recognisable to Christians in theory, but much harder to copy and now perhaps not even intelligible to large proportions of modern Westerners.

As a romantic young man in the ’70s, I spent some time with the Jesuits. I had joined the order hoping that I might  follow in the footsteps of, and emulate, Weil, Orwell, Daniel Berrigan and the great Australian priest, Ted Kennedy. I could not have been more self-deluded, but it took some time for me to realise intuitively what Susan Sontag said of Weil:

Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is roughly the difference between a hero and a saint … No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom, or would wish it for his children or for anyone else whom he loves. Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it.

Even if, like the Rich Young Man, we turn away sad, as most of us must, we are nourished by such lives, in all their fearful seriousness, because they open up for us redemptive possibilities without which life seems degraded and hopeless. 

Hugh Dillon is a Sydney magistrate.



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