Monday, February 11, 2013

Utopian Pessimist

Simone Weil was fiercely intellectual, socially awkward, a strange admixture of generosity and vehemence,  of sensitivity and thoughtlessness.




She was one of the great religious thinkers of the last century whose lucid, penetrating prose, slowly emerged after her death (at thirty four) to great acclaim.

It is never 'easy' prose: you find yourself as easily in vehement disagreement as affirmation but she makes you think, and even in her political articles, written in response to particular situations of the 1930s, and published whilst she lived, there is, at work, a way of seeing that remains timely; not least in arguing that it is not the ownership of production that oppresses but the manner of production and the technology used. The Soviet Union switched the ownership from private capitalist to state bureaucrat but the worker remained oppressed by the obsession for production in factories that denied people any sense of autonomy (or pride) in their work and kept them harnessed to the machine. It was Albert Camus who said of her Oppression and Liberty, published only after her death, that it was the most penetrating critique of Marxism (and its distant cousin, Communism) ever penned and anticipated 60s critiques of over-determined workplaces that treat people as one dimensional objects of economic striving.

I am reading David McLellan's excellent biography of Simone Weil. Why is it that political scientists make such good biographers? One of the best studies of Martin Buber as both religious and social thinker is likewise by a political scientist. Is it the juxtaposition of both ideas and their necessarily human dimension that is politics that makes them sensitive to both the life as well as the intellect?

I have reached the period when she is on the threshold of 'conversion' to a highly personalised form of Christianity that trembled on the edge of her becoming Catholic until she decided that she must always remain on the threshold because truth was to be found 'outside' (and the then dogmatic formula of there being no salvation outside the Church was to her anathema)!

She is perhaps a patron saint of 'outsiders' - and certainly was repelled by, in the Church's history, a too easy temptation to confuse power for truth, a failing of which it had not/has not repented!


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