Albert Camus, a Nobel laureate himself and friend of many titanic natures, considered Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) “the only great spirit” of the epoch.
Before she died a death of solidarity in an English sanatorium, refusing to take more food than her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France were rationed, before she enlisted to fight for freedom in the Spanish Civil War, the twenty-six-year-old Weil took a year’s leave of absence from her university teaching post to labor incognito in two car factories in order to better understand the plight of the working class. “Although I suffer from it all,” she wrote to one of her students, “I am more glad than I can say to be where I am… I have escaped from a world of abstractions.”
Despite the long wearying hours, despite the savage headaches that accompanied her throughout her short life, Weil never lapsed on her correspondence, writing long passionate letters to family, friends, colleagues, and students. Included in the posthumous volume Seventy Letters (public library) is her poignant response to her student asking for advice on how to govern her young heart.
Weil begins with an admonition against mistaking sensory pleasure for actionable feeling:
There are people who have lived by and for nothing but sensations… What they really are is the dupes of life; and as they are confusedly aware of this they always fall into a profound melancholy which they can only assuage by lying miserably to themselves. For the reality of life is not sensation but activity — I mean activity both in thought and in action. People who live by sensations are parasites, both materially and morally, in relation to those who work and create… who do not seek sensations [but] experience in fact much livelier, profounder, less artificial and truer ones than those who seek them.
The gravest consequence of being enslaved by sensation, Weil observes, is that it reduces reality to your own sensory experience and hurls you into a kind of awful selfing that makes love impossible — for love, as Iris Murdoch so memorably put it, is “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.” An epoch before Annie Dillard cautioned that “the life of sensation is the life of greed,” Weil writes:
The cultivation of sensations implies an egoism which revolts me. It clearly does not prevent love, but it leads one to consider the people one loves as mere occasions of joy or suffering and to forget completely that they exist in their own right. One lives among phantoms, dreaming instead of living.
She then turns to love itself:
I have no advice to give you but at least I have some warnings. Love is a serious thing, and it often means pledging one’s own life and also that of another human being, for ever. Indeed, it always means that, unless one of the two treats the other as a plaything; and in that case, which is a very common one, love is something odious. In the end, you see, the essential point in love is this: that one human being feels a vital need of another human being — a need which is or is not reciprocal and is or is not enduring, as the case may be.
The price of this equivalence, Weil argues, is the difficulty of reconciling love and freedom — a difficulty Rilke addressed with lyrical poignancy, and one Octavio Paz captured in his lovely depiction of love as “a knot made of two intertwined freedoms.” Reflecting on the way love moors people to one another, Weil adds:
Love seems to me to involve an even more terrifying risk than that of blindly pledging one’s own existence; I mean the risk, if one is the object of a profound love, of becoming the arbiter of another human existence.
Half a century later, James Baldwin would echo the sentiment in his admonition that “loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”
Complement with the great Zen teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love and poet Donald Hall on the secret to lasting love, then revisit Weil on attention and grace, how to make use of your suffering, and how to be a complete human being.