France

 

jean jacques rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most influential thinkers during the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe. His first major philosophical work, A Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, was the winning response to an essay contest conducted by the Academy of Dijon in 1750. In this work, Rousseau argues that the progression of the sciences and arts has caused the corruption of virtue and morality. This discourse won Rousseau fame and recognition, and it laid much of the philosophical groundwork for a second, longer work, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. The second discourse did not win the Academy’s prize, but like the first, it was widely read and further solidified Rousseau’s place as a significant intellectual figure. The central claim of the work is that human beings are basically good by nature, but were corrupted by the complex historical events that resulted in present day civil society.Rousseau’s praise of nature is a theme that continues throughout his later works as well, the most significant of which include his comprehensive work on the philosophy of education, the Emile, and his major work on political philosophy, The Social Contract: both published in 1762. These works caused great controversy in France and were immediately banned by Paris authorities. Rousseau fled France and settled in Switzerland, but he continued to find difficulties with authorities and quarrel with friends. The end of Rousseau’s life was marked in large part by his growing paranoia and his continued attempts to justify his life and his work. This is especially evident in his later books, The ConfessionsThe Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques.

Rousseau greatly influenced Immanuel Kant’s work on ethics. His novel Julie or the New Heloiseimpacted the late eighteenth century’s Romantic Naturalism movement, and his political ideals were championed by leaders of the French Revolution.

Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/rousseau/

 


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albert camus 001

Albert Camus: Neither Victims nor Executioners

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a representative of non-metropolitan French literature. His origin in Algeria and his experiences there in the thirties were dominating influences in his thought and work. Of semi-proletarian parents, early attached to intellectual circles of strongly revolutionary tendencies, with a deep interest in philosophy (only chance prevented him from pursuing a university career in that field), he came to France at the age of twenty-five. The man and the times met: Camus joined the resistance movement during the occupation and after the liberation was a columnist for the newspaper Combat. But his journalistic activities had been chiefly a response to the demands of the time; in 1947 Camus retired from political journalism and, besides writing his fiction and essays, was very active in the theatre as producer and playwright (e.g., Caligula, 1944). He also adapted plays by Calderon, Lope de Vega, Dino Buzzati, and Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun. His love for the theatre may be traced back to his membership in L'Equipe, an Algerian theatre group, whose "collective creation" Révolte dans les Asturies (1934) was banned for political reasons.

The essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), 1942, expounds Camus's notion of the absurd and of its acceptance with "the total absence of hope, which has nothing to do with despair, a continual refusal, which must not be confused with renouncement - and a conscious dissatisfaction". Meursault, central character of L'Étranger (The Stranger), 1942, illustrates much of this essay: man as the nauseated victim of the absurd orthodoxy of habit, later - when the young killer faces execution - tempted by despair, hope, and salvation. Dr. Rieux of La Peste (The Plague), 1947, who tirelessly attends the plague-stricken citizens of Oran, enacts the revolt against a world of the absurd and of injustice, and confirms Camus's words: "We refuse to despair of mankind. Without having the unreasonable ambition to save men, we still want to serve them". Other well-known works of Camus are La Chute (The Fall), 1956, andL'Exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom), 1957. His austere search for moral order found its aesthetic correlative in the classicism of his art. He was a stylist of great purity and intense concentration and rationality.

Source: From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

 

Neither Victims nor Executioners

This article first appeared in 1946 in Combat, the daily newspaper of the French Resistance, which Camus helped to edit.

Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of history which we have elaborated in every detail--a net which threatens to strangle us. It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression... that any program for the future can get along without our powers of love and indignation. I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get men into motion and that it is hard to throw one's self into a struggle
whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis--and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.

To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future--that is  the prime mover, the passion and the sacrifice that is required. It demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity's lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for survival to later generations better equipped than we are.

For my part, I am fairly sure that I have made the choice. And, having chosen, I think that I must speak out, that I must state that I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder, and that I must take the consequences of such a decision. The thing is done, and that is as far as I can go at present.... However, I want to make clear the spirit in which this article is written.

We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice. Those who really love the Russian people, in gratitude for what they have never ceased to be--that world leaven whichTolstoy and Gorky speak of--do not wish for them success in power politics, but rather want to spare them, after the ordeals of the past, a new and even more terrible bloodletting. So, too, with the American people, and with the peoples of unhappy Europe. This is the kind of elementary truth we are likely to forget amidst the furious passions of our time.

Yes, it is fear and silence and the spiritual isolation they cause that must be fought today. And it is sociability and the universal inter-communication of men that must be defended. Slavery, injustice, and lies destroy this intercourse and forbid this sociability; and so we must reject them. But these evils are today the very stuff of history, so that many consider them necessary evils. It is true that we cannot "escape history," since we are in it up to our necks. But one may propose to fight within history to preserve from history that part of man which is not its proper province. That is all I have to say here. The "point" of this article may be summed up as follows:

Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power and domination. I will not say that these forces should be furthere or that they should be obstructed. They hardly need our help and, for the moment, they laugh at attempts to hinder them. They will, then, continue. But I will ask only this simple question: What if these  forces wind up in a dead end, what if that logic of history on which so many now rely turns out to be a will o' the wisp? What if, despite two or three world wars, despite the sacrifice of several generations  and a whole system of values, our grandchildren--supposing they survive-- find themselves no closer to a world society? It may well be that the survivors of such an experience will be too weak to understand their own sufferings. Since these forces are working themselves out and since it is inevitable that they continue to do so,there is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive, through the  apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest  thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life. The essential thing is that people should carefully weight the price they must pay....

All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five,continents throughout the coming years an endless strugle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.

 


 

rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud

A volatile and peripatetic poet, the prodigy Arthur Rimbaud wrote all of his poetry in a space of less than five years. His poem "Voyelles" invoked synesthesia, marking him as a founder of French symbolism, and his Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) is considered one of the first works of free verse. His poetry was subconsciously inspired and highly suggestive; his persona was caustic and unstable. Though brilliant, during his life his peers regarded him as perverse, unsophisticated, and youthfully arrogant, and he died virtually indifferent to his own work.

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born October 20, 1854, in the small French town Charleville. His father, an army captain, abandoned the family when he was six. His mother, née Vitalie Cuif, was an overbearing and protective woman who focused her energies on raising her children to be conformist, pious, and well-mannered. By the age of thirteen, he had already won several prizes for his writing and was adept at composing verse in Latin. His teacher and mentor Georges Izambard nurtured his talents and passion for literature, although Madame Rimbaud strongly disapproved when her son brought home a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

His school shut down in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, and the young Rimbaud took the opportunity to seek adventure, running away from home twice. He left again after Napoleon III’s surrender a few months later, and wandered the countryside until he ended up in Paris. Then sixteen, he lived as a vagabond on the streets until the poet Paul Verlaine noticed him. Verlaine was thoroughly astonished by this boy’s talent after having read Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat), and took him home to live with him and his new wife. Though Rimbaud’s social ineptitude and harsh manners forced him to move out, he and Verlaine became lovers. Shortly after the birth of his son, Verlaine left his family to live with Rimbaud. Their infamous affair was erratic and often hostile. After eighteen months living together in three countries, their relationship ended abruptly, following an incident where a drunk and hysterical Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the hand.

Rimbaud returned to Charleville and wrote a large portion of Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). The book was published in 1873 in Brussels, but the majority of the copies sat in the printer’s basement until 1901 because Rimbaud could not pay the bill. He continued his writing and his travels, frequently returning home for short stays. At nineteen he stopped writing poetry completely. He needed to ensure his and his family’s financial security, and so he took jobs in African towns as a colonial tradesman. His mother invested in land with the money he sent home.

His only writing after 1875 survives in documents and letters. In his correspondence with family and friends, Rimbaud indicates that he spent his adulthood in a constant struggle for financial success. His travels left him sick; he grew weary with the climate and culture in the towns where he worked. He was intolerant and racist, but his growing fear of a conflict with the French military draft authorities prevented him from returning home. In 1891 he noticed a pain in his knee. After delaying, he endured a painful trip to Marseilles in May, whereupon doctors were forced to amputate his leg. The cancer, however, continued to spread. He died on November 10, 1891 at the age of thirty-seven, after suffering a night of hallucinations.

In 1895 Verlaine published Rimbaud’s complete works, and thus secured his ex-lover’s immortal fame. Both Rimbaud’s life and poetry has inspired a great number of poets and artists, including the French symbolists, Surrealism, the counter-culture Beat Movement, and the musicians Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith.

Source: Poets.org: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/1268

 

Sleep

A VERDANT hollow where a brook sings loud,
And madly hangs the grass with silver rags,
Whereon the sun shines, of the mountain proud,
A little frothing coomb that drunken brags.

A soldier, young, with open mouth, bare head,
Bathing his nape in fresh blue cress, remains
Stretched out beneath the skies in grassy bed,
Pale sleeping where the light upon him rains.

His feet are in the rushes. And his smile
Is like a feverish child's. He sleeps awhile.
Cradle him warmly, brook, on thy cold bank.

His nostrils stir not at the scents around.
One hand is on his breast. He sleeps profound.
And there are two red holes in his right flank.

translated by Jethro Bithell

 

War

When a child,
certain skies sharpened my vision:
all their characters were reflected in my face.
The Phenomena were roused.—
At present,
the eternal inflection of moments
and the infinity of mathematics
drives me through this world where
I meet with every civil honor,
respected by strange children
and prodigious affections.— 
I dream of a War
of right and of might, 
of unlooked-for logic.
It is as simple as a musical phrase. 

 


 

cdelbo

Charlotte Delbo

Charlotte Delbo was born in Vigneux-sur Seine near Paris in 1913. Her interests in drama grew and she was able to apprentice under the renowned actor and director, Louis Jouvet for a short time. When the Germans marched into Paris in 1940, she was in South America. She was drawn back when she heard of the death of a friend in 1941. She and her husband, Georges Dudach participated in the resistance and were arrested by the French police in their apartment while making anti-Nazi flyers. They were quickly taken to the Gestapo and imprisoned. Her husband was shot at Mont-Valérian in 1942.

In 1943 she was sent to Auschwitz with a group of non-Jewish women who had also been working for the resistance. She became known as #31661. In 1944, she was sent to Ravensbrück. She was released to the Red Cross at the end of the war and taken to Sweden for treatment for her malnutrition. Her love for books and drama continued even during her imprisonment. She made it a source of comfort for herself and others by reenacting many of the plays she had enjoyed under Jouvet. Writing about her experience became her reason to live. It is important to note that many of Delbo’s works were written shortly after the war but were stored in drawers until she felt they had “stood the test of time.” She is well versed in drama and she is seen as one of the founders of “Holocaust Literature.” She died of lung cancer in 1985. Today she is not remembered by the number tattooed on her arm but is better known for her zeal that, “they must be made to see” or “Il faut donner à voir.”

 

Charlotte Delbo's Writings

 

Prayer to the Living to Forgive Them for Being Alive

You who are passing by
well dressed in all your muscles
clothing which suits you well
or badly
or just about
you who are passing by
full of tumultuous life within your arteries
glued to your skeleton
as you walk with a sprightly step athletic awkward
laughing sullenly, you are all so handsome
so commonplace
so commonplacely like everyone else
so handsome in your commonplaceness
diverse
with this excess of life which keeps you
from feeling your bust following your leg
your hand raised to your hat
your hand upon your heart
your kneecap rolling softly in your knee
how can we forgive you for being alive...

I beg you
do something
learn a dance step
something to justify your existence
something that gives you the right
to be dressed in your skin in your body hair
learn to walk and to laugh
because it would be too senseless
after all
for so many to have died
while you live
doing nothing with your life.

  

Untitled

This dot on the map 
this black spot at the core of Europe

this red spot 
this spot of fire this spot of soot 
this spot of blood this spot of ashes

for millions 
a nameless place. 
From all the countries of Europe 
from all the points on the horizon

trains converged 
toward the nameless place 
loaded with millions of humans 
poured out there unknowing of where

poured out with their lives

memories

small aches 
huge astonishment

eyes questioning

bamboozled

underfire

burned 
without knowing

where they were.

 
Today people know 
have known for several years

that this dot on the map

is Auschwitz. 
This much they know

as for the rest 
they think they know.

 

Arrival Departures

People arrive. They look through the crowd of those who are waiting, those who await
them. They kiss them and say the trip exhausted them.
People leave. They say good-bye to those who are not leaving and hug the children.
There is a street for people who arrive and a street for people who leave.  
There is a cafe called "Arrivals" and a cafe called "Departures." There are people who
arrive and people who leave.  

But there is a station where those who arrive are those who are leaving, a station where
those who arrive have never arrived, where those who have left never came back.  
It is the largest station in the world.  
This is the station they reach, from wherever they came.  
They get here after days and nights  
having crossed many countries  
they reach it together with their children, even the little ones who were not to be
included.  

They took the children because for this kind of trip you do not leave without them.  
Those who had it took gold because they believed gold might be useful. All of them
took what was most valuable because you must not leave what is valuable when you take
a long trip.  
All of them brought their life, because above all it is your life you must take with you.  
And when they arrive  
they believe they have arrived
in Hell  
possibly. And yet they did not believe it.  

They had no idea you could take a train to Hell but since they were there they got
their courage up and got ready to face what was coming  
together with their children, their wives and their old parents with their family
memories, and family papers.  
They did not know there is no arriving in this station.  
They expect the worst—they do not expect the unthinkable.  

And when the guards shout to line up five by five, the men on one side, women and
children on the other, in a language they do not understand, the truncheon blows make
them understand and so they line up by fives expecting anything.  
Mothers keep a tight hold on their children—they tremble at the thought they might
be taken away—because the children are hungry and thirsty and disheveled by lack of
sleep crossing so many countries. They have arrived at last, they will be able to take care
of them.  

And when the guards shout to leave their bundles, comforters and memories on the
platform, they do so because they must be prepared for the worst, and do not want to be
surprised by anything. They say: "We'll see." They have already seen so much and are
weary from the trip.  

The station is not a station. It is the end of the track. They look and are distressed by the
desolation around them.  
In the morning, the mist hides the marshes.  
In the evening floodlights reveal the white barbed wire as distinctly as
astrophotography. They believe that this is where they are being taken, and they are
afraid.  

At night they wait for the day with the children heavy in their mothers' arms. They
wait and wonder.  
With daylight there is no more waiting. The columns start out at once. Women and
children first, they are the most exhausted. After that the men. They are also weary but
relieved that their women and children should go first.  
For women and children go first.  

In the winter they are chilled to the bone. Particularly those who come from Candia,
snow is new to them.  
In the summer the sun blinds them when they step out of the cattle-cars locked tight
on departure.  
Departure from France the Ukraine Albania Belgium Slovakia Italy Hungary
Peloponnesus Holland Macedonia Austria Herzegovina from the shores of the Black Sea
the shores of the Baltic the shores of the Mediterranean the banks of the Vistula.  

They would like to know where they are. They do not know that this is the center of
Europe. They look for the name of the station. This is a station that has no name.  
A station that will remain nameless for them.  
Some of them are traveling for the first time in their lives.  
Some of them have traveled in all the countries in the world, businessmen. They
knew all the landscapes but did not recognize this one.  
They look. They will be able to say later on how it was.  

All want to remember the impression they had and how they felt they would never
return.  
This is a feeling one might have had already in one's life. They know you cannot trust
feelings.  
Some came from Warsaw with large shawls and tied-up bundles  
some from Zagreb the women their heads covered with scarves  
some from the Danube wearing multi-colored woolen sweaters knitted through long
night hours  
some from Greece, they took with them black olives and loukoums  
some came from Monte-Carlo  
they were in the casino  
they are still wearing tails and stiff shirt fronts mangled from the trip  
paunchy and bald  
fat bankers who played keep the bank  
there are married couples who stepped out of the synagogue the bride all in white
veiled all wrinkled from having slept on the floor of the cattle-car  
the bridegroom in black wearing a top-hat his gloves soiled  
parents and guests, women holding pearl-embroidered handbags  
all of them sorry they could not stop home to change into something less delicate.  

The rabbi holds himself straight, heading the line. He has always been a model for the
rest.  
There are boarding-school girls wearing identical pleated skirts, their hats trailing
blue ribbons. They pull up their knee socks carefully as they clamber down, and walk
neatly five by five, as though on a regular Thursday outing, holding hands, unaware.
What can they do to little boarding-school girls shepherded by their teacher? The teacher
tells them: "Be good, children!" They don't have the slightest desire not to be good.  
There are old people who used to receive letters from their children in America. Their
idea of foreign lands comes from postcards. Nothing ever looked like what they see here.
Their children will never believe it.  

There are intellectuals: doctors or architects, composers or poets. You can tell them
by the way they walk, by their glasses. They too have seen a great deal in their lifetimes,
studied much. Many made use of their imagination to write books, yet nothing they
imagined came close to what they see now.  
All the furriers of large cities are gathered here, as well as the men's and women's
tailors, and the manufacturers of ready-to-wear who had moved to western Europe. They
do not recognize in this place the land of their forebears.  

There is the inexhaustible crowd of city dwellers where each one lives in his own
beehive cell. Looking at the endless lines you wonder how they ever fit into the stackedup cubicles of a metropolis.  
A mother slaps her five-year-old because he won't hold her hand and she wants him
to walk quietly by her side. You run the risk of getting lost if you are separated in a  
strange, crowded place. She hits her child, and we who know cannot forgive her for
it. Yet, were she to smother him with kisses, it would not make a bit of difference.  

There are those who having journeyed eighteen days lost their minds, murdering one
another inside the boxcars and  
those who suffocated during the trip when they were tightly packed together  
these will not step out.  
There's a little girl who hugs her doll against her chest, dolls can be smothered too.  
There are two sisters wearing white coats. They went out for a walk and never got
back for dinner. Their parents still await their return anxiously.  

Five by five they walk down the street of arrivals. It is actually the street of departure but
no one knows it. This is a one-way street.  
They proceed in orderly fashion so as not to be faulted.  
They reach a building and heave a sigh. They have reached their destination at last.  
And when the soldiers bark their orders, shouting for the women to strip, they undress
the children first, careful not to wake them completely. After days and nights of travel the
little ones are edgy and cranky  
then the women start to strip in front of their children, nothing to be done  
and when each is handed a towel they worry whether the shower will be warm
because the children could catch cold  
and when the men enter the shower room through another door, stark naked, the
women hide the children against their bodies.  

Perhaps at that moment all of them understand.  
But understanding doesn't do any good since they cannot tell it to those waiting on the
railway platform  
those riding in the dark boxcars across many countries only to get here  
those held in detention camps who are afraid of leaving, wondering about the climate,
the working conditions, or being parted from their few possessions  
those hiding in the mountains and forest who have grown weary of concealment.
Come what may they'll head home. After all why should anyone come looking for them
since they harmed no one  
those who imagined they found a safe place for their children in a Catholic convent
school where the sisters are so kind.  
A band will be dressed in the girls' pleated skirts. The camp commandant wishes
Viennese waltzes played every Sunday morning.  

A blockhova shall cut homey window curtains out of the holy vestments worn by the
rabbi to celebrate the sabbath in whatever place, no matter what.  
A kapo will masquerade herself by donning the bridegroom's morning coat and top
hat, with her girlfriend wrapped in the bride's veil. They'll play "wedding" all night while
the prisoners, dead tired, lie in their bunks. Kapos can have fun since they're not
exhausted at the end of the day.  
Black Calamata olives and Turkish delight cubes will be sent to ailing German
women who don't like Calamata olives, nor olives of any kind.  

All day all night  
every day every night the chimneys smoke, fed by this fuel sent from every part of
Europe  
standing at the mouth of the crematoria men sift through ashes to find gold melted
from gold teeth. All those Jews have mouths full of gold, and since there are so many of
them it all adds up to tons and tons.  

In the spring, men and women sprinkle ashes on drained marshland plowed for the first
time. They fertilize the soil with human phosphate.  
From bags tied round their bellies, they draw human bone meal which they sow upon
the furrows. By the end of the day their faces are covered with white dust blown back
up by the wind. Sweat trickling down over the white powder traces their wrinkles.  They need not fear running short of fertilizer since train after train gets here every day
and every night, every hour of every day and every night.  

This is the largest station in the world for arrivals and departures.  
Only those who enter the camp find out what happened to the others. They cry at the
thought of having parted from them at the station the day an officer ordered the young
prisoners to line up separately  
people are needed to drain the marshes and cover them with the others' ashes.  
They tell themselves it would have been far better never to have entered or found out.  

Source: Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After (Yale University Press, 1995).

 


 

books nemirovsky

Irène Némirovsky  

Irène Némirovsky (born February 11, 1903, Kiev, died August 17, 1942, Auschwitz, Poland) was a Jewish novelist and biographer born in the Ukraine, who lived and worked in France.

 Irène Némirovsky was the daughter of a Jewish banker from the Ukraine, Léon Némirovsky. Her mother was not interested in her, and often denied that she had a daughter because it would make her "look old".

The Némirovskys lived in Saint Petersburg, Russia where she was brought up by a French gouvernante, almost making French her native tongue. Irène also spoke Yiddish, Basque, Finnish, Polish, and English (probably learned while strolling the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, according to an interview).

The Némirovsky family lived for a year in Finland in 1918 following the Russian Revolution, and then, in 1919, moved to Paris, France, where Irène attended the Sorbonne and started writing when she was only 18 years old.

In 1926, Irène Némirovsky married Michel Epstein, a banker, and had two daughters: Denise, born in 1929; and Élisabeth, in 1937. In 1929 she published David Golder, the story of a Jewish banker unable to please his troubled daughter, which was an immediate success, and was adapted to the big screen by Julien Duvivier in 1930, with Harry Baur as David Golder. In 1930 her novel Le Bal, the story of a mistreated daughter and the revenge of a teenager, became a play and a movie.

The David Golder manuscript was sent by post to the Grasset publisher with a Poste restante address and signed Epstein. H. Muller, a reader for Grasset immediately tried to find the author but couldn't get hold of him/her. Grasset put an ad in the newspapers hoping to find the author, but the author was "busy": she was having her first child, Denise. When Irène finally showed up as the author of David Golder, the unverified story is that the publisher was surprised that such a young woman was able to write such a powerful book.

Although she was widely recognized as a major author, by Jewish authors such as Joseph Kessel and anti-semitic authors like Robert Brasillach, French citizenship was denied to the Némirovskys in 1938.

Irène Némirovsky was Jewish, but converted to Catholicism in 1939 and wrote in Candide and Candide , two anti-Semitic magazines — perhaps partly to hide the family's Jewish origins and thereby protect their children from growing anti-Semitism.

By 1940, Némirovsky's husband was unable to continue working at the bank — and Irène's books could no longer be published — because of their Jewish ancestry. Upon the Nazis' approach to Paris, they fled with their two daughters to the village of Issy-l'Evêque (the Nemirovskys initially sent them to live with their nanny's family in Burgundy while staying on in Paris themselves; they had already lost their Russian home and refused to lose their home in France), where Némirovsky was required to wear the Yellow badge.

On July 13, 1942, Irène Némirovsky (then 39) was arrested as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" by French police under the regulations of the German occupation. As she was being taken away, she told her daughters, "I am going on a journey now." She was [brought to a convoy assembly camp at] Pithiviers and then transported [on July 17 along with 928 other Jewish deportees to] Auschwitz [arriving two days later] where [her forearm was marked with an identification number.] According to official papers, she died a month later of typhus. Her husband was sent to Auschwitz shortly thereafter, and was immediately put to death in a gas chamber.

 

The Rediscovery

Némirovsky is now best known as the author of the unfinished Suite française (Denoël, France, 2004, translation by Sandra Smith, Knopf, 2006), two novellas portraying life in France between June 4, 1940 and July 1, 1941, the period during which the Nazis occupied Paris. These works are considered remarkable because they were written during the actual period itself, and yet are the product of considered reflection, rather than just a journal of events as might be expected considering the personal turmoil experienced by the author at the time. They are possibly the first works of literary fiction about World War II.

Némirovsky's oldest daughter, Denise, kept the notebook containing the manuscript for Suite Française for fifty years without reading it, thinking it was a journal or diary of her mother's, which would be too painful to read. In the late 1990s, however, she made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive and decided to examine the notebook first. Upon discovering what it contained, she instead had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004.

The original manuscript has been given to the Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (IMEC), and the novel has won the Prix Renaudot - the first time the prize has been awarded posthumously.

Némirovsky's surviving notes sketch a general outline of a story arc that was intended to include the two existing novellas, as well as three more to take place later during the war and at its end. She wrote that the rest of the work was "in limbo, and what limbo! It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens."

In a January 2006 interview with the BBC, her daughter, Denise, said, "For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory."

On September 21st, 2007 another novel by Nemirovsky was published from surviving manuscripts. Irene gave some of the manuscript to her husband, Michel Epstein, the rest was in the suitcase entrusted to her daughter Denise. The two matched up to form her latest work Fire in the Blood, a tale of country folk in the Burgundy village of Issy L'Eveque, based upon a village where Nemirovsky and her family found temporary refuge whilst hiding from the Nazis.

 


 

6cbd679269b69f4cbd9eb0ee4197a6d7With the publication of his book Paroles in 1945, Jacques Prévert (1900–1977) became France's most popular poet of the twentieth century. He was also an innovative screenwriter who helped create some of the most influential French films of the 1930s and 1940s, including the beloved Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise). His satirical attacks on rigid French education and the Catholic Church and other institutions of authority expressed France's post-war disillusionment and defiant spirit.

Prévert was born on Feburary 4, 1900, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, near Paris. He grew up in a middle class family, the middle of three sons, and enjoyed a mostly happy childhood. His autobiographical prose poem, "Enfance" (Childhood), is filled with pleasant memories of street life in his hometown, including street performers such as singers and clowns. His father worked for the Office Central des Pauvres de Paris (Central Office for the Poor of Paris) and often took his son with him when his work took him to poorer sections of the city. Those experiences gave Prévert a lifelong sympathy with the poor and working class. His father also reviewed plays for local newspapers, and he often took his sons to the theater or the movie house, stimulating their imaginations. Prévert found school rigid and stifling, and he dropped out at 14. He was proud to say that the streets gave him his education.

In 1920 Prévert began his military service, required of all French men. While stationed at Lunéville in eastern France he befriended Yves Tanguy, who would later become a Surrealist painter. In 1921, while stationed in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), he met another friend, Marcel Duhamel. All three were eager to throw off the discipline of the military. Once their service was done, they moved to Paris and threw themselves into a rebellious, bohemian life. They moved to Rue du Château, a street in the artistic Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris. Duhamel got a job managing a hotel and supported himself, Prévert, Tanguy, and their girlfriends as they hung out in cafés, went to movies and threw parties full of games of charades.

The peak of Prévert's career came immediately after World War II. In 1945, the same year that Les Enfants du paradis was released, he published his collected poems, Paroles . The book sold more than 500,000 copies, almost unheard of for a book of poems in France. "Prévert spoke particularly to the French youth immediately after the War, especially to those who grew up during the Occupation and felt totally estranged from Church and State," wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the introduction to the 1990 edition of Paroles , which he translated into English in 1958. Looking back in 1960, prominent French critic Gaëton Picon called Prévert "the only genuine poet who, at present, has succeeded in reaching beyond the bounds of a more or less specialized public," according to Blakeway's book. The verses in Paroles became even more popular when Joseph Kosma, a Hungarian composer who worked with Carné on his films, set some of them to music. Perhaps the most famous was "Les Feuilles Morts" (Autumn Leaves), which was recorded by Yves Montand and Juliette Gréco, two famed French singers of the post-war era. Montand's version appeared in the 1946 film Les Portes de la nuit (The Doors of the Night), the last collaboration between Carné and Prévert. He also published Contes pour enfants pas sages (Stories for Children Who Aren't Very Well-Behaved) in 1947.

Prévert's career suffered twin setbacks in 1948. His partnership with Carné fell apart when the film La Fleur de l'âge was cancelled during production. Also, while at the office of Radiodiffusion Nationale in Paris, he fell and was severely injured, spending weeks in a coma. Once he recovered, he moved with his family—his second wife, Janine Loris, was an alumna of the Groupe Octobre—back to Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

In 1951 Prévert published Spectacle , a collection of poetry and dramatic works, followed by La Pluie et le beau temps (Rain and Good Weather) in 1955. He also worked on films and books for children, such as Bim, le petit âne (Bim the Little Donkey). In 1955 he moved back to Paris. He had become so popular that strangers approached him on the street and quoted lines of his poems to greet him.

American poet Eve Merriam went to visit Prévert in 1959 and spent hours with him talking about poetry and art. Writing in the New Republic , she recalled him as "a short, white-haired man with blue eyes, blunt expressive fingers, cigarette dangling from his lips like a corny Apache dancer. Wearing a blue sweater the color of his eyes, dapper gray flannels, and black leather moccasins newly polished, he looked like a sportive dandy." In 1961, when Serge Gainsbourg, soon to become France's most revered songwriter, wrote the tribute song "La Chanson De Prévert," he went to Prévert's house to seek his blessing and ended up spending a morning drinking champagne with him.

Prévert produced several art collages during the late 1950s and early 1960s. "They were surreal, comic and beautiful, scathingly anti-church, anti-corporation, anti-hypocrisy," Merriam wrote in the New Republic . They were exhibited in Paris in 1957 and in Antibes in southern France in 1963. He continued to publish books, including Histoires et d'autres histoires (Stories and Other Stories) in 1963 and Choses et autres (Things and Other Things) in 1972.

After a long illness, Prévert died on April 11, 1977, at his home in Omonville-La-Petite, in Normandy, France. That day, Carné (as quoted in the New York Times ) called him "the one and only poet of French cinema," whose "humor and poetry succeeded in raising the banal to the summit of art" and whose style reflected "the soul of the people." Prévert wanted to be remembered as a people's poet. A few years before his death, in an interview quoted in Harriet Zinnes's introduction to her book Blood and Feathers , Prévert said, "I was popular even before being fashionable. That's how it was. What gave me pleasure was having readers…. They are the greatest literary critics…. These are the people who know the best literature, those who love it, not the connoisseurs."

 

The barrel organ

Me, I play the piano
said one
me, I play the violin
said another
me the harp, me the banjo
me the cello
me the bagpipes, me the flute
and me, a rattle.
And they talked talked
talked about what they played.
No music was heard
everyone talked
talked talked
and no one played
but in a corner one man remained silent:
"And you, Sir, who remain silent and say nothing,
what instrument do you play?"
the musicians asked him.
"Me, I play the barrel organ
and I also play the knife,"
said the man who until now
had said absolutely nothing
and then he advanced knife in hand
and killed all the musicians
and played the barrel organ
and his music was so true
and so lively and so pretty
that the daughter of the house’s owner
came out from under the piano
where she lay bored to sleep
and said:
"Me, I played hoop
ball, chase
I played hopscotch
I played with a pail
I played with a shovel
I played house
I played tag
I played with my dolls
I played with a parasol
I played with my little brother
with my little sister
I played cops
and robbers
but that’s over over over
I want to play assassin
I want to play the barrel organ."
And the man took the little girl by the hand
and they went into towns
into houses, into gardens
and killed as many people as possible
after which they married
and had many children.
But
the oldest learned piano
the second, violin
the third, harp
the fourth, the rattle
the fifth, cello
and they all took to talking talking 
talking talking talking
so that no more music was heard
and all was set to begin again!

 


 

roger de la fresnaye

La Fresnaye

La Fresnaye was a French painter and draughtsman. Although he was born at Le Mans, where his father, an officer in the French army, was temporarily stationed, he came from an aristocratic family whose ancestral home, the Château de la Fresnaye, was near Falaise. His education, which was thorough and classically based, was followed by studies in Paris at the Académie Julian (1903–4) and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1904–5 and 1906–8); from 1908 he studied at the Académie Ranson under Maurice Denis and Paul Sérusier, whose joint influence is evident in early works such as Woman with Chrysanthemums (1909; Paris, Pompidou), which has the dreamlike Symbolist atmosphere and stylization characteristic of work by the Nabis.

In 1909 La Fresnaye travelled to Munich, where he came briefly under the influence of Expressionism in paintings such as Entry to the Village (1910; Troyes, Mus. A. Mod.). From 1910 to 1911 he approached Cubism with the same reserve he showed towards all avant-garde artistic research, prompted by his reflections on the art of Cézanne, in paintings such as Landscape at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre (1911; Paris, Pompidou). His adherence to Cubism was initially expressed in the geometric simplification of his carefully balanced compositions, which unlike the more radical work of Braque and Picasso did not challenge Albertian perspective. The subject remains consistently recognizable in his early Cubist pictures, whether they treat landscapes or figures, as in The Cuirassier (1910–11; Paris, Pompidou), and he never succumbed to the temptation of abstraction. He was associated from 1911 with the Puteaux group, which met in the studio of Jacques Villon and which led later that year to the establishment of the Section d’Or, in whose exhibitions he took part. One of his most important contributions to the work of the group was his collaboration on the Maison Cubiste (exh. Paris, Salon d’Automne, 1912; see Seligman, 1969, p. 102) with Raymond Duchamp-Villon.

From 1913 until the outbreak of World War I, La Fresnaye sought to create a monumental coloured Cubism that resulted in some memorable compositions, such as Conquest of the Air (1914; New York, MOMA) and Fourteenth of July (1914; Paris, Pompidou), which were his most original contribution to the diverse manifestations of the movement. He came closest to abstraction in the simplification of the figure against coloured backgrounds in these and related works such as Seated Man (1913–14; Paris, Pompidou) and The Rower (1914; St Tropez, Mus. Annonciade). He enlisted in the army on the declaration of war, in spite of having been discharged from military service in 1905 because of pleurisy, but was sent home in 1918 with tuberculosis, having twice spat blood. His poor health prevented him from painting again until 1920, and from 1922 he was able only to draw. During this period, his creative output derived from several different aesthetic choices. The Cubist inheritance is always present, sometimes in conjunction with a more naturalistic figuration that recalls Pittura Metafisica and prefigures Surrealism, as in The Grooms (1922; Berne, Kstmus.), in which a number of male nudes and a white horse are placed within an Italianate setting of classical arcades. He also produced a large number of drawings, such as Two Reclining Nudes (pen and ink, c. 1922–3; Paris, Pompidou), that showed a sensitivity and sensuality without precedent in his work prior to 1914. His last drawings, portraits and above all self-portraits (1925; priv. cols; see Seligman, 1969, p. 270, nos 612–17) attest to a profound humanity and to a pathetic study of the ravages of disease in his own face.

Eric Hild-Ziem from Grove Art Online

    

The War Paintings

 

cuirassier

Cuirassier

artillery

Artillery

soldier with pipe and bottle 1917 roger de la fresnaye 213401

Soldier with Pipe and Bottle

 

 


 

duras marguerite

Marguerite Duras: We Must Share the Crime

Marguerite Duras (1914 -1996) is a French novelist and author of many internationally reknown books. She was born at Gia Dinh, in Indochina, in the suburbs of Saigon, in 1914, a few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. She wrote of the war crimes of World War II in her critically acclaimed memoir, The War, from which this excerpt comes. The description of her husband as a concentration camp survivor, and their struggle to live and go on is poignantly depicted. The entire book is an insight into what is often women's lot during times of war, as they wait in tense anxiety in suspended lives for soldiers or loved one to return from the front lines or prison camps. Like Smith's classic All's Not Quiet— The Wardemonstrates the destruction of life's normalcy, and is a story of youth's love and passion destroyed and wasted by war. It is based upon Duras's own life and marriage in 1939 to the poet Robert Antelme and events in Paris (c. 1942) under the Occupation and Résistance. Duras's husband was arrested along with her sister-in-law, Marie-Laure, who died in deportation. Antelme survived and was brought back from Dachau by François Mitterrand, who introduced Marguerite to the Résistance and accompanied the Americans as they freed the camps. After the Liberation, Duras joined the French Communist Party, as many did in reaction to the Nazi Holocaust, which she left in 1950, after the Prague Uprising. By the age of thirty, in the stir of creativity of the post-war period, Duras became eminent among the Paris intelligentsia. Her neighbors at Saint Germain des Prés were Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Yet, it would take another forty years of hard work before she became a leading figure in the world of literature and the cinema.

 

From The War: “We Must Share the Crime”

There's an awesome amount of murdered people. There's really monumental numbers of dead. Seven million Jews have been exterminated—carried in cattle cars, then gassed in specifically engineered death factories, then burned in specially built ovens. In Paris, people don't talk about the Jews as yet. Their babies were handed over to female officials responsible for strangling Jewish infants and experts in the art of execution by putting pressure on the carotid arteries. They smiled and said it was painless. This new countenance of death has been invented in Germany—organized, rationalized manufactured before it met with outrage. You're amazed. ....Some people will always be overcome by it, inconsolable.

One of the grandest civilized nations in the world, the age-long capital of music, has just systematically murdered eleven million human beings with the absolute efficiency of a national industry. The whole world looks at the mountain, the mass of death dealt by God's creature to his fellow humans. Someone quotes the name of some German man of letters who's been very upset and become extremely depressed and to whom these matters have given much fodder for thought.

If Nazi crime is not seen in world terms, if it isn't understood collectively, then that man in the concentration camp at Belsen who died alone but with the same communal soul and class cognition that made him undo a bolt on the railroad one night somewhere in Europe, without a leader, without a uniform, without a witness, has been betrayed. If you give a German and not a collective interpretation to the Nazi horror, you reduce the man in Belsen to regional dimensions. The only possible answer to this crime is to turn it into a crime committed by all humanity. To share it. Just as the idea of equality and brotherhood. In order to bear it, to stomach the idea of it, we must share the crime.

Translated from the French by Daniela Gioseffi and L. B. Luttinger

 


 

eluard portrait

Paul Éluard

On December 14, 1895, Paul Éluard was born as Eugène Grindel on the outskirts of Paris. He was an excellent student as a young boy, but after his family moved to Paris, Éluard was registered at the École Primaire Supérieure Colbert, where, by his own admission, he did poorly. His studies were interrupted by illness, and at sixteen he left for a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, where he spent a year and a half.

Shortly after his return to Paris, he entered the army and served in the trenches; he was discharged with gangrene of the bronchi. During his recuperation he read a great deal of poetry, including the works oArthur Rimbaud. Although his suffering pervaded his writings, Éluard's outlook remained hopeful; he was moved by a strong desire to change the world and to alleviate its misery. Éluard felt an affinity with Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass he read many times over. Le Devoir et l'Inquiétude was published in 1917, and in 1918 Poèmes pour la Paixappeared. These were the first of more than seventy volumes published in his lifetime.

In Paris Éluard met other young writers, notably André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault, who were active in the Dadaist movement; this group of young writers soon moved toward Surrealism. Éluard signed the original Surrealist manifestos, and his poetry acquired a new character through these influences. Éluard also included among his close friends such visual artists as Picasso, Miró, Tanguy, and Dali.

Éluard was married in 1912; he and his wife, Gala, later had a daughter, Cécile. This marriage failed, however, and in March 1924, Éluard disappeared from the Paris scene and rumors of his death spread. During a seven-month world tour he visited Panama, New Zealand, Australia, Java and Sumatra, India, Indochina, and Ceylon. On his return to Paris, he resumed his role in Surrealist endeavors, editing the reviews Révolution Surréaliste and Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution.

In 1926, with the publication of Capitale de la Douleur, his reputation was established. Around 1931, Éluard fell in love with and married Nusch, who inspired much of his poetry. Their marriage was a happy one, lasting until her death in 1946. The Spanish Civil War aroused Éluard's passions and in 1939 he was again called to military service. During the German occupation of France, he was part of the underground resistance movement, delivering secret papers and assisting in the publication of clandestine literature. His Poésie et Vérité (1942) was denounced by the Germans, and Éluard and his wife were forced to move to a different residence every month. In flight from the Gestapo, he took refuge in an insane asylum and was deeply affected by the inmate's misery. During his months there he worked on Souvenirs de la Maison des Fous, which was published after the war. His poems of the Resistance were circulated with powerful effect on French morale. During this period Éluard used the pseudonyms Jean du Hault and Maurice Hervent. In 1942, he joined the underground Communist Party.

Poésie Ininterrompue, a volume of five poems, appeared in 1946. In November of the same year, Le Dur Désir de Durer, illustrated by Marc Chagall, was published. That month, Nusch died unexpectedly. Éluard continued to write poems of circumstance, and in 1948 Poèmes Politiques was published. Éluard was very active in Communist affairs, acting as ambassador of the new poetry and travelling extensively, visiting England, Belgium, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. Paul Éluard died in 1952 at the age of fifty-six, with his third wife, Dominique, at his side.

Source: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/766

 

 

Liberté

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

On the pages I have read
On all the white pages
Stone, blood, paper or ash
I write your name

On the images of gold
On the weapons of the warriors
On the crown of the king
I write your name

On the jungle and the desert
On the nest and on the brier
On the echo of my childhood
I write your name

On all my scarves of blue
On the moist sunlit swamps
On the living lake of moonlight
I write your name 

On the fields, on the horizon
On the birds’ wings
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name

On each whiff of daybreak
On the sea, on the boats
On the demented mountaintop
I write your name

On the froth of the cloud
On the sweat of the storm
On the dense rain and the flat
I write your name

On the flickering figures
On the bells of colors
On the natural truth
I write your name

On the high paths
On the deployed routes
On the crowd-thronged square
I write your name

On the lamp which is lit
On the lamp which isn’t
On my reunited thoughts
I write your name

On a fruit cut in two
Of my mirror and my chamber
On my bed, an empty shell
I write your name

On my dog, greathearted and greedy
On his pricked-up ears
On his blundering paws
I write your name

On the latch of my door
On those familiar objects
On the torrents of a good fire
I write your name

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name 

On the window of surprises
On a pair of expectant lips
In a state far deeper than silence
I write your name

On my crumbled hiding-places
On my sunken lighthouses
On my walls and my ennui
I write your name

On abstraction without desire
On naked solitude
On the marches of death
I write your name

And for the want of a word
I renew my life
For I was born to know you
To name you

Liberty.

 

Liberté recited by the French actor and mime, Jean-Louis Barrault

 

 


 

sw3

Simon Weil: A Message Bequeathed to Humanity

The Spector of Self-Perpetuating Force
by E. Jane Doering

E. Jane Doering is a professor and the executive coordinator of the Teachers as Scholars Program in the College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame. She is the co-editor of The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004)

 

 

 I N T R O D U C T I O N

Everything submitted to contact with force is debased, whatever the contact. To strike or be struck results in the same corruption. The coldness of steel is equally mortal at the sword hilt or point. Everything exposed to contact with force is susceptible to perversion. All things in this world are exposed to contact with force, without exception, save love.

Simone Weil, “Of What Does the Occitanian Inspiration Consist?”

On June 13, 1940, while Simone Weil was shopping at an open market with her parents, Nazi troops rolled into Paris, declaring the capital under German control. In the past, Simone had theorized about the effects of force imposed on the vulnerable but had not physically endured it. Now she was a war refugee within her own country. She felt anguish for her fellow Frenchmen, her native country, and the world. Confronting social violence with effective counterforce had been her constant concern, but she saw no means of checking the violence spreading throughout Europe. She had lost her confidence in pacifism. Peaceful means of stopping Hitler had been tried and found wanting, and she firmly believed that no one could control unleashed force, which would spiral until its energies were fully spent. Her overriding question was:

If, as Thucydides argued, “All beings, whoever they are, exploit to the fullest extent all the power in their command,” how could human beings, either as collectivities or as individuals, limit force? From embracing integral pacifism to accepting the reality that force must be met with force, she sought a counterforce with strict parameters that could prevent the contamination of both victor and vanquished.

Weil knew that brute force manifesting itself in human interactions brought defi lement to those who dominated and those who suffered subjugation. Her anxiety over the vulnerability of the individual in society led her to warn early on against a highly centralized state run by an anonymous bureaucracy that facilitated the role of a totalitarian dictator. Weil wrote constantly to alert her countrymen to be vigilant to the luring call of force and to explore non-contaminating methods that could allow force to be used successfully against an oppressor. The paradox of force being both necessary and debasing left her distraught. She sought to resolve the mystery that God’s love for his creation coexisted with the self-perpetuating mechanism of force that catalyzes force in others, forever encumbering human relations. Her rationale that even war could have moral and spiritual justification—on rare occasions—adds useful nuance to our contemporary discussion of a “just-war” theory. All her compositions had a specific audience but were written in a philosophical style that revealed fragments of the truth she so earnestly sought to uncover. This study brings to the forefront Weil’s works that attempt to illuminate innovative ways to thwart the persistent human tendency to covet power.

 

F O R M A T I V E   A S P E C T S   O F   S I M O N E   W E I L ’ S   L I F E

On February 3, 1909, Simone Weil was born into a middle-class Parisian family of Jewish origins but with no active religious affiliation. An impressionable and compassionate child, Simone was five years old when Europe plunged into the First World War. Her father’s wartime medical responsibilities gave her full opportunity to observe war’s disfigurement of human beings. Her parents, who prized intellectual achievement, supplemented Simone’s education with tutoring at home, particularly since she suffered from fragile health. Her adolescent and young adult years were plagued with severe migraine headaches for which no one had a remedy. From an early age she despaired that she would always remain on the threshold of truth and never be among the privileged who were granted entry. Being in the shadow of her admired and brilliant older brother, André, who became renowned among twentieth-century mathematicians, reinforced this feeling.

After preparatory classes in the select Lycée Henri IV, where she studied under the guidance of philosopher Alain (Emile Chartier), Simone gained admittance, through a stiff competitive exam, to the academically elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS). At nineteen, she held her own as the only woman in her class of bright, well-prepared, and intellectually driven men. She specialized in philosophy, as was rare for a woman at that time. Although Weil was thoroughly at home in the ENS academically, as a young woman who disregarded traditional societal expectations she endured demeaning attitudes and cutting remarks from her male counterparts and professors.

Weil had a strong sense of goals and oriented her life around three guidelines: (1) to critically analyze any given question; (2) to write down her reflections; and (3) to take appropriate actions. She wrote constantly, setting down her ideas and empirical observations in her notebooks for later incorporation into her carefully crafted essays. The multiple facets of her ideas, her varied fields of inquiry, and the wide range of her activities were dazzling. The theme that held them all together was her intense compassion for vulnerable human beings, which made her explore solutions for the unjust treatment of common people by pursuing the causes of social inequity.

For Weil, theory was never separate from action. She believed that the validity of any commentary required an empirical knowledge of the conditions to be analyzed, so she always verified her philosophical theories by her readings and her personal life experiences. Each time she entered a milieu unusual for persons of her background, she brought away new insights that attentive readers still find valuable. Each endeavor involved skills of persuasion and, occasionally, sly means to gain access to places where she ordinarily would be refused. To the end of her days, by all the means within her power, she aspired to know the truth.

After receiving her agrégation—a diploma qualifying her to teach in French secondary and university education—Weil became a philosophy professor in various girls’ lycées. She spent her weekends designing and teaching courses in math, science, and language skills for workers as a step toward helping the downtrodden to fight oppressive workplace conditions. She encouraged workers to consider their own best interest, which, to her thinking, entailed maintaining their human dignity by using their minds and energies in ways far beyond fighting for higher salaries. Through her activist presence and her many articles in workers’ bulletins, she supported working-class demands for equitable treatment and at one time attracted public scorn by participating in a strike of the unemployed.

Her first projects engaged questions concerning exploitation in the workplace, such as what the dangerous machinery and the long hours in the factories did to workers’ sense of self-worth. To know their situations firsthand, she took physically demanding work assignments in three different metallurgical factories and later performed laborious farm work. After initially fighting against the hazardous work environment imposed on industrial factory workers, she widened her horizons to include all who suffered under the yoke of dehumanizing force. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, she enlisted as a soldier in the Colonna Durutti, an anarchist brigade. Her last project—never set in motion—was to form a corps of nurses to be transported into the thick of the fighting, bringing first aid medical treatment and a caring human presence to wounded soldiers in the field. In a manner quite consistent with her nature, she felt the need to bear the full brunt of battlefield violence if she were to theorize about the perils of war for individual souls.

 

T H R E E   E N C O U N T E R S   W I T H   C H R I S T I A N I T Y

In the second half of the 1930s, three mystical contacts with Christianity reoriented Weil’s thinking and gave an explicitly Christian spiritual basis to her political and social engagement. Few people knew about these occurrences at the time. She described them in 1942 to her spiritual mentor, Father Perrin, by saying that Christ had come down and taken possession of her.

1. Each mystical event occurred within the framework of what she had always held essential in the condition of being human: age-old cultural traditions, the humility of the poor in spirit, and a surrounding of natural beauty, which she came to consider a form of God’s implicit love.

The first mystical contact took place in a Portuguese fishing village, probably shortly after her factory work. Observing a mournful Saints’ Day procession of women carrying candles and chanting ancient religious canticles as they circled the fishing boats in the light of a full moon, she understood that “Christianity is the religion of slaves par excellence, that slaves cannot not adhere to it, and I too along with the others.”

2. Her use of the word slaves in the framework of Christianity implied total submission through willing consent to God’s love, even when the material conditions imposed intense suffering. This idea became a dominant theme in her final writings. The second experience took place in Assisi. She wrote to Father Perrin: “While alone in the small Romanesque twelfth-century chapel of Santa Maria degli  Angeli—a marvel of incomparable purity, where Saint Francis often prayed—something stronger than I obliged me for the first time in my life to kneel down.”

3. The third experience came during some crushing headaches as she was reciting George Herbert’s poem “Love,” which, for her, had the virtue of a prayer. She had been introduced to Herbert’s metaphysical poems by a young man she had met during Holy Week in the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, which was renowned for the beauty of its Gregorian chant. In the same letter to Perrin, she wrote: “When suddenly Christ took possession of me, neither the senses nor the imagination had any part; I felt through my suffering the presence of love, analogous to the love seen in the smile on a beloved face.”

4. Weil came to consider liturgical services as another form of the implicit love of God. Although drawn to the Catholic Church, for complex reasons related to her insistence on absolute integrity she rejected Father Perrin’s request to baptize her or to be a member of the Catholic Church. She held firmly to her freedom of thought, wanting to bear witness to all who had never had the chance or desire to know the historical Christ. In this letter of farewell to Father Perrin, she affirmed her belief that many venerable religions had valid contacts with the divine. In addition, she explained that the Church’s refusal to acknowledge past transgressions, such as the Inquisition and the Crusade against the peace-loving Albigensians, was incipient totalitarianism.

The authoritarian approach of the Church had led to the practice of anathema sit, a formula in former Church practice that imposed excommunication on anyone who refused to accept Church dogma.  She believed that “to function properly the intelligence requires total freedom, including the right to deny everything, and no domination whatsoever.”

5. Christianity, nonetheless, impregnated her life and thinking, with the passion of Christ holding the focal place. Her journal entries reveal admiring echoes from the Gospels, a source of great beauty for her.

The Iliad, which she knew so well, took on a new illumination when colored by a profound Christian interpretation. Weil wished to know the truth conveyed by the sacred scriptures of long-standing religions, and she found solace in the beauty of Hindu sacred literature during her intense study of ancient Asian texts. Her reading of the Bhagavad Gita resonated with Christian undertones, which are revealed in her Marseilles and London notebooks.

Intimations of the pervasive presence in Weil’s thought of her mystical experiences can be inferred from her later writings. Her life, thought, and writings wove an intricate tapestry from beginning to end, and her mysticism added significant texture to her life’s design.

Her mystical encounters intensified her attraction to Christianity and reinforced her desire to orient humankind toward love of neighbor rather than toward paths of violence. When Christ’s presence became manifest to her, Weil had already moved on from militant worker activism, without ever diminishing her deep interest in improving the lot of the disinherited members of society. Her understanding of human suffering, however, received new illumination related to the sacredness of the human person—every human person.

Her contacts with Christianity, spanning the last half-dozen years of her life, heightened her perspectives on the essential roles of beauty, humility, and suffering in the human condition. For Weil, beauty attracted human beings toward God, while brute force crushed human souls and destroyed all that was precious. Humility allowed one to be fully attentive to another’s needs by mindful listening. Suffering, accepted in the love of God, could be purifying; Christ’s humble acceptance of his passion remained the supreme model for humankind. All suffering that could be eliminated should be; no one could ask for suffering, nor should violence ever be imposed. Human beings had the obligation to see that their neighbors did not suffer the deprivation of the vital needs of soul or body. In innovative fashion, she delineated those needs in a prelude to her last work, The Need for Roots (L’enracinement).

 

A   P H I L O S O P H E R ’ S   D E A T H

Weil died on August 23, 1943, in a sanatorium for tubercular patients in Ashford, England. The prior year, she had accompanied her elderly parents to safety in the United States, with the resolve, nevertheless, of returning to France, but she got only as far as London. Given hazardous wartime conditions, even getting that far took relentless determination. She was torn by the thought that she had abandoned her native land in its time of need. Her fragile health and extreme disappointment at not getting permission from the Free French Forces to reenter France led to a physical breakdown with tubercular complications. A cure was rendered impossible by her refusal to eat more than what she believed was available to the most deprived of her compatriots in occupied France, or to accept rich foods—considered the remedy for tuberculosis—while the British were short on rations. The rigor of her thought imposed a harsh consistency on her lifestyle. Up until her death, she continued writing to fulfill her self-imposed mission of describing a postwar society in which compassionate people would reject social oppression by assuring an equitable, impartial justice enlightened by supernatural love.

 

S I M O N E   W E I L ’ S   I N T E L L E C T U A L   L E G A C Y

Weil’s thought merits attention in the twenty-first century. Her writings reveal the evolution of a gifted mind that illuminated traditional wisdom with fresh perspectives concerning the plight of human beings in the world. As a philosopher, she strove ceaselessly to gain insights into the unequal and unstable relationships of force that allowed the powerful to dominate the vulnerable. Her keen observation of human behavior, her first-rate intellect, and her practical application of concepts advanced by great thinkers qualify her work as a genuine source of theoretic and pragmatic ideas. She had a profound humanism, a deep love for her fellow human beings, and a talent for clear, accessible prose. Her mental probing was always open-ended, and her rhetorical queries suggested further provocative lines of thought. She exacted constant verification of the insights gleaned from either contemporary events or her reading. At the ENS, she pursued her search for truth while interacting with intellects of equal stature, all given great latitude in their studies. That excellent academic training reinforced her drive to understand the human condition and honed her ability to express her findings with lucidity.

Weil’s habit of underpinning theoretical ideas with a form of praxis makes her work a unique approach to confronting the decline of compassion in today’s world. The horrendous conditions of her time provided an impetus and a framework for her pursuit of effective ways to confront and block the use of force in the social sphere. She began her intellectual and activist engagement in the struggles between social classes but then moved to conflicts between nations. Her mysticism infused her reasoning and enlightened her thinking with a new radiance. Toward the end of her life, Weil’s political, social, and mystical approaches to human existence meshed into one philosophy, founded on the sacredness of human life.

Weil believed that philosophy’s role was to uncover an already existing truth, not to create a new system. Consequently, her philosophical inquiry gave close attention to the physical world, literature, sacred texts, and contemporary ideas. After scrutinizing each new concept carefully, Simone Weil incorporated what she intuited as true, but she never ceased delving further. Although she did not find a definitive response to the enigma of force ever present in the human condition, she laid out parameters adaptable to the contextual contingencies for action. Her quest to know the teleology of human existence had no limits.

Along with great literature, the works of notable social and political philosophers, past and present, nourished her thinking. Alain, who had a formative influence on her, had an original style of teaching in which he drew philosophical conclusions from literary works. Weil continued this method in her own studies and teaching. She absorbed ideas from others and then incorporated them into the fabric of her philosophical theories without specifically identifying their source.

Her custom was to take the basic idea and then push the thought further, making innovative applications, where useful, to contemporary problems. She read widely and voraciously, at times entering sources in her notebooks, but many times not. Nevertheless, the allusions, for the most part, have been pinpointed and studied by Weil readers. Many authors held an important place in the forefront of her thought: Plato, the Greek playwrights, Homer, Heraclites, Kant, Rousseau, Spinoza, Marx, Alain. The list is by no means exhaustive. Others have made excellent analyses of the relationship between Weil’s ideas and those of other eminent minds.

 

H E R   W R I T I N G S

We are fortunate that, despite the upheaval created by the occupation of France in 1940, Weil’s friends and neighbors, aware of the extraordinary quality of her contributions, were able to salvage the major part of the multiple papers left in her apartment or in others’ keeping. Beyond her many finely crafted essays, Weil left a broad legacy of thought in rough-hewn fragments jotted down in notebooks (or cahiers). These entries furnish a rich store of information that she had gleaned from her reflections, her readings, and her observations of the interconnectedness of humankind, the world, and the divine. Her manifold reflections bring to light the process by which she sharpened her thinking and developed ideas for future essays. For the reader, they yield a wealth of material, exceedingly dense, with many themes interspersed, and display the processes of an extraordinary mind guided by the unquenchable desire to know the truth and reveal it to others.

Over 90 percent of her notebook entries were written during the last three years of her life while she had to be continually on the move: in Marseilles, on the seven-week transatlantic passage, in New York, and finally in London. She used school copybooks, labeled them, tore out pages to rearrange them, and sometimes kept more than one notebook at a time for different purposes. Marginal comments added a later thought to the original notation or served a different function entirely. Ideas were packed together, with separate strands of thought moving in parallel fashion, and the pages and covers were overlaid with script, diagrams, and formulas.

These notes, written for her personal reflection, are now part of the Fonds Simone Weil at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, along with her manuscripts, still being prepared for publication through the Gallimard publishing house. The exacting scholars who edited her cahiers for the Oeuvres complètes have masterfully detected their chronology from the type of paper used, the mention of a book or an event, and the notebook’s appearance. These indications have helped the editorial team to arrange the entries in sequential order for the four annotated volumes of her notebooks, which supply readers with new sources for exploring and weighing her significant contribution to social and political thought. They also reveal a Simone Weil hitherto unknown—not different but fuller—with a wider range of intellectual pursuits than had been imagined from her finished articles. Because of her short life span of a scant three and a half decades, many ideas noted in her daily writing were never shaped into polished essays, so this raw material offers precious glimpses into her thinking. My study has made maximum use of Weil’s notebook comments, of which only a limited number have been translated into English, to explore her formative insights into both the nature of a ubiquitous ruthless force and her representation of a countering positive force.

 

S C H O L A R L Y   C O N T R I B U T I O N S   O F   T H I S   S T U D Y

Through this work, the English reading public will gain easier access to those writings of Simone Weil that portray the full range of her ideas on exploitative force and its opposite: an efficacious counterforce for the good. I have sorted out her meaning of the term force in many different contexts, whether she was referring to “any natural agent capable of effecting change in matter” or to the unjust social pressures exerted for personal self-aggrandizement and exploitation by the dominant over the subservient.

Despite her preference for precision in word choices, her use of the term force has multiple applications, all of which reflect the uniqueness of her insights. After beginning with the word oppression during her social activist period, she shifted to the term force when referring to the increasing National Socialist threat. To further complicate the issue, she often conflated the scientific terms of force and energy when speaking of transformations in physical matter.

She concluded by referring to supernatural grace as the sole good force to counter evil. By presenting Weil’s fresh reading of Homer’s Iliad and her particular interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita, this book traces the progression from her early commentaries on oppressive social conditions to her proposed resolution for the dilemma of how to deploy force without being perverted by its contamination. I show how the wisdom and beauty of the Hindu philosophical poem offered her consolation in her reluctant acceptance of a justified use of force. The insights Weil found in this ancient mystical poem concerning her critical question involving judgments to be made when confronting violent behavior helped her to delineate guidelines necessary to any fruitful use of force.

The notebooks are our source for knowing the revelations she saw in the Gita, for these conclusions never found their full expression in essay form because of her untimely death.

Two lesser-known pendant essays, one on reading or interpreting a situation and the other on a system of values, are highlighted as connecting links to her ultimate conclusions on ways to counter force effectively. One must read one’s fellow human beings objectively and measure the choice of reactions against an eternal criterion of the good. Weil’s Project for a Corps of Frontline Nurses receives a fresh analysis to give it its worthy place as a fitting and ultimate praxis for her theory on the radiance of good actions.

Finally, I examine how a New York meeting in 1946 of three social philosophers—American, Italian, and French—provided the primary impetus to the diffusion of Weil’s writings. Little has been written about the initial circulation of her ideas after World War II. After her early activist polemics written for educators and workers, she seldom focused on publishing her work. The encounter of three journalists, agnostics by their own account, is presented for the first time as a crucial springboard for the spread of her ideas throughout North America and Europe.

 

A   M E S S A G E   B E Q U E A T H E D   T O   H U M A N I T Y

Very near the end of her life, Simone Weil wrote to her mother that she had a message of pure gold for humankind but feared that no one would be inclined to hear it. She had sought confirmation for this perceived message in the physical universe, in human psychology, and in classic and sacred texts. Her experiences had shown her that recognition of the potent self-perpetuating capacity of force, inherent in human relationships, would require new social strategies in view of a more comprehensive understanding of the spiritual dimension in human beings. She wanted others to be aware of this reality.

Her mystical encounters with Christ had revealed to her the impersonal sacredness of every individual, which dwells invisibly within every person and does not depend on any personal or random attributes. Although this sacred part of every human being that goes through life expecting good to be done to it is vulnerable, it is within this sacred aspect of every human being that obedient consent to God’s love occurs. The community must protect this fragile center of the individual, which can be reduced to impotence by cold indifferent force.

Because knowledge of the supernatural is transmitted through all the great traditional religions and their cultures, concern for the well- being of one’s neighbor means that everyone has the obligation to preserve these civilizations from annihilation.

Weil’s message dealt with the constant imperative of keeping force checked because individuals’ lives were at risk, as were the traditions of civilizations that transmitted valuable facets of the supernatural.

The churning violence could be quelled only by persons who acted selflessly for a higher good and who accepted the sacrifices required. From her anguish for others’ suffering, Weil brought out a new understanding of the human condition. She desperately hoped her message would be heard. This study follows her tortuous path from her early recognition of the self-perpetuating autonomy of violence to her final resolution of the continual struggle to constrain brute force from destroying humankind’s vital bridges to the supernatural.

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Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
www.undpress.nd.edu

 

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