on 23 February 2011
I have just finished this new book, and I can't say enough about it. It is what might be called a "philosophical biography", of the great French thinker Simone Weil. Weil developed a radical and profoundly disturbing picture of the nature of human beings and their place in the world, and Yourgrau's book is, first and foremost, a penetrating philosophical exploration of that picture. In other words, it focuses on the part of her life that mattered most, to her and to us: namely, her thoughts--about desire, beauty, work, pain, death, and God. But it also tells the story of how Weil attempted to live her life in the light of those thoughts, and also of how the world conspired to make that attempt impossible (it isn't an accident that she didn't live a long, healthy life, but rather a short, unhealthy one). This story is by turns infuriating, tragic, and terribly sad; but at the end of Yourgrau's telling of it, I felt awe-inspired.
Yourgrau includes some comparison (or contrast) cases, against which Simone Weil's life comes into relief. First, he lets Sylvie Weil, Simone's niece, offer her own views about her infamous aunt. Second, he draws out a sustained parallel between Weil and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of the 20th century. These two "lenses", together with the rest of Yourgrau's analysis, allow us to see Weil with a clarity unavailable before this book.
Those who are familiar with Weil's work have tended either to idolize her or demonize her. The demonization is, Yourgrau cogently argues here, entirely misplaced. But so is the idolatry--not because she wasn't a genuinely great human being (she was), but because the form our respect for this greatness takes has to be the form it takes for any real philosopher: thinking about what she says, and trying to figure out whether or not it's true. Yourgrau's book is certainly a "defense", in some sense, of Weil and her ideas, but it is a defense of the only kind I think Weil herself would have tolerated: an engaged, critical, independent-minded defense. In this way, Weil's thoughts combine with Yougrau's own, to produce, by a kind of "constructive interference", an enormously powerful and affecting book.