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Simone Weil, A Formidable, Yet Under-appreciated, French Thinker, Is Celebrated This Weekend At Columbia Conference

By Suzanne Trimel

Simone Weil

Simone Weil, arguably one of the most formidable French thinkers and writers of the 1930's and 1940's yet largely under-appreciated, will be celebrated during a weekend of readings, music, video and discussion Nov. 12-14 at Columbia.

Weil (pronounced "vey") was a classicist, early anti-colonialist, scientist, mythologist, proto-feminist and trade union activist whose contributions have hardly been acknowledged on either side of the Atlantic. With Weil's life and work undergoing renewed interest in France, where her Complete Works are being published in their entirety, Columbia's Center for French and Francophone Studies and Semiotext(e), an independent press that publishes French theory and philosophy in English, will sponsor a series of events inspired by Weil's life and writings, on Nov. 12-14 at Maison Française.

More than an academic conference, the three-day event, "Simone Weil: A Madness for Truth" will include video and music performances, lectures, an exhibition, performance art, poetry readings, and a dedication ceremony at the apartment on Morningside Heights near Columbia that Weil shared with her parents in 1942.

The conference--organized by Professor Sylvère Lotringer of Columbia's French Department and Chris Kraus of the Art Center of Los Angeles--will attempt to define Weil's multi-disciplined legacy.

A woman of intense compassion and conviction, yet overshadowed by male counterparts such as Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, Weil was a trade union activist on behalf of workers in France and New York, a brilliant political theorist, a major intellectual figure of the far-left and ultimately, a Christian mystic. She died in 1943 at age 34 from tuberculosis complicated by her refusal to eat more than Hitler was rationing to her countrymen in occupied France. During her brief life she contributed important ideas about the nature of technology and the mechanisms of social oppression, the limits of political ideology, Jewish self-hatred and anti-Semitism, Christian and Jewish mysticism, masochism and feminism.

After receiving her baccalauréat with honors at age 15, Weil studied philosophy for four years, then entered the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1928, from which she graduated in 1931. She contributed many articles to socialist and Communist journals and was active in the Spanish Civil War until poor health forced her to abandon the effort.

Born Jewish, she became strongly attracted in 1940 to Christianity, believing that Christ on the Cross was a bridge between God and man, and became a practicing Roman Catholic.

The conference will feature an array of presentations, including new research by French theorist, linguist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva; readings by writers Francine du Plessix-Gray, Fanny Howe, Chris Kraus and poet Eileen Myles; a new video by Louise Bourgeois introduced by Robert Storr of the Museum of Modern Art, and a performance by the all-girl band Mystery Meat.

Lectures and discussions will include Bard College President and orchestral conductor Leon Botstein, and art installations inspired by Weil will be on display in the Ross Gallery at Maison Française.

During her brief life, Weil made an indelible impression on some of Europe's leading political philosophers. Wearing her customary burlap sack, she met with Trotsky and disagreed with him, as she did with Georges Bataille. Albert Camus recognized her inflexible logic and acute lucidity as a "madness for truth," while acknowledging her as the "only great spirit of our time."

Twenty-five years before Hannah Arendt, Weil denounced the "bureaucratic phenomenon" that had turned both Russia and Germany into totalitarian states. She deeply identified with the workers on the assembly-line, joined them in the factory and started her long march toward Catholicism, which she came to view as the religion of the workers.

In 1942 she and her family fled Nazi-occupied France for New York and lived from July through November at 549 Riverside Drive near Columbia. It was there that she completed some of her mystical notebooks. Her New York notebooks became, with her London journals, Weil's final book: The Supernatural Knowledge, published by Albert Camus in 1950.

To register on-line for the conference or for a complete schedule, visit the Web site or contact Eric W. Ormsby at (212) 854-4482.

Published: Nov 11, 1999
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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