Simone Weil, photographed for her factory administrative card (Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo)

Christ at the Assembly Line

How a year of factory work transformed Simone Weil

From an early age, Simone Weil embodied a curious paradox: she was at once a child of extraordinary promise and a hopeless weakling, a prodigy and dangerously sickly. Steel and dust. A perceptive doctor who treated her when she was a child thought she was “too extraordinary to go on living.” Despite the prediction, Weil did go on living, but hers was to be a precarious existence, perpetually on the edge. “From infancy,” observes a biographer, “chronic illness imperiled her life, a pattern of ill-health from which she never completely escaped.” In adulthood, Weil would associate this precariousness with some primal failure. Recalling her health troubles as an infant, she would remark, with characteristic self-deprecation, “C’est pourquoi je suis tellement ratée”—That’s why I am such a failure.

She may have meant it as a joke, but failure is no laughing matter. No sooner do you utter its name than it takes on a life of its own—before you know it, it has moved in with you. Weil’s precariousness would stick with her, causing her increasing suffering, both physical and mental, as she grew older. Yet the more she suffered, the more she understood, and since she came to suffer beyond measure, her understanding became prodigious. The combination of extreme fragility and extraordinary insight, which the good doctor had noticed in the child, would eventually define her. Weil was only too aware of the connection. Referring to her crippling migraines, she told her mother once, “You oughtn’t be sorry that I have had headaches, for without them there are many things I would not have done.”

Throughout her life, Simone Weil was fundamentally clumsy, and in her dealings with the physical world she had to make a significant amount of effort. Her clumsiness, recalled Gustave Thibon, “was only equaled by her goodwill—the latter ended by triumphing over the former.” It must have been one of the cruelest ironies: while intellectually and morally she was well above others, when it came to simple tasks that involved her body, she was below most. “Physically,” a classmate recalls, when she was around ten years old, Weil looked like “a little child, unable to use her hands.” She could write only with much difficulty, and would regularly fall behind others in her class. For all her intellectual promise, her childhood was marked by a desperate effort to catch up with her classmates in all things practical, from writing and drawing to sports or just walking down the street.

A former schoolmate observed that Weil looked as if she “belonged to another order of being, and her mind didn’t seem to belong to our age or our milieu. She felt like a very old soul.” Even decades later, an encounter with her would have the same effect. Weil would invariably come across as awkward, her head dangerously in the clouds: “I had the impression of being face to face with an individual who was radically foreign to all my ways of feeling and thinking.” To high-school colleagues who didn’t know her well, she could appear weird, even arrogant. “I knew Simone Weil at Henri IV,” one of them remembered. She was “completely aloof and unsociable.” In the street, it was “only miraculously that she was not hit by cars.” Sometimes her otherworldliness could reach hilarious proportions. In her twenties, and a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure to boot, she wrote her mother a letter asking, in all earnestness, “How do you eat bacon—raw or cooked? If you want to eat it with eggs on a plate, do you have to cook it first?”

This must have been one of the few occasions when Simone Weil felt the need to eat something. Most of the time, she didn’t. To her, eating seemed “a base and disgusting function,” her friend and biographer Simone Pétrement recalled. And you could tell. To those who encountered her, Simone Weil gave a distinct impression of bodilessness, to go with her otherworldliness. It was as though she was there, before your eyes, and yet she wasn’t.

This ghostly quality, along with her unique demeanor, made her presence an unsettling experience. The poet Jean Tortel tried to convey her appearance: “A cone of black wool, a being completely without a body, with a huge cape, large shoes and hair which looked like twigs; her mouth was large, sinuous and always moist; she looked at you with her mouth.” Her presence was at once fascinating and disturbing. George Bataille, who stated bluntly that Weil’s “undeniable ugliness was repellent,” admitted that few human beings “have interested me more deeply.” He fell prey to her paradoxical charm: “I personally felt that she also had a true beauty.... She seduced by a very gentle, very simple authority.”

Simone Weil at age 12 (ARCHIVIO GBB/Alamy Stock Photo)

Given her outstanding gifts, the École Normale Supérieure, one of France’s top schools, was a natural choice. As a normalienne, after graduation she was expected to serve as a high-school teacher, changing schools across France as needed. But Weil was the unlikeliest of teachers. When she went to take up one of her teaching positions, her overprotective mother by her side, the custodian took her for one of the incoming high-school students and kindly asked her in which class she wished to enroll. In the common room, she would hardly interact with the other teachers. To provoke their bourgeois sensibilities, at staff meetings Weil would bring a Soviet newspaper in Russian (a language she did not know) and pretend to read it with concentration. In the cities where she taught, she was often labeled a “radical” and a “troublemaker,” and respectable people were warned to stay away from “the red virgin.”

When Weil first showed up in class, the students at the all-girls school didn’t know what to do with their new teacher—she was so unlike any others they had had before or after. “So strange. At first, we laughed at her,” one of them would remember. “She dressed badly and her gestures were awkward and graceless. She hesitated when she spoke. Her method was as odd as her appearance.” As soon as they got used to her unorthodox ways, however, they were won over by her brilliance and the dedication she put into her work. Eventually, they came to love her, and to respect her “gentle” and “simple” authority. Weil’s clumsiness was part of her charm. When, on one occasion, she came to school with her sweater on backward, the pupils discreetly drew her attention to this and “arranged things so that she could hide behind the blackboard, take the sweater off, and put it on right.” The girls behaved maternally toward their childlike teacher.

 

Considering Weil’s clumsiness, it was a good thing that she chose an intellectual profession. We would be suspicious of a thinker who comes across as too savvy in the ways of the world. But the choice came with its own challenges. She felt privileged and could not stand the guilt of pursuing the life of the mind while others were laboring to feed, dress, or shelter her body. That was why, as Weil reached adulthood, she became determined to take up a physically demanding job, if only on a temporary basis. She knew she was not meant for it, but that only stimulated her. So, even as she graduated from the École Normale Supérieure, which sealed her membership in the French intellectual elite, and embarked on a teaching career, Weil looked for opportunities to do a stint as an unskilled factory worker.

A year-long leave of absence in 1934 allowed her to do just that. The times were not ideal for guilty intellectuals playing factory worker: “In these days,” she wrote to a former pupil, “it is almost impossible to get into a factory without credentials—especially when, like me, one is clumsy and slow and not very robust.” But eventually she got her factory job—more than one, in fact.

Weil had some harsh bosses, but most oppressive of all was her own sense of inadequacy and the feeling that in servicing the machines, she was turning into a thing herself. For the duration of her employment (a little over a year), she lived in “the fear of not being able to meet the work quotas one must attain to stay in the factory.” The movements of her body, the tempo of her inner life, her whole existence in the factory, she discovered, were now dictated by the speed of the machines to which she was attached. And she fell painfully short in that department. “I am still unable to achieve the required speeds,” she wrote several months into her employment. The reasons were always the same: “my unfamiliarity with the work, my inborn awkwardness, which is considerable, a certain natural slowness of movement, headaches...”

When Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was released in 1936, Weil not only recognized its formidable artistic vision and philosophical import, but found herself, whole, in the story: the Little Tramp was her. The film, she realized, uncannily captured the experience of the modern factory worker who, instead of using the machines, was being used and abused by them—to the point of being eaten alive. The poor worker became a tool at the mercy of alien forces: the assembly line, the factory, the whole capitalist system. Weil loved the film, even though watching it brought her no comfort; what she saw on screen was a replay of her own anguish. Just like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the factory turned her into a thing. A cog in a machine—depersonalized, replaceable, disposable. What made her situation particularly painful was her fundamental inability to adjust herself to the rhythms and demands of the machine she was part of. She could not even be a cog, it turned out.

Weil had some harsh bosses, but most oppressive of all was her own sense of inadequacy and the feeling that in servicing the machines, she was turning into a thing herself.

If you think that someone as clumsy as Simone Weil—a pacifist to boot—would refrain from taking up arms in a time of war, you are wrong. No sooner did the Spanish Civil War break out, in 1936, than she jumped at the opportunity to join the republican forces in Barcelona. She had an absolute duty to fight, she thought. This time her awkwardness added an element of black comedy to the drama. Having attached herself to an anarchist group, she left for the frontline. Like everybody else, Weil received a rifle, but her handling of it gave her away: she was so shortsighted and maladroit that when the ragtag band of irregulars started target practice, none of those brave men wanted to be anywhere near her line of fire. Her clumsiness made her more dangerous than Franco’s snipers. Later, when she described her exploits, she made light of their fears: “I am so nearsighted that I don’t run the risk of killing anyone, even when I shoot at them.”

At one point, she and her companions were camping at the frontline and preparing dinner. So as not to give away their position, the cooks dug a hole in the ground, started a fire in it, and placed a large pot over the coals. It took a while, but the method was relatively safe. Not for Weil. When dinner was almost ready, she stepped right into the pot filled to the brim with boiling oil. As her comrades tried to remove her stocking, parts of the skin remained attached to it. The burns were severe, and the pain must have been unbearable. She was in no condition to fight, if she ever had been, and was promptly sent back to Barcelona. As she lay in her hospital bed, most of her comrades were killed in combat. What saved her life was her spectacular clumsiness.

 

When you are clumsy, your every contact with the physical world is a reminder that you have been brought into it in a state of incompletion. Some part of you is missing or poorly made or improperly designed. You look like others and, in most respects, you are like them, except for the missing bit that sets you apart, which you experience painfully whenever you try to accomplish something using your body. The discomfort thus caused, and the attending embarrassment, shapes pretty much every aspect of your worldly existence.

To be clumsy is to be born with a thorn in the flesh, which you can neither pull out nor ignore. Yet if you manage to find a way to live with the thorn, or even befriend it, the rewards make up for the pain. For when you can’t insert yourself smoothly into the flow of things, and any dealing with the world brings you discomfort, you are uniquely positioned to observe its course and study its workings. The insights are considerable: your clumsiness puts a distance between you and the world, and the depth of your insight is in direct proportion to that distance. The more painful it gets, the more discerning you become. At the limit, as the thorn becomes of a piece with your flesh, your understanding will have reached uncanny proportions. If it hasn’t ruined you, it will have made you wiser than most.

The process is worth considering in some detail. It starts with an annoying feeling of inadequacy: as you try to apply yourself to some physical job or another, you find that your body is not up to the task. In some important way, your body remains ill adapted to its environment. Some fateful mismatch puts it perpetually at the wrong angle: you can’t place your hand where you should, or the hand does not talk to your eyes, or the eyes to the brain; you don’t apply the right amount of pressure or else you press too much; you let an object go when you should hold it tight, or you hold it so tightly that you break it, or you fail in some other embarrassing way.

As you experience the unfolding of this mismatch, you come to see your own body in a new light. It appears to be lacking a necessary harmony between its parts and with the physical world—each limb seems to be going its own way. It is as though your body—or some part of it—is acting up, rebelling, proclaiming its autonomy. This is how you discover a province of yourself that you have little control of, a foreign enclave of sorts—a part of you that is not really you. Certainly, you can try to train your body in hopes of subduing the rebellious faction, but you realize that you will never fully succeed. Eventually, you will have to learn to live with the enemy within.

Clumsiness is a peculiar form of failure. It is one that is at once yours and not yours. It is yours because you are the one who does the failing: owing to poor motor coordination, you are unable to accomplish something that most people have little trouble accomplishing. And yet since this is due to a part of yourself that you can’t fully control—indeed, a rebellious part that is not you—it’s not exactly your failure. You suffer the consequences—shame, embarrassment, humiliation, or worse—just as Weil did throughout her life, without much fault of your own.

Simone Weil during the Spanish Civil War, 1936 (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

This failure, which gradually colonizes the clumsy and determines the contours of their lives, is not properly a human failure; it belongs to the things of the external world. And it is precisely its brutal thingness that makes it so disturbing when found in humans. Human as you are, you are supposed to have only “human” failings—errors of thought or judgment, of memory or affection, moral shortcomings, and so on. But when you exhibit a failure that normally belongs to the physical world, a technical malfunction, you become a unique spectacle that cannot fail to unsettle people. You are positively creepy. Others will seek to stay away from you and will end up seeing you as “out of this world.” You are certainly out of their world.

Weil knew this only too well. “I am not someone with whom it is good to cast one’s lot,” she confided to her friend Simone Pétrement. “Human beings have always more or less sensed this.” Pétrement intuited the link between Weil’s physical awkwardness and her otherworldliness: her clumsiness “seemed to spring from the fact that she was not made out of the same crude materials as the rest of us.”

 

When Simone Weil was six years old, and the First World War was being fought, she decided to go without sugar because, as she told her flabbergasted parents, “the poor soldiers at the front” could not afford any. This was to be her signature gesture: if she thought someone was deprived of something somewhere, she wanted to experience the deprivation herself. Throughout her life, Weil displayed an uncanny capacity to empathize with the suffering, the vulnerable, and the underprivileged. She lived in unheated rooms because, she believed, workers could not afford to heat theirs; she ate poorly because that was how she thought the poor ate. When on one occasion her money disappeared from her rented room, her only remark was, “Whoever took it undoubtedly needed it.” Not only did she feel for others, but she also thought she had to push her life to its breaking point for them; in England, albeit seriously sick and exhausted, she didn’t take the food she needed because the French under occupation were deprived of theirs.

Ironically, this capacity for empathy could make Weil blunt, impatient, even intolerant toward others. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir describes her failed encounter with Simone Weil. It must have been in 1928. “A great famine had just begun to devastate China, and I was told on hearing the news she had wept,” remembers de Beauvoir. “I envied her for having a heart that could beat right across the world.” When she approached Weil, however, de Beauvoir was in for a shock. No sooner was small talk over than Weil declared that the only thing that mattered was a “revolution that would feed all the people on earth.” As de Beauvoir attempted to voice dissent, Weil cut her short: “It is easy to see you have never gone hungry.” And that was that.

It is not entirely clear what kind of revolution Simone Weil had in mind, but it was unlikely to be a Communist one. She was increasingly critical of the Soviet Union and the Moscow-sponsored Communist parties in Europe. At a time when few left-wing Western intellectuals would dare say anything against the Bolshevik regime, Weil articulated a remarkably lucid and prescient critique of the Soviet system. Whatever was accomplished during the Russian Revolution of 1917, she thought, was destroyed by the Bolshevik regime born out of it. The first Communist state was the gravedigger of the first Communist revolution. Soviet Russia, in Weil’s estimation, was under the control of a bureaucracy that had at its disposal an amount of power (military, political, judicial, economic) that the capitalist states in the West could never even dream of attaining. And the result? Nowhere, she wrote in 1934, is the working class “more miserable, more oppressed, more humiliated than in Russia.”

As Weil familiarized herself with the revolutionary milieu in France and elsewhere, she became convinced that the workers would fare much better without a Communist revolution. “The revolution is not possible,” she wrote in 1935, “because the revolutionary leaders are ineffective dolts. And it is not desirable because they are traitors. Too stupid to win a victory; and if they did win, they would oppress again, as in Russia.”

For all her criticism of revolutionary politics, Weil was not a reactionary. She cared for the workers as few of her fellow intellectuals did. Pétrement recalls that while they were still in high school, Weil told her, looking tenderly at a group of workers, “It’s not only out of a spirit of justice that I love them. I love them naturally. I find them more beautiful than the bourgeois.” Class guilt had fueled the leftist sympathies of generations of middle-class intellectuals in the West, and Weil had her share of it. A worker who got to know her well would recall:

She wanted to know our misery. She wanted to free the worker. This was the goal of her life. I would say to her, “But you are the daughter of rich people.” “That’s my misfortune; I wish that my parents had been poor,” she would say.

Yet it was much more than just class guilt. Having realized that revolutionary politics would not help the working class, and that revolutionary leaders were either crooked, incompetent, or both, Weil decided that the workers could only help themselves. Revolutions generate bureaucracies, and “bureaucracy always betrays,” she said. If intellectuals truly want to understand and help the workers, there is one path they can pursue meaningfully: work alongside them, share their hunger, feel their pain, let themselves be crushed along with them.

Weil’s decision to become an unskilled factory worker was driven by the same fundamental empathy toward the underprivileged that shaped her entire life. Working and living like a “beast of burden,” she hoped, would give her the chance to experience human life at its most naked and brutal. And here she got more than she bargained for.

Barely a few months into her new existence as a factory hand, in January 1935, she wrote to a friend, “It is not that it has changed one or the other of my ideas (on the contrary, it has confirmed many of them), but infinitely more—it has changed my whole view of things, even my very feeling about life.” Nothing would be the same again for her after l’année d’usine (the year of factory work). She would come out of it a changed person. “I shall know joy again in the future,” she went on, “but there is a certain lightness of heart which, it seems to me, will never again be possible.”

This was to be her signature gesture: if she thought someone was deprived of something somewhere, she wanted to experience the deprivation herself.

The social reality burst open for Weil in the factory, and she could now see right through all the shallowness of revolutionary talk. As she was trying to keep up with the impossible work quotas, the overbearing bosses, her crippling migraines and her clumsiness, she realized that the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution who were speaking so grandly in the name of the proletariat had no idea what they were talking about. From the perspective of the assembly-line worker, it was all imposture and demagogy. The Communist leaders, it appeared to her now, were no different from the bourgeois politicians they were trying to overthrow:

Only when I think that the great Bolshevik leaders proposed to create a free working class and that doubtless none of them—certainly not Trotsky, and I don’t think Lenin either— had ever set foot inside a factory, so that they hadn’t the faintest idea of the real conditions which make servitude or freedom for the workers—well, politics appear to me a sinister farce [une sinistre rigolade].

The most consequential discovery Weil made in the factory was the state of complete dehumanization that assembly-line work brings about in the worker. In April 1935, in a letter to Boris Souvarine, she repeats what a female worker, who was servicing a conveyor belt, had told her: “After a few years, or even a year, one no longer suffers, although one remains in a sort of stupor.” Weil found that intolerable. “This seems to me to be the lowest stage of degradation.”

Even though she would not spend enough time in the factory to reach that stage herself, she could easily place herself in her fellow worker’s shoes. Eventually, it was her empathy for her fellow workers that helped her survive that year. Her fundamental need to understand brought some meaning to what otherwise seemed meaninglessness itself. “I don’t feel the suffering as mine, I feel it as the workers’ suffering,” she told Souvarine. Whether “I personally suffer it or not seems to me a detail of almost no importance.” The urge to “know and understand easily prevails.” “I swore to myself,” she writes in another letter, “that I would not give up until I had learned how to live a worker’s life without losing my sense of human dignity. And I kept my word.”

L’année d’usine allowed Weil to make some important observations about what happens to human beings as they are reduced to a cog in a social machine. “Nothing is more paralyzing to thought,” she would write in 1936, than “the sense of inferiority which is necessarily induced by the daily assault of poverty, subordination, and dependence.” If you happen to be assigned to a cog’s position, you eventually become a cog—not just in others’ eyes, but also in your own. The most difficult thing to retain in the factory, she discovered, was a sense of human dignity; everything there conspired to keep you in a “state of subhuman apathy.” Once you’ve surrendered to this state, anything can be done to you. You are no longer a person, but an object at anyone’s disposal.

When Weil summarized her factory experience, she singled out two lessons she had learned. The first, “the bitterest and most unexpected,” was that oppression, beyond “a certain degree of intensity,” does not generate revolt, but “an almost irresistible tendency to the most complete submission.” The second was that “humanity is divided into two categories”: those “who count for something” and those “who count for nothing.” Both these lessons would stay with her for the rest of her life.

 

“Since then,” she wrote, “I have always regarded myself as a slave.”

As Weil was processing the significance of her factory experience, she started using a new term to describe it: slavery. Observing the workers’ “complete submission,” their “inhuman apathy” and increasing alienation, she could not come up with a better name for them than “slaves.” From her study of the classical world, Weil knew what it meant for one human being to belong to another, and she found the modern worker to be a replica of the ancient slave. In addition to social degradation, which had always been the slave’s mark, the factory worker was reduced to a non-thinking entity. The “absence of thought” required of the worker was “indispensable to the slaves of modern machinery.” Finally, slavery is the domain of “affliction” (malheur), which, as Weil wrote in Waiting for God, is “quite a different thing from simple suffering [souffrance].” Affliction “takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery [la marque de l’esclavage].” For the rest of her life, “affliction” would be central to her understanding of herself and of the world around her.

As an unskilled factory worker, Weil felt that she had become a slave herself. Toward the end of her factory experience, she internalized the slave condition to such an extent that she could see the world through an enslaved person’s eyes, feel what the enslaved felt, and say the things they would say: “How is this that I, a slave, can get on this bus, use it by paying my twelve sous in the same way as anyone?” she once wondered, in all earnestness, as she boarded a bus to work. “What an extraordinary favor! If they had brutally forced me to get off...I think that it would have seemed completely natural to me. Slavery has made me completely lose the feeling of having rights.”

When l’année d’usine was over, Weil found herself shattered and devastated, yet oddly renewed. Writing to a friend in October 1935, soon after the end of her factory employment, and referring to it as “those months of slavery” (ces mois d’esclavage), Weil explained that she regarded the experience as a gift. Slaving for those machines enabled her “to test myself and to touch with my finger the things which I had previously been able only to imagine.” In another letter, Weil makes a striking confession: “It seemed to me that I was born to wait for, and receive, and carry out orders—that I had never done and never would do anything else.”

She is talking here about the routines of factory work, but something more profound and more consequential seems to be emerging. It is the voice of a new Simone Weil—the mystic, the visionary, the deeply heretical religious thinker—born out of the experience of affliction. It was as a slave that she was degraded, but also as a slave that she would be redeemed. Thanks to a swift, spectacular move, Weil turned slavery on its head, and found glory in it. How is that possible? Slavery, Weil discovered, gives us direct access to the ultimate, redeeming humility. “There is no greater humility than to wait in silence and patience,” she wrote in one of her notebooks. “It is the attitude of the slave who is ready for any order from the master, or for no order.”

As she pondered and internalized the meanings of slavery, affliction, and humility, Weil stumbled upon a central Christian idea: when he was incarnated, Jesus Christ took “the form of a slave” (morphē doulou), as we learn from St. Paul in Philippians 2:7. Weil went into the factory to find out more about the social conditions of the modern worker in capitalism. Instead, she found Jesus Christ.

Weil may have been raised in a secular Jewish home, but her whole education was shaped by France’s Catholic mindset. In the factory she started to use Christian notions, symbols, and images liberally to make sense of what she was going through. First among them was affliction itself, which defines both the slave condition and the Christian experience. In her “spiritual autobiography,” she describes how the “affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul.” Because of her profound empathy for the oppressed, she felt the suffering around her as her own. That’s how she received la marque de l’esclavage, which she likens to “the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves.” That’s also how she was transformed: “Since then,” she wrote, “I have always regarded myself as a slave.”

An intense religious experience, which occurred soon after her factory stint, sealed the transformation. Finding herself in a small fishing village in Portugal, she witnessed a procession of fishermen’s wives. Touring the anchored ships, they sang “ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness.” Weil froze in place. There, a conviction was “suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among them.” Nietzsche, too, had said that Christianity was the religion of slaves. He was right, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Published in the January 2023 issue: 

Costică Brădăţan is a professor of humanities at Texas Tech University and an honorary research professor of philosophy at the University of Queensland, Australia. This article is excerpted from In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2023 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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