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.”