The Social Beast

On the anti-totalitarian Simone Weil

“I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. … I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal.”

—Simone Weil, 1942

Dear friends,

This is the first installment of “My Latest…” (which, I remind you, is not a newsletter!), and I couldn’t be happier that you signed up to be among the select few inaugural recipients. There are 125 of you on the mailing list as of this moment. Whether that number increases or not is really beside the point here. The point is simply to share my writing with a genuine community of interested readers, however large or small. I’ll always welcome your responses, though if you never respond to a single thing I send, that’s quite all right too.

The words of philosopher and mystic Simone Weil quoted above appear in my new essay for The Baffler, “The Social Beast,” in which I look at Robert Zaretsky’s new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (Chicago), and use it as a springboard into broader reflections on what I see as Weil’s continuing relevance (some of which may not go over very well with everyone). I’ve been reading and thinking about Weil for several years now, and I’ve wanted to write something about the intersections of religion, ideology, and activism—or resistance—in her life and work. If you’re not familiar with Weil, suffice to say that writers as different as Albert Camus, T.S. Eliot, Iris Murdoch, Susan Sontag, Flannery O’Connor, and Czeslaw Milosz, to name just a few, acknowledged her influence and argued for her importance. And as Zaretsky’s book makes clear, her life of resistance in 1930s and ’40s France is inseparable from her thought.

If you have a chance to read the piece, I’d love to know what you think. I don’t shy from complexity, or controversy.

And if you’re into sharing things on Twitter (the platform from which I am now blessedly free), please do! Here’s The Baffler’s tweet:

And that’s about all.

But no, wait, before I click send, a couple more updates since my last email (but I promise this is not a newsletter!) …

First, my most recent piece for The Nation, an interview with 28-year-old Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin, is featured starting this week as part of the Covering Climate Now package, “Living Through the Climate Emergency.”

Also, you may recall my LARB interview with Andreas Malm back in early January, about his recent book How to Blow Up a Pipeline. My old friend and comrade Tim DeChristopher reviewed the book for Yes! in February, and then followed up with a personal blog post called “Bloody Sunday and the Infinite Potential of Grace,” reflecting on the anniversary of the brutal police violence against Black marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and the value of nonviolence in social movements. I recommend it.

Speaking of Malm, his next book (together with the Zetkin Collective) is White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. It comes out on May 18, and it’s every bit as urgent as the last one.

Meanwhile, I’m mulling a new, long-term reporting project, one that might pick up where this piece left off

It may be a while before the next update. I’m working on a long essay in which a certain Russian novelist plays a central part. I may write a shorter piece in the meantime, but if that doesn’t materialize, do not despair of me! The work, on the page and off, is getting done.


P.S. You are, of course, encouraged to share this email, or the web version of it, with anyone you think would be interested. But only if you really feel like it. Seriously.