Monday, October 24, 2016

Was Simone Weil Anorexic (and Does It Matter)?

Simone Weil (1909-1943), though she died in obscurity, has become one of the most studied and influential philosophers of the 20th century, this despite the fact that she published only a handful of articles in her lifetime. Political theorists treasure her writings on Marxism, labor, and war, while theologists cherish her spiritual writings, many of them highly mystical, on love, evil and what she terms decreation. Her life has become the stuff of legend. A prodigy, Weil had taught herself ancient Greek by the age of twelve. She was passionately drawn to those who suffered from an early age and began haunting labor meetings and acting in solidarity with those she saw as miserable. She had a horror of being physically touched and a habit of speaking her mind without caring whether anyone was offended by what she said. Though plagued by ill health all her life, she worked tirelessly, organizing and teaching laborers, volunteering on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, and always denying herself anything denied others: when the poor people around her had no heat, she refused to light her fire; when they were hungry, she refused to eat.

Weil was of Jewish origin, but her family was not religious and she became a Christian, though she never formally converted, after a series of intense mystical experiences in Assisi. St. Francis would be a guiding light for her her entire life and she wrote to a priest and friend that she dreamed of being forced into a life like his as a mendicant. "I fell in love with Saint Francis of Assisi as soon as I came to know about him. I always believed and hoped that one day Fate would force upon me the condition of a vagabond and a beggar which he embraced freely." Her Christianity confirmed her intense habits of denying herself any necessity that was denied to others. Thus, when in exile during World War II, working frantically for the Free French government, she refused to eat more than those living under Nazi occupation were eating. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, she was moved to a rest home against her will where she continued to refuse any treatment, food, or luxury that might have been unavailable to those suffering in her native France. She wanted to work. She died of heart failure at age 34. The coroner opined that her death was caused by self-induced starvation and that she was not in her right mind.

This is a controversial opinion, however. Weil was tubercular and had suffered from migraines and other physical illness all her life. She did drive herself in the most Spartan fashion, certainly part of her decline can be ascribed to the intensity of her work, and she had throughout her life limited her consumption of food both as an act of political solidarity and as a spiritual practice, designed both to humble herself (humility is critical in her spiritual writings) and to destroy her attachment to life, which she saw as necessary to create the voids which God can fill, that is, to be decreated in her terminology. But, it is not clear why specifically she was having difficulty eating at the end of her life. She may have been refusing food, but tuberculosis can make eating difficult and absolutely causes dangerous weight loss.

This ambiguity is not ever really going to be resolved, but recent writings about Weil have taken to diagnosing her retroactively with anorexia. This is problematic, to say the least. Though some do differentiate, many writers conflate anorexia nervosa and anorexia mirabilis. The former is an illness characterized by a distorted understanding of one's weight and an explicit attempt to become thin through starvation. It is tied to self-image. The latter is not even necessarily a diagnosable condition; rather, anorexia mirabilis is a spiritual practice that exists in a web of other ascetic practices, such as self-flagellation, enforced celibacy, or reclusion. Anorexia mirabilis was common in the Middle Ages and was accepted as a form of Christian behavior that, for women especially, was a means of spiritual advancement not unlike becoming an anchoress (many of whom practiced anorexia mirabilis). Anorexia mirabilis does not involve a distorted vision of the body, for the person who practices it negates the body, denies it significance. Not thinness, but lack of attachment to earthly things, including the body that will be cast off at death, is the goal.

To call Weil an anorexic full stop dismisses the fact that starvation is not an inherently pathological behavior. It's possible the behavior was a symptom of mental illness, but not provable and, at least in my opinion, not terribly likely. The coroner seems to have assumed that self-starvation could only have been the result of mental illness, but that's a big assumption to make. Politically speaking, Weil's behavior throughout her life was consistent: she thought that she could only hope to understand those who suffered if she suffered like them. Thus, unlike most intellectual leftists of the period, Weil refused to content herself with organizing and teaching laborers. Instead, she actually took a job at the Renault factory and learned first-hand what it meant to work under the conditions of modern industry. Had she eaten the good food her family might have provided her, her act of solidarity would have had no meaning, as far as she was concerned. Her limited consumption of food was a choice undertaken in order to, in a sense, report from the front lines. Her essay "Factory Work" burns with righteous determination; there is none of the cold-blooded theorizing of other contemporary writers on the subject. It is also important to remember that hunger strikes are, and have been, an effective political strategy, used by Gandhi and his followers and Irish irredentists, to name just two examples. Weil was co-opting a strategy of civil disobedience, at least in part.

It would be wrong to discount the religious significance of her attitude towards food, which must be understood in tandem with political motives. For one thing, her political conclusions are part and parcel of her Christianity, though it is a radical Christianity that firmly rejects proselytizing; in writing about institutions, whether the Church or the Communist Party, neither of which she belonged to formally, she claimed that "collectivity is not only alien to the sacred, but it deludes us with a false imitation of it." For another, Weil was a mystic and mysticism in this age of secular culture tends to make intellectuals uncomfortable. Weil's spiritual beliefs are highly complex and can hardly be explained in a brief essay, but crucial was her belief that "the only way into truth is through one's own annihilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation." That is, to be one with God is to under go decreation. One needn't agree with the extremity and insistence of her beliefs about the humility of human life to recognize that she lucidly expressed a theology that advocated for a lack of care for the body, which had little to no importance to her. Such a belief doesn't make her mentally incompetent - on the contrary, it's a sign of the robust courage and consistency of her mode of philosophical and spiritual inquiry.

Finally, Weil doesn't seem to have spent any time worrying about her appearance. If anything, she made efforts to appear as unattractive as possible. Her hair was left unkempt, she rarely washed, and she wore unflattering smocks. She placed no value on the physical beauty of the human body and, indeed, the body is rarely mentioned concretely in her work. She never had any romantic or sexual relationships, either with men or with women; in fact, she was nicknamed the Red Virgin. The motivations of pathological anorexia - a desire to thin because thinness is codified as beauty or attractiveness, or in order to hide from trauma (to literally become invisible), or for the sake of a ravenous ambition to control one's fate - none of these are reflected in Weil's life or works. Weil didn't care about thinness; she cared about the suffering of humanity and she cared about creating the voids which God could occupy.

Therefore, it seems untruthful to label Weil an anorexic, even if it happens that she did die directly as a result of self-starvation, which is not a proven fact. Secular mainstream culture has made something of a cult of health. We tend eagerly diagnose every oddity, misfortune, or poor choice made by our forbears with some illness or other. Even when anorexia mirabilis is treated as a legitimate form of behavior, it's historicized; medieval women can have practiced anorexia mirabilis, but today, there's a refusal to admit that a non-pathological form of self-starvation can even exist except under extreme duress, such as political imprisonment. Finally, though men as well as women can suffer from anorexia, the disease is strongly gendered and even in some ways a child of the Victorian female diagnosis par excellence, hysteria. To disregard Weil's possible, and intellectually well-grounded, reasons for refusing to eat, or eat enough, dismisses her gifts as a philosopher, activist, and theologist. It is an arrogant act of paternalism that insists that one, singular point of view is correct and all deviations from that point of view can be rejected as forms of insanity. Hence, the coroner's assumption that Weil was mentally ill. The fact that Weil was a woman ought to make us all the more cautious about pathologizing her behavior, behavior that one finds reflected in her religious belief and practice and as part of her political activism.

In some ways, the rush to label Weil an anorexic might have as much to do with the pitilessness of her theology as it does with the fact that she was a woman. Weil isn't prepared to let anyone off the hook, least of all herself, and it is difficult to study her work without feeling that one is a selfish, closed-off person, oblivious to all the suffering and misery in the world. She proves that the comfortable excuse of caring for one's own well-being before anything else is only one way of considering one's duty as a human being, only one, while hers would require sacrifices that very few people are prepared to make. And it is worth asking, if everyone felt it an absolute duty to eat no more than the hungriest person in his country, or even in the world, how long would humanity continue to suffer hunger? We might consider whether Weil was right, even if few, if any, among us are really capable of following her example.


  1. I think the coroner was right, she really did have all the symptoms & behaviour.. Anorexics can still be wonderful caring & precociously intelligent people though.

  2. Hi Neil - thanks for the comment. Certainly anorexia is not a personality flaw! However, I don't think it's right to assume that choosing not to eat for political or religious reasons is pathological. When a woman makes such a choice, it is usually regarded as pathological, which detracts from a recognition of women's agency.

  3. The fact that you assume she did not have anorexia nervosa because she had no interest in her appearance just shows how little you understand about the mental illness. Anorexia nervosa is so much more complicated than wanting to look good or lose weight. In fact, it has very little to do with vanity. I find it offensive that you think people with anorexia nervosa care only about appearance. Some of the most talented, intelligent and passionate people I know have suffered from the disease, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that she did as well.

  4. The fact that you assume she did not have anorexia nervosa because she had no interest in her appearance just shows how little you understand about the mental illness. Anorexia nervosa is so much more complicated than wanting to look good or lose weight. In fact, it has very little to do with vanity. I find it offensive that you think people with anorexia nervosa care only about appearance. Some of the most talented, intelligent and passionate people I know have suffered from the disease, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that she did as well.

  5. I think there can be similarities between anorexia nervosa and anorexia miribalis. Both are aimed at a kind of perfection/purity of the person and the exercise of will over flesh. I think it is a misconception that anorexia nervosa is mainly about appearances. In reality I think much more is going on in the person, and there is depth there that shouldn’t be minimized. I am not sure I agree that “starvation is not an inherently pathological behavior” - even when politically motivated is it is inherently a form of self harm. It’s a complex question and I do understand your desire to not label her in a knee jerk way. Whatever her inner experience, though, it takes nothing away from her genius.

  6. I personally care for someone who suffered from tuberculosis and has struggled to eat ever since. She almost starved to death at some point. This is very much a physical consequence of the tuberculosis (which can affect nearly any organ of the body including the digestive tract), but people are very quick to assume she is making a choice not to eat. One has to wonder to what extent Simone Weil's reasons for not eating have been misconstrued over the years.

    1. That's a great point! It hadn't occurred to me before, but you're totally right - TB does seriously affect that.