The Need for Roots brought home the modern era’s disconnection with the past and the loss of community

Pankaj Mishra writes: There has rarely been a day since I first read The Need for Roots, nearly two decades ago, that I haven’t thought of Simone Weil – one of my earliest heroines along with Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg. It was the title that initially attracted me more than the contents. Having recently moved to a Himalayan village after a peripatetic life in the plains, I had begun to feel rooted for the first time, connected to a stable community which, living off the land, neither poor nor rich, and low rather than upper caste, was marked above all by dignity – remarkable in a country where villages had become synonymous with destitution. And when Weil asserted that the central event of the modern era was uprootedness – the disconnection from the past and the loss of community – she seemed to speak directly to my experience.

The range of her admirers – from TS Eliot to Albert Camus – attest to the difficulty of describing Weil. She was a bourgeois Jewish intellectual from France who, in a viciously antisemitic climate, rejected both Judaism and Zionism. A youthful Marxist who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war she, after an immersion in the “icy pandemonium of industrial life”, came to believe that “it is not religion but revolution which is the opium of the people”. A devoted Hellenist, she despised the Roman empire, implicating it with an oppressive tradition of the authoritarian state in Europe that culminated in Nazi Germany.

A rare European thinker who was as curious about Hindu and Buddhist traditions as about the Cathars, Weil despised colonialism as well as nationalism. “When one takes upon oneself, as France did in 1789, the function of thinking on behalf of the world, of defining justice for the world, one may not become an owner of human flesh and blood.” She possessed an ironic view of historians – how they buttress the ideological claims of the hyper-power of the day: “If Germany, thanks to Hitler and his successors, were to enslave the European nations and destroy most of the treasures of their past, future historians would certainly pronounce that she had civilised Europe.”

Freed of the popular intellectual’s obligation to boost national or imperial egos, she could point out something that was obvious to many Asian sufferers of European colonialism: the shocking nature of Nazi racism lay, she wrote, “in the application by Germany to the European continent, and the white race, generally, of colonial methods of conquest and domination”. [Continue reading…]

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