Work, righteous work. Is that what Simone Weil was looking for when she began her year of factory work in winter 1934? Lenin and Trotsky had never worked in a factory, she knew that, and it horrified her. She knew there was a great deal of affliction in the world - she was even obsessed by it, but she had no prolonged and firsthand experience of it. She had no real sense of the afflictions of others. 'Above all, I feel I have escaped from a world of abstractions to find myself among real men', she wrote in her work journal.
Among real men ... But she was unable to work the required at the required speed. She moved slowly, awkwardly, and suffered from headaches. She thought too much, referring to her 'peculiar inveterate habit of thinking, which I just can't shake off'.
On Deccember 19th 1934, she cried for her whole working day; she she got home, she collapsed in a fit of sobbing. Her headaches were intensifying; she was worn out by fatigue. 'It is only on Saturday afternoon and Sunday that I am visited by some memories, shreds of ideas'.
But she told her close friend (and future biographer) that if she could not cope with the work, then she would kill herself. 'I recall that after having seen her I was even more convinced than before that she was some sort of saint'.
Among real men ... 'goodness especially, when it exists in a factory, is something real, calling for an almost miraculous effort of rising above the conditions of one's life'. Goodness, but also evil - in the factory, she wrote, one lives 'in perpetual humiliating subordination, forever at the orders of foremen'.
She scrapes her hands - cuts them. She burns them. And, paid by piece work, she's barely able to feed herself. Crossing the Seine each day on the way to the factory, how does she stop from throwing herself in?
She's given notice at Alsthom: she can't work fast enough. She leaves on April 5th, and finds another job in another factory, working on a stamping press. She loses that job on May 7th, because she cannot keep up with factory targets, and finds yet another job, this time at Renault, on the afternoon-evening shift on a milling machine.
On June 25th, she's in the infirmary, having driven a metal shaving into her hand. And on the 26th again, since her hand's swelling. On the 27th, she writes, 'Slavery has made me completely lose the feeling of having rights'.
Her journal notes for the following week are fragmentary and terse: 'I don't find it easy to put on a yoke'; 'Violent headaches - state of distress'; 'Dizziness, fits of vertigo - work without thinking'; 'Tides of anger and bitterness'; 'Heat ... headache ... one must work fast and I can't manage it'; 'The feeling of being crushed, bitterness of degrading work, disgust'; 'The fear, always, of jamming the milling machine'; 'The daily experience of brutal constraint' ...
How long did Simone Weil last among real men? How long in the affliction that, she said later, killed her youth? Not even a year. Not a year, but now, she wrote, she had experienced slavery; she had received its mark, and henceforward would always regard herself as a slave.
But she was glad, Weil said, because now she could recognise the religion of slaves. Now she knew what the Exodus meant, what the desert meant, and the dream of Canaan. Her character softened, her biographer remembers. 'She was no longer the "terror"'. She'd understood what social affliction meant; what it was to live in perpetual subordination, to endure perpetual humiliation from the orders of foremen.