Rooting for a New Patriotism

Simone Weil Is More Relevant Than Ever, 70 Years On

Simone Weil in 1921 ARCHIVIO GBB Contrasto / Redux

In 1949, France’s most prestigious publishing house, Gallimard, added a new book to a series called “Espoir.” At a time when espoir, or “hope,” in France was rationed as severely as bread, the name was an optimistic one. Barely risen from the ruins of a world war, France was now riven by the Cold War. The book’s preface, written by the series editor, was no more reassuring. It warned that the book, based on an unfinished manuscript, was austere, even pitiless, in its analysis of the desperate condition confronting Europe. Yet “to conceive of Europe’s rebirth,” it announced, would be impossible if we ignored the author’s message.

The editor happened to be the world-renowned voice of the French resistance and French existentialism, Albert Camus, and the book he introduced was titled L’Enracinement, or The Need for Roots. He never met its author, who died in 1943 in England while working as an analyst for the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle. In fact, the book was meant as a policy paper for postwar France. As was his habit with this particular analyst’s papers, the general seems to have ignored it. This would not have surprised the analyst, who wrote in a letter: “Naturally, I don’t think there is the slightest reason to suggest that what I am writing will have any effect. But as you can guess, that doesn’t stop me from writing.”

Since the book’s publication 70 years ago, scholars have not stopped writing about its author, Simone Weil. In particular, political theorists have explored what Camus calls Weil’s “exigences,” or demands, in The Need for Roots. Though the text is partial, its pertinence is greater than ever. In a world where 70 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, in an age witness to a violent surge in identity politics and ethnonationalism, at a time when the value of human rights has never seemed dimmer, Weil offers a curious, but

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