By Jen Webb
The “actual impulse of astonishment” that sparks all philosophising is “honest bafflement that other people live as they do,” writes Wolfram Eilenberger in his new book, The Visionaries.
It’s a wild ride through ten of the worst years in the 20th century, spanning the period from 1933, the year Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, to 1943 and the thick of the second world war. It’s told through the occasionally intersecting lives of four brilliant young women philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil (both French), Russian-American Ayn Rand, and German-Jewish Hannah Arendt, who spent time exiled in France and New York.
Though very different, they all “experienced themselves as having been placed fundamentally differently in the world from how other people had been”. Eilenberger writes:
All of them were tormented from an early age by the same questions: What could it be that makes me so different? What is it that I clearly can’t understand and experience like all the others? Am I really driving down the freeway of life in the wrong direction – or is it not perhaps the mass of wildly honking people coming toward me flashing their lights?
I had thought myself reasonably schooled in the writings of these women, but discovered how little I actually knew about them – their early work and their jobs, who they knew and loved or loathed, and how the broken stick of 1930s Europe shaped the possibilities for their lives and thought.
The Visionaries traces the gradual unfolding of their systems of thought, including how they changed their minds in response to the radically changed situations they found themselves in.
It builds, to some extent, on Eilenberger’s earlier volume, Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy, which followed four brilliant young men who transformed European philosophy in the agonised decade following the first world war.
Both books weave the work of the philosophers with social history, biography, accounts of the cultural and economic environment, and depictions of the quarrels and agreements, friendships and passions that characterised their communities.
Meet the philosophers
The Visionaries opens at the end of 1943. Each character is a very young woman, only in her thirties. But each is already possessed of a trained mind, formidable intelligence and a determination to make sense of life, the universe, and everything.
Beauvoir is writing her first philosophical essay, is about to publish her first novel and has a play in the works. Weil has been asked by occupied France’s shadow government to draw up plans and scenarios for the political reconstruction of France (after her offer to go “to the front to die for her ideals” was refused).
Rand is awaiting the publication of her debut book, The Fountainhead, “a philosophical manifesto masquerading as a novel”. And exactly ten years after being driven out of Hitler’s Germany, Hannah Arendt is figuring out her next steps, reflecting that in “these dark times”:
One only had to find the courage in oneself to open one’s eyes – keep them open – to perceive the abysses of one’s own time with an alert mind.
After this opening chapter, the narrative jumps back a decade to 1933, and then progresses year by year, back to where it began.
First, we meet Simone de Beauvoir, who – with her life partner Jean-Paul Sartre – is associated with “existentialism” (though Eilenberger writes that she avoids the term). Existentialism argues each individual is a free agent, capable of crafting their own identity and existence through acts of the will.
By 1943, Beauvoir was wrestling with one of existentialism’s core precepts: how individuals can achieve their best possible lives. She asked, why would someone even attempt this? After all, everything we do comes to nothing – because of time’s inexorable progress and our inevitable death – so why do anything at all?
At that stage, her answer is that we should do something because we are in the world as acting creatures, and therefore should grasp our freedom to act while we are able.
‘A heart that could beat right across the world’
Simone Weil, whom we meet next, is pretty much the polar opposite of Beauvoir. Indeed, late in the volume Eilenberger notes:
If we compare Weil’s Notebooks with Beauvoir’s diaries and writings from the same time [1941–1942], we have the extremely strange impression of a telepathic contact between two minds resonating tensely at either end of an infinite piece of string.
Where Beauvoir sees herself as comparatively separate from society, Weil had, as Beauvoir wrote, “a heart that could beat right across the world”. Despite her physical fraility (and probable anorexia), Weil was possessed by enormous passion and empathy. The wellbeing of everyone else in the world absorbed her thoughts and actions during her short life (she died in 1943).
For years, Weil kept from her wages “precisely the minimum sum assigned to unemployed factory workers on state support, while the rest she donate[d] to needy or feeling comrades”. And she directed her obedient parents to use their unoccupied apartment to house refugees – it once hosted a meeting between exiled communist leader Leon Trotsky and “the new high command of the world revolution”.
Born into a Jewish family, Weil veered into a passionate and ascetic Christianity. For her, the point of being alive was to disappear into a future of nonbeing, confident that “Supernatural love alone creates reality” and that our meaning, if one can call it that, is to dissolve into a vessel for God’s will.
This is not a matter of “acting”, in Beauvoir’s terms, but of leaving the world of authenticity and safety in favour of some notion of the divine. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Weil’s often brilliant work has attracted less attention than that of her fellow characters in this book.)
Ayn Rand and ‘no society’
Ayn Rand comes next: her family’s home and possessions were expropriated in the 1917 October Revolution, on the grounds they were representatives of the Jewish “bourgeoisie”. They fled to Crimea, then lived in poverty when they returned to St Petersburg (now named Petrograd) in 1921.
The Russian jackboot she escaped was at least as violent as that of the Nazis’ – as Simone Weil too argues in her 1933 discussion about “the structural similarity between newly fascist Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union”.
Rand made it to the United States in 1926, and began a career as a thinker and writer who named her philosophical position “objectivism”. Where Weil aimed to change the whole world through divine engagement, and Beauvoir perceived freedom as the freedom to act within a community, Rand insisted on:
the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
For “man”, read “Rand”. Her most famous character, the architect Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead, was after all based on herself. Roark, whose real-life admirers include Donald Trump, was a mouthpiece for objectivism: for reason, for facts, but never for compassion or empathy.
Like an early Margaret Thatcher, Rand built an entire worldview based on there being no society – only self-focused, self-seeking individuals, capable of determining who and what they are, in perfect freedom.
Hannah Arendt, with her mother, had fled Germany in 1933 after they were arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. For some years, she lived as an exile in France, later escaping to the United States.
Her initial writings explored the uncertainty of freedom in a world where events can strip the individual of identity, of nationality, of freedom – and even of life.
Her perspectives differ markedly from both existentialism and objectivism: Eilenberger observes that, for Arendt, “self-creation is always contingent on social and cultural conditions, from which no individual can fully escape”. It is, she argued poignantly, political power, not self-determination, that sets the limits of our being.
In her case, this was the power of the Nazi machine, which destroyed so many members of her community – and which she had so narrowly escaped. Her philosophical concerns were, therefore, far from either individual self-realisation or self-abnegation.
Rather, she was concerned with what an individual’s responsibility might be in the face of overwhelming social, political and economic realities.
‘The salvation of philosophy’
These, in brief, are the four philosophers who galvanised “the salvation of philosophy”. The lines and turns of their thinking were unpacked and reframed through much of what was going on in the salons of their twenties, or the writings of their thirties.
They were deeply connected, through reading, through shared intellectual concerns, and in some cases through personal relationships, with the great philosophers who preceded them – all the way back to Plato in the fourth century BCE – and with their contemporaries.
Simone de Beauvoir, for example, was intimately connected to Jean-Paul Sartre in life and work. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ethical and intellectual struggles with religion closely parallel Weil’s own (though there is little evidence they knew each other). Walter Benjamin was Arendt’s friend throughout their period of exile (and later was the subject of her writings).
Martin Heidegger was the most intertwined with these philosophers. His writings influenced both Weil’s and Beauvoir’s work, particularly into the nature of being, and of human consciousness.
He had also been Arendt’s teacher (and lover) at university; and though they were on opposite sides of the political divide – Heidegger became a Nazi in 1933, the same year Arendt was arrested by the Gestapo – Arendt reconnected with him in 1949, and remained his friend.
‘Otherness’: danger or obligation?
The four women are complex characters, and not always likeable, being neither straightforward, nor straightforwardly admirable. Beauvoir, for example, declined to join a 1934 general workers’ strike on the grounds she was not part of society. She wrote: “The existence of Otherness remained a danger to me.” In fact, “Otherness” was such a danger that at this point, she claimed to identify with no one but Sartre.
Interestingly though, she records a sharp criticism offered her by Simone Weil in a discussion they had about care of the Other, and what matters in the world. For Weil, the most important thing is to “feed all the starving people of the earth”. For Beauvoir, what matters is:
not to make men happy, but to find the reason for their existence. [Weil] looked me up and down: “It’s easy to see you’ve never been hungry”, she snapped. Our relations ended right there […]
Fair point. Or maybe not all that fair, since by the mid-1930s, Beauvoir was less inclined to consider the world a universe only of Beauvoir-plus-Sartre. Instead, she was beginning to take a more other-oriented, and more sensibly pragmatic, stance.
Perhaps this was motivated by the fact the Beauvoir-plus-Sartre unit had become a polyamorous group, incorporating a worryingly young group of people who participated in their sexual and intellectual lives. The philosophers’ ease with this complicated sexual engagement, which they characterised as “family”, did not meet social norms.
Beauvoir was the subject of a year-long investigation, following complaints by the mother of one of the young people that she seduced her students and then passed them on to Sartre. This crime of “incitement to debauchery” was not proven, for lack of evidence. At the same time, Sartre was sulking about his unsatisfying professional life, and insatiably sexually engaging with (it seems) pretty well anyone who entered his orbit.
Simone Weil and ‘the common people’
I would imagine such experiences exposed Beauvoir to the limitations of both her philosophy and her capabilities. Certainly, such an awareness seems present in her explanation of why she and Sartre declined to join so many of their circle in travelling to Spain to serve in the war against Franco: that they were more likely to be “a nuisance rather than a help”.
In evidence of this, she pointed out that Weil had gone to Spain to serve in the military, but when the infantry sensibly refused to arm her, Weil instead worked in the kitchens. (Her war ended when she stepped into a pot of boiling oil and was sent back to France to recover.)
Weil’s passion for others often made her “a nuisance rather than a help”. She identified strongly with the concept, at least, of “the common people”, but usually got things wrong. Despite her deeply fragile health, she took a sabbatical from her job as a philosophy teacher to work in a metals factory. This, she thought, would be “real life”. Eilenberger gently teases this aspiration, but at the same time he notes her action:
stands in a respectable tradition of philosophical experiments whose declared objective was to turn one’s back on a presumably alienated world […] Like the Buddha fleeing the temple, or Diogenes in his barrel, or of course Thoreau building his hut on Walden Pond.
It was not an obviously useful experiment. Weil was a hopeless factory worker, causing herself injury, messing up the production line, and worsening her always-frail physical health. She was a hopeless social activist too. After her failure to solve the problems of the Spanish Civil War, and as France edged ever closer to war with Germany, she began developing suites of well-argued and utterly impractical solutions, all of which were rejected.
Arendt seems to have had a much stronger practical streak than did Weil, and a much clearer sense both of the complexities of being a human among other humans, and of the limitations on the fantasies of freedom, than either Beauvoir or Rand.
While she was still living as a refugee in France, she was developing an understanding of what it is to be a pariah: considering how to preserve the only freedom pariahs have – the capacity to think for themselves. She was also wondering about what love means.
Foundations of 20th-century thought
Reading through this decade, and through the thinking that propelled the four women then, I had to keep reminding myself how dire their living conditions were.
For the three Europeans, the looming dread of war and the nailing down of any freedom or opportunity framed their lives. Ayn Rand may have been far from Hitler’s reach, but she was unable to free her parents from the Great Terror of Stalinist Russia, she was having only uncertain success in her writing, and she lived with an unsatisfying husband.
Throughout all this, the Europeans at least sharpened and nuanced their understanding of what it is to be human, the point of being alive, what freedom means, and where our responsibilities lie. In doing so, they laid down some of the intellectual and ethical foundations that have inflected much of the 20th century, and into our time. (Ayn Rand’s writings, on the other hand, provided a textbook for the US Tea Party – efficacious work, no doubt, but not work I can applaud.)
By the end of the book, I found I had changed my mind about the four women – primarily in the form of a significantly elevated appreciation for Simone de Beauvoir and an enhanced sympathy for Simone Weil. (I retained my confirmed enthusiasm for Arendt, and my equally confirmed disdain for Rand.)
I also discovered a substantial admiration for the skill of the author and his translator. The clarity of voice, the respect paid to readers and to the four main subjects, and the little glimpses of humour (and larger glimpses of empathy) have left me a fan of this work.
Readers who are not fans of philosophy shouldn’t fear the book will tangle them in the weeds of impenetrable lines of thought: its philosophy is made highly accessible. And the human stories, with all their tragedies, irritations and delights, are luminously and empathically crafted.
Jen Webb is Dean of Graduate Research at the University of Canberra.
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