A photograph of Simone Veil, France's ex-minister of health, inadvertently accompanied a review of Robert Coles' new book about philosopher-critic Simone Weil in yesterday's Style section. (Published 8/28/87)
DOROTHY DAY A Radical Devotion By Robert Coles Addison Wesley. 182 pp. $17.95 SIMONE WEIL A Modern Pilgrimage By Robert Coles Addison Wesley. 179 pp. $17.95
A poet I've known for 15 years -- a usually penniless but always rich-with-energy kind of writer -- phoned the other morning in elation. His new collection of poems, he said, the one he'd been working on for years, had finally found a publisher. But on top of that, Robert Coles agreed to write an introduction. The poet couldn't imagine a greater honor.
How typical of Coles, I found myself thinking: selflessly taking time from his overload of writing and psychiatry to offer a boost to a promising poet. Fewer than a thousand readers are likely to see Cole's words in that introduction. The ones who do read them, and certainly the poet, will understand the rarity and generosity of Coles. He turns up regularly in small-circulation journals and prefaces to books on the low-seller list. He is a soft touch for editors long accustomed to I'd-love-to-buts from famous dollar-a-word writers.
Cole's apostolate to the out-of-the-way obviously moved him to write of Dorothy Day and Simone Weil, both works a part of the Radcliffe Biography Series. Crowds are not likely to be storming bookstores to read of two women who themselves preferred the literary fringes. Day, the journalist who cofounded the Catholic Worker in 1933 and who served the poor in the Lower East Side of New York until her death in 1980, lived with what Coles calls "an inquiring idealism." The life and thinking of Weil, a teacher and writer who died at 34 in 1943, offered Coles "a chance to affirm an old love."
Neither of these studies -- both less than 200 pages long -- is exhaustive. A brighter luster is present: a tone of reflectiveness. Coles is one of the few American intellectuals who regard the spiritual life as an essential companion to the political life. Both Day and Weil were women committed to understanding religion, and then using its nourishments to reform or revive the secular world around them.
"In 1972," he writes in the preface to the Dorothy Day book, "I took part in a symposium organized by George Abbott White at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devoted to the work of Simone Weil. Her brother and I spoke one afternoon, and I well remember his wry response to the title of the symposium, advertised on billboards, 'Simone Weil: Live Like Her?' Andre Weil turned to me and said, 'I doubt many in the audience will want to answer yes to that question.' In the case of Dorothy Day, the question is a more plausible one. A few among us may finally be able to say yes. Though I am one who has to answer no, the question has haunted my life." For Coles, nothing about Dorothy Day was more important "than her own statements as they pertain to that central matter of moral inquiry: How should we try to live this life?"
Of the two works, the one on Dorothy Day has a sharper focus. Coles knew her. While a medical student in New York, he volunteered at the Catholic Worker house of hospitality in the Bowery. He came across her in the South in the 1960s and then in the 1970s when he made regular visits to her in New York to learn more about her politics and faith. For two years, he taped their frequent conversations. This informal oral history -- 50 hours' worth in 17 meetings -- is a rich harvest for those who have read Day in her books and Catholic Worker newspaper columns, and thought that they picked up all that was there. They couldn't have. For those who are not familiar with Day, Coles is the best introducer around.
Although much of Day's instinctive warmth and preciseness of mind is here, and her restlessness, too, Coles explores her commitments to pacifism and nonviolence in only two pages. It should have been more. Day's caring for the destitute, which also involved inspiring the middle- and upper-class college students who showed up at the Catholic Worker to join that work, was genuine peacemaking. But it was part of her nonviolence, a political and religious stance that confounds all but a few. The expansiveness of a chapter, not two pages, would have helped remove some of the doubts and dismissals that the mere mention of pacifism evokes from those who haven't studied it and still think of it, mistakenly, as passivity.
With Simone Weil, whose "The Need For Roots" and "Waiting for God" are masterpieces, Coles is a passionate scholar. He scours the texts and letters of Weil's brief life and devotedly finds in them a record of uncommon intellectual honesty.
Weil worked in factories because she believed that writers and philosophers ought to perform manual labor as a way of attaining humility. In 1934 she worked as a power press operator at the Alsthom Electrical Works in Paris. The next year she hired out as a packer in one factory and as a milling machine operator in another. Coles writes that despite severe migraine she worked in factories to "see firsthand how it is, all the time, for working-class people. She stayed there, too, in a spirit of solidarity, or communion with others, an attempt not only to do a documentary field study, it might be called, but to put her body on the line. She had already become, in her early twenties, a stern critic of intellectuals, an unrelentingly harsh critic of what she regarded as their privileged and arrogant ways. She wanted an escape from libraries and salons and polite, speculative conversation, even though her mind was always busy with ideas and questions, with rumination and objections to what she had read or heard."
Throughout these well-crafted pages, as well as those on Dorothy Day, Coles keeps his commentary grounded by referring to his work as a psychiatrist and teacher at Harvard. Day and Weil are women whose ideas and ideals accompany him as necessities. That urgency emerges in both of these studies, leading to the conclusion that Day and Weil ought to be necessary for us too. The reviewer writes a syndicated column for The Washington Post Writers Group.