Monday, November 14, 2016


I had the chance to sit next to a world-famous composer tonight - Kaija Saariaho, whose opera "L'amour de loin" opens at the Met next month. I was part of a panel on Simone Weil, subject of another of Saariaho's works, which is being performed at The New School this weekend. The panel, in turn, was proposed by her son, who's producing the New School performance, and included a group of New School folks with various kinds of engagements with Weil. I got to be part of it (I volunteered myself) because I included Weil in my reader on The Problem of Evil, and also say some nice things about her in The Book of Job: A Biography, even though our convener didn't want to talk about Weil's religious views, preferring to see her as a hero of the French left.

I think he was a little surprised (if his mother was, too, she was more discreet in registering her surprise) to find that Weil is no hero at The New School. One panelist sneered at the idea that she was a martyr, another described the puzzle of a life devoted to disappearing - but always in very visible ways. A little more positively my friend O described how Weil's ideas of a weak God might help imagine alternative to a world of fashion as shot through with violence as the Trojan War. And I tried for balance in assessed her uses of the Book of Job, finding them incomplete - but perhaps deliberately so. It seems impossible not to be provoked by Weil's life and thought, inspired, frustrated, appalled. Saariaho told us she had been reading Weil since she was a teenager, and turned to Weil's life for a work trying to engage the world more in response to 9/11. Even after working a year on it, she said, she understood no more than before.

It did all convince me that Weil is suitable material for opera. Saariaho's "La Passion de Simone" isn't a hagiography but a complicated dramatic oratorio most of whose text (by Amin Maalouf) is addressed in the second person to Weil (represented by an actress, who speaks a few lines from Weil), full of questions, both admiring and critical.

Quand ton peuple a été affamé, tu t’es affamée ;
Quand ton peuple a été crucifié, tu t’es crucifiée.
Mais tu n’as jamais su dire : « Nous souffrons ! »
Tu n’as jamais su dire « nous ». 

I was glad of the opportunity to spend more time with Weil, even if, on balance, I found her thought hyperbolic and cold and her life story quixotic and unedifying. But you know me, I couldn't just say that, so my criticism was tinged more with sadness than distaste.

I am not the girl who is waiting for her lover, but the tiresome third party who is sitting with two lovers and has to get up and go away if they are to be really together. 
We must reply to the absence of God, who is Love, by our own absence and love. 
My presence does infinite harm to those whom I love by maintaining in position the screen which I form between them and God … 
(The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills, 404)

I wish I were going to be around to see the performance this weekend. (I'll be at AAR in San Antonio.) I have a feeling that musically as well as in its staging it captures the loneliness of this fearless thinker, throbbing with mute love of her fellow human beings but unable to be part of any "we."

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