Sunday, August 17, 2008


The narrator in The Passion of Simone, brilliantly sung by Dawn Upshaw, is not a disengaged voice. She narrates the 15 stations of Weil's tormented life, addressing Weil as "you," "little sister" and "big sister," but also incarnates Weil in her bodily and vocal gestures, and even in her costume, a drab dress and shapeless sweater. At the end of the performance I turned to DK and whispered, not without snark, "It must have been difficult for Dawn Upshaw to maintain that agonized facial expression for the whole performance." This deliberate ambiguity of voice was distracting. My own poem and DKs jazz oratorio, The Death of Simone Weil begins with a meditation on the perils of identification with Weil, but I don't think The Passion is positing a mere psychological identification. It is, after all, a Passion -- a Via Dolorosa in 15 stations -- so the Christ analogy is not covert. But to speculate that the narrator has achieved a kenosis, a self-emptying and a putting-on of the mind of Weil, seems like a stretch, as does, I think, the idea that Weil's "self sacrifice" was Christ-like. Weil herself says

One might choose no matter what degree of heroism or asceticism, but not the cross, that is to say penal suffering...To wish for martyrdom is far too little. The cross is infinitely more than martyrdom. It is the most purely bitter suffering -- penal suffering.

Before the performance, the woman seated behind me began to complain in a loud, offended voice about the explicitly Christian Stations-of-the-Cross framework of the oratorio. "Weil was a Jew -- how could they ?" she groused to the woman beside her. Weil was never an observant Jew. As Peter Sellars pointed out in the post-concert discussion (prompted by a question from the offended woman), Weil felt the idea of a "chosen people" had provided theological justification for carnage. He rightly pointed out that Weil's later journals are replete with investigations into Buddhism and Hinduism. I don't think she was as ecumenical -- as "spiritual but not religious" as Sellars posited. The trajectory of her life was toward Christ -- right up to the threshold of the Catholic Church and her famous refusal of baptism because of the Church's pronouncement of anathema sit -- its ecclesiastic exclusion of heretics, and, by extension, all the others that it has (against the example of Christ) historically excluded.

In her refusal of Baptism and her consequent exclusion from the long-for Eucharist -- she believed in the true presence of Christ in the elements -- she lived out her famous distinction between looking and eating.

Weil's death -- brought on by her refusal to eat more than war rations while ill with tuberculosis -- was no more a Christ-like penal suffering than (as posited in the oratorio's unfortunately banal, after-thought-like conclusion) her survival through her collected works was a resurrection.. One would think this would not matter much -- except for the fact that Weil herself has drawn the distinction between masochistic or even altruistic "self-sacrifice" and purely penal suffering. It is here that the Via Dolorosa analogy breaks down, and maybe here, too, in this break-down, is the tragedy of Weil's own project: try as one might, one cannot nail oneself to the cross.

I wonder why the librettist, since he obviously wished to dramatize Weil's suffering, did not choose to write the piece in her own voice. Why did he choose to channel the affliction through a narrator ? It was distracting to wonder "Why is this narrator so completely identified with Weil -- viz. Upshaw's perpetual expression of agony -- that she seems to be experiencing Weil's pain as her own ?" It kept striking me as unhealthy. The oratorio is also danced; there are two props, a writing desk and a door. Upshaw writes, crouches, writhes, curls up on the floor, falls into cruciform positions, hesitates in the doorway -- shadowed by a male dancer who alternately interacts with her and hovers behind her.

I was impatient with the text at other junctures as well: one whole station deals with Weil's distracted inconsideration of her family's feelings. "So Weil had no family values, eh ?" I caught myself thinking. At another point the text reassures us that no one is ever alone because of all the people we have met who think about us. That seemed as simplistic as saying "She lives on in her works." At the core of Weil's philosophy was the notion of abandonment. She was a great solitary who, paradoxically, resonated with the pain of the world and the world's afflicted. One might argue that her neuroses and general interpersonal prickliness led to this solitude -- but I think the accidents of her personality equipped her to explore and write about this one core existential aspect of our lives, inner landscapes that the more gregarious cannot bear to enter, and to send dispatches from these polar regions, from these desert places. Consequently, to hear Sellars go on (eloquently enough) about "human connection" annoyed me, as did his appreciation of the audience for coming out to hear this dark, difficult work while the rest of the world was out pursuing cheap "entertainments."

At which point the audience applauded itself and I felt queasy.

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