September 27, 2007

From on High, Again

"The last entry in my Great-Uncle Adelwarth's little agenda book was written on the Feast of Stephen. Cosmo, it reads, had had a bad fever after their return to Jerusalem but was already on the way to recovery again. My great-uncle also noted that late the previous afternoon it had begun to snow, and that, looking out the hotel window at the city, white in the falling dusk, it made him think of times long gone. Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds."

--W. G. Sebald, "Ambrose Adelwarth," The Emigrants

September 20, 2007

Waiting through the variable

Driven out of the university because she had been born Jewish, Simone Weil spent the early war years of France cultivating a particular hunger in the grape fields of a landowner who hid her. Laboring hard despite a weak body and the plague of headaches, she surrendered her ration cards to political prisoners in need. Although she eventually "escaped" by sailing to America with her parents, it was only to re-route herself to England or Russia and the war itself. When she did arrive in England she enlisted her spirit, if not her body, in the French Resistance. She could not be removed from the place of necessity.

Tragedy of those who, having been guided by the love the Good into a road where suffering has to be endured, after a certain time reach their limit and become debased.
(Simone Weil, "Void and Compensation")

The war had two years to go when she died in 1943, at the age of 36, and in 1946, long after the Normandy invasion and the liberation of France, the war's impact was still being felt in the northwest village of Saint-Lo, where Samuel Beckett worked at the hospital run by the Irish Red Cross.

There among the debris heaped and hilled, still shaping the landscape, and the explosions of remnant munitions, he too gave himself over to the place of necessity; refusing the fiction of neutrality he chose a steadfast encounter with the provisional.

War present and absent. Sleeplessness, striking pain dripping in the brain, ulcers, lesions, the body's betrayal, memory's imprints along the edges of the eyes.

"Headaches. At a certain moment, the pain is lessened by projecting it into the universe, but the universe is impaired; the pain is more intense when it comes home again, but something in me does not suffer and remains in contact with a universe which is not impaired."
(Simone Weil, "Void and Compensation")

Both wrote most powerfully of the wait, for Godot, for God, as if in the suspended state beyond churches and institutions and a defeating hunger one found the destructions one must inhabit if there is to be recognition of the true time on earth, incurable. Weil would write words that clung to the universe Beckett would try throughout to eclipse, shaving away its light until Weil's "absence of a place" that opens access to Being becomes Beckett's sense of Being absolutely reduced: Breath, once and done. Still, for each, a striving to tend to the ruins.

Both rejected "politics" and its misnaming language even while they cultivated the art of the just and enact, in their way, the spirit of human rights, bearing witness to such necessity and the impossible paths to any ensured actuality.

"The relations between social forces are essentially variable, and the underprivileged will always seek to alter them; it is wrong to enforce an artificial stabilization. What is required is discrimination between the imaginary and the real, so as to diminish the risks of war, without interfering with the struggle between forces which, according to Heraclitus, is the condition of life itself." (
Simone Weil, "The Power of Words")

September 7, 2007


Staging Antigone in Switzerland following the Second World War, the continent remaining to be rebuilt, Bertolt Brecht reached into the tragedy for its essential dramatic resource: a lesson of absolute ruination. In this treatment, he said, the played is allowed to work its inherent powers upon those who dare stage it.

Thebes in a climate of war has no room left for a position reserved for what we crave to call humanity. The Chorus of Sophocles, over the scattered bodies, speaks of a coming wisdom. But for Brecht, there can be no instruction given the atmosphere within which the tyrants are able to operate and the individuals, whatever their claims to the law, are seduced into vulnerability and smashed into subjection or suicide. No law, no family bond, no rebellion through a "fierce presence" (as Lacan says of Antigone herself) can be extracted from the wreckage.

"Violence," Brecht writes, "splits the forces instead of wedding them together; basic humanity, under too much pressure, explodes scattering everything with it into destruction."

The point of catharsis, given this, is death itself. No appeal to the law will aid the future once the tyrant Creon, operating through the gruesome trivium of power, fear, and retribution has made his declaration. His faith in his right position, a self-serving selflessness that promises protection for the city, blossoms under the heat of the circumstance. Therefore, Brecht insists, rightly, that the voice affirming always his decision-making authority can only be unteachable. The tyrant is, by definition, incapable of ever responding to reason, to insight, even to the bloody stains of the carnage. His own "daughter"--and any allure of a future escape through what follows--perishes in the conflations of power and prejudice.

This reading also rejects any sense that Antigone has been somehow vindicated by her choice of holding to obligations of the the family despite all risk (she is protected, this thought goes, by the higher law). In Brecht's version, the law is no match for the "inadequacy" of those who inhabit the positions of decision. The tragedy eclipses all that is on the stage and the very terms with which one may long to intervene for the sake of doing what is right through the rites of memory and blood and mourning. All to no avail. Such is the lesson of the circumstance.