Sunday, August 17, 2008

La failure de Simone

Boredom made way to disgust today, as my friend Tristan and I endured La Passion de Simone, a 75-minute oratorio by composer Kaija Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf, and part of the Mostly Mozart festival.

Boredom because this "musical journey in 15 stations" was so short on musical ideas that I could not figure out on what basis Saariaho is hailed as an important contempory composer. To stay in the piece's spirit of portentous self-aggrandizement, I'll say it was us going through the stations of the cross.

Inappropriate? We're talking about a piece that, under the pretext of looking at the tragic struggle of Simone Weil—who starved herself to death when she was 34, in 1943, refusing to eat in empathy with those lacking food in the camps—tries to elevate to the sublime a tale that's much more down to earth: that of a selfish, childish woman endowed with a monstrous egotism. A stupider, more futile gesture is hard to find: She accomplished nothing, her death creating all the ripples of a tree falling where no one can hear it.

"She was trying so hard to solve some of the problems of our existence," Saariaho has said. Not at all: Weil was trying to solve her own problems, that's all. That inner struggle can be more than enough for an oratorio or an opera or a movie—characters wrestling with their faith was Bergman's crisp bread and butter. Perhaps Saariaho should have watched Winter Light to see how it's done. Art about someone wrestling with the idea of god is quite different from art glorifying useless martyrdom, especially when said martyrdom is couched in a pompous, vacant mysticism—here, the ultimate refuge-slash-excuse for an anorexic egomaniac.

Tristan nailed it when he said Weil was nihilistic and narcissistic. I can't remember now precisely if it was Weil herself (in one of the voiceover readings from her writings) or Maloof who drew a parallel between her factory-worker idea and the number tattooed on the arms of concentration-camp prisoner, but there's quite a difference between the two. But then, you're talking about a woman who mused that Alexander and Jesus were also close to 34 when they died. No wonder the Resistance didn't want her.


Anonymous said...

The line that galled me the most in this unrelievedly dull and unrelievedly self-congratulatory non-spectacle was Weil's: "Nothing in this world is completely worthy of love; therefore, we have to love what doesn't exist." Wrong, babe. We have to love the world and the people in it whether they're "worthy" of love or not. (The whole concept of being worthy or unworthy of love is preposterous anyway - that's just a tiny judgmental human concept that doesn't deserve our serious attention. Weil, unfortunately, seems fascinated with it.)

However, we do not have to love bad art, or the people who make it. One of the saddest things about this show, which brings together people who've done great things in the past - Peter Sellars, Dawn Upshaw - is that it seems to be the result of a clanking curatorial mechanism that produces shows so that Lincoln Center festivalgoers will purchase tickets. I guess when the paychecks keep rolling in, you put an earnest look on your face and sing your lines, whether you care about what they're saying or not.

iridescent cuttlefish said...

wow. the tough bitch/cynical realist thing might sound like it's working for ya, honey, but i'm thinkin' you misunderstood every little thing you saw & heard. for example, if we loved what didn't exist--instead of cracking wise and sassy about what we know damn well does--we'd have a different world, wouldn't we?

or at least the possibility of one...whereas your capitulation to what is (determined by you, naturally) represents what every slave who feared the whip more than he loved the idea of freedom settled for.

so, whom did simone's death hurt? whose life has yours helped?

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I actually don't agree with Tristan that everything that exists can be loved, but don't you think loving something that doesn't exist is ultimately useless in creating a different world? How does it amount to more than a kind of self-absorption that leads to nothing constructive in the real world, as opposed to a fantasy one?

And how are you understanding what either Tristan and I wrote as capitulation? Simone Weil capitulated by letting herself die at 34. Her death hurt only herself, and what did it accomplish?

Daniel said...

I actually like your passionate reaction Elisabeth, but I thought the oratorio was strong and lovely.

We saw the same performance and there are a few things we might agree on: Upshaw's performance was luminous, the orchestra played well, the chorus was great. I'm totally juiced by Saariaho's percussion, and her textures are rich in the right ways. Of course, though the dancer was graceful, the choreography was kind of stupid.

But on the subject of Weil - there's another valid take on her life, and the oratorio, that doesn't "glorify" her absurd death while still recovering something vital for us. As Susan Sontag said about Weil, no adult in their right mind would "imitate her dedication to martyrdom", and yet "in the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world — and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies."

I think that's just what Maalouf's libretto is saying - the narrator resents her "little sister's" puerile suicide, but that doesn't erase the human utility of Weil's engagement with the unknown.

Seems to me it's the murderous certainties of the bearers of Truth that threaten the peace of humans, more than the egotistical outrages of a fitfully brilliant mind. I have a lot of time for the mystics, I think they nurture curiosity and engagement with the strangest parts of life. And despite Weil's massive moral misjudgments, her writing consistently fosters an ethical awareness of the fragility of living beings.

As for loving - I think she's referring only to "absolute love" - whatever that is. Absolute love can only be directed at what's absent because anything that exists would be crushed by such love. I don't know exactly how it works, but I find it instructive to contemplate. I think for her, absolute love involves the dissolving of her own self, however hard her giant ego seems to be hanging on. Mortal love goes on finding its worthy objects.

And so like I said, I found Saariaho's piece - which cut a brilliant alternative to both hagiography and vituperation - pretty awesome.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. First I have to disagree on the music itself. I found it "meh," to use a highly technical term (!). To my ears, it lacked scope, passion and invention--shouldn't a journey be from point A to point B, not from point A to point A? Actually, perhaps "serviceable" would do. (And I did admire Upshaw's performance very much.)

As for the message, which is what upset me most, I was riled by the fact that instead of exploring "Weil's engagement with the unknown" (a topic that as a dedicated atheist I do find inspiring--remember, I'm a huge Bergman fan), Maalouf and Saariaho did fall into hagiography and glorified their subject, refusing to explore her act's ultimate lack of "human utility," as you eloquently put it. (Especially since, and this is important, it all happened in a time of war.)

One can "acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world" (has anybody ever done an opera about Teresa of Avila?), but what I minded was the way this particular quest was approached by the creative team.

Daniel said...

Well, there's no arguing with "meh", or in any case whatever's good about PdS is not indisputable. You're right about "point A to point A". I love a good drone though, so the vertical layering and acoustic/electronic interplay seemed right to me. Doesn't the mystical journey involve a steady intensity, rather than the crescendoes of outer-world heroics?

(Thinking of St Teresa - her vision of Christ's body lasted two uninterrupted years, and then there was that long, slow arrow to the heart - baboom, baboom - her opera could outlast Messiaen's Francis!)

The tragedy of it all seems to elevate Weil, but all the "little sister" stuff (heedless of parents' suffering, wasteful suicide) emphasizes her absurdly immature side pretty well. She's a Quixote, possibly mistaking her factory number for a camp tattoo. That's a self-dramatizing misrecognition, blackly comical, but also with a grain of truth - the camps were a reductio ad adsurdam of industrial exploitation.

I came back into the daylight on Sunday thinking of the libretto - "She wanted to avoid war at all costs" - but when it came she wanted to get in it. When war wouldn't have her, she tilted her lance at her own being, using her body as theater. Like you said, this happens in wartime - and how long before most other Europeans had copped to the implications of the camps? However few people she actually saved from the dragon, her dramatizations got to the point.

But I think the oratorio's real subject is the Narrator, not Weil, despite its name. What moved me was a reader's struggle with a flawed author. The Narrator's the one with the journey and the epiphany - Your absurd actions are not validated by your suicide, Simone, but as I go deeper into what you left behind, I see both your selfishness and insight along with your suffering, and I understand, and I integrate some difficult and mysterious ideas.

So while Weil illuminates this movement, the juicy part for me is this operatized act of reading - struggling, getting it, coming out a little better, opening the door and going outside.

(BTW, this all makes me think of Les Bienveillantes - did you ever finish?)

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I'm not sure anything about art is "indisputable"--which is what makes it ceaselessly interesting (and differentiates it from, say, science or sports).

Perhaps someone will adapt Julia Kristeva's recent book about Teresa of Avila, Thérèse Mon Amour, to the stage. It's 750-pages long, which should take us a few hours to get through.

As for Les Bienveillantes, I did indeed read the entire thing. I can't say it's a good book, but it's a memorable one I suppose. It does get slightly better toward the end, especially in a couple of scenes that suggest a Pasolinian abjection--a degradation of body and soul that somehow interests me more than Weil's relationship with her own body. Perhaps one could call it a quest for a Bizarro sublime!

Daniel said...

Oh yeah, now I see the link to your nice Salon article. I couldn't agree more, the controversy was cooler than the novel, though I thought the Bergjuden episode did bureaucratic obscenity as tightly as any Heller or Lem. I find Littell's anti-Americanism kind of prissy, but it's awesome how he shook up the prigs (the egregious Lanzmann!). Can't wait to see if it will have any legs in the US at all, or whether it's a French thing. It was strangely memorable, despite the sexual hysterics and the antiseptic smell of the BN.

Kristeva's Thérèse could be pretty abjecto-Pasolinian (he of Uccellacci), definitely bizarro-sublime. I want Breillat to direct.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Breillat directing Theresa of Avila: now that's inspired!

Anonymous said...

Wow, such nice conversation! I'm impressed.

I do admit I found a lot of the orchestral textures and choral effects ravishing; if the piece were 20-30 minutes long I'd be raving about it. Upshaw's performance was flawless, moving, tender, precise. Daniel, I really liked your reading of the work.

Having done a little research, I now think poor Simone had some mental illness going on, alongside mystical experience, impossible living conditions, and horrible migraines. The migraines alone make me want to forgive her everything. When I get one, I start thinking it would be nicer to be dead. So I really can't blame her for having similar thoughts.

You see? Given a little time, we arrive at a point of tenderness, forgiveness, appreciation, understanding... that's getting close to love.