Simone in Avignon

My memory already had failed me twice that morning in July. I had expected that, from our hotel near the Avignon railway station, we could walk to Saint Véran cemetery, on the other side of the medieval part of the city, in about half an hour. It took us more than an hour. Even at eleven the old streets of Avignon were bustling with activities, all related to the annual theatre festival. My wife and I were tempted to think that all citizens had received special instructions to wear an appropriate costume that day, be it a rococo dress, a Donald Duck suit or some Lady Gaga showpiece. They all tried to convince us that, later that day or in the evening, they would be on stage somewhere in the city and would be even more impressive then. (Does anybody know how many stages there actually are in Avignon? And why everybody who is on stage there will always claim to be off stage?).

Our destination was the grave of John Stuart Mill. I had visited the great liberal philosopher, forever resting at Saint Véran just outside the ramparts, several years before when I was working on my book to highlight Mill’s many French connections. Now, a decade later, it turned out that the cemetery no longer was in the exact location my memory was telling me that it should be. We were lucky: the digital maps on our mobile phones knew where to look. On entering the old and vast cemetery the same cycle of mental torture repeated itself: being sure you know where the grave is to be found – repeating to yourself that you remember it well but …. it all looks so different now – denying to yourself that you have forgotten the location – having to admit to yourself you forgot – admitting it to your wife. This was my third memory lapse that morning.

Are there any cemetery apps yet? Again we were lucky: the cemetery staff (the one member present) was most helpful and gave us a copy of a simple drawing. A few minutes later we were right in front of the grave of monsieur Stüwaaar Meal. I have always loved the way the French pronounce his name, respectfully leaving out the ‘John’.  Of course, it is the grave of Harriet Taylor, his wife who was buried here first, in 1858. The white marble is hers, her grieving husband selected it to do justice to her greatness. He remains a guest under that same stone.

We walked back to the old city, desperately in need of lunch. We took the Porte Thiers. Soon we were surrounded again by theatre lovers from all over Europe, and the joyous fuzz of every French individual promoting his or her own show. Everyone who appears on stage has a small poster printed, making their announcement. Masses of all these posters are mounted on cardboard and then tied, all with the same simple brownish cords, in endless strings on fences, along the pavement, so afterwards they can easily be removed. This festival of posters is an important contribution to the theatrical anarchy of Avignon summers.

Walking towards the Halles, I suddenly saw her face, on the pavement, stepped on by hundreds of most friendly feet: Simone Weil, printed on an Avignon poster. I immediately recognised her reluctant smile, the owlish glasses, the hair like two black wings alongside her cheeks. They had used a photo from around 1935, but because it had been colourised mademoiselle Weil looked much happier than I had ever seen her before, despite here awkward position of being run over on an Avignon parcours. The poster’s announcement didn’t excite me: Simone Weil, la Passion de la Vérité. Had it been a real play on the basis of her ascetic life, or a good documentary, I would have been interested. This, however, was about some lecture on stage, and an ensuing debate in the best tradition of political feminism.

Simone Weil

The Weil poster from Avignon

Still there was meaning in this moment I met Simone Weil. I had just paid my respects to John Stuart Mill, subject of my previous book. And on the way back I ran into Simone Weil, who together with Kafka fills a chapter in my new book. My two writing projects were wonderfully stringed together in the way Avignon connects creative concepts both familiar and diverse. As defective as my memory may have been this day, past and present now interlocked.

Weil would not have been surprised. “Let the soul of a man take the whole universe for its body” she wrote. Isn’t this what Avignon is doing, at least once a year in July: to let the soul of the city take the whole theatrical universe for its body? And she continued: “We have to change the relationship between our body and the world. We do not become detached, we change our attachment. We must attach ourselves to the all.” Here Weil and Avignon meet to converge. “This irreducible ‘I’ which is the irreducible basis of my suffering – I have to make this ‘I’ universal.” We are all attached by millions of strings to universal space, making us one.