When I was in the Army and stationed in Germany, I spent as many long weekends as possible in France and Italy. I would drive out of Bavaria, a wet emerald of farms and forests, through the unsettlingly long tunnels cutting under the Alps, and after what seemed like no time at all, find myself delivered to the low, brown plains of Northern Italy. My town was Jesolo. A packed beach resort during the Summer, Jesolo was mostly abandoned in the off-season, making me a familiar face to the locals working in the empty restaurants and wandering along the cool, wind-swept beach. A genial man selling roses from a bicycle had a bit where he would pretend to forget that he had already pitched me, even though we might be the only two people on the street. He would circle by, again and again, grinning. “Rosa?,” “No,” “Rosa?,” “No.” Until finally I bought one just to reward his wry humor and persistence. Being a tourist in the off-season, you felt like you were in on the joke. It was like going backstage at a circus. You were able to occupy some role halfway between audience and performer, granting you a privileged perspective on both.
But the best part of staying in Jesolo was leaving Jesolo and coming into Venice by sea. First you take the bus from Lido de Jesolo to Punta Sabionni, and from there the ferry slowly churns thick water past Sant’Erasmo and Le Vignole to disembark at San Zaccaria in San Marco, Venice proper. It is the same motionless sea and sky that lured Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach to sleep, an infinite refraction of gray and lime stillness. The city seemed permanently lodged between two complementary infinities. It felt ancient, abandoned and then recently reoccupied, oscillating between decay and reconstruction. Like Brugel the Elder’s Tower of Babel series, where you cannot quite tell if the towers are in the midst of construction or ruin, Venice has always seemed to me to fully occupy that liminal space between creation and destruction. In this sense, the city can be read like a physical synecdoche for the world itself. A symbol for what Simone Weil called the perpetually “shipwrecked” status of our human state.
A shipwreck—something that might once more be made to move but is at least temporarily a victim of contingency—feels like an apt symbol for Simone Weil as well. As she wrote in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, “We are like shipwrecked persons clinging to logs upon the sea and tossed in an entirely passive manner by every movement of the waves.” Hers was a life abruptly cut short. When she died at 34 from tuberculosis while living as an exile in England during the Second World War, her work ceased at the very height of her abilities. And yet, by grace, it somehow survives to live on in our hearts and minds, aphoristically and half-finished in many cases, as if waiting for our attention to bring it to some fuller sense of life.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor