Some Rambling Thoughts on Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, as Well as a Vonnegut Quote and its Context — Oh, and Simone Weil

The Harvard Ed Portal near me hosts several events, and yesterday’s was “Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band” (there is a YouTube clip of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band here (that family has been doing this for eleven generations!), and an NPR clip of Wu Man here; there is also a disc they were selling at this event titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, available as a disc and for streaming, YouTube trailer here — more on this disc later, and its accompanying school lesson-plan material, which prompted this post). The event was, in several ways, both eye-opening and beautiful (alien in its tones and stories and some of the conventions of singing; familiar in its musical similarity to Blues and the visual similarity of the puppets to certain Late Antique Anglo-Saxon and Celtic knotwork illuminated manuscript conventions; moving all around).

I loved the show, the performers seemed like wonderful people, and they were very gracious in fielding our questions. I was sad to hear that there were fewer than thirty people left in China who knew this trade — the performers told me that they were 12 when they made their first puppet (out of cow skin, via a rigorous process), and 20 when they could manipulate the flat figures, which each have three poles to move the many parts, with one hand only (to see what I’m talking about, expand this post by clicking “continue reading” below, then look at the image on the header of the expanded post). The younger generations want to leave the villages, want lucrative careers, just want to watch cartoons — though they flock to the performances when they’re held. Thankfully, the Chinese government recognizes the cultural value of this profession, and supports the mission of these puppeteers (similar to how Irish Gaelic survives in the state-sponsored Gaeltachtaí).

On my way out the door, however, I was dismayed to find that an American product was being pushed at the door that, despite its best intentions, was not only smugly imperialist in its self-assured nihilism but insulting to the richness of the Chinese tradition, and its clear apprehension that value is real, and insulting to the Western European tradition, which has also traditionally recognized that what is worth pursuing is worth pursuing because of its inherent worthiness. Continue reading

Excerpt #16 — Simone Weil on What is Sacred in Each Person

“The good is the only source of the sacred.
There is nothing sacred except the good
and what is relative to the good.”

Simone Weil (pronounced “Vey”, because of her roots in France, despite what I understand to be the German origin of her family name) was one of the most brilliant, fascinating, and edifying figures of the 20th century. Every time I return to her I cannot escape the conviction that she is, in so many ways, like the North Star. I do not mean to suggest that she has no flaws, but it is not without reason that Albert Camus said that she was “the only great spirit of our times”, and I’m told that he visited Weil’s mother and meditated in Simone’s room on his way to receive his Nobel Prize. Her fame does not stop there. Even presidents cite her. At least one prominent student of Wittgenstein’s wrestled with her. Naturally, she has her own society.

The way I learned about Weil was through two books, Gravity and Grace as well as Waiting on God, both of which I’d read for several classes during my first two graduate degrees. (The essayist-activist Susan Sontag, mentioned below, once judged that Waiting on God is the best introduction to Weil.) They are intense, extremely beautiful, but in the way that they showcase a love that follows through on principle to the point of sacrificing itself for others in solidarity, rather than culminating in grand thoughts or flowery language or merely in learned tomes. I could say something about the political and mystical elements in Weil here, but I won’t. This post is already somewhat long. A decent encyclopedia introduction to her can be found on Britannica. Continue reading