Alone, Together: The Enabling Entre-Deux

‘Every separation is a link’ – Simone Weil

Living on the edge of the world, despite the marvels of modern media, I do, at times, feel quite cleft. As grateful as I am for the ability to be in contact with family and friends, there are times when something more than a screen is desired; when nothing but the real presence feels like it will do. I mean who would disagree that ‘The body knows a language that the mind never wholly masters’ (Brenda Miller, Season of the Body)?

These gloomy thoughts were starting to get comfortable when I flipped open a book of the poet Christian Wiman’s essays and came across Simone Weil’s little story from Gravity and Grace of the prisoners and the wall. Here was just the drop of elixir my heart needed.

The two prisoners, goes Weil’s parable, each in solitary confinement, share nothing but a stone wall between them. This obstacle that separates them, over time, becomes the medium through which they begin to communicate via a series of taps and scratches. Many of us knock, nowadays, by swiping and tapping screens (or keyboards). There’s no doubt that many doors magically open . . . and it is right that we think about the ways that this media is ‘real’ and good and empowers us to live more openly, kindly and lovingly.

Reading the story of the prisoners also reminded me of an extraordinary story of solitary confinement I once heard on the radio. In South Africa, the political prisoner (Justice) Albie Sachs and fellow detainee, Dorothy Williams, shared their dream for a New World whistling parts of Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 together through the walls. [Listen here to Soul Music, or here to Desert Island Discs.]

Every evening at five o’clock, the safety sirens in my town play ‘Goin’ Home’ from Dvorak’s New World symphony. The tune is said to express ‘the nostalgia of the soul that all human beings feel’, so I suppose it is somehow right that it plays in the evening and not at the beginning of the day. Nostalgia is separation; it is memory and longing. It is a fleeting thing glimpsed in dappled and waning light, that moves (with?) us toward darkness & separation, and inevitably, then, toward becoming, toward Homecoming.

‘The world,’ observed Weil, ‘is a closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time is the way through.’ The wall that separates the prisoners is the only means they have of communicating. ‘It is the same with God. Every separation is a link.’ The homonym ‘cleave’ means, mysteriously, both to split and to join. Somehow, the medium, the wall, the door, the screen, whatever stands between you and It, is the metaxu, the middle ground, the mediating space, the enabling entre-deux.

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