I just finished reading Day, and with it, Elie Wiesel’s complete Night Trilogy.
Night is a memoir, a description of Wiesel’s year in Auschwitz. Reading it I struggled not to weep on the train. The story was most piercing not when it hammered, but when it tapped. To read of infants thrown into the fire was horrifying, but it seemed almost like an item to be checked off on the list of perfect horror, a sin to be catalogued, not felt. But the gradual stripping away of layer after layer of humanity, until these people crawled over one another like naked rats in a box, and knowing that these had once been ordinary, conscientious human beings, and that given a slight change in circumstance they would be again—that was the true, unrelenting current of terror. How little it takes to turn us into animals. How reasonable it can be to become one.
Dawn is essentially a one-act play. A man waits for dawn, when he will execute another man in reprisal for the government’s execution of a third man, and as he waits, the room is filled with the ghosts of all the people the soon-to-be executioner has known and lost. He believes they have come to judge him, but in truth, they have only come to watch. The dead are a part of him. Here there is an echo of the Trial, which posited that we suffer the judgement of others only if we feel ourselves to be judged.
Day lays bare the superficiality of a book I read with a shrug last year, Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle. Both are about men living in a state of total convalescence, but Day tears through level after level of the psychology of suffering, while The Gargoyle is merely satisfied to drone on about medical details before unravelling a wearied storyteller gimmick.
Reading Day, time after time I said aloud, “Yes, exactly.” Yet what right did I have to understand a Holocaust survivor? My suffering has always been in my mind. Wiesel’s had been real, and continues to be so. Did I have any right to feel that I understood what he described?
Here are some extracts that struck me with particular force, not only because they were powerful, but because they are uncannily akin to transcriptions of my own ideas and understanding.
“[The protagonist] struggles to understand why fate has spared him and not so many others. Was it to know happiness? His happiness will never be complete. To know love? He will never be sure of being worthy of love. A part of him is still back there, on the other side, where the dead deny the living the right to leave them behind.”
“Suffering pulls us farther away from other human beings. It builds a wall made of cries and contempt to separate us. Men cast aside the one who has known pure suffering, if they cannot make a god out of him; the one who tells them: I suffered not because I was God, nor because I was a saint trying to imitate Him, but only because I am a man, a man like you, with your weaknesses, your cowardice, your sins, your rebellions, and your ridiculous ambitions; such a man frightens men, because he makes them feel ashamed. They pull away from him as if he were guilty. As if he were usurping God’s place to illuminate the great vacuum that we find at the end of all adventures.”
The protagonist is in a relationship with a beautiful woman, but still he remains locked in himself. She clings to him precisely because he is impenetrable.
“You speak of happiness, Kathleen, as if happiness were possible.”
“I could see fear in her eyes. I was pleased; she was afraid of me, and that was good. Those who, like me, have left their souls in hell, are here only to frighten others by being their mirrors.”
The resolution is simple, humble, brilliant. Wiesel, despite his glorification of suffering, knows full well that it is not a private act, and not an end in itself. Suffering has as much capacity to do harm as does the event that was its genesis.
“’Suffering is given to the living, not to the dead,’ he said, looking straight through me. ‘It is man’s duty to make it cease, not to increase it… If your suffering splashes others, those around you, those for whom you represent a reason to live, then you must kill it, choke it. If the dead are its source, kill them again, as often as you must to cut out their tongues.’”
I had already interpolated part of this in my earlier post on Night. The following is attributed to the protagonist’s teacher:
“The Holy Book teaches us… that if man were conscious of his power, he would lose his faith or his reason. For man carries within him a role which transcends him. God needs him to be ONE. The Messiah, called to liberate man, can only be liberated by him. We know that not only man and the universe will be freed, but also the one who established their laws and their relations. It follows that man—who is nothing but a handful of earth—is capable of reuniting time and its source, and of giving back to God his own image.”
This is actually a concept in my novels—to be explored in detail in the third book, though hinted at in the first—and again, something I alluded to in my Night post. Why did I already have this idea in my mind? Is it the link between Christian and Jewish mythology? Do other people see this as well?
Looking at these three works on the whole, I suspect that Elie Wiesel, like Dostoevsky, was not, in fact, completely changed by his ‘transformative’ defining experience. If you read The Double, you will find that Dostoevsky before the gulag was nearly as dark as Dostoevsky after, and his later works differed only in that they achieved a stronger current of intensity—though even this was not consistent, as The Idiot, for example, started with a mortal broadside before wandering to a pauper’s conclusion.
Before Auschwitz, I have the sense that Elie Wiesel strove for ultimate piety. I can’t say whether he, like some of his characters, hoped to force the arrival of the Messiah with his strict observances, but even before Auschwitz, it seems that he suffered more than those around him, and more than was necessary. In the camps, his mental suffering is painted with precision, and while this is based on his surrounding physical reality, his own physical privations are almost impressionistic: we hear of the hunger of those around him, but seldom of how he reacted to his own hunger. It seems that at all times in his life, through every experience, Wiesel locked suffering away and preserved it like pieces in a museum. I have no right to relate to his experiences. But I his methodology is something I can relate to in entirety.
“’Artists are the worst monsters: they live on the lives and deaths of others.’”
That is how I write.
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