Author Archives: Michael Kigel


E R E I G N I S — the Happenstance — is the divine transmitter of the Es of Es gibt. Being happens to be transmitted by Ereignis. (This transmitter is the god from whose dangerous gift only another god can save us now.)

Rembrandt Balaam

What the exportation means is that the questioning approach into Ereignis is to be a piously thoughtful receding, a retreat and backward sinking (Schritt züruck), in the direction of Being, deeper into Being’s bowels, into the womb where Being was differentiated by a difference older than the ontological one. This recession and descent is the sacred labour (עבודה) of going back to the womb—hence a kind of evaginated labour—a piety performed on the heath (Heide), or rather just under it, inside the soil. The genealogy of the prophet of Ereignis is therefore evident.

Heidegger is a descendant of Balaam.

רשי ויקרא א א. וַיִּקְרָא אֶל משֶׁהלכל דברות ולכל אמירות ולכל צוויים קדמה קריאה לשון חבה לשון שמלאכי השרת משתמשים בו, שנאמר (ישעיה ו ג) וקרא זה אל זה, אבל לנביאי אומות העולם נגלה עליהן בלשון עראי וטומאה, שנאמר (במדבר כג ד) וַיִּקָּר אֱלֹקים אֶל בִּלְעָם.ם

רשי במדבר כג ד. וַיִּקָּרלשון עראי לשון גנאי לשון טומאת קרי, כלומר בקושי ובבזיון, ולא היה נגלה עליוביום אלא בשביל להראות חבתן של ישראל.ל

ויקרא רבה א יג. אין לשון ויקר אלא לשון טומאה, כמה דתימר (דברים כג) אשר לא יהיה טהור מקרה לילה, אבל נביאי ישראל בלשון קדושה, בלשון טהרה, בלשון ברור, בלשון שמלאכי השרת מקלסין בו להקב”ה. כמה דתימר (ישעיה ו) וקרא זה אל זה ואמר.א

Ereignis happens (ויקר) as the primordial happenstance (עראי). It is an “event” that does not happen in time, of course, because it is time itself that is transmitted by Ereignis, by this “event,” by way of a necessary accidentality, or fatality, Schicksal, Ἀνάγκη. Time as such is a fatal gift. This is why Bilaam’s prophetic ecstasies are comparable to nocturnal pollutiones (מקרה לילה). Such pollutions are physiological manifestations of the recession and submersion into the “event” behind and beneath Being. And the physiological capacity that is designed for intercourse, i.e. for travelling along a course from one world into another world, erupts prematurely within a self-enclosed world, as an infertile implosion. What happens as a necessary accidentality is thus an expression of pure worldhood. Such worldhood, unmixed by intercourse with someone else in a medium of worldlessness, is impurity (טומאה). Pollution is too much world, a concentration of worldhood to the point of toxicity.

..ויקרא טו טזוְאִישׁ כִּי תֵצֵא מִמֶּנּוּ שִׁכְבַת זָרַע וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם אֶת כָּל בְּשָׂרוֹ וְטָמֵא עַד הָעָרֶב 

 .ראבעכִּי תֵצֵא. שלא ברצונו

Gelassenheit. What happens to the Balaamite prophet is beyond his control. He submerges himself in river, his Rhine, luminis ingentis fluctus, and goes with its flow. This happening is his happiness, his daemon.

On dry land, similarly, the heathen descends, recedes, backs down step by step, into the kiva of Being, deeper into the worldhood of the world, ins Blut und Boden des Seins, where the shame (בוש) of the human condition is to be “purged” by means of human blood, evagination, debirthing, the blood of shamelessness, rather than a “for-shame” (לבוש) investiture. But shamelessness, of course, is the antithesis of an absence of shame.


In his Schwartze Hefte, Heidegger calls Judaism Bodenlosigkeit, “lack of footing,” and Weltlosigkeit, “worldlessness.” He has no idea how right he is. Keine blasse Ahnung! (… אלא בשביל להראות חבתן של …) Only the prophetic insight of an “uncovered eye” could possibly see things with such lucidity:

Die Frage nach der Rolle des Weltjudentums is keine rassische, sondern die metaphysische Frage nach der Art von Menschentümlichkeit, die schlechthin ungebunden die Entwurzelung alles Seienden aus dem Sein als weltgeschichtliche “Aufgabe” übernehmen kann.

Perhaps the only point of muddiness here is the exaggeration implied in the little word alles. There is certainly no question regarding the “uprooting of […] beings from Being” as the world-historical task entrusted to the Jews regarding themselves. The uprootedness and worldnessness implied in this task begins with the first word of the Torah and is developed with unprecedented inwardness and practical force in the Shaar haYihud vehaEmunah and thenceforth. The benedictive term that corresponds to the would-be maledictive Entwurzelung is קדושה. Whether or how this task pertains to “all,” whether or how everyone is to be uprooted and worldless must therefore remain a mystery built into the ministerial office of the Jews as defined in Exodus 19:6. The mystery is not for human hands to unpack. All that is in our hands with respect to uprooting (which precludes every alles) is the non-ministerial aspect of of the task: וגוי קדוש.

וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ

But the worldlessness of of the Jew—this is an absolutely fundamental teaching of Kabbalah. Few things are as fundamental.

Bilaam cannot grasp the benedictive essence of his own would-be-curse. This is because he has a deeply conflicted emotional relationship with his donkey in tandem with his nocturnal issues, that is, with the event of the material world (חומר). In his very benediction he is granted a glimpse of the Messiah. But does he really understand why the Messiah rides a donkey? Does he understand how that donkey will have overcome every element of innate stubbornness? Does he understand why only the most perfectly worldless man, in the moment when history is perfected, is able to ride a donkey without so much as holding the reins?

Likewise Heidegger’s entire thinking is fundamentally asinine. SeinSeynEreignis—this is a harnessed team of donkeys that by miraculous dispensation were lent the power of speech in order to call upon Heidegger’s thinking.

1966.– Jim Henson designs the “Wheel-Stealer” for a General Foods ad for a crunchy snack, cookie“Wheels.” 1967.– The “Wheel-Stealer” appears in an IBM training film, Coffee Machine. In it, the monster devours a coffee machine. 1969.– Arnold the Munching Monster appears on three commercials selling Munchos, a Frito-Lay potato chip. Each of these is a prefiguration of Cookie Monster.

It would be useful to make an analysis of this figure from the perspective of the Frankfurt School critique of bourgeois appetites. Even more so from the perspective of Veblen’s theory of leisure, or Bataille’s second law of thermodynamics. Cookie Monster’s very being is rooted in a commercial dimension — from which he never quite emerges. He is the embodiment of consumerism. He devours Wheels, Munchos, and a machine that makes coffee. In him, consumerism is boiled down to its essence, its truth, its etymon. Consumption, literally.

And the consumption is out of control. His hunger exceeds that of an animal. It is monstrous. The message of the commercials in which he was conceived and born is: “Here is a foodstuff that will latch on to your taste buds with such violent force that you’re superego will lose control, and hence the money you earned through your labour will escape your pockets. But more, even your id will behave with a ferocity unknown in the animal kingdom, a monstrous ferocity. The fact that you find me, this monster before you, amusing, may console you in the thought that you are, after all, not like me, and that I am simply a farcical figure through which you may vicariously enjoy the monster within you. Yet this consolation is not strong enough to stop you from buying this snack.” The economic system that is supposedly built upon the control imposed upon the ego by the superego, in the form of investment (Aesop’s ant), thus reveals its underlying drive to total leisure (the grasshopper).

His consumption, in a sense, is conspicuous. He lacks the refinement of proper conspicuous consumption displayed by a civilized barbarian. But his gluttony is a kind of luxury. The fact that this monster never even eats his cookie, as the cookie explodes into crumbs in his mandibles and flies to the floor, is not a disbelief suspended by the audience. The waste is precisely where the real pleasure lies.

(It is interesting that the practical health problem posed by Cookie Monster had to wait until 2006 to be addressed. “Cookies is a sometimes snack.” Aristotelian ethics steps in, on the set with Martha Stewart.)

The entire nefarious power of Cookie Monster lies in his innocence. This is the personification of the animal soul (nefesh habehamit) at his charming best. The impressionable young child, after suffering Jiminy Cricket’s oppressive Apollonian demands finds Dionysian relief in the company of the blue monster from Sesame Street.

Jiminy Cricket

Jiminy Cricket

The world of Collodi’s Pinocchio is a world forsaken by God. And the main problem is what to do instead, what to install in God’s stead.

The immediate task in planning such an installation is to set down the mood of the workers, namely the readers. The author makes the sensible decision, given the animalistic human cruelty that marks the center and the circumference of such a God-forsaken world, to make the mood a jocular one. As Nietzsche understood with such perspicacity regarding Don Quixote, the gruesome tortures and humiliations that Pinocchio endures at the hands of talking beasts and beastly men was designed to make the first readers of this fairy-tale laugh themselves to death. The installation itself is thus foredoomed to be a joke.

What is the material with which, or on which, the problem is to be solved? C’era una volta un pezzo di legno. The Aristotelian character of the material is unmistakable. The piece of wood in question is ὕλη. The broader metaphor is clear. But by giving the metaphor such long legs and making it run from beginning to end without a moment’s rest, Collodi’s brilliant contribution to our understanding of the general problem of the installation of something in the old stead of God, the God whose first melancholy goodbyes were heard in the streets of Collodi’s native Florence a few centuries earlier, was to frame the problem with absolute precision as a mechanical one. It is not by accident that the invention of the burattino, the stringless marionette, takes place in the same decade as that of the horseless wagon, the automobile.

How is the mechanical problem of designing and installing an internal motor in combination with a steering mechanism within the soul of a wooden boy who lives in a God-forsaken world solved?

In order to approach the more nuanced and multi-faceted solution as it appears in Collodi’s world, it is extremely useful to operate retrospectively by looking first at the dumbed-down, simplified, sugared-up caricature of the solution as it appears in the interpretation of the story designed by Walter Elias Disney. Disney’s interpretation is really an articulation (perush) of the story which succeeds in distilling its essence, and even, in the relaxed mood of the American Gospel, in refactoring into it some of the Christian element that Collodi’s nervous Italian Catholicism had pushed into the dumb margins of the text.

The interpretation hinges, to be exact, on the transformation of Il Grillo Parlante into Pinocchio’s conscience. Jiminy Cricket.

How does this happen? The Blue Fairy appoints him. Who is the Blue Fairy? She is no longer la Fata dai capelli turchini whom Pinocchio makes his mother. The turquoise-haired Fairy, to be sure, is already wanting in her maternal instincts. She’s more like a coquettish Mother Theresa than a proper mother. One even wonders if she doesn’t harbour a secret taste for cruelty, judging from her tireless passion for scolding her little wooden bambino. In any case, by the time Disney gets through with here, she is the full-blown psychic compensation and proxy for parental inattentiveness. Her entire fairy-like incandescence says, “Sorry, little man, I just ain’t here for you.” She is pure klipah nogah.

And as for Geppetto, he is the epitome of bumbling paternal neglect. He sends his naive wooden boy off to school. Why? Doesn’t he wonder for a moment whether it’s a good idea to send a newborn puppet into the world? He presents school as a child’s obligation. The reality is, however, that Geppetto has no time for him.

Step in Jiminy Cricket. Dapper little Jiminy Cricket, given a world forsaken by God and parents alike, is the deputized mechanical bureaucrat-babysitter of Pinocchio. He is the figure of the super-ego.

In Collodi’s text, clear sign of this role—which here exists only a larval form—is evident in Pinocchio’s healthy instinct to squash the Talking Cricket on his spot on the wall.

It is also evident from the way he returns to haunt Pinocchio like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. But in Disney, the Cricket is positively immortal. A ghost on this side of death.

And always let your conscience be your guide!

As such, as conscience, super-ego, Jiminy Cricket blocks all access to God. For God, God as He is manifest in the Torah, the Holy One, blessed be He!—God offers Himself as the Guide external to the psyche. This is why He gives the Torah, as a gift coming from beyond. And God wants parents to be the earthly guides of their children. Whence the fifth commandment of the Decalogue is on the first tablet. But by insisting on the installation of an internal conscience as a guide—Heaven help us!—the possibility of trust (emunah) in God, and of receiving guidance (Torah) from God is altogether eclipsed. One continues to speak of God. to be sure. But what one speaks of is a bureaucratic function, a mechanism. Eventually this will be recognized as an illusion, an illusory projection of the tired father absorbed in his own neuroses.

Ethically speaking, Jiminy Cricket is a daimon. Above mechanical innovation (Ionia), and above domestication of animals (Egypt), and beside the domestication of human beings as slaves (Egypt), we find the highest spiritual technology man has unleashed: the daemon conscience, the super-ego. By far the most dangerous idol erected in human history.

This of course is an Idumean technology, i.e. a daemonization of a Torah principle of parenting. This is why his name is a minced oath of J.C.. It is the “God” of Esau. Esau does love his father. But when it comes down to it, he prefers the idol of Isaac’s blessing.

In political news as in philosophy and in haute couture and social media etc., the issues that are put into play at centre stage are guided by a category than which there would seem to be no higher, namely the category of the interesting. How something comes to qualify as interesting is as mysterious as how pretty fractal patterns burgeon out of nothing in particular. The eye-catching symmetry and harmonious order of the pattern would vouch for the substantialness of their origins. Again, as in high seamstressing. And in aesthetic domains in general, of course, this genetic force of différance, of the innocent child at play, is more than welcome.

abstract 1

The question is whether any attempt to actually deal with a political issue can be entrusted to child’s play. This is the old Platonic question. It may be, after all, that the most boring issue is the key issue to unlocking a given political problem. The hermeneutic matrix and language for dealing with the problem, moreover, may be a very old one. It may be altogether impossible to make “news” out of it.

When a Hassidic discourse, for example, sets something down as an inyan, an “issue,” this implies a directive for where to place one’s innocence. The directive addresses the seasoned self, the self well-acquainted with sin but also well-aware of the origins of sin in innocence. When the Rebbe identifies something as inyana shel torat haḥasidut, “the issue of Hassidic teaching,” the hosid trusts his Rebbe that this issue, no matter how bygone, obsolete, recondite or passé it may be, and perhaps even precisely because it is so, holds the secret to a veritable political grip on the slippery fish that are peddled about here and there as “news.”

The concept of “modernity” is such a news-type concept. When does “Modern Philosophy” begin, for example? In the moment when the preceding philosophy of the Schoolmen appears as an interminable discussion about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. What is old, what is no longer “news,” appears as a picayune squabbling and hair-splitting of irrelevant issues, issues that no longer refer to anything real. Yet isn’t this how all genuine training must seem to the novice? “Wax on, wax off.” One becomes a Karate master by shining many cars. Likewise the “irrelevant” infinitesimal details of Lurianic metaphysics. The truth is not necessarily the object of thought if the object itself must belong to the category of the interesting. An object produced within a boring discipline of thought may, even while irrelevant per se, correspond adequatio ad rem to a truth that has yet to be realized as an object.


The News.— As informative as gossip. Gossip on a global scale. —But gossip does provide information, does it not? To be sure. Gossip can provide an exhaustive and perfectly true (“excellence in reportage”) account of how Mrs. X did such and such to Mrs. Y, yet without in any way whatsoever touching the motives behind the accurately reported actions of Mrs. X, to say nothing of the external causes for these motives which were furnished or triggered by Mrs. Y. Likewise news remains as blithely “informative”—that is to say, as myopic and shallow—in comparison with historical analysis as gossip is in comparison with psychoanalysis.

The unrelenting itch to hear the news, moreover, is fundamentally the same as the gossip-itch. The satisfaction that news and gossip alike provide is the feeling that one is on top of things, that one is not being duped by current events in the universe. And hence the auto-hypnotic suggestion that one is doing something about the situation. As if such obsessions—gossip, news—were in some way actually empowering!


“The Arabs.”— A good example of news nomenclature. The term may true and meaningful enough, and relatively stable since the Abbasid Caliphate. But what does this relatively new name tell us about the oldest motives of the sons of Ishmael?

The fact that the sons of Ishmael are preoccupied with the Jewish Question in a way that seems thoroughly antiquated to an Idumean (“American,” “European,” “Western,” etc.) sensibility runs interference and causes dissonance in the mind of a Jew who remains mostly illiterate about Auschwitz beyond having read Wiesel’s Night and visited Yad Vashem, and watched Schindler’s List. Historical illiteracy has a powerful effect upon political conditions, no less powerful than an extremely low air-pressure zone has on the weather conditions. The relative vacuum in historical literacy sucks the need to hear the news—How’s the weather lookin’ today?—and to fret and obsess about the news into its low air-pressure zone.

A concomitant phenomenon is visible in France and other European countries. The panic over the hordes of Ishmael’s sons streaming into France is expressed in delightful ignorance of the fact that this phenomenon is a direct product of the French colonialism of the Ishmaelite world during the last centuries. The inability, or refusal, of the French to recognize the internal impact of colonialism within the French soul, and the inheritance of this impact, makes the infiltration seem like a pure contagion attacking the organism from without. What do you expect if you walk out into the cold without a scarf or hat?


In reality, of course, there is no hope of coming to terms with the Jewish Question in its renaissance as a contemporary Ishmaelite preoccupation without confronting the fact that the Ishmaelites have simply never heard of Alfred Dreyfus while Herzl was simply incapable of forgetting Dreyfus even in the endless beige dunes of Palestine.

herzl small

The media is said to have a double-standard. Jews are held up to a higher moral standard than the Palestinians (פלשתים). The simplest way to deal with this, and perhaps a necessary expedient in the short run, is to complain and to hope and to pray that by means of complaint the media will come to adjust its approach.

But there is an alternative course that may be taken. It’s not as convenient as the first one, admittedly, nor perhaps as expedient in the short run. And the political perils of such an approach must be carefully considered before anything is implemented. The approach: to persuade the media to explicitly own the double-standard. What if the media were to be challenged to state outright, without mincing words:

“Yes, the Jews are held up to a higher moral standard than the Palestinians. They are a kingdom of priests. So says their Torah. And priests are universally held up to a higher moral standard. This is what humanity expects of the Jews. We challenge them to achieve their God-given higher moral standard. We entreat them to do so, for the sake of humanity as well as their own sake. We understand that their priestly ministrations, when properly carried out, would improve the spiritual state of humanity, just as the proper efforts of a global association of physicians would improve the physical state of humanity. And therefore we propose to help them, in whatever way is in our power to do so, to function well in their holy office.”

And who among us—yes, us Jews—is prepared for such a statement from the media?

 מִצִּיּוֹן מִכְלַל יֹפִי אֱ|לֹהִים הוֹפִיעַ

If the incomparable extra genus beauty of this city is to been appraised on aesthetic terms built on its own soil, the configuration of an appropriate colour theory and its application would be a necessary propadeutic. As over many other cities on this great lovely marble of ours, the sky is blue. And yet here in Jerusalem the sky is blue somehow more conspicuously than elsewhere. When there are clouds, for example, one could swear that they too are blue. Likewise, in certain moments unchecked by critical thought and in refutation of Freud’s Akhenaten theory, the sun.

וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת

But certainly all romantic colorations must be resisted. The blue is altogether inconclusive. It leans outside itself. Refractively. It shies away from its own loveliness like a blushing girl. If it is indeed to be classified as techelet, this hue does not tend toward white or leek green or any other identifiable colour. The mishna specifies these two colours as contrasts for the sake of identifying the transition between twilight and two distinct lights.

(מאימתי קורין את שמע בשחרית משיכיר בין תכלת ללבן ר’ אליעזר אומר בין תכלת לכרתי (ברכות ט,ב

But the blue of Jerusalem’s sky persists, even under the harshest sun, as a inwardly precarious, irreducible twilight colour. The most that can be said, consequently, is that it is a metaphorical hue of blue. The hue is not literally there, even as it is certainly there to see plain as day. Like the blue of the sea in the medium of water, this blue in the medium of air stands in for a transparency that would be too much for the eye of flesh and blood to handle on a daily basis. The sky over Jerusalem, in short, is transparent. As if the fact that the sky is nothing more than a preferential refraction by blue-scattering nitrogen and oxygen molecules were rendered visible, and the blueness itself is nothing more than one strand of techelet among, and hinting at, the disheveled transparent threads among which it weaves its resting position.

And once a proper theory of colour were worked out to account for the quality of transparency in the blue of Jerusalem’s sky, the political issues regarding what lies beneath the sky might be better illuminated as well. Doesn’t the whole issue of “land” as it is applied to this fair city, in the manner of cartographers, surveyors, real estate agents, mayors, prime ministers, police commissioners, etc., becloud the hint that is constantly given by the inconclusive blue above such measures? Which is not to say that this should be a kind of “city of refuge” whose levitical inhabitants do not have the option to buy property. The notion of an “international city” tries to get away with such a suggestion, even as the notion does touch on something essential.

Jerusalem is a transparent city, the site of transparency between heaven and earth. It can be assumed quite categorically that no issues of land will ever be resolved or even adequately approached until the blue issue, with all its corollaries pertain to refraction and transparency, is acknowledged and properly addressed by an appropriate colour theory.

I have never been so aware of just how many times the word ירושלים occurs in my quotidian liturgical life. The meaning of the word is re-shuffling the wall-stone tiles under my feet. It used to have such a securely geographic meaning. No longer. The new meaning, shifting into a pure temporality, counted in seasons, became clear to me by the end of my first Seder here. What ירושלים means, the word, is:— n e x t   y e a r . Or, what amounts to the same: — n o w  !

Yerushalmi rudeness.— Souls simply unable to bear how fiercely they desire one another. A blessed brutality alone, nothing less, is what makes it possible to bear the burden of this fierce passion. One can only be this rude with family.

A Jew does not need to be a prophet to feel that the people of Israel are in the process, still, of cultivating a general condition in which Jews can reach down into each others souls in order to tap something of vital value to human life on earth. The fact that the state is fashioned on an Idumean model is of course the great internal blockage to the upward flow. But it would seem, to the extent than an average lay Jew is permitted and perhaps even required to intuit the divine supervision at work in his socio-political circumstances, that this blockage is not severe enough to make it still necessary for Jews to continue their cultivation efforts in a state of exile. The plumbing work that remains is best done in a concentrated population of Jews on old soil. The high degree to which the Jewish soul has achieved a inner civil relaxation, having extended the feeling that it is legally acceptable if not morally permissible to “take off one’s shoes” even beyond the private domain and in the public domain, is bound to dissolve this Idumean blockage. The Israeli Jew just needs a little more time—not very much more—for his excitement over the entrance ticket to Idumean civilization to grow stale and insipid.

In contemporary Israel, each and every cab driver has a highly articulated political opinion. Much more so than, for example, an average American cabby. This “interest in politics” is not what it seems to be. In reality, it is both nothing more than a tending to one’s cactuses on the balcony and nothing less than a messianic itch.

The state machinery might do well to take care of the Ishmaelite brother in our midst. If only as a matter of politesse. Perhaps something like a Marshall Plan would be in order, where the state could invest in the growth of Arab settlements and towns through education in the Jewish way of life and thought. Likewise perhaps the Koran should be taught to Jewish youths as a text of critical historical importance for fostering sympathy.

The contemporary Israeli convention of distinguishing Hilonim from Haredim—that is, so-called non-religious Jews (literally, “profane ones”) from so-called religious Jews (literally, “quakers”)—is a remarkable irony of the exilic mind. Exile denuded (gala) the land of its inhabitants precisely because the Jews were becoming mere Haredim, Jews fanatically preoccupied with supra-rational divine decrees, hukkim, at the expense of being just as busy with rational social laws, mishpatim. Read Isaiah and Jeremiah. To permit and even promote quaking as definitive of the identity of an authentic Jew is therefore nothing less than to perpetuate the sins of those who were extradited to Babylon. There is no such thing as a Hiloni, a “non-religious Jew.” This is an oxymoron. Jews, as the Rebbe taught, all Jews, without exception, are “believers children of believers”—where “belief” has dire little to do with propositions and professions of creed. If we find it so needful to insist on this kind of distinction, the most that can be said is that many Jews tend to fall into one of two camps: those who are enthralled by hukkim, and those whose life is enframed by mishpatim. What shall we call them—Hokniks and Mishpatniks? In any case, they are both absolutely right—absolutely “orthodox.”

The word opportunity assumes a new inflection here in Jerusalem. The usual notion of a waiting potential—Aristotle’s dynamis—is certainly still there. But the opportunity that is Jerusalem is inflected as something quite palpable, tangible, a kind of actuality. As if the essential thing were already realized, and the fact that reality has not caught up to the Realized were an accidental matter. It was from the Bostoner Rebbe זצל that I first heard the word “opportunity” used this way. But to actually hear the inflection one needs to pace up and down Machane Yehudah.

The Motion | 2(B)


It is on the last two pages of Wiesel’s deposition that the second cadaver is found. And it is here that we see the litigious motion based on the deposition. This is why the last chapter is titled, ‘The End and the Beginning.’ The chapter marks a new beginning: life after Auschwitz. The French version of these pages, which might have borne the simple title, ‘The End,’ follows the original text more or less closely as it reaches its final sentence.

Three days after the liberation of Buchenwald, I fell very ill: food poisoning. I was transferred to the hospital and passed two weeks between life and death.

One day I was able to stand up, after having rallied all my powers. I wanted to see myself in the mirror hung on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.

From the depths of the mirror, a cadaver contemplated me.

The way it looked into my eyes has never left me.

This is know in movie-buff vernacular as a ‘powerful ending.’ With a bang, not a whimper, it leaves the reader with the haunting reverberation of something that feels like an eerie, sticky culpability. It is the right way to end a tragic drama. From this perspective of good drama, the Yiddish deposition puts itself at a relative disadvantage by forfeiting this powerful effect in favour of a garrulous incontinence. Besides the garrulousness, however, what immediately follows what would have been a powerful ending does not follow, logically speaking, at least not the logic that is given to the self-encounter in the mirror as it stands in La nuit. The Yiddish narrative does not stop with the gawking cadaver—or ‘skeleton’—in the mirror.

From out of the mirror, a skeleton looked at me.

Skin and bones.

I saw the image of myself after my death. In that moment the will to live was awakened within me.

I—not knowing why—raised a bruised fist and smashed the mirror, smashed the figure that lived in it.


From that moment on the state of my health improved.

I remained in bed for a few days, during which time I wrote down the sketch of the book that you are holding in your hands, dear reader.


Now, ten years after Buchenwald, I see how the world forgets. …

Wiesel goes on to lament how German war criminals stroll contentedly down the streets of Hamburg and Munich, how the world that was silent yesterday will be silent tomorrow. And he concludes his narration with the question: ‘Was it really worthwhile to smash the mirror?’ The question takes a shakey step back into the fatalistic mood, but only after having taken so many steps forward, having established that de facto the mirror remains shattered in pieces, along with the figure, the unusual shape (geshtalt), in the mirror; that the author, Eliezer Wiesel, is alive and well, the book is published; that the will to live which was awakened maintains its vigil, its fist in the air. How different this Yiddish Yes!-to-life sounds, despite any occasional subsequent relapse, from the gloomy gong of the adamantine Never, the unquestioned gripping fatalism, with which the shape in the mirror clings to the author like a dybbuk—Son regard dans mes yeux ne me quitte plus—of the French version! Where the Yiddish narrator shatters in order to produce life, the French narrator lets himself be shattered in order to produce literature.

In retrospect Wiesel defends the editorial decisions of Jérôme Lindon, director of Éditions de Minuit, who edited the 245 page Yiddish version down to the 178 pages of La nuit (and who is therefore one of the other authors of the book). He defends them precisely on the basis of a counter-maudlin principle that we would have expected from Primo Levi: ‘In the case of Auschwitz, the unsaid weighs more than the rest.’ Which is why the Yiddish version, precisely in its mediocrity, remains the superior one.

Its inferiority notwithstanding, though, it must be said that the French text does provide one important service to the Yiddish text in preserving the fuller personality of the cadaver in the mirror and thus not letting us lose track of the complicated questions of authorship and authorial self-representation at stake. Howbeit literal, a mirror is no simple device for an author to throw into his narrative. And Wiesel undoubtedly brings it into his account (besides the fact that it really did hang on the wall opposite his hospital bed) to represent a certain breakdown in self-representation. If we rush too quickly to see the literary dimension of this breakdown, however, we may jeopardize our ability to recognize the remarkable success in the realm of representation achieved here, not by Wiesel, but by Auschwitz dramaturgy. That a man should become able to be both spectator and actor in the same moment, to watch himself, as it were, playing a role so convincingly on the stage that he forgets himself to the point of identifying with the pathos and even the persona of the character, is remarkable enough. But the dramatic achievement of this moment in Wiesel’s life, achieved with the poorest prop, a mirror, goes well beyond that. For the character in the depth of the mirror attains an authority to examine the spectator in such a way that he actually tears away those rights that usually belong to the spectator. The cadaver in the mirror is no passive player, no mere reflection. It, or he, is an active agent who is able to make the narrator a subject for his own contemplation (un cadaver me contemplait); he examines (son regard) with a piercing scrutiny that looks into the narrator, into the narrator’s eyes no less (dans mes yeux), with the monstrous power of that abyss that looks into you because you have dared to look into it, and that in all likelihood, being an abyss, looks into you more deeply than you looked into it. Although it was the narrator who came up with the idea of raising the weight of his body on his legs and walking across the room, due to an inexplicable curiosity to take stock of what has happened to his appearance since the days of the ghetto, the one who returns his gesture exceeds anything his curiosity had anticipated, surprising the narrator, a young man who by this point in his life was certainly not easy to surprise. The fact that the narrator happened to be the one who initiated the encounter thus assumes a secondary importance by comparison with the primacy whereby the figure in the mirror takes charge of the encounter, as if threatening to make the encounter work in his favour, by feeding off the shame of the young man and thereby growing more and more robust in reality as he watches the young man atrophy into something increasingly surreal. To prevent this (‘not knowing why’ in a poetic sense, yet very much knowing why), the young man smashes the mirror. The power of the gazing mirror is broken. Its gaze’s power to shame is shattered. In the case of the cadaver of the boy on the gallows, the power to represent the value of a human life in its complete humiliation was in the eyes of the SS machine-gunners encircling the assembly of inmates. Here, however, this power was visible in the depths of the eyes of the cadaver in the mirror. The cadaver had Nazi eyes. The eyes of Höss, of Himmler, of Hitler. The most important crisis documented in the memoir, which marks in an anecdotal manner the epoch shift that includes the apocalyptic disclosure of the experience known as Ashkenaz and its epochal closure, is this moment when Eliezer Wiesel realizes that Höss, Himmler, and Hitler are the primary authors of his Auschwitz memoir, which is to say, the authors of his very memory, of the facts remembered and hence of the dominion of memory in which the rest of his life must be lived, against which it must be lived. Once the eyes of the Nazi author in the mirror are smashed, the young Jewish author’s health begins to improve. He sits up in bed and jots down the rudiments of a book.

This crisis moment is the secret of Wiesel’s fury. It is the moment of original indignation, in which the incident ray of shame suffered, accelerated by life around a point of pain, hurls back a reflecting ray of shame that prosecutes. Emil Fackenheim has called this crisis the moment of resistance. Fackenheim’s interest in this moment is primarily focused on its heroic occurrence inside the camps, and consequently its recapitulation in thought in philosophical reflection about the camps, a kind of epistemic resistance against the threat of a total collapse of the mind into philosophical nihilism, a collapse demanded of philosophy by Auschwitz. The example that arrests his attention is taken from the early Auschwitz memoir of Pelagia Lewińska. She describes an epiphany amid the filthy latrine conditions of the camp.

… I understood that it was not a matter of disorder or of lack of organization, but, on the contrary, that it was a well-developed, conscious ‘idea’ that had supervised the installation of the camp. They had condemned us to perish in our own filth, to drown us in mud, in our own excrement; they wanted to degrade us, to degrade the human dignity within us, to efface in us every trace of humanity … .

… But from the moment in which I grasped the directive idea of the German criminals, it was as if I had been awakened from a dream. To perish, then, would be to fulfill the intentions of the enemy, to realize its plans? No! Not that!

I felt something like an order to live. …

… I had to live, I had to muster all my strength in order not to die, despite everything. And if I did die here, it would die as a human being, I would keep my dignity.

But if this crisis moment of resistance did not occur for Wiesel until after liberation, this in no way diminishes its significance as pivotal to what Fackenheim himself calls the enduring danger whereby Auschwitz ripped every future sky open, namely the danger of ‘Hitler’s posthumous victory.’ Wiesel is the last of the Ashkenazim. Any Auschwitz survivor who did not smash his first mirror after liberation could not have lived for long and is surely no longer among the living by now. But whether the enduring uncertainty inherent in the dramatic representation of the murder of a human being, which was produced in Auschwitz with a unique significance and meticulousness, but which certainly perseveres in correlate phenomena, from the crudest productions of Hollywood to the ever-sublimest form guarded by the Vatican in the subconscious of history (regardless of what the popularity poles say about the church), has been submitted to the necessary iconoclasm that Wiesel achieved by smashing a mirror in April of 1945 is a matter about which a proper judgement remains pending. The end of the epoch of Ashkenaz is not the end of the aeon that contains the epoch.

For one, the spectacle of the hanging cadaver was not the last. The Colliseum and Golgotha continue to move from city to city. Which of course raises some interesting questions which begin with the observation that Höss was hanged on 16 April 1947, and so on, and eventually even Adolf Eichmann was hanged on 31 May 1962. One can always raise the jurisdictional question of the différend stretched infinitesimally across the mirror’s surface, which question Eichmann’s attorney did indeed raise in defending him: What gives the Nurenberg or Jerusalem hangman a greater claim to justice than the Buchenwald hangman? After all, the Written Torah, for one, is not opposed to capital punishment, even to a vindicta publica. And as for the Oral Torah, an entire chapter of the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin (49b-68a) is focused on detailing the four types of capital punishment sanctioned and required by Scripture. Here, although the question is interesting and in some ways absolutely critical, we may assume, for argument’s sake, that the Nurenberg trials were fair while the Buchenwald justice system was not. We may assume this without proper investigation in order to stick to the question of the value of Wiesel’s iconoclasm: What is wrong with the dramatization or representation of how cadavers are made by means of gallows or mirrors?

We said above that our embarrassed reaction to Wiesel’s dramatization of the murderous execution of a human being presents a complex problem. Prior to the dramatic representation of it in a book, we said, is the fact that the execution itself is a representation. (Similarly, the cadaver represented in the mirror is based on a prior representation of Wiesel, i.e. the manufacturing of his cadaverous figure, by Höss, Himmler et al.) Wiesel took this a step prior still by disclosing the theological dimension of the bloody drama. The boy at the end of the rope is identified as God. At this level, the Christological dimension of is opened easily enough. But in order to do so, and even without doing so, it is necessary to unlock the most primordial level of this complex of representation. This of course is the level, at the beginning of time itself, when God creates humanity ‘in His image’ (Gen. 1:26-27). Materially, the human being is an original ‘presentation’ of a form made from mudclods of the earth (Gen. 2:7); in terms of form, the human being is a re-presentation, to the extent that material would allow of course, of the Divine. Is that not going too far back? After all, the fact that the creature called man is made ad imagine Dei, one would think, is a very broad and basically cheerful theme that is connected to many aspects of human existence in its profound relation to God, among which one would also find the bleaker sub-themes of murder and execution, but not in any position of privilege. The biblical text itself, however, takes pains to point out an absolutely privileged connection. At this primordial level, the original representation whereby humanity is made and the murder of a member of humanity are shown to be elementally interconnected issues. For the second occasion—and there is no third occasion—on which the theme of imago Dei is brought up in the Torah takes place when God explains to Noah what is wrong with murder, as well as what is right with proper execution. ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man.’ (Gen. 9:6) The midrashic unfolding of this verse underscores the profound connection that the divine Imaginatus retains to His imago even after the creative representation has taken place, so that the creation of the human being is less like birth than it is like the existence of a foetus inside the womb who still maintains an umbilical connection to his mother and whose well-being affects the mother herself. ‘Rabbi Akiva says: anyone who spills blood is someone who nullifies the likeness [of God Himself]; as it says: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed etc.’’ The Powers Above are said to be vulnerable to the sins of men in general and suffer by them. But in this particular sin Rabbi Akiva is stressing how God Himself is wounded, as it were, at least in His supernal ‘Likeness,’ whenever His a human likeness on earth is murdered. Little wonder that in a halakhic framework as well it is Rabbi Akiva who stands together with Rabbi Tarfon in extreme opposition to the entire institution of capital punishment, despite the fact that the Written Torah clearly mandates it, a rabbinic stance that would have required brawny feats of casuistic ingenuity to make execution impracticable.

On the basis of this deep metaphysical affection between the human form and the image of God to which Rabbi Akiva gives a bold midrashic significance, we can begin to understand the talmudic prohibition, upheld even by those talmudic authorities who opposed Rabbi Akiva’s lenient approach to capital punishment, against the dramatic representation of an execution. Again, the Torah mandates execution in certain cases, as we see in the very commandment to Noah to shed the blood of one who sheds blood. The Torah also requires that the body be hanged for display after execution, presumably for deterrence purposes. ‘And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree.’ (Deut. 21:22) What the Torah nevertheless, in the same breath, in the next verse, prohibits is the prolongation of this display for dramatic effect. ‘His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God; that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.’ (ibid., v. 23) The Mishna emphasizes the speed with which this operation must be carried out. ‘They kill him, and afterwards they hang him. How is this done? They delay [the verdict] until just before sunset. They pronounce his judgment and put him to death, and afterwards they hang him. Someone ties him up while another unties him—in order to fulfill the requirement of hanging.’ The requirement, in other words, is conscientiously carried out in a perfunctory manner. The talmudic sages specified and introduced a number of limitations besides this one on the whole business of hanging the cadavers of criminals and transgressors. But it is the singular merit Rabbi Meir, the disciple of Rabbi Akiva, to have come up with the following parable.

To what is this matter comparable? The matter is similar to two twin brothers who lived in one city. One was appointed king, and the other took to highway robbery. The king issued a command and they hanged him. But all who saw him exclaimed: ‘The king is hanged!’ So the king issued a command and he was taken down.

What the parable comes to explain is the meaning of the phrase ‘for he that is hanged is accursed of God’ in the deuteronomic verse quoted above. According to Rabbi Meir, this ‘accursedness’ in fact refers to a potential public derision of the divine image that is embodied in the human being, which image is suggested by the human body, and even sufficiently suggested in a dead human body. It is in order to avoid the accidental provocation of such derision that the dead body of the convicted man ‘shall not remain all night upon the tree.’ The purpose of the momentary display of the corpse is to effect enough of an impression on the minds of those watching that they walk away with a snapshot, imprinted in their memories, of the heavier side of the law. If this display is protracted for even one additional moment, however, a natural, human, all too human fascination with the sight of dead fellow human inevitably takes over, as it did, for instance, for Leontius when he caught sight of some corpses lying at the executioner’s feet, a fascination that draws its innermost energy from the overpowering feeling of disgust. ‘For a time he fought with himself and cloaked his eyes,’ Socrates relates of Leontius, ‘but, overpowered by desire, he forced his eyes wide open and rushed toward the cadavers, saying: ‘Look for yourselves, you wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!’’ (In Hollywood, again, an entire branch of industry is dedicated to this basic delectation under the marquee of Horror. A masterpiece of this genre, Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion,’ for example, comes to mind.) Once this ‘necrophiliac’ fascination is indulged, however, the very purpose of the momentary display of the convict’s dead body, a display basically penal in import, is altogether compromised by the psychological impulsion that ultimately burgeons into wild theological growths. What emerges is a religious dynamic between two psychic forces repeating on a larger scale the dialectic that Leontius suffers between his disgust and his fascination. In the first movement, the sight of a hanging corpse makes a pious soul wonder how God could allow His divine image to be reviled, how He could allow for death, for punishment, for guilt, for crime. Thus despair settles in. Then, in the second movement, the void hollowed out by this despair sucks into its depressurized centre an alternative religion, a religion of frenzy rather than sobriety, a religion of orgy and cult rather than of family and government, a religion of sacrifice and sacrality rather than of saintliness and good deeds, an immature religion rather than one for adults, a religion in which the sight of blood and the public spectacle of a human body suspended helplessly on an instrument of torture and execution is so worthy of being engraved in stone, sculpted from wood, painted on canvas and on stucco, and set on permanent display on the best wall, the highest roof, and between the clavicles of every person, that any injunction suggesting the impropriety of representing the Divine as man even in good health, never mind bad, or, beyond that, the impropriety of chancing that an actual human body in the worst condition might make one think of the imago Dei, must be waved away as overly and unnecessarily fastidious. How does such a religion of systematic fascination with a bleeding cadaver not get pulled back into despair, into a fascination with guilt, and finally into new crime? How does such a religion manage to resist its innermost compulsion to repeat its foundational dramatization, its axiomatic passion—for example in the Appellplatz of Buchenwald? In Buchenwald, where, moreover, it was not difficult to find candidates sharing the religious denomination of the one rendered a cadaver in the course of the original Passion.—

But here again—and this will not be the last time—we have to hold ourselves back from venturing into a more than suggestive and provocative-sounding examination of how exactly, station by station, the Via Dolorosa in its dramaturgic aspect leads directly into centre stage Buchenwald, albeit by a tortuous path that begins with a translation and a betrayal of such ‘Pharisaic’ attention to detail as the talmudic instructions about how to treat a hanged man’s corpse; beginning, for example, with a psychoanalytic examination of how exactly the desire of ‘comfort’ mentioned by the Rebbe in his open epistle against interfaith dialogue is part of the same sanguine and sanguinary sacrality that submerges the ego of the civilized European into the death-drive in its subconscious, where ‘death’ is the ultimate psychic homeostasis and state of comfort, and accelerates this drive into a death-passion not below the ego, in the id, but above it, in the super-ego, as the ‘greatest story ever told.’ Here we are only looking at a moment in April 1945 when the last Ashkenazi, the last European Jew, the last Jew in whose Judaism the deep reddish and golden hues of Europe could be seen, caught sight of his skin-and-bones frame in a mirror; in a mirror that bore a strong functional resemblance to the most exquisite Suffering Servant iconography, such as the Antonine Hospital Brothers’ altarpiece painted by Grünewald of INRI with emaciated torso, sore-ridden skin, hands and feet mutilated by the crucifix nails, and pathetic green mouth.

In and of itself, of course, the little work of art from the Buchenwald infirmary was not yet iconographic and had to be somewhat re-crafted in order to bring out this quality. To this delicate task Jérôme Lindon offered his expertise. By cutting out the small and still too ‘Jewish’ spark of vitality in Wiesel’s Yiddish text, among other surgical excisions, he managed to produce a presentable piece of French literature—and European iconography. La nuit, arrested and closed at the image of the second cadaver, at which moment the narrative is also pulled back into the equivalent moment in Buchenwald when the first cadaver was hanging on a rope, could thus leave the reader with the after-taste of a kind of Requiem or Passion Play, re-configured into a sufficiently modern, post-Nietzschean, nouveau roman style, something like the feeling of paralysis at the end of a Beckett play that says, ‘You remain,’ or, ‘They do not move.’

But we must take note of the precise finesse of the editorial procedure, specifically in relation to the maudlin principle. Under Lindon’s care, the principle was not excised. It is primarily the shlockier elements of the purple prose that were removed, and precisely to the end of maximize the effect of the maudlin. If the secret of good European literature lies in a tension between overworked garrulousness and suggestive reticence, as Auerbach has suggested, we might also add that this involves the maximization of the efficacy of the maudlin, the ‘homogeneous illumination’ (gleichmäßige Beleuchtung) at the core of the garrulousness (freie Ausschprache), by rendering the cheap and tasteless elements to a minimum, so that the maudlin principle can function imperceptibly, secretly. This is how aesthetic standards move forward in the progress of fashion. Let us stick to Matthias Grünewald’s extraordinary altarpiece as our example. It would be a mistake to see it as the work of a Renaissance master who was still held back by a nostalgia for the ugly brutality of the late middle period for which holy dread stood as a much higher aesthetic value than the classical value of beauty. The genius of the alterpiece, rather, lies in its ‘Retro’ effect, in its commitment to and preservation of the full power of medieval ugliness, that childlike indifference to beauty, by an overcoming of the concomittent childish inability to hold a brush and a mastering of the mature boldness of the Renaissance stroke. Grünewald’s ability to make the figure of the Rex Iudaeorum beautiful in colour, anatomical form and tenebroso lighting, allowed the truth of the medieval style, the truth of ugliness, to emerge even more clearly than in medieval art itself. (The ‘truth’ of art, in Benjamin’s sense of the word, being the enduring element of art whereby masterpieces are identifiable.) Similarly, by cutting out the silly tantrums, on the one hand, and playing up the morbid element (the soup etc.), on the other hand, Lindon transformed the ugly, maudlin aspect of Wiesel’s writing into something highly presentable and appealing.

Now does this mean that it should be possible, at least in principle, to undo the morbidity while keeping maturity of the text? What would happen, in theory at least, if the text of Night were subjected yet again to a new round of editing in which even the last vestige of the maudlin would be cut out? With this theoretical question we arrive at the soul of the memoir, the memoir’s glande pinéale, without which it would simply be lifeless, or perhaps its luz bone, which is indestructible. Thus far we have been investigating the origins of the maudlin principle in Nazi and Christo-European dramaturgy, where the Cross and Auschwitz mark the point of origin and the point of exhaution of a long Romanticism. (Auschwitz thus occupies a place in European art history which includes various non-murderous forms of art such Surrealism, Dadaism, Theatre of Cruelty, and so on.) We have tried to make these origins explicit for the sake of an honest evaluation of Wiesel’s writing in its second-rate quality, and its faithlessness, its self-betrayal and capitulation to Nazi dramaturgy. And we have done this in order to make explicit the inevitability of this capitualtion due to the extremely convincing power of pain (Auschwitz) and the rhetorical force of the European golus (the Cross). We have thereby arrived the fatal principle behind the crucified Eliezer, the fate named Elie. Nonetheless, with all this brought to light, the analysis remains far from having penetrated the bone-core of the maudlin principle. In fact, the analysis, having cut through the flesh of Romanticism, now allows us to dig into the bone. What is the bone? Our thesis is that it constitutes the most Jewish aspect of the maudlin principle, and of Wiesel’s writing, indeed, the most Jewish aspect, or rather essence, of the faithlessness at its core. We have indicated more than once that if the present study is ‘about’ anything, it is about what is called ‘faithlessness’ and ‘faith.’ Jewish faithlessness, Jewish atheism, is at the core of the maudlin principle. Were the analysis up until now anything more than prepatory, it would amount to little more than criticism in its merely negative aspect, what in halakhic terms is called lashon hara, gossip, which can certainly be a lot of fun, good academic fun, but hardly worthy of a study the ambition of which is to be a Jewish study, and a study of so special a Jew as the last Ashkenazi.

Wiesel, we have said, is a belletristic victim of Auschwitz and the Cross. But if he is such a victim, and if his writing is a failure—which he is, and it is, from the standpoint of high literature—how far, if a all, does this failure extend beyond the zone of efficacy of high literature? There is in fact an irony about this writing in as much as its round failure within this privileged zone of high literature actually appears as a different type of success in another zone, and not just a popularist zone. Precisely to the extent that Wiesel’s writing is a victim of the programmatic mythopoetics underlying Auschwitz, it is able to put the Torah in communication with the innermost logic of Auschwitz (something Levi’s writing, for example, cannot do), along the same lines that the Torah puts itself in intelligible contact with the forms of neurosis, or ‘abomination,’ the eradication of which was mandated by referring to these neuroses in terms of ‘other gods.’ The fact that God constantly describes Himself as ‘jealous’ in this context puts Him in the awkward position of having to use polytheistic language in order to communicate His presumably monotheistic message. But this, after all, is part of what is meant by the sublime and perplexing principle that ‘the Torah speaks in the language men.’ Since the language of men is inevitably and intrinsically mythical in certain zones, the Torah must enter these zones on their terms precisely in order to effect a general myth-deconstruction from within. Along these lines, Wiesel’s capitulation to the mythological trope of Auschwitz is precisely what enables him to usher Auschwitz’s own gods into a mythic-type clash with the God of the Torah. Unlike typical theologians who, after agreeing with mainstream newspaper editors and respectable historians to take hold of Auschwitz as an essentially secular phenomenon, and only then to try to fit the phenomenon into a theological discussion, Wiesel instead begins with a recognition of Auschwitz as a full-blown apocalypse, a revelation of biblical proportions in which God has been hanged on the gallows, an Anti-Sinai, both ‘the dark face of Sinai’ and ‘a Sinai of darkness,’ and only thereafter asking whether and how the Bible might somehow still fit into this tenebrous revelation.

For this reason Night stands as an Auschwitz monument nonpareil, in Nietzsche’s sense of monumental historiography, something comparable to, but only comparable to, the historiography of the scroll of Esther. For this reason too Hilberg’s ‘monumental’ study, The Destruction of the European Jews, although it obviously surpasses Night or any other memoir-like work, not just in information, but in evoking the German genius behind the great collaborative masterpiece, is for all that unable to touch the monumental history, or mythological, secret of the German masterpiece. Likewise Levi’s If This is a Man which, as we have argued, ranks higher than Night as a purely literary monument; and lower as a Jewish text. And the relative ranking of strength in each category would be due to the difference between two types of weakness embodied in each memoir. Wiesel, for his part, cannot avail himself of the kind of agility and buoyancy we see in Levi’s writing for similar reasons that he, unlike Levi, lacked these same resources within the Lager itself. Wiesel himself has tried to justify this handicap relative to Levi, but without enough attention to the latter’s unfair advantage as a so-called atheist. Wiesel could never evoke Auschwitz by means of a broom because Wiesel’s Auschwitz simply cannot be reduced to that which the broom evokes. The extraordinary and effectively unmatchable literary power of evocation is simply not ready to hand for him. Wiesel cannot make his world small enough. Small enough to make Auschwitz big enough. If part of the very plan of Auschwitz was to shrink the world to the dimensions of a small iron box, and if the genius of someone like Primo Levi may be characterized as a kind of contortionist’s excellence at effecting a yet tighter tzimtzum into himself in order to give himself room to walk around inside this tiny box, then Wiesel’s failing would be his relatively corpulent spiritual dimensions and the inflammation of his unshrinkable world through the fence-wires of Auschwitz. There is no extra room in the horizon into which he can push the Lager so that it might assume the shy and powerfully suggestive demeanour of a literary horizon. It is a matter of critical precision and clarity, therefore, to judge Wiesel’s literary performance as a round failure, and to moreover attempt to locate this failure in the self-indulgent gestures of a persistent maudlinness that has not been characterized as a principle by way of mild rhetoric. Kafka has already come to mind in relation to Primo Levi; here, regarding Wiesel, we simply cannot proceed without recalling him. In particular the profundity of the failure, the simple, sublime literary failure that Walter Benjamin made the final word of his reading of Kafka, a failure that runs deeper than all the artist’s self-mortifications before the awesome prospect of being published. The rule of literary criticism that Benjamin announces elsewhere regarding the ‘poetized’ (das Gedichtete) of the poem applies to Kafka and Wiesel alike: ‘The evaluation cannot take its bearings from how the poet has worked out his task. Rather the earnestness and the greatness of the task itself is what determines the evaluation.’ The entire situation, in other words, can be put in positive terms: Wiesel’s failure as a writer stands in direct proportion to the greatness of his task, namely the task of writing like a prophet, which task is so demanding, to say the least, and so clearly destined to end failure, for the simple reason that Wiesel is not a prophet. Of course, is easy enough to bandy around words like ‘prophet’ and ‘messenger to mankind’ for rhetorical effect, especially so long as one’s literacy in the biblical-talmudic tradition remains on a dilettantish level adequate for someone righting speeches for the Nobel committee or an American president, or perhaps if one needs to indulge a nostalgia for the good old days of the good Old Testament when men walked around in long robes and sandals all atremble with the mighty message. But in the proper sense of the word, a prophet is something that Wiesel is not, very simply because God does not tell him what to write, as far as anyone can tell, indeed, God does not even make suggestions. At the same time, the task of writing like a prophet, of approximating a prophetic trope to the extent that this is possible since the days of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, is a task that we can well imagine to be expected of Wiesel, expected of him, that is to say, by God. This, in any case, seems to have been the opinion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This impossible ideal, which abides both as an ideal to be spiritedly pursued and an impossibility never to be made possible, defines a unique and extremely rare breed of writer for which a new term will have to be coined, until which time this is done, we can only propose to designate negatively as a writer who must fail to write like a prophet, a prolific, published and even award-winning prophète manqué. Putting the situation in other terms: where Levi writes by way of an appeal to a jury of readers, Wiesel seems to demand that, before anyone, God must read his deposition. Which is why his manqué status is not a slight to his vocation, or a mere technical consequence of the end of the prophetic eon during the 5th or 4th centuries BCE. It is a deliberate expression of his own adamant refusal to be a prophet, among whose professional qualifications, as he knows too well, would be an ability and readiness to sympathize with God.

If we disregard any question of authorial intention, this failure and this mediocrity, taken now as positive phenomena, lead us to a further conclusion. The 1956 deposition, and to some extent even the 1958 memoir, constitutes a kind of a testimony against literature, against every element of romantic literature (which elements continue to show up in a wide variety of genres) that still harbours a deep complicity with Auschwitz. We are drawn to suspect that all the maudlin blubbering and all the tacky metaphors are actually efforts to sabotage the memoir itself and with it the whole of Auschwitz romanticism, even at the risk of martyrdom. And that this is how we must understand the correct estimation of Wiesel’s failure as a repeated attempt ‘to sacrifice the demands of craft to those of conscience.’ It would be instructive to compare such a ‘suicide mission’ with the inexorable damage that Paul Celan wreaked on the German language by means of his impossible neologisms and his amputated, verse-like word appositions. Celan is another case of a writer who could not, and probably would not, deny authorial credit for his poems to a certain Meister aus Deutschland. What is so unfortunate, again, for the publication history of Night, although also understandable and perhaps irremediable, is that the most extreme and obvious acts of sabotage committed by Wiesel are clearly legible only in the original Yiddish text. The heavy-handed French editing of this text that has had to resort to extreme methods of cosmetics and even plastic surgery in order to make the text presentable and recognizable as literature has almost managed to disfigure the soul of the text beyond recognition, almost but for its visibility in the maudlin principle. Un di velt hot geshvign is, in the final analysis, a badly written book, below mediocre, certainly well below its French upgrade. But it is a book that knows this. One can even say that it is a book that takes a fierce secret pride in its inadequacy. And this self-perspicacity, which is incandescent above all in its last two pages (that did not survive the cut of La nuit), down to its last two sentences, is what cannot but endear this book, if only to a Yiddish reader, in a way that La nuit cannot begin to match.

Is it something about Yiddish, then, for which all of this wonderfully magical hot air, this pride in inadequacy, can be thanked? When we consider, for example, the importance of the ecphonesis Oy! is good Yiddish style, and we consider how this word is exemplary of an entire trope proper to Yiddish known as kvetching, then the maudlin principle at work in Wiesel’s memoir must be recognized as the only translation device available to a European writer for rendering something that is altogether ‘forgivable’ in, if not in fact something that constitutes the very secret of, Yiddish. At least one pioneering phenomenological analysis and taxonomy of kvetching as a Jewish literary trope has quite sensibly traced its origins to the destructions of Jerusalem. It would seem very useful, accordingly, to turn our attention to the prophet Jeremiah as the earliest literary model of the tradition to which Wiesel’s deposition and memoir would belong. ‘Our problem was and remains what to do with our words, with our tears. … I love the Prophet Jeremiah because he is the one who lived the catastrophe before, during, and after and knew how to speak about it.’ There is an additional incentive to do so in a study of literary criticism. We have judged Wiesel’s failure, in comparison to Levi’s success, as a transgression of the rule of style that Auerbach was the first to recognize in the Bible and on the basis of which he established the superiority of the biblical style over the style of Homer at the origins of European literature, a superiority due, namely, to the text’s being ‘fraught with background’ and determined by inwardness. Where Homeric style has only a foreground in which every detail of Odysseus’s scar is externalized for the psychedelic pleasure of the reader, the biblical text remains gray, shy, modest, and therefore deep. God Himself ‘always reaches into the depths. But even the human beings of the biblical story are more background-full than the Homeric; they have more depth of time, of destiny, and of consciousness.’ The art of understatement is especially conspicuous in the first five books of the Bible, and continues to be practised on more or less the same level until the end of the Book of Kings. With the onset of the Ḥurban, however, the situation changes. The three great prophets show less restraint in their art. And in Jeremiah’s case in particular, we may well wonder what Auerbach would say of his altogether open-mouthed style and of the literary representation, full of foreground, exteriorization, and elaboration, of ‘Jeremiah’s scar’?

With this question we make the final approach to the question of the legal format which, as we said above, accomodates our entire study. In the advance toward the best depositional style, as a basic desideratum for the strongest legal case, it is essential to identify the pre-litigious essence of plaint, namely lamentation, as it comes to expression in what Wiesel would have be his deposition.


The Memoir | 4


This is where we find the first cadaver. It is the dead body of the other Elie Wiesel—for the boy executed in this case has no other name—in Buchenwald, without whose dialectical function in Night Elie Wiesel himself cannot be named. The episode has been cited and discussed more than any other passage from the memoir, no doubt due to its high legibility to readers of both the Gospels and Zarathustra.

A pipel, i.e. an Oberkapo’s attendant, a kleyne yingele, a boy with ‘angelic eyes,’ is hanged on the gallows beside two adult men (is if deliberately in Golgotha fashion), before a full assembly of inmates. It appears the boy has been an accomplice to a conspiracy: a small cache of weapons had been discovered. The SS officers stage the executions with a calculated degree of pomp and solemnity. A man standing somewhere behind Wiesel asks, ‘Where is God?’ The question does not solicit an answer, at least not the first time it is asked. And the episode is concluded with Wiesel recalling how the day ended: ‘That night, the soup had the taste of cadaver.’

That is how the episode ends in the French memoir, La nuit. It ends dramatically, with a dramatic soup. The Yiddish deposition relates both more and less than this.

‘Caps off!’ yelled the Lagerältester, this time in a louder voice.

Tears appeared in the eyes of a number prisoners, more than a few.

‘Caps on!’

The march then began. The camp had to see the fate of Germany’s despisers.

Both adults appeared to be dead already. The noose strangled them within the same moment, on the spot. The souls were immediately exhaled. Their protruding tongues had become red, like fire.

Only the little one, the yiddishe yingele with the dreamy, wandering eyes, still lived. His diminutive frame weighed too little. It was too light. The noose didn’t ‘catch.’

The slow death of the little attendant lasted thirty-five minutes. And we watched him, quavering, swaying on the rope, with the blue-reddish tongue sticking out, with a prayer on the white, gray-white lips, a prayer to God, to the Angel of Death, that he should take mercy on him, that he should and take away his soul, free it from the agonies of death, from the oppression of the grave. When we saw him thus, the little hanged one, many no longer wanted, were no longer were able, to withhold themselves from crying.

‘Where is God?’ asked the same man behind me a second time.

Something inside me wanted to answer him: ‘God? Where is He? — Hanging there! On that rope! …’

That evening the soup was tasteless. We saved it for the next day.

Now our question concerns the last two lines. On the simplest phenomenological level: how did the soup in fact taste? But we know that memory and memoirs, no less than language itself, cannot take place without decisions of style, and there may in fact be no hope of a raw phenomenology of the soup. So the question might be rephrased thus: how did the prosaic description of a tasteless soup in the original Yiddish deposition come to be re-written and, as it were, re-cooked for the French ‘translation,’ by a well-crafted poetic technique with its sharp synaesthetic effect, as a soup bearing the flavour of a human corpse? The positive literary effect is short-lived, nevertheless (at least on a finicky reader), being immediately followed by the realization that a boy’s cadaver has just been artfully processed by an well-worn poetical device and that the resulting allegorical cannibalism has just been insinuated into the reader’s mouth, so that the reader cannot help but feel as an after-effect a bizarre and patronizing subtext that seems to say something like: ‘Well, after all, dear reader, you’ve come too late to grasp the profound literary possibilities contained in that bowl of soup.’ (The finicky Jewish reader jerks back a second step, moreover, from the disquietingly Eucharistic innuendo contained in the metaphor. Was this line re-written with François Mauriac standing over the shoulder? And yet any good French editor could do the job.) The unpalatable element here becomes even clearer if we read the line as a child would read it. The soup tasted like cadavers. What’s cadavers? Dead bodies. How do dead bodies taste? Disgusting. Were there dead bodies inside the soup? No, but it was ‘like’ there were. This little ‘like’ factors into memory the decisive mythological element, spinning within the general mechanism of the maudlin principle, which makes it difficult for the reader to register what kind of literature this is supposed to be.

In some ways, furthermore, the theological exchange immediately preceding the soup is even less courteous toward the reader. The boy, upon being introduced in the text, was duly beatified as an ‘angel’ (l’ange aux yeux tristes). This sets the scene for his literary martyrdom. The voice from behind asks: ‘Where is God?’ The question is literal. It is turgid with despair, it knows an answer is impossible, but it is asked notwithstanding with the greatest forthrightness. And the narrator, evidently unable to confront the literal force of the question, composes his silent response, or, more exactly, receives a response composed for him by a force of poetic inspiration, not in retrospect while at the typewriter, but spontaneously (‘Something inside me wanted to answer him’; in French: ‘I felt within me a voice that wanted to respond’) while standing right there and then before the scaffold in Buchenwald. The metaphor rises up into the mind. The answer is articulated: ‘God? He is hanging there on these gallows!’

Had the man standing behind the narrator heard the answer, it would not have been unintelligible. The metaphor does not arise like a flash of colour against a black and white field of vision, like the little red riding hood figure in Schindler’s List. The text in fact serves as a confirmation of the naïve grammatological principle fundamental to our readings (a principle whose full meaning can only show itself once we will have learned to read the Sefer Yetzirah) that ‘there is no outside-the-text.’ We can see that the man standing behind narrator no less than the narrator himself in the Buchenwald Appellplatz is standing in-the-text. After all, how could he so much as ask the question regarding God’s whereabouts outside of a textually determined field of inquiry about God? The field is already thoroughly theological. What then does the metaphor add—but an alternative mythology, one in which gods are hanged and suffocate to death? The metaphorical dimension in general, it might be said, adds a self-aware participation in the business of received textual conventions of myth-making like the ones implicated in the question ‘Where is God?’ But what does it accomplish here? It must be stressed again, furthermore, that any judgement of a man’s capitulating to metaphor under such conditions, rather than to vomiting, to fainting, to mental collapse, to suicide, etc., is completely out of the question here. ‘Suffering has as much right to poetic expression as a man on the rack has to screaming.’ The only question here is what is achieved in the metaphor, be it by the writer or by whatever irresistible force that gave rise to the metaphor. Why does, and if it does not then why should, this dramatic answer welling up in the narrator’s throat, precisely because of its dramatic power, with its strong evangelical or counter-evangelical overtones, end up leaving the reader embarrassed?

The answer to this cannot simple. In order to understand the embarrassment, for one, it is necessary to grasp the phenomenon of literature itself as a human preoccupation situated within an expansive complex of human affairs. From such a wide perspective, the incident of the epiphany by the gallows is visible as one in a series of dramatizations, of which the incident at Calvary is the most notable. Of more immediate relevance, of course, is the dramatization staged by the SS men themselves of the heavy ‘justice’ awaiting those who would conspire against the destiny of the Fatherland. The inmates are not allowed to hide in the back of the open-air theatre or to close their eyes; they are forced to march in file past the hanging bodies and to look directly into their disjointed faces. ‘The camp had to see the fate of Germany’s despisers.’ Fate in its classical definition is the ultimate subject of every tragic drama. And tragic fate requires a sacrifice. The fact that public executions of this type have always been meant to have the effect of deterrence on potential criminals (‘Let this be a lesson and an example to all prisoners …’) does not attenuate the deep structural similarity that such spectacles bear to, and even their intrinsic historical and logical connection to, sacrificial festivals. The voice that Wiesel experiences rising within himself, no less than the question from behind that prompts it, is not altogether antithetical to the drama staged by the SS. Quite the contrary, the epiphany of the God who dies on the gallows is ultimately meant, on a National Socialist doctrinal and therefore mythological level (in the sense of Rosenberg’s Mythus), to function like a Götterdämmerung in which the ‘God’ of the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and of their Ashkenazi descendants assembled at the foot of the gallows (Où est le Bon Dieu …?) is executed and has his ashes scattered into a dawn zephyr of new Germanic divinities. This is Hölderlin’s ‘changing of the gods’ of his Germanien and so on. Willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly, Wiesel’s response thus perpetuates the SS drama. Whatever else Wiesel believes is meant by ‘God is hanging there on those gallows,’ what this pronouncement also means is that Wagnerian dramaturgy has achieved its singularly intended effect. And this is why it is perfectly correct for him to refer to this voice rising up within his being as a ‘something inside me,’ that is, as a voice that is not his own. Whose voice is it? Its owner bears various names, depending on the circumstances. On this occasion, the Lagerälteste acting as master of ceremonies announces one of his identities: ‘In the name of Himmler. …’ But of course there are many other names, more than can be enumerated in a single breath as can the list of Haman’s sons. A quick perusal of Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews would be good place to start compiling the long credit-roll. Here it may suffice to recall the two names that would be given tabloid prominence as Oscar winners, namely the ‘director’ of the entire production with his broad vision of its meaning and its intended impact and the ‘lead role’ who brought the drama to life. (We leave out such names as Joseph Goebbels, Julius Streicher, or Albert Speer who in their various capacities and departments were busy on a daily basis with mise-en-scène issues in the narrow, literal sense of the phrase. Likewise Heinrich Himmler and his plans to built an SS Never Never Land at Wewelsburg, and so on.)

Adolf Hitler is the famous name of the man with the great dramaturgic vision. His life-long dilettantish apprenticeship in the Wagnerian school of music-politics, to begin with, is well documented. This great passion has perhaps been understood by no one more fully than by the filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, a Wagner fan himself, a wonderfully conflicted fan. (The first to fully appreciate Syberberg’s point was Lacoue-Labarthe, whose argument in La fiction du politique we are basically repeating here.) Although it is initially difficult, given the gravity of the subject matter, to recognize the dead-serious implications expressed through the levity of Syberberg’s witticism, there is an uncannily compelling insight in his thesis that Hitler dreamed of being ‘the greatest filmmaker of all time,’ who would accomplish in the political-military medium what he could not achieve with watercolours. Syberberg’s sensitivity as a filmmaker to the cinematographic character of Hitler’s extraordinary accomplishment is especially crucial. ‘Hitler knew what film meant, and there again we are used to understanding his interest in film pejoratively, as a mere utilization for the purposes of propaganda. The question is whether he did not organize Nurenberg above all for Riefenstahl, as it does appear in some respects, and sharpening the point a bit more, whether the whole Second World War was not mounted as a big-budget war film for the sake of the evening screening of the weekly newsreel excerpts in his bunker.’ It is certainly uncomfortable for us to contemplate with perfect seriousness how, in a strictly cinematographic sense, Hitler achieved on a much larger scale what Howard Hughes tried to achieve with the 1930 blockbuster Hell’s Angels, as if the only real difference between these two productions were the number of pilots that died during the filming. The thesis is hyperbolic. But are we not, at the same time, compelled by the facts to take it seriously, perhaps even more seriously than Syberberg himself, who for production reasons cannot suppress his sense of humour, as we would otherwise risk missing the mark yet more egregiously in other direction by ranking Hitler below someone like the Ludwig II as a great Wagner aficionado and Märchenführer, or by understating the cinematic character of his experience of the war he started, including the powerful Auschwitz scenes? The thesis is in fact commensurate with the reality: National Socialism was in and of itself hyperbolic. It was hyperbolic not by being an unusually extreme or exaggerated form of politics or war, but by exceeding the political-military dimension altogether and containing it within a larger frame. This is why it continues to furnish comic book writers and Hollywood filmmakers with the most readily recognizable face of the perfect Bad Guy, something that is more rather than less conspicuous in productions like Hogan’s Heroes, Iron Sky, etc., where the ‘Nazi’ villain is purified, as it were, of any parochial interest in Jews in particular. In an inverted sense, such films demonstrate the true script value of the Nazi type. In any event, the real point of Syberberg’s thesis does not depend on proving that Hitler was a hopeless film buff. The film industry during the 1920s-30s was probably not sufficiently entrenched in Austrian or German consciousness to make even the most regular Kino patron harbouring big political dreams, assuming he was not psychotic—which Hitler certainly was not, not if the basic clinical meaning of the term is to be respected—but at most neurotic, to conceive of modelling an actual war on an actual movie. (The average pedestrian on the streets of Vienna at the turn of the last century, nonetheless, suffered quite chronically, as Stefan Zweig recalls, from a Theatromanie, a ‘fanaticism for art and especially for theatrical art.’) The thesis, rather, touches upon the hyperbolic essence of the cinematic as such, which essence itself is of course not cinematic. What the innovation of the mechanically reproduced drama brought to a new level of awareness, even as it had to sacrifice some of the vital charms of old-fashioned stage performances, is the power inherent in a way of seeing things that is even older than the stage and older than all literature, a way of seeing things that assumes its first articulate form in the shape of myth. What is at play is a fundamentally ‘dramatic’ approach to life itself, a way of living life as if under the tender watchful eye of a divine spectator who delights in following the stories of certain mortals, a way of life that probably stems from the toddler’s desire to have each one of his steps counted by his mother with the same intimate delight that she counted his very first step. This ‘dramatic’ approach to life precedes the very invention of drama. It is the impulse behind the invention, and even behind the dithyrambic hymn from which Attic drama evolved. It is a very old sacred desire to participate in the life-stories of the gods. It is only when we can deduce transcendentally or imagine such a prehistoric, proto-mythical way of seeing things that we can appreciate the true artistic genius of Hitler, which, tapping into unused possibilities coeval with the sources of drama, opened up a new medium, a new art-form, that stretched the parameters of the dramatic-cinematic media to include the real death of real human beings as raw material for artisitic production. There is a very apropos example from within the cinematic medium, in fact, that illustrates this genial innovation, and in which the recourse to Wagner seems all but coincidental. Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore of the 9th Cavalry Regiment, in Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, orchestrates a bloody helicopter airstrike on a Vietnamese village to function as the perfect scenography, a ‘visual score,’ to accompany the awe-inspiring Ride of the Valkyries. The scene makes clear that the music is not just a matter of ‘psychological warfare’ or an Air Force ‘march’ to embolden the cavalry charge. Which is why the scene is so effective and upsetting, beyond our horrified smile. It is upsetting because Kilgore is far from wrong from an aesthetic point of view. If anything, we are upset because the ‘Hitler-in-us,’ much like the ‘Amalek within,’ is forced by the awesomeness of the scene’s content to delight in the scenographic brilliance, beyond the brilliant irony of Coppola, in the brilliance of the very horror as such, inherent in Lt. Col. Kilgore’s romanticism. To what extent, and how, we would manage to exorcise ourselves of any delight whatsoever, even ‘merely aesthetic’ delight, at the image of a bloodbath underscoring the glorious musical tsunami wave of Wagnerian strings and horns that arches over us with the Valkyries is a question we tend to put off indefinitely. This is why the film offers some consolation and atonement for our uncomfortable admiration of Kilgore in a concluding sympathy with Kurtz’s lamentation over ‘the Horror …’

Rudolf Höss is the other name worth mentioning in connection with Nazi dramaturgy. It is not without cause that the lead role in a film receives so much recognition seeing how the entire action of the film comes together in his person. Rudolf Höss embodied the excellences of a dramatic actor: discipline, a passion for hard work, and above all, a large capacity for emotion, for sympathy, as well as a talent for controlling emotion. A characteristic scene in his memoir is worth citing for its dramatic detail and ‘personal story’ element. Two small children are playing on the ground. Their mother can’t bear to interrupt their play. She knows what is going on. The gas-chamber is filled to capacity but for the children and their mother. There is hesitation and unrest. Höss recalls: ‘I gave the Unterführer on duty a nod and he picked up in his arms the children, who were bucking against him vigorously, and brought them along with their mother, who was crying in a heart-breaking manner, into the chamber. I wished, for pity, to vanish from the scene [Bildfläche]—but I was not allowed to show the slightest emotion.’ Another time, a mother throws her children out of the gas-chamber, crying, ‘At least let my dear children live!’ To which Höss comments with a heavy sigh: ‘There were many such disturbing scenes [erschütternde Einzelszenen], touching everyone who was present.’ The editor of Höss’s memoir, and Fackenheim following him, comment, without being able to check a sarcastic tone, on the dizzying height of this ‘introverted sentimentalism’ which transforms the murder of a child into a tragedy for the murderer, a murderer’s dulcet commiseration with ‘with his own tender self.’ And we may well wonder how it is possible to approach such a phenomenon without resorting to sarcasm in order to preserve some sense of dignity while having to quote such sentences. Would an less dignified fury be more adequate to the task? So long as the incommensurability between the reality of such murders and the dramatization of the reality is perceived from a perspective that does not acknowledge, never mind comprehend, that Auschwitz was staged as a drama through and through, that Auschwitz in the mind of Höss and ‘everyone who was present’ was not a reality with a dramatic aspect but was, on the contrary, a dramatization that made use of reality in order to maximize the effect of verisimilitude, of ‘high realism’; so long as we do not take very seriously Wiesel’s report of a friend’s very first impression of Auschwitz upon stepping out of the train: “I found the spectacle one of a frightening beauty …”; so long as this is not acknowledged, the only option for dealing with such confessions will be impotent sarcasm and an unexamined feeling of disgust and aboveness. Höss must be remembered as one of the great masters of melodrama. In his performances, we find the maudlin principle distilled to an absolute purity. Its only counterpart in degree of purity is the banality principle perfect in the person of Eichmann. Höss himself recalls with a sense of shame how Eichmann, even under the influence of alcohol, was able to stay clear of the maudlin ‘tender emotions and secret doubts’ that plagued the commandant. When Arendt chose the term ‘banality’ to describe this purity of conscience with its knack for impeccable paper-work, of course, she meant, with her own very dry brand of sarcasm, to accentuate an all-consuming passion. Höss predicts at the conclusion of his memoir how difficult it will be for posterity to understand about a ‘murderer of millions,’ how, after all, ‘he too had a heart’; a prediction that is basically correct except for the word ‘too,’ which, rendered more precisely correct, should read to say he had nothing but a heart, a heart full of nothing but extraordinary feelings.

These are two significant names. They are not exactly pulled out of a hat. But neither are they exceptional in their profoundly theatrical personalities—not by a horizontal measure of the ‘production crew’ available in Germany during 1933-45, nor, more impressively, by a vertical measure of the German genius that over three or four centuries had carefully developed the principles of a sophisticated theory of drama that made Auschwitz dramaturgy conceivable and worth trying out, equipping everyone down to the least important grip, wardrobe assistant and scene extra with the feasibility of his task within a coherent, because theoretically ironed-out, production organization. An analysis of the multifarious long-standing phenomenon of the Germanic hankering (Sehnsucht) after a myth, an autochthonous myth of the Volk, would take us from Bayreuth back through Jena and its great romantics, Schelling, Hölderlin, Novalis, etc.; then forward to Freiburg 1933 and Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin’s Germanien; then back again through Heidelberg romanticism; and it would require readings in the Schlegel brothers’ Athenaeum project (1798-1800) for a ‘literary absolute,’ and Schiller’s curriculum for the ‘political artist’ (Staatskünstler); and in the scholarly and artistic polemics around the Niebelungenlied, especially the theses of Jacob Grimm; then we would have to trace genesis of the hankering through the Strum und Drang movement back to Herder and Winckelmann, and finally even to Luther himself. And even then a decent intellectual history of the phenomenon would only be the preparatory work required for an essay at deducing the ‘noumenal’ source of the hankering ‘in-itself,’ something we would have no hermeneutic recourse to attempt except by way of Midrash, into which perhaps a logical point of departure might be the internal sabotage (‘deconstruction’) wrecked upon the whole ‘new mythology’ project by Heymann Steinthal and his studies in the essential difference between European mythology and Hebrew myth-busting. Such an analysis cannot be attempted here. Here, instead, we must limit our observations to the manner in which the maudlin principle in Elie Wiesel’s writing must be grasped as a late and distant effluence of the same high romantic outpouring for which Hölderlin found the perfect metaphor in the Rhine river; to which it is connected via the lowest but also most effective scale of the German romantic temperament. Here it must suffice to postulate, in other words, in a mostly empty manner how, given the powerful influence of Auschwitz as a work of art on Wiesel’s craft, the authorship of a work like Night is a credit that Wiesel must share on some level with the hopeless romantic who acted as commandant of Auschwitz and his colleagues. Such a postulation is troubling no doubt. But it is compatible with a feasible theory of authorship which an attempt at an unromantic approach to the dramaturgical issue at hand requires us to apply. Besides, according to such a theory, Wiesel’s victimhood is in no way compromised; if anything it is redoubled and extended: it is also as a writer, not just as a man, that Wiesel is a victim of Auschwitz, in so far as Auschwitz exerts a literary pressure.

So much for the account of the first cadaver, which exhibits Elie Wiesel knuckling under the tradition of Crucificial-Auschwitzean dramaturgy as a victim of letters. Upon mixing the cadaver into the soup, in the French revision of the account, it is true, Wiesel actively participated in capitulating to the said dramaturgy. But this later moment of weakness and mistake in judgement, for which he may be held responsible as an author, should not be assumed to extend to every aspect of the account, or to be even present in the original Yiddish version. It was not his fault that the pipl was hanged in Buchenwald. Or that he felt compelled to give us an account of the hanging. But for the French soup, his belletristic victimhood is unassailable. Now with the account of the second cadaver, a similar editorial weakness is perpetuated in the crossing-over, the translation, from the Yiddish version to the French version. But in this case, the faultlessness and the strength of Eliezer’s account, as distinct from Elie’s account, has an additional advantage that does not lie in mere understatement (‘That evening the soup was tasteless.’) but in an elaboration of the life of the cadaver which actually shows a way out, a Jewish way out, of the powerful grip of Crucificial-Auschwitzean dramaturgy.


La Nuit

Affidavit Form | 3




The Auschwitz memoir of Primo Levi is the obvious counterpart to this literary phenomenon in that this text exemplifies the legal style of a well-written affidavit, even though Levi’s memoir is not designed to function as a deposition. The contrast is worth careful examination. The truth is that it is difficult not to refer to Levi in a critical appraisal of Wiesel’s work. The two men stand together in their class apart. Is it even possible to put our finger on what is proper to Wiesel without keeping Levi’s memoir within reach? The point of comparison, for our purposes, can be brought out clearly enough by restricting our attention to just one short sample passage from Se questo è un uomo, namely Chapter 16, ‘The Last One,’ an example in which the entire genius of his memoirist’s craft is distilled into a pure compound, namely the evocation of the ‘horror of Auschwitz’ in the description of the clever construction of a modular broom. Levi fondly remembers the industrious enterprise as his ‘little baby.’

I knew that the Blockältester of 44 was short on brooms, and I stole one in the yard; this much was nothing extraordinary. The difficulty was to smuggle the broom into the Lager during the return march, and I solved this in a manner I believe to be unprecedented: I dismembered the prize into broom-head and handle, sawing the latter into two pieces, carrying the various articles separately into camp (the two sections of the handle tied to my thighs, inside my pants), and re-assembling the whole thing in the Lager, for which I had to find a piece of sheet metal, a hammer and nails to reconnect the two sticks. The transfer took only four days.

Contrary to what I feared, the customer not only did not devaluate my broom, but showed it around as a curiosity to a number of his friends, who gave me a regular order for two other brooms ‘of the same model.’

The short passage, except for the two German terms Blockältester and Lager connecting it to the wider setting of the memoir, reads like a technical brochure. This of course is a deliberate literary technique from which the passage derives its absolute horror, namely the way that Auschwitz is swept out of the way and into the margins of the page along with any possible generic term—beginning with the term ‘horror’ itself—that might be called upon to designate the category under which the proper name Auschwitz might be subsumed. The fact that Levi generally prefers to evoke Auschwitz without naming it rather than to invoke it by name, is, no less than in the case of Wiesel, if not considerably more so, a matter of studied principle. As Levi himself explains in a later appendix, the ultimate motive behind the literary technique, a motive he shares with someone like Simon Wiesenthal, is justice, justice.

Precisely from this motive, when writing this book [Se questo è un uomo], I deliberately assumed the calm and sober language of a witness, neither the lamenting one of the victim nor the irate one of the avenger. I thought that my word would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded impassioned; only in this way does a witness before justice fulfill his function, which is to prepare the ground for the judge. You are the judges.

This theoretical literary protocol, as we can see from the example of the broom, does somewhat overestimate, or perhaps underestimate, the actual praxis of writing in at least one way. Levi is not completely free of inappropriate courtroom habits. The phrase ‘of the same model’ is a good example. Levi’s dell’arte application of a naturally good sense of humour to a situation that is basically humourless is based on a writing code that stipulates memoirization as a premeditated act of re-membering an utter dismemberment like the one operative in Auschwitz by means of an adhesive medium of humour. (That such an intrepid sense of humour comes easily to the Italian temperament, judging from Wertmüller’s Pasqualino Settebellezze, or more recently Benigni’s La vita è bella, is not implausible; any more than that Wiesel’s temperament shows symptoms of having inhaled that rain-and-cigarettes air of Montmartre semble triste and the over-agonized Harlequinism of Marcel Marceau, who for more than one reason, after all, might have been the less outspoken doppelganger of Wiesel.) This sense of humour is something that Levi cannot rein in from overruning his stated program of ‘calm and sober language.’ It belongs in fact among the venerable rhetorical techniques of the barrister’s art. Where Wiesel remains the plaintiff of Auschwitz, Levi takes pains to adopt the stiff limitations on style required of a prosecuting attorney. The double function of the prosecutor’s dry humour is to make a case while respectfully stepping back from the autonomous emotional and mental room the judges require in order to make up their own minds. ‘You are the judges,’ as Levi says to his readers, the emphasis being on ‘you’ (I giudici siete voi). A dry jest like the description of the makeshift Auschwitz broom as a ‘model’ in high demand within the Auschwitz economy is not without manipulative force. But within the context of a deposition, the manipulation at least lies perfectly exposed and transparent. Really it is the mark of a gentleman’s politesse and a compliment to the reader’s intelligence; while to an unintelligent reader, it is illegible and of no consequence. It may be worth recalling that the great master of this gentlemanly literary technique was Kafka. He probably remains the greatest of the masters because of the extraordinary authorial generosity whereby he is able to go so far as to openly acknowledge the very artifice of his own politesse toward the reader by adding one more obfuscating layer to the masquerade, namely a humour so hermetically dry that one is tempted by one’s own fears to see in Kafka, not the purest quintessential comedy stretched high above the four sublunar elements of the small worlds that he creates in his stories, a comedy thus purified of any point of reference within the story itself if not purified of laughter itself, but, instead, something merely magically eerie and bizarre, a mundane lunacy often just barely legible and of little consequence. And, who knows, Levi might well have been the single greatest disciple of Kafka if only the little world of Auschwitz had not preemptively cheated him of his most perfect metaphors by instead imposing them upon his person as realities. Here we touch the point where the art meets the artist. As the content of the memoir itself reveals, Levi’s sense of humour did not exactly begin with the work of memoirization. The impulse within the memoir that jokingly remembers the broom as a fine ‘model,’ as a yet unpublished bit of ‘research and development’ (inedito), is continuous with that feat of engineering that produced the broom in the first place, as well as with the sociable readiness to share an entrepreneurial excitement with other inmates (‘… that we have new things to talk about is no negligible gain’.) Primo Levi’s literary advantage over Wiesel, in short, which appears to be rooted in a certain ‘Italian’ buoyancy capable of bracketing out and dimming down the metaphysical grandeur of Auschwitz in order to allow for a quotidian concern with a broom, is what shows up again as a second buoyancy in the engineering of words from memories and the evocation of Auschwitz by means of a broom, which gives Auschwitz room to manifest itself as a horizon circumscribing his immediate theme rather than as the theme itself. Again, an evocation is what is operative here; to which we will have occasion to see a correlative provocation. The horror of Auschwitz is legible in the broom much more than in the horror. Precisely the studied chiaroscuro in which the broom gleams forth as a happy tool within an inviting narrative that presents it in a typical adequatio epistemic does Auschwitz suddenly open up in the reader’s peripheral vision as the dark ‘clearing’ enveloping the broom.

All of this is the mark of Levi’s vital atheism. Mind, it is not the anti-theism that gives classical tragedy its yes-saying attitude to a life of suffering ordained by the gods, such as Prometheus defiant refusal to apologize for his misdemeanours to the godfather mafioso in charge of Olympus. Where Prometheus draws his heroic endurance from an absolute disrespect for Zeus, Levi’s buoyancy—and this must be the precise term for one in whose memory those who did not survive appear as i sommersi, ‘the drowned,’ ‘the submerged’—leaves myth and metaphysics altogether behind in order to focus on filling its lungs to capacity, and thus remain afloat, with a narrow-minded Pharisaic interest in the little issues of daily existence. A proper genealogy of this buoyant approach to life would have to acknowledge the rabbinic mindset hidden in its ancestry. The famous stubbornness of the Jew, which is really synonymous with his ability to find something interesting to do even in hell, was not cultivated within a bourgeois spiritualism. The fact that Levi designates himself as an atheist matters little as a counter-indication to this. We see in Levinas, for instance, how profitable and even how downright indispensable the word ‘atheism’ can be for surviving, and for salvaging a little ‘faith’ from, all the obnoxious theological approaches to Auschwitz.

All of which brings us to our literary point of comparison with Wiesel. In some ways, Wiesel is closer to Prometheus and the titan’s metaphysical outrage. Yet the atheism that tragedy places at centre-stage as its heroic theme is never a serious option for Wiesel. Even in the Yiddish deposition, we find sentences, paradoxical as they are bitter, such as: ‘God … I have given up believing in His existence. However, in conjunction with this, I have continued to believe in His malice.’ How far such furious ‘atheism’ stands from the unthematized and hence, by comparison, merely perfunctory atheism of Levi’s buoyancy! Thus Wiesel comes to the task of writing, this highly defined task of ‘writing the disaster,’ by comparison with both Aeschylus and Primo Levi, with miserably few literary resources at hand and in fact with both hands tied behind his back. One might well ask how under such conditions he could not make a fool of himself. He is constrained to grope about inwardly for gaudy, technicolour, over-stated garments to cover up his unseemly sentiments and cogitations.

How then can the writing of Wiesel be fairly evaluated within the categories of literary criticism, if extra-literary factors seem to necessarily cramp the literary style? The question itself can be sharpened by an examination of two cadavers produced within Wiesel’s text. The portrait of the first cadaver serves to illustrate the conspicuous mediocrity of this type of literary effort. The portrait of the second will then serve to negate the effect of the first, not its mediocrity as literature, but by placing in the reflection of a silver-backed question mark the value of literature altogether. The examination of these two cadavers should illustrate the wide divide between the Yiddish deposition of 1956 and its 1958 French reconfiguration as a memoir.


The Deposition | 2(A)



To come to terms with Wiesel’s case means, before anything, to come to terms with this document. But everything depends on knowing where to open it. For upon reading its first few pages one might quite expeditiously surmise, understandably enough, that it must belong on the same shelf with the great Auschwitz memoirs, those of Levi, Améry, Ka-Tzetnik, Kuznetzov, Frankl, Kertész, Pahor, etc., indeed side by side with the 1958 French version and its offshoot translations, all of which can indeed be substantively or primarily classified as memoirs. How might such a cataloguing error be obviated? A crude expedient would be to stick a plastic red tab to the top of the first page of the fourth chapter of the Yiddish text, above the chapter heading, Der yom hadin, ‘The Day of Judgement,’ to mark the point in the document where the specifically depositional tone is adopted in a conscious manner and from which vantage point, consequently, the entire document may be recognized, read, and properly filed as a deposition.

The ‘Day’ in question in this chapter is Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s day in the Hebrew calendar. To be exact, it is the Rosh Hashanah that headed the 5705th year of the universe (according to talmudic reckoning) since its creation. The date (i.e. 17 September 1944 in the ‘common era’) remains by and large of historiographic interest, and as such has considerably less significance for our hypothesis that Wiesel is the last Ashkenazi than the fact that the Ereignis associated with this date does not exactly belong to the day in an historical manner, properly speaking, but rather constitutes an ‘event’ that is quite dateless but to which that day in European history (be it in September or Tishrei) can be meaningfully associated. On the other hand, in so far as an understandable conventional need to assign dates to apocalypses and to consider them in a historiographic light may be indulged, this date in the year 5705 (1944) can also serve to conveniently mark the apocalypse of Ashkenaz. At least, again, in so far as such an apocalypse can be regarded as an interesting event. However we consider it, in any event, the apocalyptic character of the day is essential to the depositional account of it.

The testimony of Wiesel recounts the ‘event’ as follows. On this day, in the evening, the eve of the New Year, approximately ten thousand men congregated in the Auschwitz Appellplatz to stand before the Judge of all the earth, to stand thus in order to be judged. Many of these men were devout—frume yidn. Others less so. But none so little as to actually be truant from the occasion of the momentous congregation. The devout ones, recalls Wiesel, had already been making preparations for the holy day since the onset of the change in seasons, as the month of Elul in its approach to the autumnal equinox is set aside for special annual efforts at introspection. ‘We must be ready for the Day of Judgment!’ these men could be heard saying in the camp or during work detail. But for Wiesel, who at the time was a youth just about to turn sixteen, these proclamations found an apposite, alternative meaning, a meaning that he was able to implicate into the same chapter title in an ironic sense.

Be ready? For what? We’ll be ready.

This time the roles will be reversed. This time we will not stand like the accused before absolute justice. This time we will be the judge and He—God alone—the accused.

—’We have to get ready for the Day of Judgement!’ devout Jews warned us.

We’ll be ready. Everything is prepared. Powerful documents in our prosecuter’s dossier. Animated and gruesome documents. Documents that ought to jolt the foundations of divine justice in heaven and on earth.

A Day of Judgement? Let it come. We’re waiting for it.

From here Wiesel’s account of the day continues to expand the back and forth play between the plain calendrical meaning of this day in which men once again passed before their Judge ‘like sheep before a shepherd,’ and the ironic meaning of this ‘Day of Judgement’ in 5705, namely, the apocalyptic sign whereby this unique day punctuated history itself with finality as the said Judge Himself stood in judgement before a jury of ten thousand plaintiffs. (It should be noted that it is specifically and solely this ironical apocalyptic meaning that is in question here rather than any apocalyptic meaning in the plainer, straight-forward sense of a ‘Last Judgement’ reserved by God for the end of time, a sense that is certainly also at play in the chapter.) These two possible meanings are even legible in the ambiguous use of the term ‘we’ with which the effervescent experience of such a congregation must inevitably be remembered. The ‘we’ who squarely situate themselves within calendrical time (‘We have to get ready …’) speak, without irony, on an altogether conscious level of concern. And if the fourth chapter were read on this level alone, it would have to be classified as a type of travesty, a dark farcical Purimschpiel in which Auschwitz would appear as a field divided into the camp of the faithful and the camp of the faithless. The ‘we’ who belong to apocalyptic time, on the other hand (‘We’ll be ready …’), this ironic and furious ‘we,’ in whose front row stands the adolescent ready to singe his own lungs with his screams, requires that the chapter be read with more psychoanalytical attunement, with an ear for the sounds of the inner schism within the Ashkenazi soul as such, that is, a schism inherent in the psyche of each member of the Auschwitz association assembled for this voluntary roll call on the 1st of Tishrei 5705. This ‘we’ cannot distinguish the faithless from the faithful. It cannot do so as a result of a deep turbulance and blurring of identities that takes place in both elements of the crowd. Among the so-called faithful, there is more than enough despair to make it difficult to apply the term ‘faith’ in any simple manner. In the the eyes of these frume yidn, Wiesel is able to discern an ‘an absurd faith’ (an absurdale emuneh), a ‘despairing trust’ (fartzveifeltn bitakhoin), ‘an abyss of trust’ (a tehoim fun bitakhoin), in other words, a ‘faith’ that is its own opposite. The khozn, the liturgical leader, can barely string together the words of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. The congregants pour out a grotesque mixture of ‘prayer and despair-prayer (yeush-tfiloh).’ Among the so-called faithless, conversely, this same despair that convulses the hearts of the devout ones becomes a source of strength for their case against God, a strength which, if the devout could not disentangle from their inner confusion, a sixteen-year-old was able to take up without shame in a fearless khutzpeh that would transform an all too familiar ritual supplication into an all but unprecedented legal petition, turning the tables on the Judge on this Day of Judgement. This is the real meaning of his estimation of his position as that of a detached onlooker: ‘I came to the Appellplatz. But I did not join the minyin in liturgy. I stood there like an observer …’. It means that he is not detached at all, that he is in fact the other, more confident liturgical leader of the great congregation, and that the spectacle of piety is actually the fundamental force that consolidates the strength of his case, this apocalyptic class action.

Look how the human being has become stronger than God, I thought to myself.

Ten thousand people participated in a giant minyin. Blockälteste, kapos, and simply prominent camp inmates. All, or almost all, have come together to pour out their prayer with the despair-prayer of the camp minyin.

Devout Jews—who on account of their Judaism had lost the right to be called human beings—devout Jews are crying in a loud voice.— ‘Let us bless the blessed Lord!’ calls out the cantor in a inhuman voice. The blessing was uttered, as the wind, rather than a human creature, prayed before the altar.

Let God be blesssed!

Human beings are praying. The ten-thousand-headed man, in obedience to words, bows down, like a tall giant tree bending its branches, feeling the storm wind.

Human beings are praying. They are praying to God. Here in the camp. Between electric fences. At a stretch from the crematoria. Their prayers climb to God. Blessings. To the God who daily takes smoking sacrifices of blood. […]

The cantora Vizhnitzer hosid, a shoikht or a judge—sings heart-rendingly.

‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof …’

He stops at each word. Unable to bind the words of the song together. The melody sticks in his throat like a bone, choking him.

And I—the one-time yeshiva bokhr, the bar-mitzvah youth, thought to myself: Yes, the human being is stronger than his Maker, than his God. When You, God, great and awful God, were disappointed with Adam and Eve, You just drove them out of Eden; when You were disappointed in Noah’s generation, you quickly brought a flood upon it; when Sodom became unpleasing to You, You burned them up in a fire. And now that human beings are disappointed in You, what are they doing? They pray to You! They praise Your name! […]

Once? Once I believed with a perfect faith that God sees everything and justice is everything, that God does not forget, that God pay attention to genuine prayers.

Once? Once I believed, believed with a perfect faith, that upon any gesture of mine, any prayer, depended the fate of the world, of the Jewish people, of the final redemption.

No more that ‘once.’

Today? Today no more tears come to my eyes. The source has dried up. Today I no longer feel myself weak. I feel strong. I feel within myself the might, the strength of someone against whom a monstrous injustice has been perpetrated. I feel strong. Strong like a prosecutor across from a murderer.

Strength is an issue of signal significance in this ‘event’ and in Wiesel’s account of it. We will see when we turn to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s interest in this case how the issue of strength will have undergone two critical permutations. The first configuration of strength is documented by the first three chapters of Wiesel’s deposition. It is the strength of the German murderers (the deitshe roitzkhim, as Wiesel calls them in his dedication) vis-à-vis their Jewish victims of crime. The second configuration takes shape as a third party is drawn into the situation, namely the Master of the universe, the universe in which Jews lived alongside Germans in Ashkenaz. This is the theme of the fourth chapter. ‘Today I no longer implored. I was no longer capable of lamenting. I felt, on the contrary, very strong. I was the accuser. And the accused: God.’ The theme is the strength of the Jewish victims vis-à-vis God, the strength of the case against Him, a strength evidently drawn from a supreme legislative source higher than that of the Master of the universe. It is a moral strength built upon a solid foundation of utter physical weakness. ‘What is Your greatness,’ Wiesel asks God, ‘by comparison with their weakness?’ In the third configuration, finally, which we will see taking shape at the most critical point in the Rebbe’s advice to Wiesel regarding this case, at which point the second configuration is shown to have a deep internal weakness, a certain critical decadence, we will see the presentation of a configuration of strength that is yet higher than the supreme legislative source looming above the Master of the universe and that can no longer be arranged in terms of any ‘vis-à-vis.’ We will have to tackle the difficulty of conceptualizing this third configuration. In order to prepare the way to it, we first need to grasp the second configuration, in which the strength of the case against God can be grasped in its maximum force. How to bring out the strength of the case of Eliezer Wiesel against God, therefore, must be the first issue for our dossier. It is the basic problem, already mentioned, of legal representation, the legal re-presentation of pre-litigious moral fury. And as already mentioned, in order to configure the case in such a way that its innermost strength comes to a maximum of expression, it is necessary to begin by examining, rather ruthlessly (in preparation for the ruthlessness to be expected from the cross-examination of the defence, the theodician defending the Master of the universe) the point of weakness in the fury. Where is this point of weakness in Wiesel’s case? It is to be found in its literary aspect.

We begin therefore with the simple recognition that in this case we are dealing with above average literature. That is to say, above, but not too far above. Our question is simply as follows. Is it not something of a wonder—and the challenge is to consider the wondrous phenomenon unsardonically—that the memoirist opera of this writer commands such wide authority in the genre of Auschwitz letters, actual authority and not just popularity, when we consider the chronic persistence whereby a kind of melancholia more purple than black hemorrhages prose of the same hue throughout these memoirs? It is a question of high literature. The maudlin character of Wiesel’s dramaturgy, or more precisely, what may be termed the maudlin principle systematically at work within it, from the first Yiddish page of his first and, in a sense, ‘only’ book (‘If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one’), all the way to his nth publication (The Good Lord should give him the health and strength to write yet one more!), is the persistent popularist factor that, more embarrassingly than occasional shortcoming here or there throughout his oeuvre, compromises his literary capacity to evoke for the sake of a internally bleeding need to give voice to everything under the sun. Evocation, an essential mark of literature of the first rank, is proportional to the writer’s capacity for emotional self-contraction, for a certain elegant and modest reticence, a confidence in the resources of silence, perhaps even something like good manners. Literature of the second rank, accordingly, is marked by an incapacity for this. Incapable of withstanding the pressure of the spaces between the lines, it rushes in to fill every vacuum, in a nervous worry that the Said (le dire) could only have survived its journey to the reader’s inner ear under the swarming protective reinforcements of the Meant (le vouloir dire). It is the author’s anxious anticipation of a commentary which he writes preemptively, furtively into the work itself. A good example of this weakness was noticed by Camus in his reading of La Nausée, about which he commented that Sartre had not quite managed to dissolve philosophical ideas into literary images. In Wiesel’s case, what is not adequately dissolved in the literary element is the already-mentioned fury that has very little to do with literature. This is something that has not gone unnoticed by his critics, especially the ones who read Yiddish. Therefore we will also have to show how the maudlin principle is itself an expression of, as well as a truncation of expression resulting from editorial intervention, of a certain bilious humour that, left unedited, expresses itself as fury. Restricting our attention, to begin with, to the dynamics of evocation, however, the first point to notice regarding Wiesel’s need to give voice to too much is that it is embarrassing precisely because it does not come across as a failing in either natural talent or discipline. What is at play, again, is a principle.


Wiesel Triste

The Plaint | 1(A)







If the question of form or even of format were defined with a sufficiently wide conceptual berth, our entire question of how singing follows upon Auschwitz as a necessity could be moored to it. We might even say that the entire question is defined in terms of the forms of sound. More narrowly, though, the question concerns the difference in format between plaint and deposition, where, very basically, by plaint we understand something that does not yet or necessarily have a litigational form. A plaint is basically a lament. Its sound is that of crying. But as the ‘noise’ of a plaint is carefully reworked and reformated until its sound is finally admissible in a courtroom in the form of a proper affidavit, the greatest risk to the strength of the case’s argument that arises in this reformative process would lie in overdoing the legal eloquence to the point that it begins to muffle the essential ‘tonality’ of the pain which is the anchor of the very rightness of the case and of its argument.

Thus the first part of our dossier contains a presentation of Wiesel’s plaint in its basic raw forms. It is only when the cacophonous inelegance of his crude plaint is identified and the work of reformating is laid out that the essence of the plaint itself emerges from its accidental caterwauling. In ‘Winter,’ the plaint is introduced as follows.

During his meeting with the Rebbe, Gregor had asked him,

‘So noth­ing has changed?’

‘Nothing.’ ‘Me too?’

‘You too. You haven’t changed.’

‘And Auschwitz? What do you make of Auschwitz?’

‘Auschwitz proves that nothing has changed, that the first war persists. That man is capable of love and of hate, of mur­der and of sacrifice. That he is both Abraham and Isaac. God—He has not changed.’

Gregor became angry. ‘After what has happened to us, how can you still believe in God?’

The Rebbe, an understanding smile on his lips, an­swered, ‘After what has happened to us, how can you not believe in God?’

The two of them had an impassioned discussion. Gregor was victorious, or at least he thought he was. But now he became ashamed, as if over an insult he had landed, not so much at the Rebbe himself as at this assembly for whom he was every­thing. […]

The conversation between Gregor and the Rebbe opened in hostility. Gregor saw in his interlocutor a fortress inviting comfort and repose, while the Rebbe took his vistor for a deserter. One preached gratitude, the other anger.

Gregor: ‘The degeneration of the human being constitutes an accusation against his Creator, who bears His share of responsibility for the treason.’

The Rebbe: ‘All the more reason to choose faith [la foi], devotion; be pure, and God will be purified in you.’

Gregor: ‘Why should I do that? I owe Him nothing. On the contrary.’

The Rebbe: ‘That is not the question. He owes you nothing either. You don’t live His life and He doesn’t live yours. You owe yourself something; what exactly?—that’s the question.’

We now brusquely pass over this introductory part of the section from ‘Winter’ without comment. First, we need to take up the document that contains the key deposition in the case of Eliezer Wiesel, that is to say, the key section of the text that he himself considers to be his official written deposition, even under the eventual French title La nuit.