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.