Category Archives: Pieces

The Memoir | 4

Memoir

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

 

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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)

 

Deposition

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)

Plaint

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Dachau

Introduction

introduction
A. The Lead Plaintiff and the Advocate

In the dossier to be here complied, the relevance of that relatively obscure nocturnal conversation in Brooklyn for the Ashkenazi experience as a whole—assuming we can speak of such a totality, which, whatever date we might assign its origins, came to an epochal close, Old Ashkenaz that is, when the locks to the gates of Auschwitz were broken in 1945—its revolutionary relevance—if such a thing can even be said against the backdrop of a century hemorrhaging with all-too-conspicuous revolutions—is to be the major preoccupation. Minor issues pertinent to a commentary on these ten pages from Les portes, such as the problem of hypothesizing about the degree to which they and are not fiction (‘idealized’), or of explicating certain odd turns taken in the conversation, are part of the preparatory work. As if artlessly attesting to their nonfictional aspect, Wiesel records these turns with a certain nonchalance that seems almost content with their sheer poetic effect, as if something less than a total epistemological revolution were underway. To be sure, he will remember that a significant general turning had taken place.

The fourth chapter of The Gates of the Forest is about Brooklyn, the Farbrengen, and my idealized image of a Hasidic rebbe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I describe how we met, how I come to the first Farbrengen. I describe our first conversation, which lasted hours. At one point I asked him point blank, ‘Rebbe, how can you believe in Hashem after the Khourban?’ He looked at me and said, ‘And how can you not believe after the Khourban?’ Well, that was a turning point in my writing, that simple dialogue.

But to what momentous literary crisis Wiesel is referring in such a statement we must admit that, from a perusal of his unabated literary prolificacy after 1964, we do not know. In fact, it is, if anything, a certain enduring reluctance on Wiesel’s part to make any clear and decisive turn even after the Rebbe’s question regarding the ‘Destruction’ in Europe that seems to us worthy of careful consideration. This reluctance to turn, or to bring to completion an initiated turning, the truth of this reluctance and this incomplete gesture, as distinct from the various issues of commentary, is the proper subject matter of the critique to be attempted here.

Why did Wiesel set out for Brooklyn that evening to begin with? Although he does not say outright, we can partly reconstruct the motive from the succinct characterization given in ‘Winter’ of what a rebbe, an ‘idealized’ Ḥasidic rebbe, is supposed to be. ‘Hatzadik gozer vehakadosh baruch hu mekayem, says the Talmud. The righteous man decrees and God fulfills. If the Rebbe willed it, he could change the course of history.’

It probably goes without saying that Wiesel did not expect Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn to change the course of history for him. The entire description of the encounter, in fact, narrated as it is in a subdued sardonic melancholy, bespeaks a peculiar flavous humour, an ‘anger with God,’ which we will designate with more precision for a number of technical reasons as Wiesel’s fury, burning almost imperceptibly under a calm black sea, predicated upon a despair-filled resignation to the unchangeability of history. But whenever the fury does burst from the mouth of the protagonist ‘Gregor,’ Wiesel’s avatar in the novel, the outbursts, as we will see, do in fact expect, if not a change in the course of history, then certainly the next best thing, namely a judgement pronounced upon history, on the way history was designed by God to unfold.

As Wiesel’s text will presently show, that entire conversation in Brooklyn comes to expression from an internal immiscibility between the bitter disillusionment of one who lost his childhood all too soon, all too apocalyptically, and the ineradicable naïveté rooted deep within the grown man which reaches downward hydrotropically, as it were, toward another childhood. This is why the very first thing that Wiesel announces to the Rebbe upon entering the room, an announcement we must imagine as having been rehearsed in preparation for the meeting, is his allegiance to his lost childhood. ‘As a point of entry into the matter, I confided to him—in order to lighten the mood? [But what mood was there already that had to be lightened?]—that I was a hasid of Vizhnitz, not of Lubavitch. And that I had no intention of switching allegiances.’ This ceremonial presentation of the flag and rattling of the sabre would remain a kind of code language between the two men signaling the reluctance to abandon a familiar childhood lost for an unfamiliar childhood to be regained. We see it at work during a vodka-repartee that took place during a certain Simḥat Torah celebration in which the Rebbe repeatedly asks before each cup of mashke, ‘So how is it done in Vizhnitz?’, and Wiesel responds by asking in turn, ‘How is it done in Lubavitch?’ At the end of the drinking contest, just before Wiesel passes out, the Rebbe gives him a blessing for ‘new beginnings.’ Wiesel appreciates the polysemy of the blessing. But the miraculous ‘historiographic’ (some might say, ‘revisionist’) possibilities available only to a man who is said to possess the power to change the course of history, the re-writing of history in the form of a new beginning, a new childhood, is surely not easy to second guess. ‘After all, Simḥat Torah is my birthday,’ Wiesel concludes.

‘Other visits would follow,’ we are assured. Yet that unique dark but lightward night of the soul in the Rebbe’s unassuming office on the second floor of 770 Eastern Parkway is revisited again and again by Wiesel in his writing and public speaking as if everything that had to be said and everything that would ever be said or that was contained in the unsaid between the two men during subsequent visits and correspondences was contained in substance in that original conversation.

Consequently, our dossier is to be organized around the account of that yekhidus in the fourth part of Les portes, both what was said in that ‘simple dialogue,’ and, more importantly, to what was not said. The pages of this text will be interspersed among other documents by Wiesel and the Rebbe which bear directly upon the same conversation, as well as various bits of supporting documentation from various sources. Besides that, in terms of what was said, the account of the conversation given in the 1994 memoir Tous les fleuves vont à la mer needs to remain at hand. But the most important document relevant to what was not said that night, particularly by the Rebbe, is a letter sent to Wiesel one year, to the month, following the publication of the 1964 novel. The letter is dated 24 Nissan 5725 (i.e. 26 April 1965). Like all the Rebbe’s ‘holy letters’ (igrot kodesh), it has the tone, the weight and, above all, the function of an epistle, and must be read accordingly if the trope is to be appreciated. This document, taken up in two parts, must occupy much of our attention.

What was the topic of discussion during those long lucubrative hours in the Rebbe’s office? Was there one question that stood forth as a leading question? We just heard it in the fragment cited above: How can one believe in God after Auschwitz? Musing on the important role played in his life by Saul Lieberman, his ‘Master’ in talmudic learning, Wiesel notes how questions of ‘faith’ were nevertheless never discussed between them. ‘These questions I discussed with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch.’

‘How can one believe in God after Auschwitz?’ The last half century has rubbed down this question to a smooth dullness. Whether we can re-experience or recapture something of the havoc originally wreaked on the language of common piety by the question, in particular by the jagged little word ‘after,’ a nasty theogico-linguistic perversion that had been prefigured by that other, puckish locution from the 19th century, ‘God is dead,’ is hard to say.

And as for the question’s key term ‘belief,’ that is something we must be prepared to judge as being quite beyond repair. This term has long lost its power to upset anyone, never mind to entice anyone. ‘Belief,’ ‘faith’: these are lexical artifacts. Our experience of these words resembles the mild professional embarrassment felt by the archeologist upon pulling a nondescript nicely decorated artifact out of the dust, which, after carefully brushing, he turns round and round in his fingers scrutinizing it from all angles. At a loss for what the thing is and what function it might have had in prehistoric times, he settles upon the only explanation left over: ‘The artifact was once used for religious purposes!’ We likewise are confident that words like ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ once served religious purposes. Like the archeologist, we are merely at a loss to explain to our contemporaries in a meaningful way what exactly those purposes were.

‘How can one believe in God after Auschwitz?’ is nevertheless a question that Wiesel put to the Lubavitcher Rebbe shortly before 1964, not quite ancient history. Even as late as the 1994 memoir, he confirms in the same language regarding Les portes de la forêt, that the novel is entirely ‘inscribed within the problematic of faith.’ We have to assume that Wiesel was not unaware of indulging in such an outmoded fashion of speaking, any less than the Rebbe was aware that ‘faith’ has no lexical counterpart in Hebrew. If terms like ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ nevertheless do have room, indeed even occupy a central place, in their conversation and correspondence, we must also assume that, on the one hand, for Wiesel, these terms have such a strong sentimental value, like heirloom bits that, despite their dilapidated state beyond restoration, cannot be discarded because they mark certain points within memory, deep and terribly ugly scars, but scars that cannot be covered up without an even more terrible compromise of one’s identity; and that, on the other hand, for the Rebbe, these terms have an indispensible use in marking the exact point of weakness in Wiesel’s case which requires close attention and fortification.

The point of weakness marked by the terms ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ is of course not idiosyncratic to Wiesel’s case. In so far as intellectual history serves as a valuable symptom of, besides also being a contribution to, a given historical condition, it is perhaps no more exaggerative than it is original to suggest that the issue of ‘religious faith’ is the issue that has defined the Ashkenazi experience since the Haskalah of the 18th and 19th centuries. Following the basic Aufklärung understanding of ‘faith’ as a type of ‘reluctance to come of age’ or immaturity (Unmündigkeit), a self-imposed ‘incapacity to employ one’s understanding without guidance from another,’ the Haskalah joined up with the general program to actively precipitate the atrophy of religious faith in order to make room for a self-guided Reason, a rationalism that does not ask for help. The ‘euthanasia of God’ was certainly not an accomplishment of reason alone. Such things are more complicated than slogans can suggest. But in terms of symptomatology, Moses Mendelssohn’s publication of Jerusalem in 1783, for example, the cornerstone text of the Haskalah in Ashkenaz, shows every sign of the onset of the decline of Jewish ‘faith.’

This historical period may, accordingly, be titled the Ashkenazi decandence, this last two and a half century phase of this last two thousand year old ‘exile.’ The period is of course synchronous with that of the Haskalah, and not just by coincidence. In the course of our study, we will have to explain why this phenomenon of decadence is nevertheless prior, logically if not temporally, to the Haskalah per se. The French term décadence is borrowed from Nietzsche, quite deliberately so, for example from his case study of Wagner. But the loan is not merely a matter of convenience, neither the term itself nor its specific elaboration, application and factoring into Western thought by Nietzsche in particular. Décadence characterizes the old condition of the European soul as a whole. We thus employ the same term here to suggest how the Ashkenazi decadence is a period of marked weakness, of fatigue, of exhaustion, the final phase of a disorder of long standing specifically bound up in a devastatingly familiar, fraternal connection with what Novalis called Die Christenheit oder Europa, ‘Christiandom or Europe,’ an equation that Nietzsche then qualified as Die Christenheit oder Europäischer Nihilismus. Things are more complicated than that, to be sure. But with respect to matters of ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ this equation is a simple datum. In so far as the Ashkenazi decadence finds expression as ‘disbelief’ and ‘lack of faith’ we are dealing with an aggravation of an older nihilistic condition of faith, precisely faith itself, faith as the heart and soul of faithless despair, Christian faith as a Europe-sized epidemic condition of nihilism.

How does this bear on the case of Wiesel? The above-mentioned epistle of 24 Nissan 5725 makes this issue its point of departure. While the substance of the epistle bears directly upon the conversation reported in the text of ‘Winter,’ its most proximate impetus came from a newspaper article written by Wiesel that had then just appeared in the Passover issue of the Jewish Advocate on 15 April 1965. The same issue contains an article entitled ‘Chasidic Leader Opposes Interfaith Dialogues,’ which essentially presents and carries an open epistle dictated by the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s epistle to Wiesel of a week and a half later thus opens with the following words.

It so happens, by ‘coincidence,’ that your article in the Pesakh issue of the Jewish Advocate, ‘On Jewish Atheists,’ came into my hands. By ‘coincidence’ because your article appears on the obverse side of the page on which my own appears, a letter on the theme of ‘dialogue.’ But it goes without saying that for us Jews there is altogether no question of coincidence as everything happens according to divine supervision over personal providence [hashgokho protis].

As the title of the Rebbe’s article indicates, its main concern is the assimilation of unwitting Jews—living amid the ‘confusion and perplexity’ that was the fallout of ‘the upheavals, revolutions and wars which have plagued our times’—converting to, intermarrying into, or simply being interested in, Christianity as an valid alternative to their own ‘faith.’ The article’s conclusion invites fellow Jews to an exercise in brutal honesty and self-awareness which knows: the Jew’s fascination with Christianity, beneath the sophisticated presentation of all its rational and humanistic grounds, is rooted in a historically determined decadence.

It is sometimes argued that the rejection of religious dialogue, or the prohibition of the study of other religions, indicates an acknowledgement of weakness, G-d forbid, on the part of the Torah vis-à-vis other religions. There is no need to refute this fallacious argument. However, if a weakness is involved, it is that of human nature. In the face of a promise of an easier way of life, free from the restrictions of 248 positive and 365 negative precepts, and more freedom to gratify one’s lower instincts, many an individual may succumb to the temptation. Moreover, the human mind is often so inconstant that one may readily overlook the most glaring and evident truths that bar the way to the gratification of one’s lusts.

When the Rebbe opens his epistle to Wiesel by insisting that the ‘coincidental’ appearance of their respective articles is in fact no coincidence (i.e. happenstance) at all, therefore, we may well wonder whether what the Rebbe had in mind in his insistence—he does not say it outright, but he describes his own motivation to write to Wiesel as what ‘a Jew seeks according to the way of hints’ [derekh remozim]—is the coincidence (i.e. juxtaposition) of two phenomena put in question by the two articles: the peculiar decadence at the heart of Christian ‘faith’ and the subsequent Ashkenazi decadence that managed to manufacture, market and distribute a knock-off called ‘Jewish faith.’

The origins of the phenomenon of Ashkenazi decadence and hence Ashkenazi assimilation is thus to be found in a human-all-too-human desire for comfort, a comfort desired by all human beings in as much as they are driven by their lower instincts, but in so far as the Ashkenazi experience is concerned, a comfort that is a passion specifically to be found in the sanctum sanctorum of the Christian gospel. In his letter to Wiesel, as a warning to Wiesel, and therefore as an indication of the basic temptation to which Wiesel exposes his question, ‘How can one believe in God after Auschwitz?’, the Rebbe, as we will see, returns to his warning against philosophies designed ‘merely to make life lighter and more comfortable’ whereby ‘one can get along with the world in a lighter manner.’ He does not need to identify these philosophies as Christian. That is our business. But at least the ‘coincidence’ that occurred in the Jewish Advocate points the way.

(It should be noted, parenthetically, but significantly, that there is no wish here, and it is probably too simplistic, to follow Nietzsche in his wholesale reduction of the Gospels to a doctrine of decadence. It is not for us to say whether Christian faith can be saved or resurrected from the lusty Idumean principle coursing throughout its veins and so bloody obvious in the Cross. Our concern here is limited to what Nietzsche recognized as the sanguine principle in Christian decadence, which the midrashic tradition traces to Esau. ‘And the first came out red [admoni], all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.’ ‘Red. Said Rabbi Abba ben Kahanah: As if shedding blood.’ Whenever the term ‘Christian’ appears in our study with a pejorative inflection, therefore, it is to be read as shorthand, or the alias, for this principle.)

Thematically, the special link that Christian doctrine emphasizes between faith and hope will be shown to be a critical point of spiritual relaxation where the desire for comfort lays itself down. The long era of hope and faith, of faith modelled on hope, constitutes the greater part, and the profounder aspect, of the bimillennial nihilism of Europe, an era to which the final two or three hundred years of haute décadence, this age of hopelessness (désespoir) and lack of faith, of disbelief modelled on despair, is but a Rococo curlicue. Despair is a type of hope. Atheism is a type of Christian faith. (Thus, to round off the parenthetical note in the paragraph above: if liberal sensibilities are piqued by the pretentiousness of a Jewish deconstruction of Christianity, these sensibilities may rest assured that post-Christian liberalism itself is no less, and perhaps even more, an Idumean construct that needs to be razed to the ground.) And herein lies the greatest irony of the Ashkenazi golus, namely that the very despair whereby the Jew would outgrow his ‘faith’ is modelled on a Christian despair, a Christian atheism, so that the return-path to the God of his fathers and mothers must first go through a properly Jewish despair, a Jewish atheism, if it is to learn what his fathers and mothers experienced prior to the era of ‘faith.’ Which is why the case of Wiesel, the exemplary case of Jewish atheism, a highly nuanced and complex atheism of which the vital umbilical connection to theism Wiesel has never severed and which has thus never been allowed be properly born, is a case not to be by-passed or circumvented.

We have been vaguely hinting at the possibility that that Wiesel made a trip to Brooklyn sometime before April 1964 in order to ask the Rebbe for help. We will see from Wiesel’s own accounts, how he himself believed he was going to the Rebbe not in order to get any help but simply in order to complain. In our reading of these accounts, reconstructed from the vantage of the Rebbe’s epistle of Nissan 5725 (1965), however, we will see the Rebbe taking hold of something operating behind this belief. The Rebbe grasped that Wiesel wanted help after all. He wanted help complaining. Wiesel essentially came to Brooklyn to hire the Rebbe. (In a sense, likewise, his article ‘On Jewish Atheist,’ functioned as a newspaper advertisement asking for legal representation for his case, a request to which the Rebbe responded.) Wiesel no doubt suspected that the most he would find in Brooklyn was one of God’s trusted attorneys to whom he might formally submit his complaint, his deposition. What he probably expected from the Rebbe was some resistance in the form of theodicy, a defense of his Divine client or boss or perhaps a brusque bureaucratic brush-off of the impious complaint. What he did not expect to find was a legal advocate prepared to work pro bono and very interested in taking on his lawsuit against God.

B. The Class Action

Eliezer Wiesel is the last Ashkenazi. What this basically dogmatic proposition signifies for our purposes is that in taking up this one case we imagine ourselves to be grasping, or at least to be touching, something of the Ashkenazi experience as a whole. In this regard, our first point of methodology, or, what amounts to the same, our first admission of naïveté, is the assumption that sometimes history takes advantage of such a single case by treating it as kind of convenient repositorium for the collected experiences of a given population in a given era as this era winds down to a close, and that this sometimes happens so effectively that a little discriminative rummaging through this repository can even emerge with something in hand, an almost conceptual handle on something of the collective experience. Such cases are not too difficult to spot for the most part thanks to the popularity they tend to achieve, especially as ‘affairs’ of notoriety. But the popularity that burgeons organically, not to mention the commercial industry often shrewdly spun, around them, are little more than late and delayed effects of a people’s collective psychic compulsion to take hold of something, of someone, not unlike the way we will sometimes pick up an old photograph of ourselves and feel compelled to turn it over and over between our fingers. It stems from a hankering after some hint about what to do next, which seems to loom down on us from an uncomfortable sense that the clock wants to strike twelve, a hankering which is therefore especially bothersome and insistent in a period of historical decadence in the story of a people.

The Dreyfus Case is of course the Ashkenazi case par excellence. We are very familiar with the world-historical consequences that men like Zola and Herzl were able to pull out of this case without too much effort. The Case of Wagner is another good example. Nietzsche was the first to recognize that not only must the man Wagner be seen as a ‘child of the times’; more significantly still, we must see how the German people and even Europe at large ‘have fashioned a Wagner for themselves whom they can adore’. It goes without saying that this type of adoration bears a certain kinship to the cult of the hero. But the two phenomena should not be conflated. Where the secret of hero-worship is a frustrated invidious emulation, the key element at play in this particular Verehrung of Wagner was more of an enshrinement. A very close counterpart in contemporary American culture would be the kind of operatically solemn performance in which two little girls dress up a Barbie doll and tell her story by way of finessing a shared sense of self, or a sense of what is to be expected, which really amounts to the same. Indeed, we might say that a pupatological methodology is at play in the case of Wagner. At play even when the toying around, like so much ‘child’s play,’ is a terribly serious business; when only the perspective, so low to the floor, is what makes it seem like idle inconsequentialness, a perspectival illusion that, for example, Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ removes to remind us how gruesome and nerve-wracking toying around can be. Among most peoples of the world a period of decadence is often recognizable by a subtle shift in general interest from idols to dolls (not baby dolls, which have a separate psycho-social function, but homunculi), that is, from an anxious need, played out under a scorching red sky of ecstasy and self-mutilating jouissance, to retrieve some irretrievable pleasure or would-be pleasure, to an introverted, introspective anxiety at play, in a safe toy room, over the immanent apocalypse of that same pleasure. It was the ‘Wagnerization of Europe’ that compelled Nietzsche to make his study of Richard Wagner (the plastic homunculus, not the man) and thereby to consummate and to complicate the process of European self-definition by taking a small step back and gaining on himself yet one more perimeter of awareness, a bit more breathing space, a bit more leeway, more play, Spielraum, to turn his head away. Nietzsche recalls how this happened for him in the summer of 1876 at the Bayreuth festival: ‘I took leave of Wagner within myself.’ By which he means that this was when he had finally attained enough of an inner exodus from his bondage to a hero-worship of Wagner so as to be able to hold out his own décadence at arm’s length and study it. ‘I am, just as much Wagner, a child of these times, which is to say, a décadent; except only that I grasp this’. The premise of the following study is that the case of Wiesel might serve a similar function for post-Ashkenazi Judaism. As Wiesel recognizes about ‘himself’ (in the avatar of ‘Elisha’) at one point: ‘You are the sum of what we have been.’ That is the precise formula for a subject of pupatological consideration. An affair is an arithmetic quantum. It is a collective consciousness facilitated analytically by plus-signs and an equal-sign that emerge from a background of a collective historical unconscious by virtue of decadence. As such, the personal name attached to it (‘Dreyfus,’ etc.) has almost nothing, at least nothing of great relevance to pupatological study, to do with the person whose identification papers contain that name.

Why do we consider Eliezer Wiesel of all people to be the last Ashkenazi? (And why ‘Eliezer’ rather than just ‘Elie’?) In answering this question, we must here dispense with long biographical formalities. Such information can be accessed easily enough from his various memoirs, and even more easily by googling his last name. The items on his biographical itinerary of concern to us here can be counted on one hand. Besides a critical day in 1944 in Buchenwald, two other occurrences in the camp, and of course the long night in Brooklyn some time before 1964, there are three moments in Wiesel’s life that recommend themselves as significant for justifying our methodology: the American publication of Night with Hill & Wang in 1960, the laureateship of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and the special appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006. The last of these seems by far the most significant. For while fame is in general, and, not just fame, which over time can suffer various modifications after all, but popularity, contemporary popularity, is the first criterion by which to identify the subject of any pupatological investigation, the final criterion must be something akin to what Jean Baudrillard has perceived in the Disney Syndrome besetting American civilization. Baudrillard proposes that the true force of attraction that draws the crowds to Disneyland, more than any opportunity for childish escapism, ‘is the social microcosm, the religious jouissance, miniaturized, of real America, of its constraints and its joys.’

Similarly, the phenomenon of oprahfication that is part of the interior decor of the American mind is an all but irresistible process whereby certain phenomena of inconceivable complexity and unspeakable devastation are presented in mini, handleable form on an electric twenty-two inch proscenium. The Norwegian Nobel Committee already ventured into pontifical language when it beatified Wiesel as ‘a messenger to mankind.’ Oprah dolls him up to be nothing less than the darling of Buchenwald. (Not to mention the Christian undertones of the Oprah pupatology as well.) The show is not easy to watch. Arm in arm, in Poland, Auschwitz, Wiesel escorts Oprah through the snowy via dolorsa, descending circle by circle into the depths of the inferno. (E poichè la sua mano alla mia pose … Mi mise dentro alle segrete cose …) The winter play date has been well scheduled. (Oświęcim has its lovely summers too after all. One must avoid those.) Likewise the wardrobe. Wiesel is wearing a fur hat, tilted just right à la Zhivago. Oprah is in a dark coat, her knitted checked scarf with a sufficient number of gray and khaki carrés to be dismal-respectful, but also just enough orange to be ‘O’. (One orange carré even approaches red: la sangre de Cristo?) Passing under the Arbeit Macht Frei gates (Per me si va nella citta’ dolente ), Oprah’s voiceover is heard: ‘This iron gate is one of the most infamous symbols of evil still standing. Yet as you pass through it there is a feeling of [pause for effect] sacredness. Haunting memory. Something achingly sad [long pause] and holy.’ In a word, holocaust, a burnt offering offered at a holy site. As the representation of human suffering, degradation and death was perfected by the greatest Christian painters long before television was invented, it is certainly not surprising that nothing in the entire production actually smacks of bad taste. On the contrary, the whole thing is done with impeccably good taste.

It is precisely good taste, especially when it is impeccable, that is a sure sign of what Baudrillard calls a ‘simulation of the third order’ like the one with such exemplarity in, or as, Disneyland.

Disneyland is there to hide the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, the entirety of ‘real’ America, that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide the fact that it is the social as a whole, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make one believe that the rest is real, whereas the whole of Los Angeles and America which surrounds one are no longer real but belong to the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), it is a question of hiding up the fact that the real is no longer the real … .

If we replaced the term ‘Disneyland’ in this text with ‘Night’ or ‘Elie Wiesel’s Auschwitz,’ and the term ‘America’ with ‘Ashkenaz’ (although there would be some sense in keeping the term ‘America’ or at least broadening it to include ‘the West’), we would output the precise product of oprahfication: Elie Wiesel’s Auschwitz is there to hide the fact that it is the ‘real’ Ashkenaz, the entirety of the Ashkenazi population spread out between Los Angeles and the West Bank, that is Elie Wiesel’s Auschwitz. The very effect that Wiesel himself bitterly denounced in the ‘soap opera’ that aired on NBC in 1978, ‘The Holocaust’, is repeated, albeit with far more good taste, with what ‘what the French call pudeur,’ in his volunteering to play the role of Oprah’s personal tour-guide in Auschwitz and the inclusion of Night on her canonical Reading List.

But then what is the reality of Ashkenaz? If the Jew living in New York today is suspended in the hyperreality of ‘Thank God we live in America! Thank God Elie Wiesel suffered Auschwitz for us so that we don’t have to go through that horror ourselves! Yes, and thank God Wiesel survived so that we don’t have to feel the shame of surviving ourselves!’ then where, really where, is this Jew actually living? The answer follows logically from the fact that Oprah has succeeded in putting Night on the bookshelf of every decent American. The reality of Ashkenaz can only be one thing: Auschwitz. Auschwitz is not in Poland. America is in Auschwitz. At the very least, Auschwitz is a hemisphere-wide state of affairs. The West is in Auschwitz. If for no one else, then a least in so far as Jews are concerned. One can put aside thinking about such things of course, but if one wishes to think these things through logically in the axiomatology that is proper to them, then one must be prepared to see over the narrow geographic or cartographic significance of places. The ‘spatiality’ of golus, for one, including the longitudinal and latitudinal ‘dispersion’ of Jewish populations known as diaspora, cannot be thought through otherwise. Golus is in essence a kind of hyperreality like Borgès’s world-sized map. In short, if prisons serve to hide the fact that the social as a whole is carceral, then surely Auschwitz was there, and is there still in museumified theme park form, to hide the fact that our civilization is concentrational.

Of course, we might well ask: Even if Oprah will be Oprah, how did the cynical boy-hound from Buchenwald become a theme park mascot, a brand, to be photographed with? (Oprah: ‘Did you ever hate your oppressors?’ Elie: ‘I had anger but never hate. …’ Oprah: ‘In your memoir Night, you write of the Hungarian soldiers who drove you from your homes, “It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and that hate is still the only link between us today.”’ Elie: ‘I wrote that, but I didn’t hate. I just felt …’) Why must Wiesel, a man of no mean mettle, necessarily succumb to the operation like any other good American citizen? (‘I wouldn’t have done it with anyone,’ he tells Oprah: he wouldn’t have come back to Auschwitz, ‘for the last time,’ with anyone else but Oprah.) Evidently the oprahfication of Elie Wiesel in no way does violence to Elie Wiesel. At worst, it exaggerates and ‘supersizes’ for American consumer habits what is essentially there and is there as essential.

In a sense, the entire problem is inscribed in the signature itself. ‘Elie Wiesel.’ This is how the name of the last Ashkenazi appears on the cover of La nuit in 1958. This French text is the heavily edited, more successful version of the original Yiddish version published two years earlier in Buenos Aires. ‘Elie Wiesel’ is subsequently also the name of the author of Night (1960), the considerably more successful American translation of La nuit, as well as every other subsequent publication. On the cover of the 1956 original document, … Un di velt hot geshvign, ‘… And the World Kept Silent,’ however, the author’s name appears, in Yiddish-Hebrew letters, as אליעזר וויזל, Eliezer Vizl, and on the pack page, above the Argentinian title, … Y el mundo callaba, as ‘Eliezer Wiesel.’ Did anything essential take place in the two years between 1956 and 1958? If so, in the absence of biographical data, which could not possibly tell us very much anyway even were it available, how might we reconstruct the apparent shift on an atemporal, abstractly conceptual, i.e. literary critical level? (Lest it still be less than perfectly clear, let it be stated without equivocation that the man named Mr. Wiesel, for whom we cannot feel anything but lucid respect touched by reverence and trembling, is an unknown variable, an x, in all our differential equations. ‘Eliezer’ is no less a pure function, an f(x), than is ‘Elie.’ Literary criticism touches nothing but personæ, hērōes, both fictional and authorial, and ventures to pass judgement on nothing but the realization of these as strictly literary or pedagogic phenomena.)

The dossier to be compiled here attempts to address this problem among others. Furthermore, it should be noted that the admittedly sideward gaze and strong reservations with which the oprahfication of Elie Wiesel is to be regarded, an operation we read as a mere intensification of the process already begun in Paris when the name Eliezer was edited down to Elie, should not be confused with a complete rejection or disdain of this phenomenon. Like disneyfication and other kindred phenomena, oprahfication is here taken to be a pupatological process that is already well underway, honourably copyrighted and institutionalized and that cannot be resisted, especially in a period of historical decadence, and moreover a process that should not be resisted if we are to proceed in the expectation that this decadence can, ‘in our days,’ as they say, if only messianically, attain a higher degree of self-perspicacity.

What we wish to attempt is simply a less polished, more childish pupatography. Perhaps the best example, taken from a different medium, which can provide our own more or less philosophical study (viz. our more philosophical study in its efforts to become a less philosophical study) with a model worth emulating is the case study of Vladek Spiegelman carried out by his son and prosecutor. There is nothing funny or silly about Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1978-91). Yet it remains for all that, from its first page to its last, a comic book. We imagine a young ‘Artie’ escaping into the comic book world much like any of the boys he grew up with in Rego Park, except that in his particular case the escape had an added special urgency. But Auschwitz, which is to say, the inner Auschwitz of his boyhood home, ‘Hell Planet,’ pursued its prisoner into this little world too, leaving him no escape, and at the same time ravaging the medium of Mickey Mouse as it had been established and recognized hitherto. Yet for all the violence that it wreaks on the medium, Maus remains a comic book.

Similarly, here, everything (in the progress toward less philosophy) will depend on the extent to which the pupatology can be more childish particularly in the direction of the ‘idiotic,’ if the inimitability of Art Spiegelman’s enterprise may be characterized in this way. For what is to take place is an interruption of popular putatologies that belong to socio-historic dynamics are always already underway, such as those produced by Disney and Oprah. If the latter are essentially forms of sibling-play, like the Barbie-doll dreamtime spun two sisters (albeit of course in a metaphorical siblinghood, like the ‘fraternité’ of the Cordeliers), the interruption is in essence the gesture of the oldest brother, a first born, whose ‘idiocy’ is due to the surd element of excessive filiality (again, a metaphorical filiality) to a parental authority. The oldest brother speaks with the irritating, nagging voice of conscience, such as when Reuben threatens to disrupt the conspiracy of the horde of brothers against their father Jacob. Such an interruption and disruption of the essentially social phenomenon of decadence from the height of an ideal that puts the very sociality of popular pupatologies in question must necessarily sound asocial and ‘idiotic.’ This ‘idiocy’ is in fact a second (and first in epistemic order) major element of our methodology, or, what amounts to the same, our second major prejudice, namely our very naïve (‘filial’) reliance on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings for defining the ultimate prejudicial categories to be admitted as the judicial criteria to be used to prepare the case for judgement.

Having said that, nonetheless, it ought to be made clear that the reader’s prospectively less ‘fanatical’ standpoint is not a matter of indifference here, far from it. Above, we mentioned that the ten pages from ‘Winter’ to which this dossier is to serve as a propaedeutic are disquieting, unusually disquieting. It is probably safe to assume that most people who have read these pages have not found them noticeably more disquieting than the rest of the novel or, for that matter, than any other text from Wiesel’s corpus. The fact is that the disquietude in question is unusual only for a hosid of the Rebbe. Such a hosid, at the same time, is very unlikely to have any interest in reading a study like the one at hand. After all, there is so much more hasidus to be read and studied, and so few hours in the day. So for whom is this study written? For lack of a better word, we might say: for a sympathizer. There is a cavalier saying among Lubavitch hasidim that there are only two types of Jews, Lubavitchers and those who want to be Lubavitchers. Regarding this saying, which is perhaps not without its merits, a very astute and staunch misnagid nevertheless once mused: ‘In that case I suppose I must be a Lubavitcher. Cuz I sure as hell don’t wanna be one!’ With unfeigned respect for this misnagid, the study to follow is accordingly written with an aim to elicit an intellectual sympathy in him and those like him, a sympathy across a distance between two fraternal tribes, with the standpoint of a hosid who, if he had read Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest, and if he was not compelled to dismiss its contents as fraudulent, would himself be in need of going through the kind of quasi-philosophical agitations legible herein.

 

hosanna-title

Hosanna!

אנא ה הושיעה נא
אנא ה הצליחה נא

H[osanna] 170OSHIA NA !

In Hiver, ‘Winter,’ the fourth chapter of Les portes de la forêt, Elie Wiesel recounts how he came to Brooklyn to make the acquaintance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

‘My first visit to his court,’ Wiesel would recall in his memoirs of thirty years later, ‘lasted almost the entire night.’

The two men conversed in their mother tongue, Yiddish. The topic was Auschwitz. And the conversation, for the most part, stuck to one manner of speaking. Except for the last turn, it stayed within an old discursive mannerism that gave the meeting the peculiar character of a legal consultation. According to talmudic tradition, it is the genre that was introduced into literature by no one less than Moses when he penned his other book, the Book of Job.

Was the consultant in this session, the Rebbe, expected to be a prosecuting attorney, or a defense attorney, or perhaps a judge? The answer to this question is not simple. In future annals of Jewish history, Elie Wiesel may well come to be known as the last Ashkenazi, that is, if Ashkenaz may be defined as that long and mostly uncomfortable rental arrangement in Europe wherein Jews lived within walls constructed both with brick and mortar and with the intellectual and literary materials of Christendom. During the earliest days of this epoch when the Church Fathers laboured to generate these material conditions, the old biblical mannerism in which the case of Job was configured as a legal case came to be narrowed down to one aspect of litigation, namely the task of defense. This was the birth of the theological genre known as apologetics, which Milton succinctly defined as to ‘justifie the wayes of God to men,’ and which definition Leibniz neatly condensed into the single word théodicée. This restriction evidently took place under a general preoccupation with, and panic in the face of, heresy. Theodicy would operate as Adversus Haereses. Now Wiesel came to the Rebbe without fear of heresy. He came, that is to say, as a Jew. Yet, as an Ashkenazi Jew, he spoke as if nevertheless confined by the walls of the apologetic European tradition within a ghetto of theological intelligibility. He came to the Rebbe to present his case against Heaven. To prosecute God for being an accomplice in the crime of Auschwitz. In this respect, in short, he came with the expectation that the Rebbe would play defense attorney to his prosecution. He came to hear the Rebbe justify the ways of God. To hear the Rebbe fail to justify the ways of God. But he also came to the Rebbe–and this is where the old Mosaic freedom evident in the Book of Job breaks through the ghetto walls of Wiesel’s motivations, not to mention the Rebbe’s response–to see to what extent he might be able to actually turn the Rebbe to his cause and enlist his services as an advocate of his case, a heretical advocacy.

Because, moreover, for Wiesel, the prosecution of God was no mere exercise in theological speculation; because he came with a full-blooded, bleeding recognition of the Accused as the Supreme Judge of the world, the ‘Judge of all the earth’ (Gen. 18:25), Wiesel also insisted on the ‘political’ implications of the litigation, which made his proposed prosecution of God a kind of hyperbolic variation on Saint-Just’s prosecution of Louis XVI. Nietzsche’s madman had claimed that ‘God is dead’; Wiesel’s madman said, no, God is alive, and now needs to be escorted to the guillotine. The key words repeatedly employed by Wiesel himself are ‘protest’ and ‘revolt.’ In Auschwitz the regime of the Melekh HaOlam, the King of Everything, proved itself to be corrupt and unsustainable. Was anything accomplished that night in Brooklyn? Did anything revolutionary take place? Was a new cosmic order proclaimed?

Short of the last turn in the conversation, during the long stretch that the Rebbe went along with Wiesel and maintained himself, responsively, within the bounds of the theologico-apologetico-political genre of discourse, nothing was said that might be called revolutionary. To be sure, radical things were said. Most notably, the Rebbe was pushed by Wiesel’s fierce argument to the limit of these bounds and crossed the line from apologetics into heresy. Wiesel recollects how he had succeeded in egging on the hasidic master to the point of losing his composure and screaming out words that were uncharacteristic of the Rebbe.

So be it! He is guilty! Do you really think I don’t know that? That I shut my eyes and cover up my ears? That my heart does not bleed, does not revolt? That I don’t want to smash my head against the wall and scream like a madman, to give free rein to my pain, to my disappointment? Yes, He is guilty. Yes, He became the ally of evil, of death, of murder.

Thus, part of the question that prompts the present considerations of that unusual conversation in Brooklyn is, how a hassidic rebbe, and indeed, ‘the most influential rabbi in modern history’ could have uttered such heretical words. (Or is Wiesel’s account just fiction? But as Wiesel once explained to his ‘own’ rebbe, the Vizhnitzer rebbe, the basic rule of truth in literature: ‘There are things that are true, which nevertheless didn’t happen; and other things that are not true, even though they did happen.’) But this part of the question is only a point of departure. For the explicitly and radically heretical character of the indictment of God notwithstanding, the Rebbe cannot be said to have turned anything upside down with these hoarse words. Heretical language, in the final analysis, from a Jewish standpoint, is nothing more than an uncouth way of speaking. And while Hasidic masters generally have the finest manners, their hands are not tied by requirements of good etiquette.

The revolution—and it is the revolutionary character of the conversation alone that is under consideration, not issues of etiquette—happened only at the very end of the long consultation, as the Rebbe took the reins into his hands and turned the conversation away from its genre, still sticking to the same topic, but leading in another direction: he promised to give Wiesel singing lessons. These were the Rebbe’s words as Wiesel records them: Je vais t’apprendre à chanter. ‘I will teach you to sing.’

The question of the considerations to follow concerns the logic of this precipitous promise so incommensurable and out of joint at the conclusion of a night-long conversation about Auschwitz. How does singing follow upon Auschwitz, if only as a permissible possibility, but then all the more so as a conclusive logical necessity?

Within the progress of the conversation, the promise followed rather naturally, if ironically, upon Wiesel’s only explicit request from the Rebbe: ‘Make me able to cry!’

The Rebbe shook his head: ‘That’s not enough. I will teach you to sing.’

The Rebbe added that grown people don’t cry, beggars don’t cry, only children cry. ‘Have you remained a child? Is your life nothing but a child’s dream, or a beggar’s dream? No, crying serves no purpose. It’s necessary to sing.’

But this only shifts the location of the question. The question remains unchanged in substance. How does singing follow upon weeping over Auschwitz, follow as a logical necessity?

Like that conversation in Brooklyn, the considerations to follow for the most part maintain themselves within the theologico-juridico-political genre of discourse. They come together as part of a dossier of documents from the writings of Wiesel and the Rebbe and an attempt to deal God’s ‘culpability’ with respect to Auschwitz and the theological problem of heresy after Auschwitz, or what amounts to the same, the problem of ‘faith’ after Auschwitz. But beneath the surface of this genre, the real task is to get to the transcendental root of the matter, the root of both heresy and faith, which root is neither heresy nor faith, where radical heresy is no longer heresy and ‘faith’ is irrelevant and theology is a tartuffery typical of the paranoid self-consciousness of idolaters. Where, at the transcendental root of the matter, there is a kind of song.

What kind of song? The rubric under which these considerations are to be carried out may be taken as a hint, a strictly formal and precocious indication, of the kind of voice act at stake. It finds an exemplary resonance in the little psalmodic term na, which for lack of better options is translated by a term like ‘now’ even as the term has little to do with temporality in its familiar inflections. Grammatically it is an interjection of entreaty, almost like ‘please’ or ‘for heaven’s sake!’ yet without the nuance of politeness. Conversely, it might be said to be a participle expressing ḥutzpah yet without the nuance of rude effrontery. Its most important place in the liturgy, usually marked by a large bold font, is in the Hallel psalmody: Ana hashem hoshiah na!, ‘Now, O Lord, save now! Now, O Lord, make us prosper now!’ (Ps. 118:25) Following the lead of the psalmist, the royal patriarch of the Messiah, what is to be considered is the revolutionary disrequiem that the Rebbe wished to teach Eliezer Wiesel in an Auschwitz Hosanna, a Hosanna evidently intended to punctuate the end of Ashkenaz and mark the inception of the next, and arguably the last, paragraph of Jewish history.