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.1
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,2 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.’ 3
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.’4 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.’5 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).6 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.’7
‘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.’8 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,’9 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,10 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.11 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?12 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].13
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.14
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.’15 ‘Red. Said Rabbi Abba ben Kahanah: As if shedding blood.’16 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,17 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.18 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’.19 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.20 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.21 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.’22 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’.23 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.’24 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.’25
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,26 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 … .27
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’,28 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.29 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,’30 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).31 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.32 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’33) 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.