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.1

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.’2

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.3

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,4 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?5 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.’6 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 …’7) does not attenuate the deep structural similarity that such spectacles bear to, and even their intrinsic historical and logical connection to, sacrificial festivals.8 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.9 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.10 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,’11 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.’12 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.13 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.’14) 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.15 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,’16 much like the ‘Amalek within,’17 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.’18 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.’19 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.’20 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 …”21; 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.22 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.23 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’;24 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)25; 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.26 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