A Precedent | 5


The little book by Jeremiah named—by the Latin church fathers with an appelation that is both inevitable and inadequate—Lamentations (cf. thrênoi) is the oldest and strongest precedent-ideal to Wiesel’s literary style, or code—‘the code of Jeremiah is my code,’1 he once boldly declared—even while other precedents, to which we will turn below, are probably closer in terms of content. Something that has not gone unnoticed, even by Wiesel’s first readers,2 is the elective affinity and audible resemblance that his voice bears to the voice of the ‘weeping prophet’.3 There is more than one point of comparison that can be made between Wiesel and Jeremiah. The critical point that pertains to our question, the question of the function of the maudlin principle, is the literary quality of this weeping, weeping not as an accompaniment to the lead voice of the written word or as a musical score to a script but as a weeping word.

It is in such terms precisely that Wiesel is able to decipher the message of an odd midrash (Lam. Rabbah, Intro. 24) that sees Jeremiah running around desperately in world of the departed in seach of a patriarch who can shed tears for Jerusalem in its third-degree burns and desolation. In the uncontrolable weeping that permeates the biblical text of Lamentations, not to mention the Book of Jeremiah, the midrashic hermeneutic, looking deeper than, or deeper into, the plain literal meaning (pshat) of the text, reads precisely an utter inability to weep on Jeremiah’s part.

[The Midrash] tells us that God said to Jeremiah, ‘Go and wake up Abraham and Isaac and Jacob because they know how to cry’—meaning Jeremiah did not know how to cry. Is it conceivable that Jeremiah, the man who wrote Lamentations, the most tragic of our prophets, did not know how to cry? It is. There comes a moment when you do not cry, because you are your own crying.4

What does this perplexing explanation of this perplexing midrash mean? (Could anyone but Wiesel have given the explanation?) To begin with, it means that a stricter understanding of the trademark specialty of the ‘weeping prophet’ recognizes this term ‘weeping’ in his case as possessing a primarily metaphorical or metonymic sense. Jeremiah ‘does not know how to cry,’ to cry in the conventional sense, because crying is not enough, it is only an action done with one’s being rather than an ontological crying to which one’s entire being is entirely given over, beyond every range of audibility or recognizable display of emotion.

Which would certainly explain the extreme elliptical language that Jeremiah employs in crying over his own crying. ‘Mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water!’ (Lam. 1:16). Designedly avoiding simile, and relying on the resonance of ellipsis, what he makes run down his cheeks is, not his tears, but his eye. ‘Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people. Mine eye trickleth down’ (Lam. 3:48-49).5 And since the prophet’s eye is not doing the crying but is the aqueous entity being cried out, then, logically, as he ‘cries his eyes out,’ out of what are his eyes being cried if not out of his head? ‘O that my head were waters,’ he says in his bigger book, ‘and mine eyes a fountain of tears!’ (Jer. 8:23) And after the head has been rendered an aqueous thing, other bodily organs must follow suit and be liquified as well: ‘pour out thine heart like water before the face of the Lord’ (Lam. 2:19), ‘my liver is poured upon the earth’ (Lam. 2:11). The prophet experiences his entire body as a lacrymosal mass ready and wanting to rupture. This particular metonym is so essential to the prophet who is known for his weeping because it identifies the natural current out out of which and back into which an artifical channel has been dug out in the realm of words. Like his eye, Jeremiah’s word runs down his cheeks. The word is not uttered, it is cried. His language is a catharsis, but also a cathexis, of tears. Which does not mean that inarticulate crying is sublimated to a level of articulation. Rather, the word humbles and even humiliates itself in public, as Jeremiah does when he walks into the court of Zedekiah wearing a yoke on his neck (Jer. 27:12). Stepping back and down from that glorious achievement in which the adult takes so much pride—language!—the word lets go of the eloquent reins by which it steered the tongue in combination of eloquent manouevers toward a clean victory in favour of the lower bullish force of the throat that charges toward wanton destruction. The word cries as word, not as cry. It remains word, for it does not cry in utter despair, into the abyss of a yellow sky, but with the perfectly naïve directionality and sense of certainty whereby the baby cries out to its mother. Unlike the more dignified voice of the plaintiff who casts his deposition on the courtroom counter and waits for the judge or jury to pick it up at their leisure, the weeping word reaches out for the reader’s collar, and if the collar is already out of reach, then for a sleeve. It is not embarrassed to irritate the reader, to make the reader embarrassed for the writer. Jeremiah has no more use for shame. He does not mind if we find Homer’s verses more elegant. Something more important than literature is at stake.

Is this ontological weeping of Jeremiah the ‘code’ of which Wiesel speaks? Is his weeping word the basic stylistic unit of the maudlin principle? But then how does Jeremiah, for all his verbal-ontological lachrymosity, seem to stay afloat his own deluge and still provide high biblical poetry, whereas Wiesel, for his part, all but drowns in his own invisible tears? Moreover, how does Jeremiah manage to cry in the conventional manner as well as in the ontological one, despite what the midrash says? Or must we overlook the rule that ‘Scripture does not depart from its plain meaning’?6 ‘Mine eyes do fail with tears’ (Lam. 2:11). Even supposing the real tears on his cheeks were only a prophet’s generous affectation for the sake of effective communication with the people, how does he make the necessary ‘movement of finitude’ back from infinite resignation? A closer comparison is in order.

Jeremiah is his own crying. This premise must be taken, on Wiesel’s authority, as incontrovertible. While the same explanation of the midrash might have come down to us from almost any talented scholar as an interesting exegetical suggestion, from Wiesel we must receive it as a datum, simply because he knows what he is talking about. Wiesel recognizes Jeremiah’s condition so expertly because he recognizes himself in Jeremiah. And this gives us the point of strongest comparison between them: just like Jeremiah, Wiesel is his own crying. And this, as he confesses on more than one occasion, was the most difficult thing to bear, such as on the day his father died. ‘But I did not cry, and this is what cause me the most grief: this inability to cry. The heart had petrified, the fountainhead of tears had dried up.’7 Likewise in his prefatory note on the genesis of his Shamgorod play, to which we will return momentarily, Wiesel remarks: ‘in the realm of night, I assisted in a trial that was most strange. Three rabbis, all erudite and pious, had decided one winter night to judge God for the massacre of His children. I remember: I was there and I wanted to cry. Only, there, no one cried.’8

Thus far the comparison between Jeremiah and Jérémie manqué is not for us to question. Our question, the question concerning what might be ‘missing’ in the later case, begins at the limit of ontological crying in Lamentations, where the ingenuous simplicity of the biblical text—‘For these things I weep’ (1:16)—points to something other than crying. For Wiesel, the midrash requires us to see Jeremiah’s weeping strictly as a metaphor. But behind this hermeneutic limitation there seems to be a psychological restriction, or a metaphysical prohibition (correlative to the ‘a’ in ‘atheism’) against letting literal, conventional crying mix in and and possibly dillute the purity of the ontological crying. The strictly metaphorical, purely ontological crying is absolute. It leaves no room for lesser manifestations of personal decrepitude. Or, conversely, because conventional tears are prohibited, everything must be drowned in metaphysical tears. We hear how the same logic of sublimation and absolutization applies to the kaddish that Eliezer ben Shlomo could never say for his father. ‘There was no minyan for saying kaddish. … My kaddish became—and would be—all the words that I would ever say, that I would ever hear.’9Language itself becomes kaddish.

This is where Jeremiah stands apart from his would-be doppelganger. Jeremiah can cry and does cry—out loud, with visible tears. And his Book of Lamentations is more than a kaddish, indeed, more than—lamentations. And therefore we have to say that his ontological weeping, brought out from its half-hidden state in the biblical text by the Midrash, is tethered metynomically to his literal weeping, as a higher-order weeping to accompany his weeping here below in the sight of men, rather than simply metaphorically as the only weeping he does, privately, supernally. His ontological weeping is in fact not absolute. While Wiesel’s ontological weeping leaves no room for conventional tears, because it is a weeping that does not let go, a constipated weeping, as it were, a maudlin lamentation, Jeremiah can and does makes room for conventional tears because his weeping does in fact let go—of the tears themselves, of the weeping itself, and, most vitally, of the fury at the fountainhead of the weeping. It is perhaps not unessential, after all, that tears are effluvia, as if their substance needed to be ejected by the organism as a potential toxicant. Jeremiah does not count his tears like a miser, does not resent their power over him, does not argue or bargain with them, does not idolize them, does not give them too much thought. His simply gives them room and gives them up. This is why Jeremiah at no point cuts a maudlin figure.

How does Jeremiah give room to his tears? The convention of tears is predicated for him on the prior fact that he finds room within the ontological itself for something else of a higher order other than higher-order weeping. Room for what? Our answer to this question must be partial for now. For the fuller answer to this question, which will specify the sound (‘format’) of that which is other-than-weeping in Jeremiah’s so-called ‘lament,’ we must wait to read the Rebbe’s response to Wiesel’s imploration, ‘Make me able to cry!’ (There is no need to keep it as a secret that the sound is that of singing, but what that means cannot be unpacked without a prolegomenon.) In order to understand that response (‘Sing!’), which, without commentary, comes across as a bit hollow, even silly, probably even insulting, and in any case not so surprising, the aspect to which must first turn our attention in that which is other-than-weeping in Jeremiah’s voice is something that is no longer part of his plaint, although it is certainly litigious in nature.

We turn our attention to this, incidentally, not by leaving Wiesel behind. For Wiesel himself is the first to grope around for this aspect of Jeremiah’s voice. If Wiesel cannot make room for something other than crying because he is his crying, this is not due to some cantankerous refusal to acknowledge the existence or the need for something besides crying. The hidden sublimity of the maudlin principle, on the contrary, is that its inability to surrender to conventional weeping is rooted in a positive recognition of the fact that there is something else that needs to be done with one’s entire being, another ontological gesture, more poignant, profound and apropos than crying. This is the secret to Wiesel’s word, its positive failure. By comparison with the semantic distinctiveness of Jeremiah’s tear-shaped word, the semantic force of Wiesel’s word surges up as a vouloir-pleurer, i.e. a wanting-to-weep, a unique semantic quality to be understood along parallel lines to vouloir-dire, i.e. meaning, as a quality of words. Where meaning, according to this telling French locution, is that which one wants to say and would say if only one could, vouloir-pleurer designates a kind of weeping semantic unit that cannot achieve open expression. Behind the retentive gesture of the maudlin principle is the paralyzing dread and panic that to cry with tears in a conventional manner over the murder of six million Jewish souls would be to give up hope that a more adequate ontological gesture can be found. To cry out loud would be to reduce Auschwitz to a tragedy, something Wiesel rightly refuses to do. But the price he plays for speaking and writing about Auschwitz without being able to find this other gesture, without even knowing what it is, is a total subjugation to the maudlin principle. For the maudlin, for all its sublimity as ontological crying, sounds in the spoken and written word like fake crying, constipated crying, stifled crying, like petulant fury. When he begs the Rebbe, ‘Make me able to cry!’, even if he is not fully aware of it, Wiesel is asking for help to remove the impediment that blocks his way to this other gesture.

Now to the prolegomenal question of what it is that Jeremiah makes room for in the ontological dimension: Room for what? Jeremiah tells us how, even as he weeps for Israel, he also weeps because of Israel, and indeed with a weeping that is not seen or heard. ‘Hear ye, and give ear; be not proud: for the Lord hath spoken. … But if ye will not hear it, my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride; and mine eye shall weep sore, and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock is carried away captive.’ (Jer. 13:17)10 Jeremiah makes room for within his ontological weeping ‘in secret places’ is his prosecution of Israel before the Heavenly Court. The prophetic vocation puts at his disposal as word-wright an extraordinary authority that is simply not available to most writers, indeed altogether unavailable to anyone for more than two millennia. Jeremiah is granted a right, and is obliged to execute this right, to criticize, to prosecute and even to pass judgement on his fellow sufferers, a right that would not be warranted on the basis of his personal soul-searching alone (‘Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.’ [Lam. 3:19-20]), but requires Divine injunction: ‘Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord. … We have transgressed and have rebelled’ (vv. 39-42). Who can imagine possessing the authority to include a description of mothers cooking the cadavers of their own children for food—and this soup is no metaphor!—within a discourse that, in calling men to repentance, thereby also justifies the ways of God to man? ‘The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people. The Lord hath accomplished his fury.’ (4:10-11)11 This kind of authority is withheld categorically from Eliezer Wiesel who, again, is not a prophet. Indeed, would Wiesel not be the last man on earth to accept such a prophetic authority even were it offered to him, in all seriousness and with all the concomitant responsibilities, by Divine dispensation? Is Wiesel’s literary vocation not fundamentally premised and rooted in the most stubborn systematic refusal of such an authority?

In the final analysis, I will never cease to revolt against those who made or permitted Auschwitz. Against God as well? Against Him as well. The questions I used to ask myself about God’s silence remain open. If there is an answer, I do not know it. Better still: I refuse to know it. But I maintain that the death of six million human beings poses a question to which no answer will ever be produced.12


Nothing justifies Auschwitz. If the Lord Himself were to proffer me a justification, I think I would reject it.13

What is likewise altogether absent and conscientiously suppressed by Wiesel from his discourse is the characteristic call to repentance that defines prophetic discourse in its core. ‘Righteous is the Lord!,’ declaims Jeremiah, ‘It is I who rebelled against His mouth!’ (Lam. 1:18), ‘We have transgressed and have rebelled!’ (3:42). Such pronouncements would be hard pressed to find a page in Wiesel’s text on which to alight.

Is this the point of failure in his text, this heretical protocol of ‘I will never cease to revolt’? To be sure, this intransigent, unnegotiable fidelity to the memory of six million Jews, or better still, of one million Jewish children in Auschwitz whose moral innocence is zealously guarded from any possibility of reproach or explanation, is the positive point of failure in Wiesel’s text. If a prophet like Jeremiah derives his authority to pass judgement on the people, to find them guilty and upbraid them and to call them to repentance, from an extraordinary capacity not just to identify with his people in absolute commiseration but to absorb the life and destiny of his entire people into his own ‘generic soul’ (neshama klalit),14 because his sui generis soul has in fact thoroughly emptied itself and expanded far beyond the ordinary capacity of souls; if this special height is what a prophet achieves, then Wiesel, for his part, refuses to part with his comparatively low and prosaic capacity to commiserate on an all-too-human level with his fellow man, and not for any pusillanimity of soul but precisely for the sake of a correspondingly limited, perhaps even atomically diminutive, but by the same token atomically indestructible role as key witness and outspoken lead plaintiff in the class action of the Jewish people ‘… against Him as well.’ If there is a shortcoming in Wiesel’s writing, in other words, it would have to be found not in any point of heresy, but, on the contrary, in some compromise of his very appointment as witness and plaintiff, in some reluctance to be heretical enough.

By way of anticipating the critique of this shortcoming as it was adumbrated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the comparison with Jeremiah and his litigious responsibilities as a prophet must be extended still one level deeper. Wiesel assumes a prerogative to file a plaint on behalf of his siblings, the Jewish people, against their Father in heaven. It is a special prerogative of the littlest brother in Israel which no one disputes. To this prerogative would correspond a point in Jeremiah’s vocation as the biggest brother in Israel in his day and hence as crown prosecutor responsible for honestly raising charges on God’s behalf against God’s children. This point would not be Jeremiah’s actual authority as prophet, which after all has no corresponding point in Wiesel’s vocation, but would rather constitute a fundamental precondition of his prophetic authority. To be precise, logically prior to the prophet’s accusations and his calls to repentance, prior to repentance itself, as that which logically makes repentance possible and call-able to begin with, we find in Jeremiah’s voice a pervasive unspoken confidence in the entire legal process and in the prospect of the final verdict that the Judge has promised to articulate, an eschatological prospect of a full explanation of His final judgement and hence also of His original appointment of the prophet to the role of crown prosecutor. As in the case of Job, who continually pleads for due process of law (e.g. Job 23:4: ‘I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments’), Jeremiah’s self-constraining certainty that he and his people must be wrong and therefore in need of repentance is predicated upon a deeper confidence in a simple right possessed by God’s children: our right to be proven wrong, our right to have our sins explained to us. ‘Judge Thou my cause’ (Lam. 3:59), pleads Jeremiah; ‘unto Thee have I opened my cause’ (Jer. 20:12). Jeremiah, in other words, would have the wrong-doer repent by way of being in the right as well as by way of being in the wrong. Repentance is predicated on a privilege as well as on a responsibility. In an accidental and oblique manner, this privilege overflows and overrules the order of the entire process in desultory ejaculations appealing to the Judge’s tender mercies, as if these were part of the same privilege. ‘It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.’ (Lam. 3:22) ‘But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.’ (Lam. 3:32) But even such accidental expressions of our privilege before a Judge who is also our Father are grounded in the essence of this privilege: our right to a transparent revelation of our sins in an eschatological vision wherein we will be reconciled, retroactively, to the full meaning of our repentance.

It is in such a reluctance to reach out toward this confident core of repentance that grips Wiesel, as he disputes a priori any possible claim to the rightness of a prophetic accusation like Jeremiah’s and hence to any need to repent, and keeps him within the orbit of the maudlin principle. But at this threshold, where the atmospheric integrity of literature already dissolves into the endless aether surrounding it, it is just as meaningful, if not more meaningful, to say that Wiesel comes short of being maudlin enough. He shies away from letting the deep impulse that naturally expresses itself in a maudlin mannerism to express itself even more immediately, less artfully, yet more furiously. Of course, it is nothing less than the fact of literature itself, the necessity of telling a story, that is the cause of this limitation. The essence of the maudlin principle finds artless expression, pure expression, only outside literature—in clamorous revolt. Within the medium of language, for the most part, only Hebrew embodies a sufficiently radical self-separation (kedusha) from artfulness, from a linguistically intrinsic eloquence and musicality (perhaps even a physiological distance from the tongue itself), to contain the furious, vicious, uncouth energy of revolt and to accommodate its partial reintegration into literature (witness Psalms, for example). Precisely because Hebrew is the least literary language.15 In any event, it was the task taken up by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to bring this to fuller expression in Wiesel’s life and work. To bring into literature something of the quintessential element above it. In a word, to advocate his case.