Friday, April 11, 2008

An Intellectual's Despair

Elie Wiesel’s Night is an account of shocking horror and how it can turn faith to despair.

Mr. Wiesel calls himself “deeply observant”, even as a youth, and it shows in his descriptions:

Moishe the Beadle … stayed out of people’s way. His presence bothered no one. He had mastered the art of rendering himself insignificant, invisible.

Physically, he was as awkward as a clown. His waiflike shyness made people smile. … I liked his wide, dreamy eyes, gazing off into the distance. He spoke little. He sang, or rather he chanted, and the few snatches I caught here and there spoke of divine suffering, of the Shekhinah in Exile, where, according to Kabbalah, it awaits its redemption linked to that of man. (p. 3)

This introductory material does more than foreshadow the story of the book; it also heralds Mr. Wiesel’s marriage of physical and emotional description, a marriage that remains intact throughout the book, wherein each partner brings both strengths and weaknesses.

The deeply observant are often deeply troubled, and Mr. Wiesel gives glimpses into the tendency to torment that inevitably shaped his memoir: “I cried because … something inside me felt the need to cry. That was all I knew.” (p. 4)

In places he betrays little emotion as he recounts horrific events: “The Hungarian police used their rifle butts, their clubs to indiscriminately strike old men and women, children and cripples.” (p. 16)

Mr. Wiesel uses dialogue to show the self-focussed, animalistic depths to which extreme suffering can drag man; at the hanging of a boy at Buchenwald, a fellow prisoner asks, “This ceremony, will it be over soon? I’m hungry …” (p. 62)

Sometimes, he merely gives the reader the facts necessary to imagine the squallor of inhumanity: “Forbidden to go outside, people relieved themselves in a corner.”

Even signs of hope are recorded matter-of-factly: “At six o’clock that afternoon, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald.” (p. 115)

But he passionately recalls his angry doubt: “What are You, my God? I thought angrily. How do You compare to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean, Master of the Universe, in the face of all this cowardice, this decay, and this misery? Why do you go on troubling these poor people’s wounded minds, their ailing bodies?” (p. 66)

Rich metaphor illuminates how horror transformed the young intellectual Jew into a shell of despair: “I … had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded—and devoured—by a black flame.” (p. 37) (“Black flame” alludes to the smoke coming from the chimney of the crematorium at Birkenau.)

In the end, he tells the reader that the torment remains with him:

From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.

The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (p. 115)

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