Monday, June 23, 2008

Watching With Wiesel 2

Some two years ago in this blog I wrote several post on another great writer to come out of Auschwitz, the equally great Primo Levi - an Italian Jew - and I gave a considered appraisal of his wonderful book called Survival in Auschwitz (Touchstone, 1996).  For my review of that work see this link: - P. L. and Auschwitz.  Here I just wish to contrast the styles of the two writers.  Primo Levi is a natural story teller and one is drawn into his world as a storyteller would so do for his audience.  Primo writes with a greater use of description, especially a greater use of adjectives.  His book abounds with little vignettes and little occurrences, occasionally telling a little uplifting tale from hell as well as describing the more gruesome facts.  On the other hand Wiesel's work is more existential, more pared to the bone (forgive the all too true and almost sickeningly precise metaphor here): consequentially, his style is bare, sparse and spare.  There are no expansive gestures, no eloquent adjectives or long sentences.  There is simply no excess at all.  In fact to say his style is minimalist is almost an understatement.  If Wiesel can get away without using an adjective or adverb he will.  A Nazi concentration camp was  a bare place, a place denuded of all but the barest of human necessities - indeed, it is true to say that most human necessities were not even catered for.  After all, they were death camps, not work camps.  Hence Wiesel's style matches his subject.  His subject is hell on earth; the systematic degradation of human beings; the paring down of the living being to a mere shell of his or her former self; the systematic murder of the mind and the dissolution of the soul.  And Wiesel, being such a typical existentialist, pares us down too with his spare style.  We know we are in the presence of an evil  that is beyond all telling, but in the words of Wiesel we get nearest that horrible truth.  All we can do is listen.  All we can do is watch with him until his story is finished.  This book will never leave the reader who opens its pages because it will invade your soul and silently sit there until you have woken up to the evil in this world and to the evil in your own soul.

1.  Here is the opening sentence of Primo Levi's book: "I was captured by the Fascist Malitia on 13 December 1943.  I was twenty-four, with little wisdom, no experience and a decided tendency live in a world of my own, a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms, by sincere male and bloodless female relationships." (Op. cit., supra, 13)  Immediately we are invited into a standard autobiography with the emphasis on the first person.  In fact the first word of the first line is "I" and then the author proceeds in what we take will be a standard chronology of his experience in the concentration camp.  And, indeed, that is exactly what we get.  The first sentence is indeed short, but the next few get longer and longer.  Indeed I omitted a parenthesis above.  In other words, our writer Primo Levo constantly wants to expand on what he is saying, fill in the gaps for us, as it were.  Now the approach of Elie Wiesel is not to fill in any gaps.  He has no time for expanding our knowledge through parentheses.  Night could be a wonderfully bleak existential or even nihilist novel were it not for the fact that it is true - harrowingly and excruciatingly true.  Wiesel opens his wonderful little book by introducing us to a character from his native town - a prophetic figure.  One could almost be opening the first page of Moby Dick, that wonderfully strange and intriguing novel by Herman Melville. Those of us who have read that novel will always be haunted by those three famous opening words, "Call me Ishmael."  Here is Wiesel's wonderful opening line:  "They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he had never had a surname."  At once we are in the presence of a prophet of doom.  This man Moishe (which I think is the Hebrew word for Moses), while a jack of all trades in the Hasidic house of Prayer, turned out to be a mystic who began to teach young Elie the Zohar, the Kabbalistic works and the secrets of Jewish mysticism.  Moishe, because he was a foreign Jew, was one of the first to be picked up and transported to the concentration camps, but he escaped and came back to the little town of Sighet in Transylvania.  He began to tell people of the horrible things he had seen the German soldiers do, but no one would believe him. 

2.  This book is about death in many ways indeed.  It's about the death of innocence, the death of youth, the death of dreams, the death of imagination, the death of joy, the death of religion and even the death of God.  Let me explain.  Here is how Elie describes the transformation of the mystic Moishe after he had escaped from hell to tell his prophetic message to the Jews of Sighet:

Moishe was not the same.  The joy in his eyes was gone.  He no longer sang.  He no longer mentioned either God or the Kabbalah.  He spoke only of what he had seen.  But the people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen.  Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things.  Others flatly said that he had gone mad. (Night, Hill and Wang, NY, 2006, 7)

We are reminded of Nietzsche's Zarathustra and other works where a madman runs around with a lighted torch proclaiming that God was dead.  How uncanny it is that Nietzsche caught the spirit of the coming age so well, no wonder some Nazis found inspiration of sorts in his work.

3.  Here is this precise description Elie gives of being put on a train for Auschwitz:

The next morning, we walked toward the station, where a convoy of cattle cars was waiting.  The Hungarian police made us climb into the cars, eighty persons in each one.  The handed us some bread, a few pails of water.  They checked the bars on the windows to make sure they would not come loose.  The cars were sealed.  One person was placed in charge of every car: if someone managed to escape, that person would be shot. (op.cit., 22)

4.  Like a bleak novel of the darkest kind we are shortly introduced to another prophetic figure - this time in the shape of a woman who just goes mad because her whole world has been destroyed.  She is in the carriage with them on the way to Auschwitz.  Here is how Elie introduces her to us:

There was a woman among us, a certain Mrs Schachter.  She was in her fifties and her ten year old son was with her, crouched in a corner... Mrs Schachter had lost her mind... On the third night, as we were sleeping, some of us sitting, huddled against each other, a piercing cry broke the silence: "Fire! I see a fire! I see a fire!"...Some pressed against the bars to see.  There was nothing.  Only the darkness of the night. (Ibid., 24)

This poor woman went on and on like this until she was tied up and gagged by the other travellers as they were unnerved by her screaming.  The horrible uncanny thing, of course, was that Mrs Schachter was so unhinged, I know Dr Ivor Browne would say, unhinged to the point of her personal boundaries being broken and all her senses sharpened and her unconscious intuitions tapped into the very truth.  Indeed when they arrived at Auschwitz one of the first things they saw was the infamous chimney from which they could see the flames soar.

We had forgotten Mrs Schachter's existence.  Suddenly there was a terrible scream:  "Jews, look!  Look at the fire!  Look at the flames!"  And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky." (Ibid., 28)

The above should give the reader an insight into Elie's pared down style, his stark use of simple words of experiences that defy description.  His style does indeed capture the idea of hell on earth.


To be continued.

There are too many horrific pictures of the Holocaust on the net. So I chose ones that at least were not too horrific and showed some facial expressions

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