Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Night by Elie Wiesel

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

In my mind the saddest moment of Elie Wiesel's Night--though perhaps it cannot rival the horror of the account a man gives of putting his own father's body into the furnace, or the pristine melancholy of the dying violinist's last concerto before he collapses in the suffocating traincar--comes at the very end, when Wiesel sees his own reflection for the first time in moths: "From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me... The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me."

Those words were published in 1958, and only Wiesel, now 82, can tell us if the corpse still peers back at him. Like all living Holocaust survivors, his longevity has become a sort of triumphant irony; doubly so, since in a way he is frozen in that awful moment. He spent a scant eight months in various concentration camps, yet the night, he tells us, is life-long. His work affirms it, from his various novels and memoirs about the Holocaust and novels about Holocaust survivors to his tireless work promoting international peace and genocide awareness. Night is a story about survival, but it is also a story about the formation of an identity: The Wiesel that is liberated from the camps is not the Wiesel who entered them, and for him it seems the Holocaust is inescapable because--like all of us--he is condemned to follow himself around.

Most significantly, the man who is liberated has lost his faith, though once he was eager to study the Torah and Kabbalah. The terms of this loss are never quite clear; though Wiesel seems not to believe that God does not exist--or, in the Nietzschean way, that God is dead--but can he can no longer believe in God's goodness:

For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless his name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank him for?

So goes Wiesel's earthly father, too: Though early in the book he sought above all to stay at his father's side--even teaching him how to march in step so that he might not be whipped by the Kapos, and sharing his rations when his father falls ill--when his father finally dies, Wiesel feels more relief than regret. In the last scene it becomes clear that he has lost everyone but himself, and it is a self that he struggles to recognize.

This is how I think Night ought to be read: Not as a blood-letting, but an anti-catharsis, Wiesel's attempt to come to terms with himself. It seems that he didn't speak about his experience in the concentration camps for over a decade after they ended, and when he was finally convinced to write them down, the first draft, published in Yiddish, covered nearly 900 pages.

Better to have it out of the way and to try again; as Brent pointed out to me the other day, the strength of Night lies in its brevity. It doesn't seem quite reliable as a historical document, and as a literary object it is frequently inartful--he says things like an SS officer's hands are "like wolf's paws"--but it is swift, brutal, and numbing. If it were any longer, we might merely wince and turn away.

He reminds me--and perhaps this is a stretch for you--of the Ancient Mariner, who was claimed by the Nightmare Life-in-Death and sentenced to walk the earth and warn others of his experience. The Mariner, however, did so to atone for his own sins and Wiesel seems to be eternally toning for the sins of others. I pity Wiesel--the real one, and not the one of the book, who never seems to ask for sympathy--because it seems to me that the author of Night seeks to find himself and can only discover that which is most loathsome to him. It isn't so much a story that expresses "never forget," but one that tells us why he cannot, though perhaps he may wish to.


Brent Waggoner said...

This is an intense book. Have you by any chance read the other two books in the trilogy?

Also, anyone who hasn't seen it should really watch the documentary Night and Fog. It was created right after the war ended, using lots of real concentration camp footage and photos. Be warned though, it's really disturbing and graphic at points. Only 27 minutes long though:


Brent Waggoner said...

Also, I like the connection the the Ancient Mariner.

Selena Wilson said...

An intense book to read Elie Wiesel, the main character of Night, started his experience with the Holocaust in 1941. Read night by elie wiesel pdf